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Brookes Carols

Christmas outreach taken to a new level

‘I've got some questions,’ Rachel began, ‘because I think we can take things to another level with this year’s carol service.’

This was that start of a conversation one afternoon in September 2016. Rachel, a second-year student at Oxford Brookes, was speaking to Ollie, UCCF Staff Worker in Oxford, because she wanted to make sure Brookes CU made the most of the Christmas season. As plans took shape through September, the CU realised they would need a better venue than the lecture hall they normally used. A few weeks later, Rachel sent Ollie a Facebook message: ‘We’ve just booked the cathedral!’

With the capacity to seat around 800 people, this was a huge leap of faith for the CU, whose carol service had been attended by around 200 students in previous years. However, on 7 December, more than 850 students packed out the building, leaving standing room only. Just over 100 of those present indicated that they had prayed to accept Jesus as saviour and Lord, with a further 18 students asking to find out more!

Not only are carol services often the first opportunity for freshers to invite their friends to a major CU event, but also a great way for the CU to advertise their upcoming events (or mission) week to the wider university. Brookes CU called their carol service ‘New Light’, pointing to their week of events in February of the same name. Events week speakers are often invited to share a Christmas message at the CU’s carol service so that both CU members and the wider university can get to know them ahead of the mission.

Two people who attended the Brookes CU carol service were Japanese students, who went along after seeing the service advertised on social media. It was their first time singing carols and hearing the message of Christmas. One said, ‘I didn’t have any knowledge about the Christian God. That was so exciting. I cannot understand this feeling of peace … maybe someday.’ They reflected that the Christian message of Jesus bringing lasting peace ‘may be true’ and now plan to attend the CU’s events week.

Adrian Holloway, who will be speaking at ‘New Light’ in February, delivered a three-part talk during the carol service and afterwards reflected: ‘It was moving to talk to a couple of church workers at the end who said they had been praying for a breakthrough at Brookes for years. Tonight went way beyond anything they have seen before in terms of the number of students who heard the gospel in one event.’

In newer universities, large student-led events are rare. Brookes CU wanted to fill this gap. One non-Christian student commented, ‘It’s amazing to come together as a uni community, because we don’t really do that.’ Rachel hopes that those who enjoyed the carol service will want to come to CU events in the future as they remember the warm welcome they received and the fun they had.

The place of Christmas in our nation’s cultural heritage, gives Christian students unparalleled space to share Jesus with friends and course mates, making carol services some of the farthest-reaching events in the CU calendar. An estimated 30,000 students attended a CU carol services in 2016, with some events – such as Exeter CU’s carol service in St James Park Football Stadium – drawing in crowds of 4,000 alone.

For many of these students, CU carol services are the first time they hear the gospel message proclaimed, and for several it’s the start of their journey in discovering the joy of knowing Christ. Often, students are surprised by how engaging they find the talk. After Cambridge CU’s carol service, one student said, ‘This was good … this guy made sense!’

Other CUs have taken less traditional approaches to making Christ known this Christmas: from ‘Message-a-Mince-Pie’ and ‘Ring-a-Reindeer’ (variations on Text-a-Toastie) in Sunderland and Winchester respectively, to a Christmas cabaret in Lancaster, Christmas is a great chance for students to explore the truth of Jesus. From students who don’t feel Christmassy until they’ve been to a carol service, to students who wouldn’t otherwise step into a church, CUs energetically and creatively point people to the amazing news of Christ incarnate.

- Sarah Pickett, UCCF Relay Worker in Oxford

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