15 August, 2013 Tony Jones
Student ministry is strategic.
With students still open to new ideas but now able to make real decisions about the shape of their lives, the time at university provides some unique opportunities. For some it is the last line of defence after the Gospel has not been taught clearly in their family or home church; for others who know the Gospel, it is the key opportunity to make big decisions about the course of their lives. The ultimate aim of student ministry is the same as for all ministry. We aim to guard the Gospel by teaching the truth with clarity, so that hearts and minds are captured for Christ. But because students are only with us for a short time, good student ministry must always be intentional, not reactive. It’s not a question of how can we hold them, but how, in the short time that we have, can we best establish and train the students that God has entrusted to us for a lifetime of gospel ministry? This means our aims must be clear and the programme well structured. So what are some of the key principles?
Partnering with the Christian Union
The Christian Union has unrivalled access to thousands of students across university campuses, most of whom have never heard the Gospel. Many CUs do a great job of encouraging Christian students in their evangelism. Church-based student ministry should not compete with this work but will aim to partner with and supplement it.
If a Church is to be really committed to good student work, student ministry must be at the heart of its DNA rather than just a ‘bolt on’. If student work is to be really effective, the whole of the local church will need to be behind it in prayer, and by giving and serving. Staffing the student work might have to be at the expense of staff appointments in other areas such as youth ministry; it may mean that the giving of the church will need to be increased. Another cost might be that the church is swamped with students; another might be that a new congregation might need to be started to cope with the numbers, threatening the feeling of ‘togetherness’ within the wider Church family.
The centrality of personal work
While in Ephesus Paul taught “in public and from house to house” (Ephesians 1:20) and in Thessalonica he and his team shared “not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). In the same way, if we want to see students radically transformed, other Christians need to get alongside them. It’s as we model progress in the Christian life, as we provide pastoral care, and as we encourage and rebuke one another, that lives are really changed. Good student work will emphasise one-to-one ministry and will not only make disciples, but also makers of disciples.
Entrepreneurial people take risks and start new things. In our student work we constantly encourage students not just to follow the crowd but to be audacious for the Gospel. In teaching that “it is better to try and fail then never to try” we seek to raise a generation of courageous self-starters, willing to push beyond the boundaries and to take risks for the Gospel. Practically this means that we are always encouraging students to think outside the box about how they can multiply their ministry opportunities and find creative ways to share the Gospel with friends and others. One example is ‘walk-up evangelism’ where we regularly encourage the congregation just to walk up to strangers and begin a conversation about Jesus.
Clarity on classical evangelicalism
In a world and a church where the truth is under constant attack, the congregation needs to be defended so that we are not “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). This means we need to be clear on what the Bible teaches as well as clear on what the Bible doesn’t teach. If the next generation of leaders are to be equipped to defend the Gospel, then student ministries need to be clear on the negatives. It is especially important that we are clear in all the areas that the Gospel is under attack today (in for example issues of gender; Biblical teaching on sex; the final judgement; the uniqueness of Jesus in salvation).
The centrality of doctrine
The core business of the pastor in Sunday ministry is expository Bible teaching; book by book, week by week. But expository Bible teaching is not enough to shape the Christian mind effectively. If students are to be clear on the Bible as a whole, the programme must include Biblical theology and doctrine. Our model has therefore included not only a weekly Bible study but a 30-minute doctrine talk followed by a 30-minute question time. We have learned not to patronise students, assuming that some truths might be beyond them. Instead we offer a strong diet and marvel how, every year, students thrive as they take the meat and enjoy chewing it!
Recruiting for ministry
A student church will inevitably be a revolving door of arrivals and departures and, while the temptation will be for the local congregation to resent that, it is vital that the church family rejoices in the opportunities as workers are spun out for the Gospel all over the world. But we not only aim to send out Christian accountants and lawyers, but to challenge students on whether they should be considering missionary work or paid Christian ministry in the UK. For this challenge to be effective it needs to be the heartbeat of the whole ministry, mentioned regularly from the pulpit and at the conferences. Over the last 10 years it has been thrilling to see how God has sent around 125 from our work into ministry apprenticeships; thrilling to see how many have continued beyond that to college and further ministry.
Churches which have students have a unique, God-given privilege. The leaders of tomorrow’s church may well be found within their ranks and that means we have a God-given responsibility to train and equip our future leaders well. The question is, are we willing to sacrifice ourselves in serving them well? Because if we don’t, who will? The students of today are both keen to learn and vulnerable – so why ignore such a unique, exciting and Gospel-shaped opportunity?