Students and the church

Written by Owen Brown

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

One of the most exhilarating, rewarding, yet sometimes frustrating challenges for a city church leader can be knowing how to deal with the students who come through the doors each Sunday!

They are such a strategic group of people! Charles Malik, former president of the UN’s General Assembly, proposed that `The church can render no greater service, both to itself and to the cause of the gospel, than to try to recapture the universities for Christ. More potently than by any other means, change the university, and you change the world.`  What influences students now will shape their thinking for the future. When graduates reach further up the ladder, in the media, the arts, education and politics, they will express the ideas that dominated their university as undergraduates.  

And students really are a wonderful resource for the local church. They can input youthful creativity and manpower, boundless energy, different and varied giftings and talents, and lively leadership. Before working for UCCF (the British inter-church student missions movement), I was employed as student pastor at a sizeable church in Cardiff. Before that I was part of the student ministry team at a similar church in Edinburgh. In both contexts the students were involved in helping design much of the church’s publicity, and they made up substantial percentages of the PA, welcome, youth and children’s ministry teams, as well as a sizeable proportion of the worship groups. All of these were wonderful blessings on the church.

There are, however, particular tensions to working with students in a church setting. Tension number one: students can seem a sizeable drain on the church despite their great contributions. In Cardiff we found, practically, that one of the best ways to serve the students was to put on meals, particularly on Sundays. They were a great joy and privilege to organise, but also quite a task.  If the church also commit to praying for students and their outreaches, it can feel like just another thing to fit into over-full service programmes!  Tension number two: how does involving students in church fit with the demands and opportunities of their involvement in the university itself, such as through the student Christian Unions in the UK? When you work for a church a kind of sinful pride can kick in. You want as many students as possible in your church’s ministries, and, of course, you really want the best. But, particularly first year students can get drawn into the Christian Union and are reluctant or unable to help out with mid-week church activities. 

With these thoughts in mind may I advocate a blueprint for church leaders wanting to get to grips with the student world: Why would you bother? How would you bother? What about the specifics?

Why bother with students?

Can I suggest five primary impetuses?

1. Preparation for Lifelong Service: Engaging with students provides a really amazing opportunity to help believers become disciples of Christ and put down deep roots as Christians, which can set them up for a full lifetime of service. So, this starts with the encouragement of a personal walk with our Lord and cultivating an intimacy with Jesus, proper engagement with scripture, and attachment to a local church where the Bible is articulately and accurately taught. But it goes beyond the development of a general discipline of personal devotion to purposefully helping them understand and flesh out the implications of the gospel, learning to see how the Bible applies to literally every facet of life!  It can help students massively if they begin to understand that the Bible has something to say to every possible university course, as well as to a student’s personal walk with the Lord. This kind of deep investment in our students can really help them develop a value system which shapes their decision-making processes, in whatever profession God calls them in the years beyond university.

2. Reaching people while they’re still forming their value systems: Student ministry can provide us with an (arguably unparalleled) opportunity to make the gospel known among young people, at the time when they’re forming the value system on which they will base the rest of their lives. Surveys in many countries reveal that the majority of Christians become believers before the age of twenty-five!  Even though the 21st century student world can be characterised by deep-set apathy towards many great issues of life, it is also often the case that students can be a great deal more open to new ideas than most (even ‘all’?) other age groups. With that in mind student ministries would be well advised to focus their evangelistic energies on a mode of evangelism that is `Connecting, Christ-centred, Convincing, Creative and Courageous` (see note 1 below)!

3. Reaching the future leaders: Our societies can be hugely impacted by committed Christian graduates (‘culture-shapers’) who have been helped to put down deep roots in Christ and his Gospel and form a `Christian mind` as undergraduates. Bobby Sng, an evangelical elder statesman in Singapore, once wrote that the best way to judge a student ministry is to look at what its graduates are getting up to twenty years after they graduate. The Church of Christ must have believers acting as salt and light in all areas of society and striving to communicate the gospel by any means possible. The alumni of student ministries can play a significant role in the execution of this wonderful vision as they enter the world as musicians, secretaries, teachers, artists, civil servants etc. So what type of student ministry should we be trying to foster? One that is evangelistic and evangelical (2), mission-ready(3), student-enterprise-orientated(4), biblically-embedded and discipleship-attuned(5), and interdenominational.

(This final one can sometimes be the most challenging for those of us in church ministry. Denominational student groups, such as those organised by an individual church or even by groups of denominationally similar churches, can often convey an impression of a divided Church, both to other believers but, more importantly, to non-Christians. It can be really uninviting and ugly. Evangelical Christian students all gathering together, despite the challenges involved in achieving this with their many hiccups and denominational differences, are often incredibly strong! Why? Simple… because the glorious, abundant gifts given to believers from different churches can be united together as a corporate whole to increase a beautiful, unified testimony to Christ on campus!)

4. A wonderful training arena: The impact of student CUs in producing people who go on to take responsibility in the Church, locally and globally, has been phenomenal. For over half a century, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students has consistently shown how many key leaders in the worldwide church have ‘graduated’ first from student ministry. One great example: the ministry of KGK, the evangelical student movement in Japan, has led to the development and training of more than three hundred pastors and fifty theological educators since 1947. The same fruit can be demonstrated in many other countries.  And in addition to the countless pastors and Bible teachers, God has also used Christian Unions where students have to take genuine responsibility for the ministry to raise up thousands of Sunday school teachers, ministry leaders, home-group leaders, deacons, elders, and others to take on responsibility later in local churches.  Many churches have found that people who have served as Christian Union leaders can then be depended on to play valuable roles within the church using skills they’ve learned in their student groups: leading and helping others lead good Bible study groups, perhaps; helping develop effective youth ministry; helping plan relevant programmes, maybe; or helping mobilise evangelism that is creative and effective.  It is really wise for church leaders to support Christian students while they are in university; those short years of investment can reap a half-century’s worth of service!  So local churches should not see student CUs as acting in competition with themselves; rather, the CUs are a means of reaching and shaping many who will be part of the future leadership for local churches, and giving them the chance to learn what leadership responsibility means in practice.

Student movements working in universities should not be seen as `para-church` (i.e., alongside the church), giving the irrational impression of their being in some kind of competition with the local church. Instead, they should be viewed as an extension of the local church’s ministry into the university world (with students supported and sent weekly by their churches into mission on campus); a specialist ministry of the local church (something she seeks to support, encourage, pray for and give to); a bridge between the church and that part of the world which happens to be the university (a part of the world that is becoming increasingly difficult to access); and a cooperation between students and the rest of the church in communicating the gospel to the university!  Just as Christ’s Church should be totally concerned about reaching children, youth, the elderly, the artists, sportsmen and women, internationals, business people or the homeless, it should also be totally concerned about reaching the student world. It is regrettably short-sighted if the leaders of churches close to universities don’t see the strategic value in developing future key leaders through student ministry.

5. Future overseas missionaries: Members of student CUs very often catch the vision to take the gospel to other countries after graduation. Many mission agencies will testify to the fact that high percentages of their key cross-cultural staff have graduated from student CUs. During my time on an IFES team in France, every one of the 40 IFES staff in Europe had been active in their home student ministry. In recent years, many of the principal ministries that have a specialised emphasis on the student world - including IFES and its member movements, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators - have perceived a rising interest among Christian students worldwide in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.   In recent years we have seen huge student conferences worldwide focusing on missions in other parts of the globe, including in Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, India, Taiwan, Mexico and Korea. This trend is unquestionably going to lead to an increasing number of cross-cultural missionaries in the years to come.  Once again, the short-term investment in our own local students is bringing about a substantial ‘reimbursement’ for the cause of Christ globally. 

So how should we bother?

With these five motivations in our mind, how, practically, do we bother with student ministry in our home towns and cities?

The ideal is to develop a lively gospel-focused, outward-looking, interdenominational family of Christian students on each of our campuses, and to robustly and wholeheartedly support them through the local church. The aim for these Christian Unions is to be student-led mission teams operating at the very heart of British universities and colleges, commissioned by God to partner with him in his glorious rescue mission, and supported, discipled, resourced and equipped by the local church, and where possible by local CU staff.  Their goal is to make disciples of Christ in the student world and to give every student an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel. It’s difficult to find any fault with that vision!

It’s essential that we understand that students are the best people to reach other students! Firstly, in the UK at least, an undergraduate-led CU can have a significantly greater reach into the university simply because they are a student-led society, often formally allied to their Student Unions. This means they have legitimacy on campus, something that is increasingly a problem for outside religious groups due to the fears of religious extremism on campus.  Churches will very seldom have such access and so will be forced to retreat from the campus and base their activities away in the often (for a non-Christian) more alien surroundings of their own building.  Again, the only people likely to be allowed to make an announcement in a lecture are the lecturer or students who have gained permission from the lecturer. A student-led group may well be permitted to organise meetings for outreach in university departments; but increasingly, the only people who can put up posters and organise events on campus are students and only students. Certainly, the only people allowed into halls of residence are undergraduate students. So here is the wonderful missional value of students uniting together interdenominationally to reach the campus.  It simply makes no sense for lots of different churches to put effort into trying, separately, to `get onto campus`. Too many times I’ve heard of church groups being kicked out of student premises, or only being allowed to stand outside.

Secondly, despite their age and (sometimes!) immaturity, students really are the people best placed to reach other students for Jesus. You may be in your 50s having done student ministry for 30 years, but you will still know less about how the current crop of students really ‘do life’ than a current undergraduate.  We might be able to see it and (to some extent) understand it, but we won’t actually be in their shoes.  

Thirdly, there is something really very significant about a visible unity on a university campus.  God tells us in John 17 about the importance of unity amongst believers.  The university campus, despite its size, is actually a tightly knit community in which students work, eat, sleep and play together.  Unity must be visible to them!  Does having several different church groups visible on campus express the unity of God’s people?  In contrast, if unity-in-diversity is visible on the campus, it can speak volumes for the love of Christ - especially to the current generation of students that have been so ‘damaged’ by family breakdown and desperately need to experience loving community.  It makes far more sense if as Bible-based churches we can work together to support the students as they are ‘sent’ into their faculties each weekday as specialised mission teams. 

This is also why many churches encourage their students to commit to a Christian Union small group rather than church home-groups, at the least while they are living in student halls of residence.  This is not merely because of the extent to which the term or semester system limits students from taking real responsibility in church home-groups, and so limits their learning to lead, plan and care in the ways they will be forced to do if leading a student small group. But rather, when a group of diverse Christian students share their life together (at literally all hours of the day and night!), their mutual non-Christian friends are watching and drawn in; and (as we see so often) the Christians’ life together, where Bible study and prayer form a natural, integral part, opens their ears for the message (again, at all hours of the day or night!).  And it is enormously important that Christians who live in the same building (or indeed faculty) know each other and are praying and working together for the salvation of the friends they all share. 

We must remember too that these mission teams need times to pray together, to prepare, to receive training and teaching specifically relevant to life on campus, to learn to support one another in the day-to-day challenges of life as a Christian student, and to plan together. In the UK these normally happen through a weekly CU main meeting and in small groups or hall groups. This ‘team time’ really is central to the evangelistic effectiveness of any group. It helps students to focus on our Lord, really grow in their understanding of the gospel, and think through the application of scripture to their student culture. Then also as a church we can help complement this work on campus. So, for example, if the students are focusing evangelistically on the gospel of Luke, giving out Luke to their non-believing friends and doing focused events where the messages use Luke as a springboard, then perhaps the church could do complementary studies. Perhaps this year’s church youth events could be looking at themes in Luke as well. The churches can be the wonderful solid support these young ‘missioners’ need!

One question frequently raised about a CU concerns their teaching programme.  If they are supposed to be mission teams, why would they spend any time in Bible study or have teaching for Christians? Why are their activities not 100% evangelistic? Doesn’t that start to look like another alternative local church? Perhaps I can proffer two clarifications on this.  Firstly, as with absolutely any mission team, what gives it unity, character, vision, and purpose is when God speaks as his Word is opened.  Scripture is absolutely essential for ‘heart-warming’ motivation.  The prayerful hope is that as students see the goodness and love of the Lord in the Gospel, they are motivated to serve Jesus on campus.  So teaching is essential for any mission team, including student fellowships on campus. As a local church leader, please don’t discourage this practice! 

Secondly, it is never intended to replicate the local church’s ministry. It can’t! In the UK, we in UCCF would always stress the unique and indispensable place for discipleship of involvement in the local church.  This is one of our fellowship’s key values.  And churches can take their students deeper in to their various traditions, whether they be calvinist or reformed, arminian, charismatic or conservative.  A student Christian Union’s teaching is designed to be focused on equipping students for missionary discipleship; it is simply inappropriate for them to deal in a campus context with certain other issues on which Bible-based Christians differ.  So local church involvement is critical if a student is going to develop depth in their faith!  Tim Keller of New York put it helpfully when he suggested that involvement in an on-campus interdenominational student ministry like the British CUs can greatly extend the reach of the Gospel, whilst commitment to the local church extends the depth of a student’s faith.

When working fulltime for my church I found it difficult to swallow any idea that we should be directing all student energies back to the mission field of the campus. That is still not what I want to advocate! I fervently believe that Christian students should be committed to a local church – indeed, that it really is mandatory for student ministries to promote involvement in a local church as the lifelong place of Christian community. A Christian student gathering on campus is a strategic but temporary mission team. Every Christian student must be fully involved in a local church and never try to be, as is sometimes the case, `self-reliant` and detached from the local church.  They must be passionately committed to receiving regular teaching from a local church, seeking out personal accountability to a church with mature leadership, and accepting (and as necessary requesting) pastoral care there. Correspondingly, I really long for the leaders of our churches to be continuously and actively commissioning students in their congregations into mission on campus as part of a unified interdenominational team!  Where we see these things happening, we observe many new CU leaders seeking out accountable relationships with mature believers from their local church.  It’s enormously helpful when churches encourage suitably mature members (maybe young graduates, maybe friendly families) to invest in discipling these students, opening scripture with them, encouraging and challenging (and feeding!) them, supporting and praying for them; and when other ministries within the church encourage students to commit to help at some level, while at the same time being graciously aware of the unique but temporary missional opportunities the students have on campus, and encouraging students to make these a priority.   Hospitality is something especially precious; it can make all the difference in the world if a student has an older Christian they know well enough to turn to easily at a time of faith- or family-crisis, or deep romantic disappointment…

What about practical specifics?

Travelling round Wales I’ve been hugely encouraged by the attitude so many churches have to student ministry:

And there are plenty of other practical possibilities.  I know of churches who…

So: student ministry is hard work!  It can be a complicated and exhausting investment. It can be expensive.  But it’s also incredibly exciting; very rewarding; and highly strategic.  Please, as you finish reading this, as you consider your own context, think how you might be able to support and partner in student ministry where you are!

Owen Brown. 

UCCF Wales team leader.

 © Owen Brown.


(1) ‘Connecting’ in that it seeks to start a presentation of the Gospel from where students really are, and aims to answer the questions they raise, as a means of moving on to communicate the gospel of Jesus.  ‘Christ-centred’ in that it confronts students with the person and the work of Jesus Christ; in many countries, although students can be disenchanted with the institution and tradition of the Church locally, they are still often curious, if not captivated, with the person of Christ!  ‘Convincing’, in that your mode of evangelism calls students to repentance and a response to the claims of Jesus Christ; ‘Creative’, in that it seeks to win all students by all means possible; and ‘Courageous’, in that it aims to take on any and all worldviews or perspectives which are hostile to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and, lovingly, seeks to answer questions and boldly introduces them to Jesus!

(2) By ‘evangelistic’ I mean focused on taking the gospel to the university and thereafter to all areas of the world;  by ‘evangelical’ I mean firmly focused on the total authenticity of God's word, and its wonderful relevance for our modern world.

(3) By ‘mission-ready’ I mean that students are challenged to accept the urgency of taking the gospel to the very ends of the world!

(4) By this I mean that our ministry enables the students to work out the very best means of relating to their non-Christian friends, acquiring experience in exercising leadership, and learning from their varied accomplishments and disappointments, so that in the long-term they can have far more to offer in serving Christ wherever he calls them.

(5) By these two I simply mean that we focus on helping students put down deep roots in Jesus Christ.