IN RECENT decades, many churches and Christian organisations have come to recognise the time that students spend at university, which is intended to be one of openness and intellectual curiosity, as an opportunity for spreading the gospel. Rather than send in “missionaries”, their approach is to see evangelism as about helping to equip Christians in that context to talk about their faith with those around them.
“University is a time when students are encouraged to ask curious questions and build their beliefs. This isn’t just true inside lecture theatres and libraries, and this openness to learn and try new things is one of the best opportunities for mission,” says the student mission developer for Fusion, Viki Taylor.
Fusion works with churches in university towns and cities, connecting students to them and encouraging churches to support student mission. It has strong links with Alpha, the Salvation Army, and networks such as New Wine and Vineyard. “Some churches saw their student congregations double during September and October last year,” Miss Taylor says, “and we work to serve these students well.”
Supported by UCCF, some CUs run “getaways” or “freshaways” before the academic year begins, to help freshers meet other Christian students before they arrive
In seeking to support students in living distinctively as Christians, rooted in local churches, Fusion believes that the natural overflow of that is to see non-Christian students exploring Christ and the Church, perhaps for the first time. “Generally, the biggest challenge faced by Christian students isn’t that their peers won’t be open to faith, because for the most part they are, but that their own beliefs might be swayed.
“With good discipleship and relationships, students are the best-placed missionaries on the frontline,” she says. “Many students are trying to relieve stress, seek purpose, or simply ‘find themselves’, and are left disappointed. If you’ve tried everything else and it didn’t work, why not try church? Many students respond with a resounding ‘yes’.”
OTHER organisations take the approach that actions speak louder than words. The Student Christian Movement (SCM) seeks to create open and inclusive communities where people can explore faith and put faith into action.
Alex Clare-Young has just completed his M.Phil. at Cambridge and was part of the SCM there. “Pizza and beer are great evangelism tools, and it’s good to feed the hungry and be there for the lonely. There’s no need to shout about sin and temptation or to try and protest [against] other students’ freedoms. Not only will you lose friends: you will also detract from the gospel. Let your actions show how awesome a loving God is, and remember it’s God who creates disciples through grace, not us,” he says.
Many Christian student groups get involved in social action and compassion on campus as a means of demonstrating their faith. Nell Goddard, a former student at Durham University, found this to be the case. “Pointing people to Jesus is always a rewarding experience, because he’s just excellent. For me, that always came out of relationship, or a mutual passion for something that [others] have a passion for as well: volunteering for the foodbank, or getting involved with environmental issues. I’d ask people why they were involved. Then they’d ask me, and I’d get to tell them.”
Simone Ramacci, science and religion representative on SCM’s General Council, found that “faith in action” campaigns were where he was best able to demonstrate his faith. “Rather than try to convince people out of fear (of a hell they don’t believe in in the first place), I’ve learnt to meet them where they are, and show them what discipleship looks like by example. For me, that’s by service and radical inclusiveness focusing on the practical aspects of following Jesus rather than theological speculation.”
PERHAPS the longest-running mission organisation to university campuses, after college chaplaincies, is the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), started at the University of Cambridge in 1919 by Norman Grubb, who believed that Christian students could work together more effectively to evangelise in their colleges though Christian Unions.
“Christian Unions seek to be active societies in their Students’ Union,” UCCF’s field director, Tim Rudge, says. “They contribute to the welfare of students in practical and diverse ways, from providing hospitality to international students, to offering students tea and toast on their way home from a club night.”
Sheffield University CU hosted “Picnic in the Park” during Freshers’ Week: a free picnic in Weston Park with live music
“Many students come up to university never having met a Christian, or having heard much at all about Jesus,” he says. “Christian Unions exist to offer students the opportunity to engage with Jesus and his claims. The CU provides a student-led, contextual community through which students can explore Christianity, and ask their questions without leaving the campus.”
This was the experience of Gareth Evans, a history and international relations student at Royal Holloway. “Being part of the CU was good as well, because it gave me excuses to be intentional with my friends to say ‘This is what I’m about: come along.’ I was able to be unapologetic about inviting them to Christian events with a Christian talk. Through that, I’ve had friends who’ve asked if I’ll read the Bible with them as well, which is really great, because they’ve liked what they’ve heard.”
For Abigail Nicholls, having a space to explore the Christian faith without being pushed was crucial to her coming to faith as a student. “In the months leading up to university, I became interested in Christianity, but I didn’t have the chance to explore this properly at home. I knew I wanted to find that space at university, and I met students from AngSoc (the Anglican Society) at the Freshers’ Fayre, who were kind, welcoming, and happy to answer any questions I had.”
Miss Nicholls was baptised and confirmed in Birmingham Cathedral when she was 19. “I was really grateful for a Christian group who allowed me to discover faith at my own pace. Over time, I began to read the Bible and to pray. I learned that God was there for me when I needed him. Christianity has really become central to my life.”
AS WELL as evangelism on an individual level, there are advantages to being part of a larger ongoing Christian presence on campus. According to the UCCF’s head of development and communications, Kate Duncan, last year 12,000 new students attended CU Freshers’ Week events, demonstrating, she believes, the unique ability that Christian students have when they work together to share the gospel.
“Freshers’ Week really kick-starts the year of campus outreach for CUs, with other pinnacles including carol services (around 31,000 students at these), and spring-term mission weeks (about 46,000 students at these). Missions and events catalyse hundreds of Christian students to reach thousands of unbelievers. Year round, these students are best placed to reach others in the universities, and mission weeks led by these students provide one of the richest expressions of engaging mission.’
Durham University CU used storytelling as a means of starting conversations about faith for their mission week, and it’s an idea that’s spread to other CUs across the country.
“We know that testimony provides a way of rooting big gospel ideas in everyday life,” says Ms Duncan. “While some could see Christianity as an ideology that’s ‘good for you, but not for me’, life stories are universal. Faith or no faith, everyone has one.”
Every night of the “Story Week”, the CU hosts an extended interview with someone with an interesting story, whose life had been transformed by Christ. Through the week, Durham CU also ran a “Story café” where people could tell their own stories, and about 5000 guests joined in in some way during the week.
“The focus was on individual CU members’ taking the initiative rather than on large events where guests might feel overwhelmed,” Ms Duncan says, “and many people were moved by the CU’s commitment to listen to their stories.”
It’s an approach that Agapé UK uses on the campuses where it works, describing itself as “a charity dedicated to addressing the spiritual needs of the UK by helping people to see, hear, understand and be forever changed by the person and claims of Jesus”. StudentLife is one strand of its work. Its team works with students on discipleship, and seeks to equip them to have conversations about faith.
A sign for one of Strathclyde CU’s outreach events: an “acoustic and question night”
“These are focused on helping people to listen well, and to ask good questions,” the national StudentLife director, Jude Daniel, says. “We try and create spaces for deep conversations. I call them middle spaces, because in the same way I might not go to an Islamic Society event because I’m not Muslim, I probably wouldn’t go to a Christian event if I’m not Christian. There’s no sermon or worship, but people can sit and eat together and say what they think about a broad theme, like love or integrity. As part of the mix, Christians get to share what they think, too, and from there we can invite people to read the Bible together, or to do an Alpha course, and so on.”
StudentLife also give students skills to help people get past stumbling-blocks. “Often when you’re talking to people about faith, they’ll list off all the things they don’t believe,’” the deputy national director of StudentLife, Nicole Lewis, says. “But a friend of mine always used to say: ‘Ask the second question.’ Instead of responding to the objection or freezing in the face of it, if we ask more about it, it can help get past intellectual objections to the heart level.”
While the approaches to mission are varied — one-to-one or big events, church-based or campus-based, conversational or action-led — at the heart of them all are the two great commandments. “Everything comes out of being in love with God,’ Mr Daniel says. “You can respect someone’s views on God even if you don’t agree. And if we love the people we’re speaking with, we’ll listen with love and respect.”