Teaching the nations
Campus ministers around the world share gospel hope with the next generation
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Zelalem Abebe took a circuitous route to the meeting of campus ministers he had traveled hundreds of miles to encourage. First stop, a hotel. But partway there, he switched cars. He had to make sure he wasn’t being followed. From the hotel, he drove to the meeting in a house. He watched someone else enter and then waited 10 or 20 minutes before entering himself—by a different door.
Abebe can’t say who he visited, in part because he doesn’t know their names. The ministry’s leaders keep their identities a secret, even from each other, in case any of them are arrested.
“If someone caught them, they force him to tell who is who,” Abebe explained.
This is what campus ministry looks like in a country where war, political instability, and government pressure force workers underground. Some ministry graduates are in prison—and have been for years—because of their involvement in sharing the good news of Jesus. But even under such difficult and dangerous circumstances, ministers persevere in preaching the gospel to reach new students.
Abebe belongs to the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), an association of autonomous national campus ministries that preach Christ. He has served with the organization for 25 years and now works as regional secretary for 28 countries in English- and Portuguese-speaking Africa. Many of those countries allow campus ministries to operate freely. But some actively oppose the work of the gospel.
Despite the danger, Abebe jumped at the opportunity to meet with campus ministers in this war-torn country during a brief, pre-COVID peace agreement. The university campuses there constitute just a few of nearly 30,000 institutions of higher learning that dot the globe. Altogether, the world’s colleges and universities serve more than 235 million students, double the number who attended college classes 20 years ago. And as those student populations have grown, so have the campus Christian ministries that serve them.
In September, nearly 1,000 campus ministry workers gathered in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the IFES quadrennial World Assembly conference. In addition to representatives from InterVarsity Fellowship, the U.S. chapter of IFES, delegates from 162 disparate countries and territories came with one common goal: a commitment to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to college students in every country in the world.
War, politics, persecution, and false gospels present significant obstacles to many of the ministries, but even—or perhaps especially—in hostile conditions, the gospel is taking root and bearing fruit.
AS STUDENTS SCRAPE the last bits of food from their plates, David Hernandez and several medical students at the community dinner stand and begin clearing the tables. Nobody asked them to, which is why paid cafeteria workers and students still eating watch them in quizzical disbelief.
“¿Por qué están haciendo esto?” one student calls out over the clatter of dishes. “¿Quién te obliga a hacer esto?” (“Why are you doing this? Who is making you do this?”)
It’s a question Hernandez hears often, and one he always looks forward to answering. “We do this as Christians because we want to love you, and we want to serve you,” he tells them. “We meet on Mondays. You’re welcome to join us.”
The lunchroom staff is just as impressed with the group and have begun to ask, “What days are the Christians coming?”
Hernandez sees service as a tangible way to show love to people who don’t know Jesus yet. When he was a medical student in his struggling Latin American country, he often went hungry. A Christian group on campus shared food with him and others, a sacrificial act that drew him to the love of Christ. Hernandez now serves as general secretary of his country’s IFES-affiliated campus ministries. Besides serving meals, his team regularly shares food and laptops with students who cannot afford either. “It’s beautiful because when you have a lack, it’s easier to seek for hope and to find meaning in God.”
Like many of the ministry workers who traveled to Jakarta from the Caribbean, Hernandez doesn’t have to hide his work back home. But he is careful not to draw too much attention to it and its growth. The ministry began in three provinces but has now expanded to more than a dozen. Students who only sought a degree to please their parents now ask: “What can we do to have an impact on the university? How can we serve other students? What does God want us to do?” Hernandez says when students start asking those questions, it’s a clue that even under stifling government oppression, they are growing in their faith.
His ministry’s biggest challenge is attrition. Too many of his former students graduate and leave the country—students who might otherwise support the ongoing ministry that benefited them. “In the Latin American context, where everybody’s looking to migrate, and so many people end up leaving, you can’t see the fruits of the work you’ve invested in students,” he told me. “That’s very discouraging.”
That discouragement compounds the doubts Hernandez and many ministry workers struggle with. This year’s World Assembly theme—Tabah dan Tangguh (Bahasa Indonesia for “strength in the face of adversity, perseverance”)—sought to address those doubts amid today’s challenging ministry climate. One speaker said it’s not enough to encourage staff and students to be tenacious. They must also understand the safe arms of a God who never lets go.
IFES Ministry Regions Around the World
Delegates from 162 countries and territories attended this year’s conference for campus ministry workers
THE CONFERENCE LOCATION provided a fitting backdrop for talking about ministry in challenging environments. At least three mosques in Ancol, a district in Jakarta, sent waves of sing-song prayers through the smog, over palm trees, and past the conference center—five times a day. Fishermen who had been out in the ocean since daybreak maneuvered their colorful tarp-roofed boats through the bay where they would clean their catches after evening prayers. Meanwhile, hundreds of Christian ministry workers fresh from the Soekarno-Hatta airport poured off buses into the conference center and exchanged excited greetings. French, Spanish, Mandarin, and English echoed off the lobby’s white marble floors. Until now, most of the attendees had interacted only through screens. But they shared warm hugs and handshakes as if they’d known each other for years. It was a reunion of a thousand strangers, and it set the tone for the rest of the conference.
Even though IFES is active in nearly every country of the world, not every country sent a representative to the conference. A staff member from Israel had her visa application rejected. Another delegate had to fly to a less controversial country before traveling on to Jakarta. Others already endure such hardship at home that trying to get out of their country would add unnecessary challenges.
IFES got its start in 1947, when students from 10 existing evangelical movements banded together to create an umbrella entity that could provide training, resources, and accountability to local campus ministries. Christian college groups like IFES recognize that evangelizing and discipling students can have a direction-changing impact on families, businesses, halls of government, and churches, like streams of water running through an entire country.
According to Voice of the Martyrs, 42 of the world’s 195 countries restrict Christianity, while 23 are openly hostile to Christians. Almost all have campus ministries affiliated with IFES. This year, IFES World Assembly delegates welcomed new ministries from the Bahamas, Taiwan, and Movement G, a sensitive country in the IFES region of “Middle East and North Africa.” Movement G is now one of seven ministries in countries where persecution is so bad IFES doesn’t name them—for their own protection. A number of other movements have to use extreme caution.
During dinner on the fourth day of the conference, I spotted two women wearing red lanyards. That told me they work in a sensitive country. One of the women, Arzu, is in her early 40s, her dark hair swept back in a ponytail. She’s from a former Soviet bloc country and came to the conference to learn all she can about resting in God’s love and grace. That’s a foreign concept to most people in her Muslim-majority country.
But Arzu is not new to campus ministry. She’s been at it long enough that the children of her earlier students now attend the college-age Bible studies she facilitates. When I ask her to tell me about some of the challenges she faces, Arzu launches into a frightening story. One day in the early years of her ministry, she was hanging out on campus with another staff worker and a student when the campus police officer, part of the KGB, approached them. Arzu urged the student to run away. She knew if he was questioned, he might get kicked out of school—or worse.
“No, no!” the student objected. “I have to be with you to protect you.”
When she finally convinced him, he ran to tell other Christians that Arzu had been arrested. They prayed for her during what turned into a five-hour interrogation. At the end, one of the KGB officers told her, “You can leave, but never do this again.”
Even though Arzu’s home country officially ensures religious freedom, and 1 percent of its residents say they are Christians, the government only allows religious activities inside registered churches. But that doesn’t stop Arzu and her students from sharing the gospel. She says that takes precedence over their safety. “We still do camps, retreats, lots of outreach, but we always understand that it’s not safe.”
Unbelieving students regularly take part in ministry activities because they want good friends and good conversations. “They’re not Christians, but they come and they have real questions. And some of them become Christians after a while.” That exposes them to persecution. Ironically, though, persecution and opposition don’t always have the effect on students that authoritarian governments would like.
As an example, Arzu tells me the story of one young Muslim man who became a Christian. His father made him choose between his family and Christ. The young man left home and lived in an office while he continued studying at school. Friends brought him food, even though they didn’t share his faith. But when one professor found out he was a follower of Christ, he refused to give him his final grade. After four years of study, the young man left the university with nothing.
After a stint in the military, he returned to retake the class, hoping to at least get his diploma. Impressed by the young man’s humility, an anti-Christian professor came to his defense. The university gave him his diploma. His father has since asked him to return to the family, although Arzu says they still don’t know what to do with his Christianity. The secular friends who helped him survive his family separation have all become Christians, and the young man still attends campus ministry meetings. His story of suffering has become an inspiration to the other students.
OLENA WELCH is from Ukraine and leads the IFES Global Resource Ministries, providing a network of global trainers and distributing mentoring materials to member groups. Her job gives her a front-row seat to what God is doing on campuses around the world.
“Often it’s in those dictatorships where students, because they don’t want to be told not to do something—not to have a Bible study, not to witness, not to have a prayer group—they will do it because they’re students,” Welch says. “Usually in those countries, student ministry is thriving and growing in numbers and quality. It’s fascinating. It’s very colorful, God’s world.”
Welch became a Christian during her third year of university after her best friend told her about Jesus, gave her a Bible, and discipled her. Her story forms one point on a graph of hundreds of IFES-affiliated students and staffers who say they are involved today because another student invited them.
But that kind of multiplication is difficult today in places like Ukraine, where college campuses have suffered due to war. Ukraine was once a haven for 80,000 international students seeking an inexpensive but quality education. Now only several thousand remain, some internally displaced. Staff members, too, have fled the country, leaving a smaller cadre to minister in person—when that’s possible. Russian missile or drone attacks frequently trigger air raid sirens that force teachers who have in-person classes to usher their students down dark stairways to the basement. University classes meet mostly online, almost like an extension of the pandemic.
When Welch and her husband left Ukraine with their three children in the early days of the war, they lost most in-person access to their Ukrainian colleagues. But they simultaneously found greater access to more European countries and to the Ukrainian diaspora.
The new reality of Ukrainian students spread in so many countries reminds Welch of how easy it is to reach the world by getting involved with international students at a local university. “Get to know them because that is the world at your doorstep,” she says. People don’t have to be called to a remote African village or the South Pacific to befriend international students and get to know their culture—especially if they don’t know Christ, she says. Even American students on American campuses need godly mentors and friends: “It’s not easy to be a Christ follower in a secular environment.”
SECULARISM ISN’T MUCH of a problem in Ethiopia, where Zelalem Abebe lives. His home country rarely gets listed as a place where ministry is difficult. Instead, it’s held up as an example of exciting, exponential campus ministry growth. That’s partly because the government has built more campuses and made higher education more accessible to students finishing high school. In 1990, Ethiopia had only three government universities. Today it has 42 public universities and 83 private ones. Campus ministry has kept pace so that Ethiopia currently has 50,000 students involved across the country.
On campus, Abebe says, his students aggressively share the gospel because the harvest right now is plentiful. But he knows that won’t last forever. “Jesus said, ‘We have to do the work of God. Night is coming,’” Abebe tells me. “We don’t know when that night is coming. We have to keep working.”
Ethiopia isn’t the only country enjoying such expansive growth. Nigeria and Kenya together with Ethiopia make up about 25 percent of all IFES students in the world.
But large groups bring unique challenges and higher expectations, Abebe says. With so many students involved, they can’t all fit in one church or meeting space. Creating small groups for 3,000 students per campus requires lots of leaders who can disciple new believers. A partnership with Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary provides apologetics training and also a diploma students can use to continue theological studies. It’s a jump-start for people to go into full-time ministry with solid training—and it protects the groups from falling into false teaching or following a prosperity gospel, a particular danger in some African nations and especially for campus ministry.
Ten years ago, Tim Thorburn took a mission team from the Australian chapter of IFES to Zimbabwe as part of a partnership between the two ministry groups. During the trip, the team visited a prosperity gospel church, in part as an educational experience. “Almost everyone in the team left in tears,” Thorburn recalled. “They were just appalled at what they heard.” His team saw the same teaching in the campus small groups, because those were the kinds of churches the students attended. They had no examples of Biblical teaching.
Thorburn, who was born in Africa, says he’s been encouraged by the Zimbabwean student ministry and its emphasis on discipleship and leadership training for the past 10 years. But years of poor teaching in churches means students still enter university ill-equipped to study the Bible or share the gospel. At the start of this year, FOCUS Zimbabwe, the country’s IFES ministry, began training students in evangelism and Bible study leadership, hoping to supplement the few staff Bible study leaders. Leaders soon realized most of their students didn’t know how to read the Bible accurately, so they held an emergency training session. Later this year, Zimbabwean students will be trained in the basic gospel—the good news that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are sufficient for salvation. Australian campus ministries and churches are providing funding so more students can attend.
“That training transforms the groups into places where the Bible is more central than crazy prophetic words,” Thorburn says. “My hope is that in 20 years’ time, as they do ministry in a Biblically faithful way and God blesses that, there’ll be a significantly different landscape of Christianity.”
CONTINUITY IS VITAL for growth, and most of the 10-day IFES conference focused on engaging and equipping ministry leaders so they could in turn mentor and develop new leaders back home.
Ephias Ndahwi is the national director for FOCUS Zimbabwe. When he started on staff, he thought he’d stay for one year. But when he shared the message about Jesus with students and witnessed their transformation, he didn’t want to stop. “Despite all the challenges that may come here and there, one thing that we are thankful to God for is that God is at work.”
The work has had an effect on him as well. “Every time you read the Scripture,” Ndahwi says, “you meditate on the Scripture, it searches you. It challenges you. So every day you confront God’s Word, it is confronting you, it’s changing you, it’s making you to mature.” This is his 15th year with the ministry.
Even though Zimbabwe has no external restrictions on campus ministry, students still struggle with life challenges. Ninety percent of the country’s graduates can’t find work. Alcohol and substance abuse among 15- to 19-year-olds is so high that the government has declared it a national disaster. Many industries have collapsed, and there are periods of hyperinflation—especially before an election. School is seen as the only way out. “Students are studying, but they are hopeless,” says Ndahwi. Some students forced to leave school when their families can no longer pay the fees have committed suicide.
Although the future holds many uncertainties, Ndahwi says college students are still a strategic group to reach with the good news of Jesus. “When we reach out to them, they will go to all corners of Zimbabwe, in any institution. You will find every city represented on campus. So if we touch them, we are also indirectly touching Zimbabwe. That’s why we are so much confident that Zimbabwe will be transformed by the gospel.”
Ukrainian Olena Welch says today’s students are more attuned to pain, grief, and loss, no matter where they live. And that provides fertile ground for hope to take root. “They come from broken or dysfunctional families, or from countries or economies that are war torn. They will wrestle with the gospel connection to real-world issues. They will live out their faith, and that’s how they will change the world.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of IFES World Assembly delegates added this year, the number of countries delegates came from, and the percentage of students from Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Kenya participating in IFES groups.
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