When Jennifer A. Schiefer began her studies at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in 2001, she considered herself a firm agnostic, convinced that a person couldn’t be both intelligent and a Christian.
“For me, believing in Jesus was like believing in Santa Claus,” says Schiefer, 38. “It seemed to defy logic.”
As with many of the nonreligious in church-saturated Arkansas, Schiefer certainly had contact with Christians. But her high school classmates failed to provide adequate answers to questions such as, How did Noah fit all those animals on an ark? Or, Why does God allow pain?
Often, her intellectual queries would illicit blank stares or glib remarks such as, You’ve just got to have faith! At the time, Schiefer had none.
The first week on campus in Conway, Schiefer went to a Chi Alpha gathering — on accident. She saw a flyer advertising an event with a band. She appreciated the music, but no so much the lyrics. Jesus kept popping up in the words of the choruses.
“It’s not that I hated Christians,” says the straightforward Schiefer. “I just thought they were stupid.”
Still, Schiefer left the initial meeting with a nagging sensation that she had a void in her life. That first semester, several of her dormmates who treated her with respect regularly went to Chi Alpha gatherings and they invited her along. Soon she began attending every Monday night.
“I found friendship before faith,” Schiefer says. “My classmates weren’t intimidated by my lack of faith or my asking questions.” In group sessions, students began discussing a book written by onetime atheist Lee Strobel, “The Case for Faith: A Former Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.” Schiefer started grappling with tough spiritual questions.
One evening, U.S. missionary Matt L. Carpenter, director of Chi Alpha at UCA, preached a message on What Keeps Us from God?
“The topic terrified me.” Schiefer remembers. “I had based my life on what I could predict, control, and understand.”
Carpenter asked attendees to write out, anonymously, their hindrances to God. Schiefer scribbled, I’m afraid.
In his daily quiet time with God, Carpenter prayed persistently for the needs the students described, especially the one who confessed to fear.
Her second semester, Schiefer loyally went to Chi Alpha small group meetings as well as worship services, sensing a mysterious sense of God’s presence through the presence of others.
“My skepticism began turning into a desperate longing for a God I didn’t know,” Schiefer says. During the summer before her sophomore year, Schiefer agreed to participate in a 10-week discipleship training — even though she hadn’t made a commitment to Christ yet. Carpenter saw how God had begun changing the heart and mind of the honors student.
At the course, Schiefer says she heard the voice of God speak for the first time, intoning, Jennifer, I love you.
“I just sat on the floor and wept,” Schiefer recalls. “There was no altar call, no reciting a ‘sinner’s prayer.’ I just recognized I had fallen in love with Jesus.”
By her sophomore year, Schiefer started leading Bible studies. She graduated with a graphic design degree from UCA, but by the end of her schooling, she understood God had laid a path for full-time ministry with Chi Alpha, the group where she had formed lifelong friendships and found an eternal purpose. She has been on staff at Chi Alpha at UCA since 2006, working under the tutelage of Carpenter, who has been director at the school for 22 years.
“My background gives me a point of compassion for the person who isn’t certain yet, the legitimate resistance people have of not being able to surrender their heart,” Schiefer says. “I remember how lonely it felt to struggle to believe and not being able to do so.”
Schiefer encourages those who have a longtime faith not to dread engaging with those who don’t.
“We should never fear honest questions, even if we don’t know all the answers,” says Schiefer, an ordained AG minister and U.S. missionary. “We can wrestle through it.”
The UCA Chi Alpha chapter is one of the largest in the U.S., with 800 students showing up regularly for services and/or small groups. Schiefer sometimes encounters students who claim to be saved, yet don’t really know the basics of Christian life.
“I want to help people come to a deep heart knowledge of God,” Schiefer says.
The UCA Chi Alpha has 140 student leaders, 20 interns, and 15 staff members. Schiefer is intern administrator and oversees women’s discipleship. She also is one of eight executive presbyters for the Assemblies of God Arkansas District.
Carpenter, 48, has watched Schiefer blossom into a passionate follower of Jesus. He has come to trust her implicitly.
“Jen gets revelation from God and has a strong mind,” says Carpenter. “God has filled her with wisdom and she functions with a lot of pastoral leadership. Jen is deliberate and doesn’t waste words.”
Carpenter believes prayer is responsible for the growth of Chi Alpha on campus. In 2020, the ministry opened a $2.3 million facility on campus debt-free.
PHOTO: Jennifer Schiefer and Matt Carpenter are discipling students at the University of Central Arkansas.