Why Bother with Student Ministry?

Charles Malik, the Lebanese former president of the United Nations General Assembly, once wrote, “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. More potently than by any other means, change the university and you change the world.” Clearly, he saw the strategic nature of Christian ministry among students. Why is this work so important? I suggest at least five reasons.

1. Student ministry provides us with an opportunity to make known the gospel among relatively young people (often between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four) at a time when they are framing the value system upon which they will base decisions throughout their lives. Surveys in virtually every country indicate that the vast majority of people become believers before the age of twenty-five, so it does seem sensible to target young people without wishing to exclude the need to communicate the gospel to people of all ages.

Although the student world can sometimes be characterised by apathy toward the great issues of life, it is nevertheless the case that students are often idealistic and more open to new ideas than are most other generations. Student ministries would do well to focus their evangelistic efforts on a style of evangelism that is:

  • Thoughtful, seeking to start where students are and answer questions they raise as a means of moving on to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Christ-centred, introducing and confronting students with the person and work of Christ. It is still the case in many countries that although students can be disillusioned with the institution of the Church, they are still intrigued, if not fascinated, with the person of Christ.
  • Persuasive, calling students to repentance and a response to the claims of Christ.
  • Creative, seeking to win them by all means possible.
  • Courageous, taking on hostile worldviews or perspectives which are hostile to the person and work of Christ, lovingly seeking to answer their questions, and bolding introducing them to Christ.

2. Engaging with students, and helping them to come to faith, provides an opportunity to help believers become disciples of Christ and put down deep roots as Christians, which will set them up for a lifetime of service. This starts with the encouragement of developing a personal walk with the Lord and developing intimacy with Christ, engagement in Bible study, and attachment to a good local church where the Bible is taught. But it goes beyond the disciplines of personal devotion to helping them understand and flesh out the ethical implications of the gospel.

John Stott and others have often written of the importance of developing a Christian mind, by which they mean the importance of learning to see how scripture applies to every area of life. It helps students enormously to understand that the scriptures have something to say to every area of academic study, as well as to their personal walk with the Lord. This form of investment can help them to develop a value system which affects and governs their decision-making in whatever profession God calls them to serve in the years beyond study.

3. The impact of graduate student ministry on the life of the Church has been extraordinary. For sixty years, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) has demonstrated that many key leaders in the Church worldwide have graduated from student ministry. To give two examples, the student movement in Chad has formed eighty percent of the current pastors of churches in N'djamena, the capital. In fifty years of ministry through the KGK Japan, the evangelical student ministry has led to the formation of three hundred pastors and fifty theological educators in Japan. This can be demonstrated in many other countries of the world, particularly in countries where student ministries have existed for more than twenty years.

Student movements should not be seen as parachurch groups (i.e., alongside the church), thus giving the impression of being in competition with the church. Rather, they should be viewed as: (1) a specialist ministry of the church, (2) a bridge between the church and that part of the world which happens to be the university, (3) a partnership between students and the wider church in engaging the university with the gospel of Christ, and (4) an outflow or extension of the ministry of local churches into that part of the world which happens to be the university.

Just as the Church of Christ should be concerned to reach children, old people, business people, and others, it should be concerned to reach the student world. It is unfortunately short-sighted if church leaders do not see the potential strategic value in the formation of future key church leaders through student ministry.

In addition to many pastors and teachers, God has raised up thousands of Sunday School teachers, deacons, elders, and others to serve in local churches. Incidentally, many key leaders in the history of the Lausanne Movement have had a background in student ministry, including John Stott, Samuel Escobar, and Gottfried Osei-Mensah. It is wise for church leaders to support Christian students when they are in university for only three to five years. That three to five years of investment can often reap fifty years of service, which is a very good investment indeed! Churches should not, therefore, short-sightedly view student ministries as being in competition with the church, but rather as a means of forming many who may be part of the next generation of leadership in local churches.

4. Graduates of student ministry are often engaged in taking the gospel to other countries. Many mission agencies testify to the fact that a high proportion of their key cross-cultural workers have graduated from student ministries. In recent years, ministries that have a particular focus on the student world, including Campus Crusade for Christ, IFES, and The Navigators, have indicated a growing interest among students around the world in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. The huge Urbana conference organized by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA, an affiliate of IFES, occurs every three years and is attended by some twenty thousand students.

In addition, recent years have seen large student conferences focusing on missions in other parts of the world, including Korea, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, India, Taiwan, and Mexico. This will undoubtedly lead to a growing number of cross-cultural workers from these countries in years to come. Again, short-term investment stands to bring about significant payback for the cause of Christ around the world.

5. Society is often impacted by committed Christian graduates who have been helped to put down deep roots in Christ and form a Christian mind while they are undergraduates. Bobby Sng, a medical doctor and evangelical elder statesman in Singapore, has said that the best way to judge a student ministry is to look at what the alumni, or graduates, are doing twenty years after graduation. The Church of Christ needs to have believers acting as salt and light and communicating the gospel by all means in every area of society. The alumni of student ministry can often play a key part in the fulfilment of this vision as they become doctors, engineers, politicians, lawyers, etc.

So what kind of student ministry should we encourage? One which is:

  • Evangelical, firmly focused on acceptance of the absolute veracity of God's word, and its relevance for the modern world.

  • Evangelistic, focusing on taking the evangel or gospel of Christ to the university, and thence to all areas of the world.

  • Biblically-rooted, discipleship-orientated, focusing on helping students to put down deep roots in Christ.

  • Mission-minded, challenging students to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

  • Interdenominational, because denominational groups often appear to give the impression of a divided Church on the campus, which is very unattractive to non-Christians. Evangelical Christian students gathering together are often stronger, as the gifts given to believers from different churches can be brought together as a corporate whole to enhance a united testimony to Christ.

  • Focused on student initiative, enabling students to work out the best means of connecting with their non-Christian friends, gaining experience in exercising leadership, and learning from their successes and failures so that in the long run they have more to offer in serving Christ wherever he calls them.

I commend the support of student ministry to you.

Lindsay Brown is evangelist-at-large for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) and international director of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. He has been involved in student ministry for twenty-six years, as a staff worker in Wales, IFES regional secretary for Europe, and general secretary of IFES from 1991-2007.