Up against giants: mission to FE and sixth form colleges

November/December 2009 Christian LivingMission

Photo credit: Dan FoyI wonder how David felt as he stood in Goliath’s shadow, slingshot in hand with just five smooth pebbles? No doubt he should have been petrified… but of course we know the story: his confidence was in the saving power of his God.

Giants and heroes in the world of Further Education

The giant: postmodern; multi-faith or secular ethos; no CU posters going up on the wall please; peer pressure; rolling lunchtimes; provision for Ramadan but permission refused for a Christian Union; closed doors to churches and Christian workers wanting to support a Christian group in college.
David: a handful of young Christian students studying anything from philosophy to hairdressing, wanting to meet together to build each other up in Christ and share Jesus with the very varied and huge number of students in their college or sixth form.

Facts and figures

These  vary from year to year, but:
* In 2007/8, 1.25 million 16-19 year olds were in further education, two thirds in college, and one-third in schools.
* Only 25% of these places have any type of CU, most of which are very small with 3-5 students.
* Many of the school Christian Unions are run by sixth formers for the younger years, leaving no opportunity for them to invite their peer students to an evangelistic event.
If you are 16-19 year old, sharing your faith in the place where you study is very much a David and Goliath experience.

Where are the resources?

Family and local church are key in nurturing and inspiring young people and giving them a mission vision. But when a keen student asks, ‘What can I do at CU?’ or ‘How can I organise an evangelistic event at my college?’ where does the hard-pressed parent, minister or youth worker point them?

In Wales we have been blessed with organisations such as UCCF: the christian unions and Scripture Union (SU), but sixth form work has never been their core ministry. The continual growth in the university sector keeps UCCF very busy and SU has a thriving ministry working with mainly under sixteen year olds. But 16-19 year olds are in that unique transition between youth and adulthood

Colleges are totally different animals from schools. Having a contact inside the institution is key. Many students and staff come into the colleges from outside the area, so knowing who these people are is hard. Also there is often a high turnover of students. Sometimes they are only there for maybe a semester or a year which makes things harder. Lunchtimes often are non-existent which makes getting a regular room a challenge too!

Tim Neale, schools worker for Insight, Kingston Upon Thames

Enter Festive

Both UCCF and SU recognised the need to develop focused support for this age group and have been key over the last two years in helping to establish Festive (Further Education and Sixth Form InitiaTIVE) to focus exclusively on Christian support for work in colleges and sixth forms.

James Sercombe, formerly a UCCF staff worker and team leader in Wales and now pastor of Crickhowell Evangelical Church, recently commented:

Many of us regularly thank God for raising up UCCF, for their effective ministry amongst undergraduates but what about our 16-17 year olds? There are literally millions of students in FE colleges, Christians included, without the fellowship that a traditional Christian Union may have, or the support that the staff workers offer. Their CU, if one does exist, is usually so much more precarious, and these teens must stand for Christ often without the help we would want them to have.
I wholeheartedly commend the work of Festive and their desire to help equip our student-teenagers to live and speak for Jesus in college. They deserve our support and thanks; and as one who knows the staff and has followed their work, I have no hesitation in encouraging others to do the same.

The vision

Toni Coulton, from Kinmel Bay in North Wales, Chair of Festive Trustees, shares how the initiative is progressing and her hopes for the years to come:

Festive’s purpose is to strengthen Christian faith and witness in FE colleges and sixth forms with the vision of seeing a vibrant Christian presence in an increasing number of places of education. We are a very small team of passionate, weak individuals relying on God to open doors and see His word spread.
Our mission when starting was to develop an interactive website where we could support and equip students, staff, chaplains, the local church, agencies and all those involved in Christian witness in FE colleges and sixth forms. I have to say, God has been so good! We are bowled over by the responses we have had. The website works on two levels; for students and non-students. It has pages for prayer, Bible studies, practical resources designed for starting, running and leading a college or sixth form CU, an evangelism page, a forum and an advice page where students and staff can get advice and guidance about their situations via email. We’re finding that we are able to support many Christian Unions throughout the UK and an increasing number of churches and chaplains involved in supporting or starting a Christian group on campus or at their church.

God’s plan

Well, David didn’t bottle out. That’s one of the most incredible things about God’s salvation plan! He chooses to use the weak things of this world, not the outwardly impressive things. The small in number; the fisherman; the stutterers; the sinners; the lame; the ones who said ‘no’; the poor — 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 is a constant encouragement to both Festive and the people we support.

Encouraging signs

College and sixth form CUs are often a picture of 1 Corinthians 1 and the emails coming through reflect that. In South Wales UCCF pointed a young man who was striving to start a Christian Union at his college in Festive’s direction. He had been told that if he could find four other Christians who wanted a meeting, he could start one. The prayer request was put up on the web, and at a local church event the core of a CU came together. A project worker in Llandrillo College is supported each year by local churches and the UCCF staff worker Mike Chalmers. The highlight of last year was an awareness week where many students came to the marquee and heard the gospel. UCCF has enabled Festive to be part of its gospel project, called ‘FREE’, so at this event and many others, over a thousand Mark’s gospels have been given out in colleges and sixth forms around the UK. In the sixth form college in Wrexham we hear there is a core group of keen students ready to take the challenge of being salt and light in their college seriously for 2009/10. And as the new term begins a student writes:

I really can’t thank you enough already, the resources on the website are priceless, and already really useful. My problem so far is that I haven’t ever really experienced a CU, but your ‘what is a CU?’ resource was amazingly helpful. Just knowing there is someone I can call and someone praying is indescribably helpful. Thank you so much!

 A wonderful surprise

On a Sunday morning just before church a sixteen-year-old girl approached the church building hesitantly. ‘Are you joining us today?’ a welcomer said to the worried-looking teenager. ‘I think so,’ she replied. ‘I became a Christian two weeks ago at my college CU and my friend said I should go to church’. As you can well imagine, the church was  very excited to welcome this new Christian into their fellowship and an ex-UCCF relay worker who worships there has helped that five-strong FE college CU ever since!

In Wales the potential of this mission field is massive. Many of our sixth forms and college campuses have no organised Christian witness. Contact Festive to see how you or your church could be part of it in your local area or for help in supporting a CU or a 16-19 year old student.

Claire Povey is the Festive worker in Brighton, and John Richards is co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mold, and a Festive trustee. For more information please visit www.festive.org.uk or email [email protected]