‘All year I kept finding myself in great conversations about faith with my flat mates and course mates. Often, I’m not even looking for the conversation, they just ask. Is that because university just throws up these kinds of things for people? Or has God unusually given me lots of opportunities?’ – Salford University student
Stories just like this can be told by countless students across Great Britian. And we rejoice in the unique mission field that God is working in – the university.
Students continue to be best placed to reach other students but the landscape around them is always changing. Here’s how CU mission has adapted.
Since the pandemic, more CUs have adopted more of a conversational approach to public evangelism. Instead of a straight talk, an evangelistic talk would now be typically formatted into three shorter sections with time for group discussion.
I enjoyed a brilliant example of this in Liverpool this year. Esther Court spoke at the CU’s Truth Defined events week on the title ‘Christianity is patriarchal’ – does the Bible degrade women?. She spent five minutes in each section looking at a Gospel account and showing the students how Jesus interacted with different women and treated them in ways that were counter-cultural. After each section, she gave 5-10 minutes for discussion in small groups.
I sat on a table with a Liverpool Hope CU member and the rest of the table were mostly unbelievers. Here are some of the things I noticed:
Increasingly, CUs find themselves playing host to an incredibly multicultural audience. For example, there has been a 400% increase in student-visas given out to Indian students since the pandemic. Indian students coming to the UK now outnumber students from mainland China.
Michael Ots, an evangelist experienced in speaking at UK universities, reflected that first contact initiatives on campus worked well in advertising events. In Leicester this year, 10 minutes of handing out flyers pre-event esulted in a full room. Many of them were Indian masters students.
Christian Unions throughout the years have often done a fantastic job of contextualising the gospel for international students. Larger CUs, for example, might run a weekly ‘Globe Café’ or equivalent, to create a space for international students to make friendships and opt-in to bible studies that are appropriately pitched. This may well continue to be effective in many places for years to come.
But how can CUs respond when all their events are suddenly attended by a multicultural audience?
Christian students, and the evangelistic speakers they invite to speak, are learning “on the job” how to speak in a way that appeals to a broad audience, without losing depth. It seems obvious that in coming years our CUs will find themselves looking to our brothers and sisters in IFES to help – they could provide training, or even evangelists – who naturally know how to contextualise the gospel for a non-British audience.
Data gathered from CU Staff Workers indicates that a guest coming to an events week event in 2023 was as likely to come having received a flyer from a stranger as they were if invited by a friend. This corresponds with wider trends that people have noticed about Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012). In other words, our current university students are ‘spiritual explorers’. There are plenty of students at our universities who would happily come and hear about faith, or prayer, or even Jesus, if they knew they could do so in an inviting and friendly environment.
Many CUs have adapted their evangelistic events to recognise this. Titles like ‘Does prayer work and how do I do it?’ and ‘Can spirituality help my mental health?’ are finding ways to connect with this current generation. This is incredibly encouraging, especially when we see these students lingering after the event to chat with Christians.
But we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Our Christian Unions need to answer the question – ‘how are they hearing what we are saying?’. Anecdotally, feedback from CU events weeks suggests that many of these spiritual explorers are simply doing just that – they are exploring. They listen more like an interested tourist wandering around a new city than a first-time buyer searching for a home.
When Jesus preached ‘repent and believe’, He was calling for a total reorientation of a person’s life. Today’s Christian students need courage and clarity to preach like Jesus, rather than offering just another spiritual bolton to a pluralistic and vague ‘spirituality’.
Today’s students are not arrogant. They know they are needy! To some extent this fuels a positive urgency in evangelism from Christian students – they know they have good news to share! At the same time, the shifts in the world around them are presenting novel questions to answer and challenges to work through. The witness of students today should give us great cause to rejoice, while the challenges they face should lead us to become their greatest cheerleaders and partners in prayer.
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