I’ve had the privilege of being part of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in different contexts for over fifteen years. I often get asked, ‘What exactly do you do?’ I love the question because I love IFES and am more than happy to talk about it. But I also hate it because I find it hard to put into a few sentences what I actually do. But let me try.
Put simply, I am part of a team that helps students and staff within IFES Europe to be disciples of Jesus who make disciples in the student world.
One of the ways in which we do that is through the Young Staff Network — the YSN. Each year we gather a community of eighteen staff from student movements across Europe who have just started in ministry. We meet together in person and on Skype, we read and study God’s Word together, we share and pray for one another, we serve others together, we read books together. All with the aim of helping the staff to understand what God has called them to and to support them as they live that out in their own context.
The exact programme we follow changes every year but the values that drive what we do don’t. So let me share with you just three of those values.
We need grace
As God’s people called into ministry, we are completely dependent on God’s grace. God doesn’t call us into his work because he needs us. He is more than capable of building his church without us. But he’s chosen to do it with us. He’s chosen to do his work together with needy, weak sinners who without him can do nothing. Why? Because his aim is not just to get a job done. His aim is to draw people into relationship with himself. He wants to display his wonderful, incredible love and grace to the world. As we join in his work we, and others around us, grow to know, love and trust him more and that gives him joy.
I love seeing staff making this discovery. I know how much ministry with people has shown me the sinfulness of my own heart. I am so grateful that God has placed me in communities where at the same time as seeing my own sinfulness I’ve also been pointed to God’s much greater grace which is enough to deal with my sinful heart. That is what we hope the YSN is. We want it to be a place where staff can be open and honest about the sin and the weakness they see in themselves, and where they can be given hope and freedom as they are pointed to Jesus and to the abundance of grace they can find in him.
This is what one recent graduate of the YSN told me in an email:
‘The network and each person who was there influenced me so, so much. I came as a new worker who was terrified about what is ahead and had almost no confidence or wisdom about how to lead ministry. I graduated YSN, still terrified and lacking wisdom BUT I had gained confidence in the Lord and knew that his power is made perfect in my weakness. This insight literally changed my ministry and my whole life.’
What we do should flow from who we are
There is a huge temptation for staff to find their identity in what they do. It is easy for their ministry to be driven by other people’s expectations, their reputation, their gifts, the size of their groups or what other staff achieve in other places. They start to look to what they do for their value and worth, and that is heading down a deadly road. It leads to pride, hypocrisy, deceit, despair and eventually burnout. That is why, though we do spend time thinking about gifts and skills and how to do the job of a student worker, we spend far more time thinking about character. We want the young staff to be defined by, and find their value in, their relationship with Jesus. We want that to drive what they do, rather than the other way around.
Last year we were looking together at the way Jesus went about making disciples in the gospels. One of our staff who is incredibly gifted, confident and from one of the more established student movements in Europe was really challenged by what he was discovering. He shared very honestly the temptation he feels to fill his diary with speaking engagements and doing very visible things which build his reputation and make him feel valued and admired by others. Spending time doing what Jesus spent a lot of his time doing, investing in a few people, showing them what it means to love and follow him, is much less attractive to him because it’s a lot less visible. It was wonderful to see him ask for God’s grace to help him find his value in his relationship with Jesus and commit to living out of that freedom.
We need community
Being a staff worker in student ministry in Europe can be incredibly lonely, whether it’s in Germany, single-handedly overseeing student groups in seven cities, or in Macedonia, where the only staff member is a recent graduate trying to pioneer a student movement in the whole country. The context is very different, but the loneliness can be the same. But it’s interesting that Jesus never sent workers by themselves. We all need community — others who understand, who have been where we are now and who can speak truth and hope into our situations. We want the YSN to be that kind of understanding, hopeful and truth-speaking community. Our hope is that, as staff experience that, they are encouraged and equipped to be community builders back in the contexts where God has placed them.
There is a card on my kitchen wall. On the front, a group of smiling students stand on top of a hill in Cyprus. On the back is this message: ‘Thank you for walking alongside me this year and sharing your insight and life-with-Jesus with me! Here are a few of the smiling faces that continue to benefit from the time you spent discipling me. That’s the thing with discipleship. It ripples to the end of the earth!’