Students are human beings: lessons learnt from student work in church
We found it rather amusing to be asked to write a profile about the student work at our church. Our numbers are not particularly large, planning meetings involve a five-minute chat after the evening service and the leadership is certainly not hip, innovative or dynamic. However, God has been good to this ministry and we have learnt many lessons through it.
Netley Christian Fellowship is an evangelical church of about sixty members on the outskirts of Southampton. It is roughly twenty minutes from the university and yet for the last ten years has had a very active student ministry. The church has never sought to sell itself as a ‘student church’. However, it has regularly had ten to fifteen students in attendance, some of whom have now stayed on at the church whilst others have moved on elsewhere and continue to walk with Jesus Christ.
There is no grand philosophy of ministry driving the work; however there are certainly some themes that God has taught us as he has shaped the ministry. Perhaps underlying it all is the basic concept that students are humans too and that they need what any other human being needs: the truth of the gospel, involvement in gospel community and opportunities for gospel service.
We are well aware of the dangers ‘student-dom’ brings, and certainly sex, relationships, alcohol and laziness are issues that our students face, among many others. However the majority of our students come from Christian homes where they have been taught the difference between wisdom and folly, and so the big question for them is, ‘How do I apply the gospel to my student context when it is so different from my family context?’ Some lose their bearings and plunge right into the excesses of student life, but the majority of our students stand watching university life uncomfortably wondering, ‘How does this fit in with what I was taught growing up?’
To help answer these questions we run the Compass meeting for students and young people every other Sunday afternoon in the house of a church member. What we do varies from year to year, but one topic remains the same: the gospel. It is our conviction that students need to hear the gospel over and over, and a group context such as Compass is an excellent place to thrash out how the gospel affects our lives. Some years we have gone through books of the Bible, whilst other years we go through books such as Maximum Life by Julian Hardyman, The Gospel in Life by Tim Keller and currently The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard. We have also run ‘Compass Camp’ in previous years, for a whole weekend of solid gospel teaching and discussion. Our prayer is that studying and discussing the gospel in depth would lead to a community of honesty, grace and mutual accountability that is free from the clutches of either lawlessness or legalism.
This may sound similar to meetings that the students already attend as part of the CU at university but we intend that, as well as addressing the various needs and issues specific to students, Compass acts as a launch pad into effective church-wide community formation and service.
God has been good to our student ministry in many ways, not least by placing us in a church where students are loved for who they are. The student ministry has in many ways been birthed by the love and care of the established members of the church who have taken us in. We encourage this by running a hospitality rota, whereby students can go round to a church member’s house every week for food after the morning service. Whilst this has many nutritional benefits for our under-nourished students, it also provides a crucial time for building inter-generational friendships. As one of the students, Sarah, said: ‘I think that’s really important, because the church as a whole is a family of old and young alike and we need to get to know the other people, not just students.’ In church, students tend to socialise with other students, and older people tend to avoid the large groups of students that congregate in the church hall after meetings. However it is vital for both old and young to get together and be involved in each other’s lives. Young people need the godly and wise input of older Christians who love them, care for them and pray for them. Likewise older Christians will benefit from younger people who have energy, ideas and questions. One of our members, Gill, has said many times, ‘You keep us young’.
So how does a young Christian learn to be a good spouse, worker and church member? Formal teaching certainly plays a huge role, but what about the crucial role of godly, older examples? (Titus 2:7, Phil. 3:17, 1 Peter 5:3) Encouraging and giving opportunity for young and old to mix and get to know each other is central to the development of our students into the future spouses, workers and church members that we need.
Flowing out of truth and community will be service. As much as possible we encourage our students to be involved in works of service. Again this is something that doesn’t come from the student leaders, but from the elders and established church members. We encourage students to get involved where they can, when they can. As a result, we have students committed to serving others in a great many areas: children’s work, making tea and coffee after the service, music, preaching and home groups to name but a few. The male students also provide a useful workforce when it comes to putting chairs away after the evening service.
All of this must of course be balanced against the students’ other responsibilities. It’s easy to forget that they all have a degree to work towards. Again the members of the church are extremely supportive in this, and often get to know the exam timetables better than the students themselves so that they can pray for them. Our students are also involved in all aspects of the university’s CU. We encourage participation in this and try not to replicate the work of the CU if possible. Furthermore, the students have relationships with non-Christians that they need time to develop and so overloading them with church activities is not always the best thing for the Kingdom.
We are aware of the deficiencies of our student ministry: a lack of prayer, a tendency to become a ‘student bubble’ within the church, a paucity of evangelism amongst us, a willingness to engage intellectually with issues but not practically, etc. We see that there is much more work to be done and God is not finished with us yet. The true test of our ministry will be in thirty years’ time. Will our students and church members be walking fruitfully with Jesus Christ? Will they be good and loyal spouses, workers, church members and leaders? Will they be making an impact with the gospel in their community? Will their faith drown in lifeless legalism or be choked by worldliness? Our prayer is that, as we become ‘rooted and grounded in love’, He would complete the good work begun in us.
Dan Owens and David Strivens are members of Netley Christian Fellowship, Southampton