No one knew quite what to expect this September.
What would it be like as thousands of students came back to campus after the pandemic?
For the Christian Unions, there were two main aims during their freshers’ weeks: to speak much-needed gospel hope to students after a tough year, and to provide a real and warm welcome for them. This meant preparing a busy schedule of events on campus – despite many never having experienced an in-person event themselves!
Wonderfully, it seemed such weakness and inexperience gave way not to fear, but to a shared and deep dependence on God. At Forum for example, just before term began, there was a ‘surprising prayerfulness and hunger for God expressed by students. Collective times of prayer were enthusiastic, huddles of students were regularly seen praying after workshops had finished.’ (Chris Collinson, CU Staff Worker in Southampton)
So, what happened?
After a tough year, would students be more interested in matters of faith, or just concerned with getting life ‘back to normal’? Would Covid restrictions put a stop to events? Would the CUs be able to reach new students?
During freshers’ weeks, several CUs have been struck by how open students are to the gospel. CU Staff Worker in Manchester, Boaz, said, ‘We’ve been amazed at how willing students are to chat and hear about the Christian Union – it’s a far cry from the cynicism of people pre-Covid’.
An unbelieving student called Matt (name changed), for example, attended an Abertay CU lunchtime talk on ‘lasting joy’. Afterwards he said, ‘If this is true, you have a genuine hope for eternal happiness. If it’s not, you still have an anchor that allows you to find joy in this life – I find that exhilarating!’
Similarly, during their street outreach this year, where they speak to strangers about the gospel, Durham Inter-Collegiate CU were thrilled to be able to hand out every copy of the Gospel that they had taken with them.
This year, some CUs are seeing many more engage with them than they anticipate! This trend is especially encouraging for small CUs who have traditionally struggled to attract new students.
Hartpury CU, for example, has only one member: JP. He boldly ran a stall during their freshers’ fair with the help of a Gloucestershire CU member and, to his amazement and delight, about 10 freshers and two returning students expressed interest in joining the CU!
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the country, Reading CU managed to set up a stall next to the building where new students went to enroll. Every time a student passed by, they received a flyer and chatted to a CU member. As a result, they had over 70 sign up to join their Impact Groups (which means they have a waiting list!) and 50 turned up to their first event for international students.
A final encouragement from freshers’ weeks this year, has been hearing several stories of many students who became Christians during the pandemic growing in enthusiasm for sharing their newfound faith.
Andy (name changed) from Chichester CU, for example, found Christ in June after coming to the CUs’ online mission week and reading Uncover Mark. During freshers’ weeks, he was actively inviting several new students to explore Christianity for themselves. CU Staff Worker Fearghal says, ‘It was amazing to see him encouraging people to read Uncover Mark!’
There is much to give thanks for. God has sustained the ministry of the CUs through a tough 18 months, and is with them still as they boldly step out for His name on campus again now. For most CUs, freshers' weeks can be summed up by the words of the Suffolk CU president, as she reflected on theirs:
‘After having 20 months on Zoom it was tempting to give up. I'm so glad we didn't. Every meeting in person, seeing these people has made this all worth it.’
Let’s pray that this encouraging start propels them into an increasingly bold and brave witness this year.
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