No-one ever feels like they’re living in a ‘golden age’ when they are part of it. History tells us that even the most golden of ages have had plenty to tarnish them. Nevertheless, I wonder whether, in the future, we might look back on this period as a kind of ‘golden age’ of student ministry.
Objectively, there is more opportunity to make Jesus known in our universities than any other secular institution (with the exception, perhaps, of prisons!). This freedom has recently been legally strengthened in England. The Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which became law in May 2023, requires universities, colleges and Student Unions to take steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech on campus.
Whilst stories reporting the erosion of freedom of speech on university campuses are on the rise – and, given cultural currents, we must not take this ongoing provision for granted – most Christian students and Christian Unions are not formally prevented from evangelistic witness. The much more common challenge is actually encouraging Christian students not to self-censor – in other words, not to bow to the subtler societal pressure to keep quiet in the areas where Christianity’s ethical vision parts company with the dominant cultural narrative.
But we can add to this objective freedom something more subjective: a sense of spiritual openness amongst university students that surpasses that of recent decades. This is evident amongst both British students and international students. It is true amongst the vast numbers of students from the Indian subcontinent who have attended CU evangelistic events, but also amongst those whose worldview and spiritual outlook have been formed in the West.
The Russian-born satirist, author and political commentator, Konstantin Kisin, now lives in the UK. He describes the collapse in popularity of the ‘new’ atheism championed by Richard Dawkins and others, especially amongst younger adults:
The reason new atheism has lost its mojo is that it has no answers to the lack of meaning and purpose that our post-Christian societies are suffering from. What will fill that void? Religious people have their answer. Do the rest of us?
It’s this kind of existential questioning that characterises many students today. If there is no God and no purpose, and the universe is wholly indifferent to our lives, then what’s the point? How can we make sense of our apparently innate sense of justice? Where can we turn when we feel overwhelmed by life’s anxieties? Are we really happy to reduce love to an unfortunate side-effect of our evolutionary psychology?
Christianity has lost any sense of ‘home advantage’ amongst younger adults today. It’s not evident to most students why their search for answers should start with Christianity over and above any other religion or philosophy, or for that matter a vague belief in positive energy or ‘manifesting’ your future.
Last summer a former Staff Worker asked me how things had changed since she had finished her time with UCCF a few years ago. My answer to her was that our key challenge is now demonstrating the uniqueness of Jesus in a world of therapies. I think this is probably truer now than even a year ago. It is also true that many students are more willingly embracing spiritual forms that carry less ethical demand than Jesus’ call to ‘deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.’
Nevertheless, we should surely celebrate that today’s students are asking deep existential and personal questions that only Jesus can truly answer. To those with eyes to see, Jesus is clearly able to offer a weightier, more substantial hope – one which addresses us not just at an emotional or therapeutic level, but which calls us to repentance and faith, and to life with the living God.
It is within this context that UCCF is resourcing individual Christian students and whole Christian Unions to live and speak for Jesus.
Staff Workers and Relay Workers are drawing alongside Christian students – encouraging them to engage with their doubts, count the cost of following Jesus and be ready to give the reason for the hope that they have, even if this causes them to feel like the odd ones out. This ministry to continues to resource CUs with cutting-edge resources that meet unbelieving friends where they are but beckons them to life in Christ. This includes our ‘Stronger Than’ Impact Group series, which shows off the benefits that walking with Jesus can bring in everyday life, and which calls group members to a much deeper hope than just at the level of therapy. We are also resourcing Christian Unions to make Jesus known in the public square, including at CU carol services and events weeks, where thousands of students have heard of the life that can only be found in Jesus.
Who knows how long today’s open doors will remain open? Objectively, whilst there is freedom to share the gospel, and subjectively, as students are asking these questions. As we continue on in this work, thank you for helping us make the most of the opportunities in this season in our universities – which, one day, we may reflect on as being something of a golden age.
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