The Strategic Importance of Student Ministry
As results for A-Level and Scottish Highers are released, soon-to-be students across Great Britain are preparing to head off to university. But is your church ready to receive them? Danny Rurlander explains why ministry to students in university towns and cities is so important.
On holiday in the Dordogne a gardener was telling me about the challenges and joys of growing things in that particular area where a thick layer of very poor top soil lies over a much richer subsoil. The result was that plants took several years to get established, sending their roots slowly downwards with little evidence of growth above the surface. Then suddenly after three or four years, when the roots reached the deeper fertile soil, the plants would burst into life with spectacular growth.
It’s not a bad analogy for what we are trying to do with our students as an ordinary local church with the extraordinary privilege of being in a university town.
A strategic stage of life
At Moorlands we believe that university ministry brings unique opportunities for growing the kingdom of God. Students are at a cross-road stage of life. Whatever their background, many are open to new ideas and are still able to make real decisions about the direction of their lives. What Christian students need more than anything else is the deliberate, sacrificial nurture of a local church with the vision and resources to stretch, train and equip them to be fruitful servants of the gospel during their time at university and for the rest of their lives.
Let me highlight three of the principles at the heart of our own student ministry.
1. The aim of gospel clarity
Because students are only with us for a short time we need to be particularly intentional in this ministry with an intensive program which sets a high bar for teaching and training.
As well as expecting students to be part of our Sunday mornings, we have given our Sunday evenings to our student program as well. This consists of a half hour topical talk, followed by a meal and then a Bible study, with plenty of time for conversations over coffee and cake at the end.
The topical talks follow a termly pattern of Doctrine, Ministry and Life, over three years. The Bible studies follow a three year pattern of Mark, Romans and Bible Overview so that students are getting a grasp on the whole Bible, as well as learning key sections deeply.
This weekly program is punctuated throughout the year with a number of conferences, and further enhanced by a one-to-one discipleship program which enables older Christians to share their lives with students in order to model the Christian life.
The aim of all this is to make students as clear as possible on the gospel in the short time they are with us, and to train disciples who will themselves make disciples of others. Far from putting them off, this overtly stretching diet is what attracts many students and we are constantly in awe at the power of God’s word to change lives.
This gospel clarity can only come when we refute error as well as teaching the truth. We find three particular areas of confusion need constant attention today: the sovereignty of God in salvation, the sufficiency of Scripture and the place of gender distinctions in God’s order for humanity.
This third area is a good example of where we need to be especially alert to the attacks of the world if we are to guard the gospel for the next generation. In the past it was sufficient to teach young people about the place of sex, marriage and singleness in the Christian life. Now we need to strip back layers of confusion about who we are as men and women and intentionally rebuild the theological foundations.
For students, just as for every age group in church, our aim is to allow the word of God to re-orient their lives around the gospel, so they might be fruitful servants of Jesus.
2. The place of the local church
Christian Unions (CUs) have access to students on campus that the local church does not have and they strategically help Christian students in their evangelism. We have always aimed to partner with the CUs, through encouraging our own students’ involvement and in many other practical ways.
However, ultimately it is our responsibility as local churches to win students for Christ and build them up as disciples, just as is the case for every other part of the mission field God has placed us in. Instead of the local church abandoning this work to others it ought to be the engine room for encouraging, equipping and enabling students in their campus evangelism, both as individuals and in CU communities functioning in the heart of universities.
Church involvement in follow-up programs helps enquirers get a wider glimpse of the kingdom of God and ensure that new Christians gain a high view of the local church at the most informative stage of their lives.
Our hope and prayer over the years has been to model an approach to student ministry which demonstrates a real partnership with campus ministries, rather than one that merely steps back and cheers from the sidelines.
3. The growth of the kingdom
None of this comes easily or cheaply to local churches. Lovingly and patiently discipling students takes up enormous amounts of time and energy (not to mention food!) and the church family must decide to bare the cost of a ministry that is permanently economically unviable.
But there are good reasons to make those sacrifices joyfully. God has entrusted our students to us for a short period so that they can sink their roots deep into God’s word and bear much fruit for the kingdom of God. While some stay and further the work of the church here, many are ‘sent’ out all over the world more on fire for Jesus and better equipped to serve him than they were when they arrived. It is our privilege to play a part in this ministry which we pray will bear long term fruit for the wider kingdom of God.
The importance of gospel partnership
How can churches who do not find themselves in university towns and cities partner in this work? There are two important ways worth mentioning.
The first is to help any young people you know who are about to start university to think wisely about where they end up studying. Parents and youth leaders should not assume that the city will be full of churches with a vision to disciple students by giving them the solid food of God’s word.
One of the key ways parents can help their Christian children at this stage of life is to prepare them for church life away from home: do some research, explain the difference between getting involved in church and merely attending, and point them in the right direction, ideally making contact with the church before they arrive.
And secondly pray for God to be at work in the students through His powerful word so that they graduate not simply as better educated Christians with good career prospects, but as courageous servants of Jesus who will give up their careers, and their whole lives, for the kingdom of God.
Are you heading to university soon? Before you leave home it’s worth having a think about which church you will be part of. Read some advice and information from FIEC churches here.