The Urban Alliance

Urban Alliance Initiatives

For more than 130 years (since 1893), Johnson University has helped emerging leaders identify and explore their passions and callings. Johnson University’s three-fold educational approach, which blends arts & sciences, Bible & theology, and professional studies in a Christ-centered environment, allows students to explore and exercise their innate strengths and talents and discover how best to use them.

In 2013, Johnson University launched the first semester of Urban Plunge (now Engage Knoxville), an experimental city-center residential “urban lab” for Johnson University undergraduate students interested in Urban Studies. This opened the door for the University to partner with multiple church and parachurch organizations already deeply invested in the city of Knoxville.

To better support students and the developing relationships, in July of 2014 Johnson University launched the Urban Alliance to build stronger strategic bridges between the needs and resources of urban Knoxville and the University. Dr. Kenny Woodhull provided the original design for the initiative and has served as executive director of the Urban Alliance since its inception.

Since that launch, the Urban Alliance has grown into a multifaceted initiative that unites Johnson University’s strengths in higher education with the strengths of its community partners, especially Emerald Youth Foundation, and a host of Knoxville-based churches and nonprofit leaders who are committed to seeking the peace of the city.

The Urban Alliance offers a unique spectrum of faith-based programming that develops the next generation of leaders while exploring science, faith & justice, leadership development, community building, and appreciative research.

Royal Explorers

Royal Explorers For two weeks every summer, in partnership with Emerald Youth Foundation, the Urban Alliance engages 50-75 middle schoolers and their adult leaders in a fun and educational adventure involving science-themed field trips, lab-based experiments, team-building exercises, and river kayaking. Site visits have included Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Knoxville Utilities Board, Fort Loudon, TVA Fish & Wildlife, The Lost Sea, Norris Dam, Kyker Farm, Ijams Nature Center, Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Metcalf Bottoms), Vulcan, plus many more. Core faculty leadership includes Nikki Votaw, (Professor of Education), Sarah Cathey, (Professor of Natural Science), and Emily Christensen (Associate Professor of Chemistry). As small group leaders, more than 100 graduate students from the Templar School of Education have also contributed significantly to the success of the Royal Explorers.

Future of Hope

Future of HopeOn the basis of a multi-year grant from the Lilly Foundation in 2015, and under the programmatic auspices of Future of Hope, Johnson’s Urban Alliance has facilitated experience-based learning opportunities for city-center high schoolers and college interns at the intersection of biblical faith, justice, and social inequities. During the course of a residential-based immersive week (June/July) of faculty-led theological reflection, community service, and field-based observations, students are challenged to grow closer to God and get more involved in critical issues facing the Knoxville community.

Today, most student participants come to the program through Emerald Youth Foundation’s Calling and Career Centers. Key leadership includes Johnson faculty (Brian Leslie, Associate Professor of Ministry Leadership) and Heather Gorman (Professor of New Testament), area pastors like Pastor Kenny Moore, and college-student interns from Johnson University.

Urban Scholars

Urban ScholarsThrough a unique scholarship fund established in 2015 in the name of local Christian leader and mentor Alec H. Woodhull (1939-2016), the Urban Alliance has come alongside qualifying students who participate in Future of Hope and/or have graduated from one of Knoxville’s center-city schools (Austin-East, Fulton, Central, West, South-Doyle) in an effort to make a degree program at Johnson University both affordable and transformative. In addition to monthly meetings and intentional staff-level advisement during the semester, in most cases student participants are awarded a significant “last dollar” scholarship that makes it possible for them to attend Johnson University. The funding is made possible through the sacrificial and visionary generosity of donors who are committed to empowering capable but under-resourced emerging local leaders.

Engage Knoxville

Engage KnoxvilleThrough the School of Christian Ministries and the department of Cross-Cultural Leadership, Engage Knoxville (formerly Urban Plunge) is designed to provide a select number of upper-level undergraduate students from Johnson University with a one-of-a-kind off-campus opportunity to explore urban ministry, academic integration, spiritual formation, and intentional community within the framework of a missional cohort. More than 75 students have now participated in the program since the first two brave souls relocated to downtown Knoxville. Students are embedded in a North Knoxville community and enjoy access to a rich resource network of mature urban leaders and their organizations and are challenged to develop the integral habits of incarnational Christian witness through retreats, plenary gatherings, field-based research and reflection, weekly mentoring, and a handful of real-world applications.

Meet the Team

Dr. Kenny WoodhullFor 30 years, while raising a family (Alec, Miles, Maura), Kenny and Doris have lived and worked in center-city Knoxville. Kenny’s ministry experience of “urban” Knoxville includes: a chaplaincy among homeless persons with Volunteer Ministry Center (1990-1993); the launch of an arts-based missional project called New City Café (1996-2007, Knoxville’s Old City); as well as an envisioning design role and delivery support of 4Market Square, a faith-based hybrid for-profit/non-profit in downtown Knoxville (4MS, 2007-2008, 2011-2014). Kenny completed a Pre-Law/Individual Direction BA Degree from Carson-Newman College/University (1986), a Master’s in Christian Studies (MCS) from Regent College (1991, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), and a doctoral degree from Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Miss., Pasadena, CA, 2012). In addition to directing the Urban Alliance, Kenny is Professor of Intercultural Studies and Cross-Cultural Leadership in the School of Christian Ministries at Johnson University (2014-present). Dr. Woodhull especially appreciates the way that the various initiatives associated with the Urban Alliance afford him and others a unique opportunity to live and work at the intersection of Christian faith and social engagement, and especially so among the under-resourced. Contact him .


For more information about how to get involved as a participant or help to support any of the Urban Alliance programs in prayer or as a financial partner, please click here to donate or directly contact us:


The Urban Alliance
PO Box 1638
7900 Johnson Drive
Knoxville, TN 37998