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Principles for reaching students

Reaching students is a rewarding but daunting challenge! Where might your church make a start, or step up, in reaching students for Christ? Here are a few ideas…

Be intentional

At the outset, it’s very important to say that there isn’t ‘one way’ to do student ministry. Nor does a church need to be a ‘student church’ to reach students! In fact, in my context in Newcastle, I see all sorts of different gospel-centred churches do a great job of reaching students with the good news of Jesus.

…there isn’t ‘one way’ to do student ministry.

But every church I know that’s reaching students with the gospel is intentional in doing so.

What can your church do to reach students?

For example, in our church context, we often hold an evangelistic outreach early in the Autumn term – right after freshers’ week. That’s a key time of year when there’s lots of interest, and new students are trying out different things for the first time. We ask our preachers to speak evangelistically on the type of questions we think students (as well as others) are asking. We hold events midweek that we think will appeal to students – for example, a sports quiz with a short gospel message. And we’ve often held events specifically for students – for example, a dodgeball tournament.

The staple of what we do are student small groups – from groups exploring the faith, right through to groups for committed Christians. That isn’t the only model of student ministry that works, but it’s always what’s made most sense in our context.

Not every aspect of church can, or will, appeal to students. That’s what it’s like belonging to the body of Christ, plenty of compromise! But if your church is going to reach students, you probably need to think intentionally, as well as strategically, about it. What will work for you? To answer that, you might need to start talking to students and start trying to think like one!

What will work for you? To answer that, you might need to start talking to students and start trying to think like one!

So firstly, ask yourself: what will it look like for your church community to reach students for the gospel? That could be as simple as making sure your students are involved in weekly home groups, or linking them up with church families for fellowship and support, or it could be developing a more dedicated student programme.

Then, secondly, the student world is a busy and noisy one, so ask yourself: how can you make what you’re putting on for students visible and known?

Support individuals

I’m not sure who said it first, but the most effective unit in evangelism is the individual Christian!

Evangelism is personal and relational. It’s not about putting on events or running programmes. It’s about the good news of Jesus Christ shared with individual people.

Now, like I said above, being intentional in student mission means doing outreach with students in mind. And in some contexts that may mean doing specific events for students.

But be careful not to put on too much. Think of the Apostle Paul in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). He was out where the people were.

So, encourage your Christian students to be with their non-Christian friends, not with you at church all the time! As a friend once said to me, ‘I wish I’d realised as a student that I was foolish to expect my non-Christian friends to come to church with me, if I never really went to anything they invited me to.’

…encourage your Christian students to be with their non-Christian friends, not with you at church all the time!

So, even if you only have a few students at your church, the key to further outreach is the students you’ve already got.

Teach them why they need to share the gospel. Teach them how to share the gospel. And keep doing that. Student ministry is rather like painting a door. One coat won’t do! You need to go over the same thing again, and again! Never stop doing square one.

Student ministry is rather like painting a door. One coat won’t do! You need to go over the same thing again, and again! Never stop doing square one.

And if your students have already got going with evangelism then ask them how they’re doing with it!

Encourage them. Pray with them. Resource and equip them to read the Bible with a friend one-to-one. Show them how to follow up friends who have come along to church for the first time.

If there are student seekers coming along to church, then make sure a mature Christian is getting alongside them to help answer questions and show them the Jesus of the Bible. Caring for seekers is an absolute priority.

All this takes a huge amount of personal work. It takes a lot of time, but it’s a worthy investment!

Partner with local university Christian Unions

The Christian Union movement is so important because it’s able to do what the vast majority of British churches can’t – reach students on campus.

That doesn’t mean Christian Unions have a monopoly on student evangelism, but it does mean a collaborative approach makes sense. And it’s a great opportunity for partnership in the gospel.

That doesn’t mean Christian Unions have a monopoly on student evangelism, but it does mean a collaborative approach makes sense. And it’s a great opportunity for partnership in the gospel.

How can your church support the university CUs near you? Are you able to pray, and care for the students you know who are involved in CU? How can your evangelistic initiatives complement what the CU is doing?

For example, there’s probably no point putting on a pub quiz in freshers’ week if that’s traditionally what the CU does every year! And the CU may be best placed to do that type of event, at that time of year.

Often CUs run a church search at the start of every new year, which can be a great opportunity to help students settle in church, and to get your church on the map.

Stick to the Bible and keep praying

This may be like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but there really is no better place to end!

Reaching students can at times feel like a constant, and desperate, attempt to be relevant to young adults. But there is nothing more relevant to their deepest needs than the Word of God.

…there is nothing more relevant to their deepest needs than the Word of God.

Trust the Word, through the Spirit, to change lives. That is why Bible-rich resources like Christianity Explored are so good.

I’ve had the privilege of spending time reading through some of Luke’s gospel with a seeker this past year.

A few weeks in, he began our time by saying, ‘I understand the gospel, I’m not sure I really want to give up the way I’m living to follow Jesus.’

Little did he know that I’d planned to study Luke 14:25–35 that week. I’d picked that passage because it shows the cost of following Jesus, and the cost of choosing not to follow him. That’s absolutely vital to understand. But I hadn’t anticipated that it would be exactly what that student needed to hear that very day. We had a hard conversation, but a fruitful one. It was a great relief that it was God’s Word that set the agenda, not me!

The Word is incredibly powerful, even in the hands of frail humans. It answers questions. It meets needs. And it points to the Saviour of all.

If the Lord wants your church to grow his kingdom among students, that’s exactly what he’ll do. So, pray to the Lord of the harvest, knowing that he can do far more abundantly than you can ever ask, or ever think (Ephesians 3:20).

Matt Elder

Matthew Elder has been on the staff of Jesmond Parish Church in Newcastle upon Tyne for nine years. Over that time, he’s been involved in several areas in the life of the church, but his main passion has been ministry to students. He’s married to Hayley.

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