You refer to ‘engaging the university’ as a paradigm shift. What is so different about it? What will it achieve?
VR: For many IFES movements this is a radical mind-shift: from thinking of ourselves as a ‘ministry to students’ to being a ministry ‘by Christian students, postgraduate as well as undergraduate, and university staff to the university world’.
For this shift to occur there first has to be a profound theological shift in many of our movements, especially some of the older and more ‘conservative’ ones. Re-thinking the ‘Gospel’ and understandings of ‘salvation’ that we have inherited from others is always painful and there will always be opposition by those who fear change and risk. So much easier to stick to the traditional ways of ‘evangelism’ — inviting non-Christians to come to our meetings and Bible studies and getting evangelists who don’t know the world of the university at all to come and preach at students — than to explore creatively the questions and issues that the university is about.
Our Christian integrity and credibility is at stake here. Living the Gospel in our daily lives, whether as students or professors, must always precede its verbalising. IFES ministry should be about breaking down the profoundly unbiblical compartments that many evangelical churches have erected (e.g. ‘worship’ and ‘justice’, ‘faith’ and ‘action’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’, ‘prayer’ and ‘research’).
So, what will it achieve? Christian integrity, and greater Christian credibility in the university and society.
How might ‘engaging the university’ differ across countries, cultures, or campus environments? What are the early indications from around the world?
VR: That is what I wait to see! At international events such as the IFES World Assembly, we should be sharing stories of what ‘engaging the university’ looks like in different settings. We have started an IFES Engaging the University Listserve (a kind of email group) and a Facebook page where we invite as many as possible from around the world to tell us what is going on — stories of failure as well as success — and share ideas. There is no blueprint that applies across the board.
In many countries (like Sri Lanka, where I live) there are no PhD facilities in science, engineering, economics or medicine. Those who want to teach these subjects in the university have to go to the UK, the US, Australia or elsewhere to get their doctoral degrees. So there is no postgraduate ministry, but we hope that they will be exposed to a vigorous postgraduate ministry in the countries to which they go. We hope they will find IFES-affiliated movements that will introduce them to a Christ who engages their whole lives so that they re-direct their ambitions, including their research, around the values and priorities of the Kingdom of God.
Thus the development of strong postgraduate and faculty ministries in North America, Western Europe, South Africa, Singapore, Brazil and Australasia is globally strategic.
I would like to see Christian lecturers/professors promoting inter-disciplinary seminars in the university on issues of common concern (e.g. climate change) or promoting multiple perspectives on their subjects. Christian students should be helping universities be more sensitive to the culturally marginalized, whether local or international students, and not just patronizing them. In Australia or Switzerland, for instance, can a Christian student group enable an Afghan or Iraqi refugee (not necessarily a Christian) talk about their experience to the whole university and so challenge the bigoted stereotypes about refugees?
It is encouraging that more and more IFES movements are beginning to catch the vision. Some are being forced by necessity to rethink their practices. For instance, in many African countries where megachurches want to start their own ministries on university campuses, simply to recruit students as ‘church fodder’, IFES-affiliated groups are forced to ask themselves some basic questions as to their raison d’etre. What are we here for? Are we simply reproducing church services and church programs on campuses? Are we just an evangelistic youth ministry — in which case, why not let others take over? What is it that we should be doing that local churches and other parachurch ministries that are not part of university life outside the campus simply cannot do?
It is exciting to see how older and younger movements will respond to these questions — not just in Africa but all over the world.
Image credit: ifesworld
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.