by W. Paul Bowers
I am a student in an evangelical institution of higher learning. How can I serve God in this particular situation in His world mission?
I am a student in an evangelical institution of higher learning. How can I serve God in this particular situation in His world mission? I can serve Him through witnessing opportunities outside my school, and that is desirable. But this does not tell me how as a student in my, context I can serve Him. Is there a unique situation, a singular opportunity here for serving God’s mission? Two considerations encourage me to answer yes.
On the one hand, Christian college experience usually is a time of settling on one’s life-long pattern of Christian responsibility, a time when the kind of Christian commitment to continue throughout life is determined. Student days are a key time for choosing a life of active commitment to God’s world mission-not in the sense of where to participate, but of commitment to participate throughout life by every means, whether here or there in God’s mission.
But student days are also special as the time of choice on life vocation, on the where. Former decisions on life work are sealed or abandoned at this time, and neutrals till now must at last choose what path they will go. Student days therefore can also present a key time for hearing God’s call to overseas service, a key time to face not only personal commitment to God’s world mission, but the possibility that the where for living out that commitment might be, in God’s plan, a foreign culture. It is not without reason that so much recruitment of missions personnel is directed toward this special age and group. College time presents a rare and valuable opportunity for missions challenge.
EXPLOITING FOR GOD
But if such is so, how can this unique opportunity be most advantageously exploited for God? How is one most effectively to promote missions on the Christian campus? Literature, films, missionary chapel speakers, special conferences, missions courses, a missions department are all among varied methods used. But a most effective instrument for communicating missions commitment and challenge among students is, potentially, the student missions group.
The genius of the distinctly student-operated method of promoting missions on a campus is immediately apparent to those aware of the values of indigenous efforts. (1) The student-to-student approach is communication among equals, man to man, without in most cases major barriers of age or outlook or interests. (2) It is an approach which (ideally) occurs day in and day out, thereby bringing the challenge and the opportunity for continuing response, not in a specially favorable and detached atmosphere, but in the midst of the daily routine, providing a much better setting for realistic commitment. (3) It is a missions presentation that comes in student terms, in the campus idiom, with student questions and objections and expectations automatically in mind.
What are the objectives for such an indigenous student effort? First, the purpose:
To help each fellow student come into personal confrontation with Jesus Christ, and through this with Christ’s claims upon that student’s life for committed participation in His world mission.
It is imperative not to slip into an unbiblical missions-centeredness. When the student is aided in meeting Jesus Christ, it is in this context that missions concern takes on truly biblical orientation, as committed response to Jesus Christ Himself and therein to His concerns.
But missions groups have a legitimate second objective. It is improper to imply that the foreign field is the only truly spiritual place for a Christian student to serve. But it is not improper to note that difficulties of facing hostile cultures and the ease of staying at home may have brought about the neglect of "the uttermost"; nor to note that Christian young people, seeing this, might well seek whether God might not allow them to enter, in particular, these hostile cultures, the "foreign fields" in His service. For this reason we mustexpress as a corollary purpose:
To help each fellow student realistically and honestly face the possibility that God wants him to serve on the difficult overseas fields.
Provincialism is easy. To remain where I am is the natural thing. To move only in my own context is human nature. Perhaps this is why God told us not just the activity He was assigning, witnessing, but He explicitly emphasized the range that activity was to have, "to the uttermost." God is a realist about our human nature. The go of the commission is no accident.
To round out its special contribution, the student group might well add a third objective:
To help each fellow-student prepare to participate, whether at home or abroad, in God’s world mission.
Here is vast scope for education. The student needs to learn to pray for missions, both faithfully and knowledgeably. The missions group should provide a prayer group suited to help him attain this. The student needs to develop a habit of intelligent and sacrificial giving to missions. The group could plan carefully a financial project to this end. The student needs to learn much about mission work and opportunities and qualifications. The group contributes speakers and films and literature toward a well-balanced diet of missions information.
What are some of the specific problems presently obstructing the effectiveness of student missions groups?
1. Continuity of Operation.
2. Leadership Preparation. Most groups have no program of leadership training. Selection of leaders may be so slavishly wedded to democratic procedure that any long range preparation is effectively ruled out. Inevitably, good leadership is hard to count on.
3. Organizations. Some groups are clearly overstructured, other decidedly understructured. The limited time available to any student for extracurricular efforts demands that careful attention to efficiency of organization not be ignored. Yet few of us know how one goes about setting up a more efficient system.
4. Resource Awareness. Far too many groups are all but unaware of aids available to them. Many are innocently oblivious to the varied and valuable helps offered by the national IVCF-FMF office. This same office sponsors a full-time staff worker for experienced advice to individual groups, but many have yet to take advantage of such a major resource. At the same time knowledge of personnel and materials available from’ mission societies is often restricted exclusively to the interests or limited awareness of a newly-elected leader.
5. Adequate Curriculum. Built into the activities of a local group is the educational role, the continual communication of information on missions. In our groups we often fail to achieve a needed balance in this missions information diet. One group may hear mostly of the biblical basis of missions, another may major on knowledge of fields, another on the controversial exciting topics. This lack of balance in diet can naturally lead to debilitating effects. Few of us as students are in a position to know of what a balanced diet in missions information might consist.
6. Vision and/or Courage. An uncomfortable number of groups lack any sense of need because they have no concept of higher possibilities for their groups. Many groups have become self-contained, satisfied, bogged in old ruts, apathetic. I once talked with the student leader on a campus of over fifteen hundred students. That his meeting attendance averaged about thirty students was a source of encouragement and repose to him; the year before it had averaged only twenty.
He had no way of knowingthat in the very next year a leader with vision would experience not only the tripling of attend ance but the transforming of the very quality of the group. I visited another student leader who knew what his group ought to be like. But he confided that their situation was too difficult to hope for advance and he was not going to try. He didn’t. There are qualities called for in consecrated leadership that are not easily come by.
7. Campus Attitudes. A local group is more heavily influenced by the attitudes of its campus than most realize. If the climate is specially favorable, the plague may be nominal membership and over-popularity. Cases of this are exceptional.
More often the attitude is one of studied indifference, or at times even open opposition. One eastern campus group resourcefully disarmed the opposition by inviting their critics to express themselves at a regular meeting in free and unrebutted comments. The change in campus climate was immediate.
8. Imaginative Planning. Surely there are more imaginative possibilities in planning a year’s schedule of meetings than simply lining up thirty-two missionary speakers, one for each weekly meeting in the school year. Yet such has happened. Variety, quality, and creativeness in planning activities comes only with effort. Sometimes campus indifference may be well deserved.
9. Inter-group Communication. People and groups, as well as flowers, thrive by means of cross-pollination. Vision and ideas shared have a way of generating renewed vitality. But until very recently there has been an almost complete breakdown of communication among student missions groups. It is still possible to find groups on practically adjacent campuses totally ignorant of one another’s existence. Indifference to isolation may be enforcement of stagnation.
10. Inter-group Concern. How easy it is for an insular self-centeredness to dominate a local group’s attitudes. What we need so basically is not only to know of, but to care about fellow students in groups nearby, to want to build bridges of concern, to be willing to serve others’ needs as well as our own. This problem is particularly acute because no one in a local group is responsible for such bridge-building. The job assignments do not envision the need for such construction.
11. Clear Objectives and Theological Base. Few of our groups have developed their activities around well-founded and well-formulated objectives. Even where objectives have been stated, they often in practice are upstaged by tradition or the fetish of change-for-change’s sake as the true determinative factors in the group’s operation.
Lack of adequate explication of the biblical and theological understanding of missions has left many students, and student missions leaders, questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the student missions group. In the multiplicity of competing Christian efforts, does this one possess distinctive validity and worth? Student missions leaders are not only finding themselves up against the question, "How should we?" but the briefer, and far more critical question, "Should we?" It would seem that a prevalent vagueness in evangelical theological handling of missions has dangerously undercut the sense of legitimacy in student missions groups.
There are three steps that can bring about change. First, it must be in terms of a self-effected reform from within. When the members of the group become concerned and take appropriate action, change will be authentic. The solution must be sought within the context of student initiative and student responsibility, or the essential genius of the student approach will be vitiated.
Second, ways must be found to challenge, encourage, and aid local leaders. The transitory nature of student leadership requires that such help be of a continuing nature, rather than just one-splash revival nature.
Third, to be most effective,leadership help should be part of student-to-student indigenous action. A local leader will often be best challenged and activated by contact with other concealed student leaders. Student leaders within a given area should be motivated to develop and lead intergroup activities for mutual challenge, encouragement, and cross-pollination. This inter-group concern and communication should be put on definite footing so that the following years’ leaders will also leave access to such stimulus and aid.
Such steps leave already been taken-on a limited scale, true, but thoroughly encouraging even at that. Much has been taking place over the past four years, developing quietly, yet in such a way that to those involved it has seemed clear that the Lord has been in it.
In 1962-63 a group of students in the Southeast became anxious about the condition of student missions groups, especially their own and others in the Southeast. They began to meet regularly for prayer and discussion. It was the very next school year that, quite independently of this, Mark Senter, the president of the student group at Moody Bible Institute, became concerned about the same issues and began prayerfully making contacts. By this means he came into touch both with the Southeast students and with newly-concerned leadership at Wheaton College. This alliance of student leaders from Wheaton, Moody, and Columbia Bible College met together during 1964.
Among other matters, they wondered how they could make contact with the large number of missions groups in northeastern evangelical schools. But the Lord again had moved first. A letter arrived from a student leader in the Northeast detailing an almost identical sense of need and vision-he inquired if perhaps there were any others who might see things in a similar light. There were. At the Inter-Varsity Missionary Convention of 1964 Philadelphia College of Bible and Houghton College student leaders joined forces with the Southeast and Midwest schools to sponsor a meeting of all student missions groups represented at the convention. A student committee was agreed on to co-ordinate further discussion and action.
Meanwhile others were taking action. The national IVCF-FMF office took immediate interest in the concern evidenced among the students, and in 1965 appointed a full-time staff worker, Evan Adams, to help and advise. In 1964 both EFMA and IFMA set up special student affairs committees to keep in touch with the effort.
By the fall of 1965 definite results were apparent. Student sponsored leadership workshops were held in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest regions. The profit to the leaders was significant enough that in both the Northeast and Midwest plans were formulated for such cooperation on a regular basis. These regional leadership meetings have continued, with increased participation.
Much else has taken place. Perhaps the most encouraging event in this newly-developing movement was the national workshop for student missions leaders, held at Wheaton College in June, 1967. The gathering was sponsored by the IVCF-FMF office headed by Mr. Adams in cooperation with the student committee set up by the three regions, currently led by David Langford of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Student leaders met for a week for intensive study, discussion, training, and planning sessions. Though the attendance at this initial workshop was low-some fifteen schools were represented-the level of enthusiasm generated among the students guarantees a much larger representation next June. These young people went back determined and trained by God’s grace and for His sake to seek a new day in their campus efforts.
What of the future? The answer depends on several groups.
1. Students. Undoubtedly the greatest responsibility lies with the students leading their missions groups. To guide such a group for a year is time-consuming enough as it is; to cultivate expectations of higher possibilities and seek God’s strength to institute creative, lasting reforms takes a quality of commitment that only the Lord can give. Are there student leaders who will do this?
Then too there is the matter of student leadership for the highly valuable inter-group activities. As with the early FMF, student leaders of the present movement are passing on rapidly. Already most of the students who initiated the effort have graduated. The second generation of leaders will very soon follow them. Are there going to be younger student leaders who will be responsive to the challenge of the task and take their places?
2. Faculty Advisors. Often overlooked is the decisive role faculty advisors play in the life of a group. No group can prosper if its faculty advisor lacks concern. But where the advisor does encourage the students to work toward living renewal of their group, the prospects will become heavily weighted in favor of that renewal. Will faculty advisors in coming years be joining forces with the movement now in progress? Their assistance is indispensable.
3. Inter-Varsity’s FMF. Already the national IVCF-FMF Office has made major contributions of leadership and advice.
The close cooperation of this office with the student leaders of the effort has been worked out in most considerate and promising form. Without mature leadership and advice, the student side of the effort cannot long continue.
4. Mission Boards. From the early days of the present effort various missions leaders have given every encouragement, and the interest of the EFMA and IFMA student affairs committees has been regular. But there is opportunity now for further involvement.
Missions leaders should judge whether the current effort among missions groups does not parallel their own concerns, and the Lord’s. They should determine whether their society could with profit become more actively aware of what is happening, and more actively involved in furthering it. They should consider if their representatives visiting campuses might not only seek to promote the particular mission, but also might disinterestedly seek as best they can to build the local missions group itself. Many missions representatives have built up a level of respect on various campuses that no one else can command. Their encouragement to advisor and student alike toward renewal and intergroup cooperation could be crucial. A much closer working relationship between mcF-FMF and student leaders on the one hand, and the missions personnel with campus ministries on the other, would immeasurably enhance the whole movement to the benefit of all. Under the guidance of their student affairs committees as to particulars, missions leaders in EFMA and IFMA could provide major impetus to this whole new movement.
In years past in our country, God has chosen to use students in significant ways to further His cause of missions. Perhaps we stand at the beginning of a whole new era of such service.
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