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Have we lost holiness in student ministry?

August 2015 | by Kevin Bidwell

Can you imagine the impact upon a Reformed Christian minister, when students in his church begin to complain about worldliness among Christians on university campuses?

There must be a real problem, when people aged 18-22 years old begin to dissent at such a mixture of Christianity and worldliness. In recent years this has been a persistent and consistent comment from student Christians in some Reformed congregations.

Is that your experience in your part of the UK? That is, that among Christian unions and professing Christian students and young people, there is a growing worldliness at the expense of holiness?

Where does this problem originate from? Where has the emphasis on biblical holiness gone, and why? Hopefully, this article will provoke thought, stimulate prayer and motivate action to change the status quo.


Christian young people going to university may attend a Christian Union expecting to be encouraged in a stand for a pure life but at the end of the meeting they are asked by older Christian students if they will come to a local nightclub.

The world’s message in this generation places great emphasis upon personal satisfaction, happiness and enjoyment. This mantra affects all Christians and churches. It can especially impact those groups who desire to reach out to non-Christians. They may unwittingly capitulate to the subtle temptation to use worldly methods or a worldly approach to evangelise.

In reaching out to the world we must not become like it. The Lord Jesus Christ, who is alone the head of the church, spoke plainly: ‘You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?’ (Matthew 5:13).

It is my contention that there is a threefold problem in student ministry in the UK which is also shared by the wider evangelical church. This unwelcome situation can be exacerbated if churches seek to draw large numbers of university students without clear doctrinal and lifestyle standards. What are the root problems behind this sidelining of holiness?

Root problems

1. There is a problem when evangelism drives the student agenda, to such a point that little else in the teaching of Scripture is given much emphasis. Evangelism needs to recapture its goal of holiness and godliness. It needs to be seen as making disciples and training them to obey Christ.

2. There is a problem when teaching is spread amongst evangelical Christians which never mentions the Ten Commandments. There is an even worse problem with teaching that denies the significance of the Ten Commandments for Christian living. This is found especially among some of the proponents of the so-called ‘new covenant theology’, but the unfortunate by-product can be moral drift and laxity.

3. There is a problem when low moral standards and a careless walk is not seen as serious. The first step in solving a problem is realising that the problem exists. Biblical holiness may have dropped off the agenda but it urgently needs to be put back on it.

Holy disciples

The Lord Jesus was and continues to be the church’s model for perfect holiness. Therefore, to make disciples of students, they must be given teaching on this subject along with insightful application.

Students and other young Christians share with me how prevalent the viewing of internet pornography is among their peers. No doubt other age groups also fall prey to this sin as well.

Is the church addressing the issue of internet pornography as well as many other contemporary sins? It is not uncommon for professing Christian students to frequent nightclubs and, in my opinion, this is to play with sin and temptation. Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’. It is hard to see how this kind of lifestyle can maintain high levels of sexual purity.

Furthermore, how would people committed to other religions perceive such forms of Christianity? Can you imagine a pious Muslim observing Christian students behaving like the world and then being told of the exclusive claims of the gospel?

They may rightly object to such manifest inconsistency. Paul the apostle wrote to the younger Timothy to ‘flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart’ (2 Timothy 2:22); we need more of this fleeing mentality among our young people!

Paul sadly at the end of the same letter reported that ‘Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica’ (4:10). This stark warning should show us the incompatibility of loving this present world and claiming to hold to the gospel, because human souls are in the balance.

The way forward

What is the way forward? How can we address this situation? Firstly, we must pray about this matter and ask our Lord to help. James 4:2 is an encouragement and a rebuke. So often we do not have because we have not asked.

Secondly, we could discuss this with our ministers and elders. If they perceive a similar problem in the local church they may have recommendations for advancing the cause of holiness and godliness within it.

Thirdly, for those who have access to UCCF staff, they could be contacted to determine how they assess the situation. You could make a request from within the Christian Union network, that the subjects of holiness and godliness be included for discussion nationally, locally and at student house parties.

There has been a helpful book written recently by Kevin DeYoung called The hole in our holiness and this could be further reading on this subject. In addition, Ephesians chapters 4 to 6 and Colossians chapters 3 and 4 provide a good New Testament introduction.

DeYoung spoke at a recent Banner Youth Conference at Leicester and he said, ‘To obey Christ is not legalism, it is Christianity’, and again he declared that, ‘To fight against sin is to fight for your joy, not against it’.

Is your desire to obey Christ and to fight against sin? May we take up this cause for ourselves, others and future generations. May the words ‘holiness’ and ‘godliness’ become as commonplace in contemporary Christian vocabulary as ‘evangelism’ or the much used, new buzz word ‘missionalism’.

Rev. Dr Kevin Bidwell is the minister of Sheffield Presbyterian Church (which is part of EPCEW).

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