[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]
One of the good news stories for Christians is the ministry amongst university students, and this story is just about to get better still. For this area of effective ministry is about to see a significant increase, thanks to recent Government decisions.
Contrary to popular opinion, or that of their parents, university students are not the most important people in the world. Nor is ministry amongst them important because of some supposedly elite status—“the future leaders of industry, government and the professions”. The world may think like that, but it is not a gospel perspective.
Their importance to the Christian cause lies in their availability and youth. They are young adults who have time to consider the claims of Christ while still having a lifetime of service ahead of them. Consequently, not just for decades but for centuries, ministry to university students has been an important gospel investment, which has been greatly rewarded in seeing people converted, taught the truth of God’s word and trained for Christian ministry—both lay and ordained, at home and overseas.
The Good News Story
During July about 3000 uni students spent a week of their vacation in the serious study of God’s word at camps across Australia. Nearly 2000 of them were from Sydney campuses alone.
Camps have long been a key part of this ministry to uni students, but in the last thirty years, winter camps have evolved into week-long Bible study conferences. For many students these are life-changing, as they study the Bible for themselves at a depth and with an intensity that is not normally available. Years later most remember their first midyear conference because of the effect it has had upon their thinking and their lives.
Though the topic of each university conferences differs, the pattern of serious Bible study is the same across Australia. This year the students in the University of Western Australia and those in North Queensland at James Cook University studied “Guidance”, while the Tasmanians looked at the “Sovereignty of God” and those at Sydney University studied “Waiting for the World to End”.
Most conferences were organized by a single university, like the 800 students from the University of New South Wales. Other conferences were a combination of campuses such as the 350 from the Universities of Wollongong, Western Sydney and Cumberland College of Health Sciences.
These midyear conferences are followed up each December by Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students’ ten-day National Training Event in Canberra, with nearly 1500 students in attendance. After a few days in Canberra they put into practice what they have learnt by going on mission—taking the message of salvation around the nation.
The Story Gets Even Better
However, this great ministry on university campuses is just about to get better still.
In 2011 the Federal Government changed the funding method for universities to a new “demand driven funding system”. The reason for this shift is because “The Government is committed to growing the higher education sector because Australia’s economy requires more people to have a university degree and because it wants more young people have the opportunities afforded by a higher education.”
“The Government has set an ambitious goal for national attainment. It is seeking to increase the proportion of 25 to 34 year old Australians with qualification at bachelor level or above to 40 percent by 2025.” Already universities are offering more places than ever before. For example this year Sydney University has increased its undergraduate intake by 17.5 percent.
All this is very good news for evangelicals and Sydney Anglicans in particular. Our churches have a greater reach amongst the tertiary educated than any other sector of society. The large student ministries have been teaching and training undergraduates for decades. It is one section of society where we seem to have developed some effective means of gospel ministry. To have this area increase to 40 percent of the generation opens up for us great opportunities for the gospel and the future.
The universities are also the great ethnic melting pot. The new multicultural face of Australia is seen in the lecture theatres and in particular in the Christian groups. Students, who in their home culture would never get to hear the gospel message, rub shoulder to shoulder with Christians from every background. Added to this is the large number of overseas students who take the message of Jesus back to their home countries.
For a long time the public media has taught the community that university is the place where people lose their faith. Undoubtedly there are some sad stories of people becoming disillusioned with Christianity at university. However, my 30 years as a university chaplain taught me that this rarely happens because of the intellectual challenges of university, but usually because of the very tenuous faith that they had when they first arrived, and the bad lifestyle choices that they made, especially in their first year. Rather than people losing their faith, Christians see many people come to faith and, even more, grow in their faith during those student years.
With our expanding Year 13 programme in the gap year, between school and university, and the well-organized ministries on the university campuses, we could well see a growing generation of Christian adults in our churches in the next decade.
It is certainly a time to pray for such growth as well as to ensure that university ministries are protected from censorship and resourced with sufficient finances and staff to reach the next generation.