Christian Unions: the Expanding Vision
Dr Peter May
It was Norman Grubb over 80 years ago, who, reflecting on his experiences at Cambridge, thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every university in the world had an evangelical student Christian Union?’ Five years later that simple vision started to become a reality. One of the early pioneers was a London medical student called Douglas Johnson. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he arranged to study anatomy in three different medical schools and started Christian Unions (CUs) in each of them!
Douglas went on to become the first CEO of the newly formed Inter-Varsity Fellowship (IVF). That original name for UCCF was inspired by their strategy to hold a regular conference in London to coincide with Inter-Varsity Rugby match, which attracted many students to London. By 1947, there were ten similar movements in different countries, who came together to found The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), which today has movements in 152 countries. By 1976, the work in Britain had expanded significantly in non-university colleges, causing the name to be changed from “IVF” to the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF).
Today there are CUs in over 350 UK universities and colleges. Some are small and struggling, but many have grown steadily over the years. This has of course been affected by the enormous increase in students in higher education. Forty years ago some 4% of young people went to university. Today the number is around 44%.
It is difficult to estimate the number of CU members in Britain as different CUs have different arrangements. Furthermore, Student Guild Equality Policies are set against the notion of closed membership. Most CUs are entirely open to whoever wants to attend.
In Southampton, where I live, the CU was formed in October 1931 with just six members. The next year, 100 Freshers attended the first CU meeting, which constituted two-thirds of the incoming students. This year the second meeting of term was attended by about 450 students, filling every seat of the largest lecture theatre with others sitting in the aisles, while the newer Solent University has grown significantly from small beginnings. The room they were allocated was not large enough to house them either.
What are the secrets of their success? There are several. Firstly, they are student -run societies. This has become increasingly important, as nowadays there is great suspicion of diverse peddlers of religion being allowed onto campuses. Yet however far secularism advances, as long as students have freedom of speech and association, they will always be free to discuss the gospel on British campuses.
Secondly, CUs do not try to be student churches. They have a limited agenda to be mission teams to spread the gospel among students. Yes, this involves small group bible studies and larger campus meetings for teaching and encouragement. And yes, it means that they have the initial responsibility for following up converted friends. But the high numbers of baptisms in student churches following student missions is a reminder that local churches are the natural context for Christian growth. The majority of student churches seem to recognise that students winning students is the most natural and effective way to operate.
Thirdly, the CU’s are non-denominational. Denominational distinctives are left at the door. This imposes certain restraints upon their activities, but once they engage in denominational practices, they will very quickly divide the witnessing body. The ‘Union’ of Christians is based around the core ‘mere Christianity’ of our Doctrinal Basis and is central to their missionary objectives. As Billy Graham used to say, nothing unites Christians like the Gospel.
A National Resource
Fourthly, CUs have a national body in UCCF to encourage and resource their work. This begins each September with an annual Forum Conference for student leaders. This year, a thousand student leaders and staff workers gathered to catch the vision, finalise their Fresher activities and develop a strategy for the coming year.
We have 57 Field Staff working in the nine regions of the UK, plus nine Team Leaders. In addition we have some specialist workers, such as our creative evangelism trainer and our Theology Network co-ordinator. They are ably assisted by 57 ‘Relay Workers’ who are young graduates who fund themselves and join our Relay training scheme and work alongside our field staff. Currently we also have 20 office staff in Leicester, some of whom are out and about in the regions.
Our staff, of course, have no official authority within the CUs. They all value and respect the student leaders and will only be really effective if they work relationally with them. Of course, they often feel they could do a better job – better organised, richer content, more effective - and that would be essential if they were to reach their own graduate peer groups. But therein lies the secret of student leadership. We are all called upon primarily to reach our own peer groups – and students don’t like to be over-organised or too cerebral. As a result, the activities have an authentically student feel to them and become attractive and plausible to non-Christians, who have no inclination to go to church. Furthermore, the experience of leadership within the CU shapes CU officers for a lifetime of Christian service.
So our staff can offer help with planning a programme, organising a Carol Service, advising about a mission, running a houseparty and providing the continuity across successive generations of student leaders. In addition they lead group Bible Studies especially for leaders who then use the experience to lead other groups. They speak at Hall Groups and get involved alongside the students in evangelism. They teach, train, encourage, advise, pastor, act as advocates and draw students into the wider, richer world of regional and national UCCF events. For example, nearly 1000 students came together from London CUs last month for an evening to hear our National Director, Richard Cunningham. In January, London CUs will work together in a combined mission week to be addressed by Richard.
When I was a staff worker in the mid-1970s, I covered about 20 London Colleges and three other universities in the region. Nowadays, we are stepping slowly towards the goal of having a male and female worker assigned to every university city and ultimately, every university.
Currently, we have several websites. Our home website (www.uccf.org.uk) links students to our staff, our resources, other CUs and national events. There is a page for Freshers, enabling them to link up and identify themselves to the CU they hope to join.
Bethinking.org.uk is our acclaimed apologetics website. A wide range of articles from leading apologists and persuasive writers are organised into 15 categories. Each category is sub-divided into Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced levels, depending on the technical knowledge and ability the reader might require. How I would have loved such a resource as an undergraduate forty years ago!
Available for seekers and researchers, pastors and evangelists, students and professors, the site currently receives over a million page hits per year and, of course, is open to the world. Many younger people have found good resources here for GCSE and A Level homework projects.
Theologynetwork.org.uk is, unsurprisingly, our theology website! Eight main sections, including Christian Beliefs, Biblical Studies, Historical Theology, World Religions, and the Reformation are each, like Bethinking, subdivided into three categories of difficulty. There is a wealth of information here for every Christian wanting to lay down firm foundations, as well as students and teachers.
The FREE Gospel project is the latest of a series of gospel distributions. The current campaign focuses on the Gospel of Mark. 400,000 copies of Mark in a quirky student-styled presentation have been produced and the majority have already been given away on UK Campuses. It has an immediate ‘Pick me up and look at me’ feel about it. A FREE- online.org website gives a lot of back-up materials including frequently asked questions about Mark and an article on the reliability of the gospel from Dr Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House. (Tyndale House in Cambridge is the home of UCCF’s Research Division.)
Where do we go from here?
Both UCCF in Leicester and IFES in Oxford are coming to the end of their property leases. The decision has been taken that we can do far more working together under the same roof than we can ever do separately. Currently, we are engaged in numerous projects together, not least in nurturing student Christian ministry across secular Europe.
So the great plan is to purchase a building close to the centre of Oxford. We have now identified a wonderful building in a prime position and we have six months to raise the gifts and pledges we require. The Kirby Laing Fund have generously promised £1M towards it. With some other monies secured, we are now about a third of the way towards our target. You can read more about these exciting plans on our website, www.togetherinoxford.org where, in the New Year, fuller details should be available.
Initially we are approaching Trusts and Major Donors, but towards the summer we plan to extend the invitation in order to fill the remaining deficit.
There is out there a world to win – and students are always destined to be on the front line. We therefore greatly value your prayers and support for what seems to us the greatest mission opportunity in the world!
Dr Peter May served as a UCCF staff worker in the mid-70s before spending 30 years as a GP in Southampton. He has been a lay member of the Church of England General SYnod for 25 years and since 2003 has been Chairman of UCCF's Trust Board. He currently writes on apologetics for the European Leadership Forum.
METConnexion Winter 09-10 pp18-19