Responding to the pandemic’s challenges in universities
Christian Unions (CU’s) have been at the heart of university campuses for almost a hundred years. Students have been living and speaking for Jesus through world wars and peace, economic prosperity and depression, and now, through a pandemic. The gospel is unstoppable, even when a microscopic virus has ground our lives to a halt. Our circumstances may have changed, but our mission has not. And even in the isolation and uncertainty of 2020, we have seen glimmers of hope as the Spirit has been moving on campuses across the United Kingdom.
One of the best things about working with students is their endless creativity, resourcefulness, and energy. It’s been a privilege to walk alongside them over the last few months as they’ve responded to extraordinary challenges.
Caring for others
Mental health at universities has been at an all-time low this term: many have self-isolated for two weeks, come out of their rooms for a day or two, only for another housemate to become symptomatic, bringing the whole household back into isolation again. Community and friendship are desperately needed, but often hard to come by.
At the University of Nottingham, lots of students needed to self-isolate at the start of term due to mass testing and the university struggled to support all of the students in quarantine. The CU offered to help self-isolating students by buying food, collecting medicine or offering a friendly video call. The scheme was so successful that the Students Union is now directing self-isolating students to the CU.
In normal times, most CU’s would have a central meeting all together each week. In light of large gatherings being difficult this term, UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) developed training and resources for ‘impact groups’: Bible studies for groups of six students, with the flexibility to meet online or in person, depending on local restrictions.
Since August, 800 Impact Groups have been set up over the United Kingdom. Each week, around 5,000 students (including around 200 who would not describe themselves as Christians) meet up to be impacted by God’s word and to impact their universities in Jesus’ name.
One Leeds Trinity fresher who has joined an Impact Group said, ‘I’ve not grown up religious or studied the Bible before, but I feel like I’m on a journey to find out more about God’. Another unbelieving student in Chichester joined an Impact Group because her flatmates weren’t very sociable and she assumed that the CU would be a good place to meet people. She had never read the Bible before but now does so in her own time, looking further into things from the group Bible study. She’s also started praying and watches a church’s livestream weekly.
Adding to their number
Many CU’s have actually grown numerically during this season. In London, they’ve grown by around 60%. The CU in Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge grew from three members to 15 last term. Students in small CU’s have found that Impact Groups have provided the content and structure that they needed to kickstart the CU again and welcome freshers.
Some CU’s have had the joy of welcoming in new believers. Esther Dickson, Staff Worker in Edinburgh, met a second year student from an atheist family who had been researching faith during lockdown. She had been listening to podcasts and reading articles but hadn’t spoken to any Christians. When she arrived back in Edinburgh in the autumn, she joined an Impact Group. After watching an online service the week before, she went to church with Esther the next Sunday. As the minister chatted with her and Esther afterwards, it became clear that she understood the gospel and was ready to make a commitment, so they had the privilege of praying with her as she accepted Christ.
When Esther met her for coffee the next day, she asked to pray for her flatmates and course mates and that she’d be bold enough to tell them that she had become a Christian. She was so appreciative of how her Impact Group had helped her think about sharing Jesus with her friends and was spurred on by their warm welcome and example, that as a day-old believer she was ready to go out and share the good news of Jesus with others.
Another student joined Sunderland as a fresher this year, having become a Christian during lockdown through YouTube videos. She’s now stuck into Christian community on campus through her Impact Group and has joined a local church.
Other CU students have been making the most of opportunities to meet one-to-one with friends. One student in Oxford University has been reading the Bible with two seeking friends, and when the second lockdown hit, they moved their coffee shop Bible studies to outdoor bench Bible studies and video chats. Neither of them have professed faith yet, but they have stayed interested and are keen to keep exploring the claims of Jesus.
In Oxford, an unbelieving student who was feeling low asked her Christian friend about her faith. She invited her to church which she went to and loved and has since joined a midweek Bible study, as well as watching services online during lockdown and reading the Bible in her own time. They recently met up to read Uncover John together and ended up doing two studies back-to-back because she enjoyed it so much! She was particularly struck by seeing that the joy that Jesus brings is the best kind of joy, and by the dignity that Jesus gives to women. They’re hoping to continue over Zoom during the holidays.
One of the challenges of the last two terms has been how scattered students have been, with many international students not returning to the United Kingdom but studying from their home countries. However, Birmingham CU has seen their international ministry flourish with students all over the world Zooming into their weekly ‘Let’s Chat’ and ‘English Club’ initiatives, including from countries where the gospel isn’t easily preached.
CU’s have been coming up with creative ways to make the most of the rich evangelistic opportunities that Christmas usually affords. Oxford Brookes CU recently hosted a CU ‘bake-along’ over Zoom as a springboard to invite people to their carol service, and as everyone waited for their cookies to bake, there was a message about Simeon waiting for Jesus.
Oxford CU hosted a live online ‘carols night in’, where households could sign up for a free pack of mince pies, mulled wine, and carol service programmes. 200 packs were delivered before the carol service and around 900 people tuned in over two nights. Many CU students gathered their households to watch it together so that they could chat about the talk afterwards.
Online talks pose their own challenges though. One CU member described his frustration at his friends becoming easily distracted during the talk and wandering in and out of the room as they would when watching any other programme on TV.
God is at work, and his Spirit is not bound by circumstances. I’m so grateful to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with such bold, creative, and courageous students and I’m looking forward to seeing more fruit from the many seeds that have been scattered over these extraordinary Covid times.