Universities hold a unique position in any country — in its history, future, culture and politics. They reach into society with a long and inescapable arm. Universities are the seedbeds for ideas and networks. We see this in the legacies of influential people — the world’s tyrants as well as those converted to Christ in their student years.
We must pray, therefore, for Christians in universities, whether students or those who teach and research. They work at the tough interface of learning and ideas. Charles Habib Malik, Lebanese Christian President of the UN General Assembly, raised a critical question 25 years ago when he asked, ‘What does Jesus Christ think of the university?’1
The big dream
Our goal in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) is to see a clear witness to Christ firmly established in every university in the world.2 Britain’s UCCF (then IVF) was a founding member, but the largest such member was the China Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship which embraced 10% of all students in that vast land.
Since 1989 IFES has pioneered Christian Union movements in more than 50 countries, bringing the total to over 150 with 18 countries to go. In some of the hardest situations, staff and students have (in the words of Howard Guinness) ‘held their lives cheap’ for the sake of this great vision.
In one central Asian country, a student is currently in prison mourning his wife, having been wrongfully convicted of her murder. He returned home one day to find her missing — just a few weeks after he had started the first-ever Bible study group in his university. Her body was found the next day. As in past centuries, the blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the church.
As I write I have in my mind’s eye a courageous woman in central Africa with a truly joyful smile. She has already put her life at risk while planting a witness to Christ among students in the midst of raging civil war. Fearless (or perhaps not fearless, but glimpsing Christ’s glory) she is moving shortly to another country, behind an Islamic frontier where we know of no Christian students.
I think of a young graduate in one of the central Asian ‘…stans’ who was badly beaten up in his flat two months ago by a disturbed student. He had gone there to help build the newly-emerging Christian Union movement. Has he come back home? No.
Yes, that witness to the Lord Jesus Christ is very fragile in some countries. But the Lord of the Harvest is keeping our vision bright and giving us men and women with a passion for his glory.
Students and world mission
Never underestimate what students can do, nor the influence they can have in later life. A student at Aberdeen University wrote a book which, fifty years later, fired the Wesleys. They lent it to their student friend in Oxford, George Whitefield, who found Christ through it, and went on to spearhead the eighteenth century revival.3
A student in Williams College, Massachusetts, urged fellow students to pray for world mission — though at that time there were no protestant missionaries from North America, no mission boards and no sending churches. Every mission agency in North America traces its roots back to the prayers of those students.4
And today? You cannot pull IFES and world mission apart. In December 25,000 students are expected in St Louis, Missouri, for the Urbana Missions Convention, and there are huge missions conventions in the non-western world too.
The Nigerian IFES movement drew 5000 students to its last missions gathering, held in a field outside Abuja. The students slept in the open, with no proper toilet facilities and only two water taps to serve everyone! I heard no murmur of complaint.
They were simply thrilled to be there, listening for hour upon hour to Bible teaching as they sat on benches with no backs, moving them frequently because of the sun. ‘God is preparing us for service’, said one student with a glint in his eye. The Kenyan IFES movement drew 2500 to a similar convention. Others have been held in the Sudan, Congo, Mexico, Jamaica and Taiwan.
The Holy Spirit seems to be doing a special work at the moment in mobilising students for world mission. We are responding to this as we are able. Together with OMF, SIM and Monarch, we have produced a book for students and graduates exploring short-term or long-term service.
Jesus says Go, by Robin Wells (former UCCF General Secretary), is an unusual book. It includes a biblical theology of mission by Rose Dowsett and contributions from John Stott and George Verwer. It doesn’t shy away from the notion of sacrifice.
Holding out the word of life
Over the past six months, students in some of the toughest Muslim and Hindu heartlands have been handing Gospels to their friends in perhaps the largest evangelistic mission ever. Some 500,000 have been printed, in over 20 languages.
We are hearing stories from North India, North Africa and the Middle East of students professing faith; of groups running out of Gospels; of Christians growing in their own confidence in Scripture. As students offer friends a ‘biography of Jesus’ they invite them to a Bible study to consider the claims of the Lord Jesus.
This massive venture grew out of an initiative in UCCF when Nigel Lee was head of student ministries. The original idea was to give a copy of the gospel to every full-time student in the UK. What better way for students to encounter the living Christ than through the pages of the gospel? That idea has now spread in a big way!
Plans are afoot for gospel projects next year in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria. The IFES movements here may be young, but the students are showing a deep passion for evangelism. The Bulgarians have come up with an imaginative plan — their gospels will carry a parallel English text, as all the students are keen to learn English.
University graduates will shape the future of their countries. They will determine the values of their culture and, in the end, the freedom of the church.
If you pray for missionaries working to strengthen the church in another land, will you also pray for that country’s students? Its key political and Christian leaders alike are being trained in its universities — right now.
Many countries have corruption written into their cultures. It is not uncommon in Latin America and Africa for Christian students to fail their exams year after year — not because they are under-achieving but because they refuse to be compromised.
The men are failed because they will not pay bribes; the women are failed because they refuse to sleep with their lecturers. This is not journalistic exaggeration but real life. Such is the courage students are showing for the sake of the gospel and for the honour of Christ.
The biggest Christian Union meeting in the world is in Rwanda at the National University of Butare, where 3000 students gather on a Saturday evening. Not all are Christians, but they all see that the gospel offers hope. Each has known the depths of horror from the 1994 genocide which left no family untouched. What a work of grace in that land after its unimaginable suffering.
Our invitation to churches
The Lord is stretching our faith. We need more mission-minded churches to work with us in this critical ministry. May we help you to understand more fully what God is doing among students in the countries where you have missionaries?
Charles Malik continued, ‘The church can render no greater service, both to itself and to the cause of the gospel, than to try to recapture the universities for Christ … change the university and you change the world’.
Will you think and pray about joining us in our task to see Christ’s name honoured in the world’s universities? In Christ ‘are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ and it is the most profound irony that his truth should be despised in our own seats of learning.
Julia is available to visit your church to explore how you could get involved. Contact her on [email protected] or at the IFES office, 321 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 7JZ. Tel. 01865 292555.
1. Pascal Lectures 1981, University of Waterloo.
2. IFES began in 1947 with ten founding movements, under the chairmanship of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
3. The life of God in the soul of man by Henry Scougal (still in print; Christian Focus Publications). He founded the first-recorded student-led Christian Union, in Aberdeen University in 1665, and bound its constitution into the back of the book. The Wesleys shaped their group in Oxford University on its model.
4. The Haystack Prayer meeting (1806) was led by Samuel Mills.