Unconventional church in Kent takes a shot at reaching students

Samantha Laros

It has created a name for itself across campus through a group of students passing out shot glasses engraved with the words, “CatalystChurch.com: Give us a shot”.

Yes, shot glasses.

Yes, church.

Students who have come across Catalyst’s information tables at BlastOff! and the Black Squirrel Festival are left wondering: Who is Catalyst Church, and why is it going to such great lengths to grab students’ attention?

The answer is that Catalyst is committed to reaching out to students who otherwise would never attend church, the church’s pastor Jonathan Herron said.

“We are committed to strong theology, but at the same time, we’re not afraid to progressively engage culture,” he said. “We are hard to categorize in the church world; we are not liberal and not conservative. We are all about radical acceptance

and uncensored grace.”

It was Herron’s idea to pass out shot glasses to college students to get them to come to church. Members of Catalyst passed out water bottles to students downtown leaving the bars and parties at last year’s Halloween.

He explained that each series and public relations campaign has its roots in the Bible.

“The first miracle Jesus ever performed was turning water into wine,” Herron said. “In order to reach out to sinners, he spent most of his time amongst them.”

The Inspiration

The non-denominational Christian church started two years ago when Herron and his wife moved to Kent. Herron, who has a bachelor’s degree in theater, studied for two years at The Second City, an improvisational comedy school in Chicago. It was there he met Tina Fey, the star of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.” He attended Ashland Theological Seminary in 2000 and received a master’s degree in ministry. At the time, his wife had been counseling teenagers for six years. It was at this

point they got the bug for starting a new church.

“We chose Kent, Ohio, because it was a challenge. It was one of the largest cities in Portage County, the least churched county in Ohio,” Herron said. “We had no money; we gathered our core group and started from scratch.”

Catalyst now serves a growing community of students and young families from the Kent

and Akron area.

“Everyone gets along except for the month of college football season,” Herron joked.

Catalyst is nationally affiliated with Acts 29, a non-denominational network of churches committed to creatively reaching people who wouldn’t normally

attend church.

“Our affiliation with Acts 29 gives us ground to stand on as well as legitimacy in the church world,” Herron said.

The church first met Sunday nights on Water Street. In January 2007, it moved to The Kent Stage and switched to Sunday

morning services.

“We chose purposely to meet at the Kent Stage, a venue that serves alcoholic beverages,” said Herron. “It helps us reach students who are far from God and invite

them to church.”

Just another campus group

Campus Catalyst is nothing more than a loose, casual group of Kent students who attend church on Sundays and meet briefly afterward for lunch and friendly conversation, said Travis Oberlin, vice president of Campus Catalyst. It is not a ministry group in competition with The Dive or the Navigators, he said. Campus Catalyst does not have weekly on-campus meetings and services. The group’s main objective is to grow closer to the Catalyst community and spread the word around campus (i.e. shot glasses).

“One day we were at lunch and decided that our group needed officers,” he said. “There was no formal voting; someone just suggested that Erica be the president and I be the vice president, so we accepted. The titles are really just formalities. We all work together and share the work.”

Herron said that each student in Campus Catalyst offers specific talents to the group.

Campus Catalyst President Erica Prong said she has been going to Catalyst Church since January 2007. She found out about it when Herron came to speak at a meeting for the Navigators, a campus ministry group that she is a part of. She took a flyer with her and attended Catalyst Church that week along with other members of the Navigators.

“The Navs meets and worships each week,” she said. “It is more official than Campus Catalyst, which is more like a group of close friends who go

to church together.”

Building a following

Jerry Brownell, senior visual communication design major and member of the Catalyst Church community, said he and his girlfriend started going a year ago.

A year later, Brownell is one of the student graphic designers for the Catalyst Church’s Web site.

“It’s nice to be able to design work, to use what I’m good at and give it to serving God” he said.

Since attending church, he has become closer with a few of his

fellow students.

“Actually, there’s someone who goes to Catalyst who has my same major,” he said. “I had seen him in some of my classes, but had never talked to him before church. It was good to be able to make that connection.”

While radical public relations and shot glass advertising has built Catalyst Church in the community, it has not resonated

with everyone.

“I’ve had friends who have come to Catalyst on Sundays and didn’t like it,” Travis Oberlin said. “And that’s fine with me because each church should be responsible for its own niche in order to reach out to the largest span of people.”

Contact religion reporter Samantha Laros at [email protected]..