Amongst dead grass and withered plants, a healthy, leafy tree is growing. The scorching summer sun has sapped the energy of anything with shallow roots, frazzling lush green to lifeless yellow. The tree, however, has been sipping water with its deep roots; it is standing strong, persevering through the heat, bearing fruit. This is the image used in Psalm 1 to describe the person who is rooted in God and God’s ways – “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (v.3).
CONNECTIONS: PERSEVERING, RESILIENT, THRIVING
This image of a vibrant tree ties together some key themes from IFES global ministry in recent months. Since 2021-2022, IFES has been following a fresh strategic vision called Thriving Together. This year’s IFES Annual Report picks up on this: it testifies to how God’s provision, global partnerships, and prayer are helping IFES ministries around the world to thrive in witness, thrive in whole-life commitment, thrive on new ground, and thrive into the future. There is much to give thanks for.
Yet the image from Psalm 1 reminds us that the thriving tree grows under a scorching sun. Globally, nationally, and locally – all the spheres where IFES works – there are common challenges and daily hardships. The theme of World Assembly 2023, the Indonesian words tabah dan tangguh (resolute and resilient), acknowledged this. Bible expositions, thematic talks, and personal testimonies helped participants to grapple honestly with those difficulties and remain steadfast^.
This month, on 20 October, World Student Day will further this focus with the theme ‘persevere’. We are inviting students, staff, and supporters across our global fellowship to unite in prayer, asking for the grace to persevere in various, potentially ‘frazzling’ circumstances. The following stories are snapshots of what the heat of hardship – and the grace of faithful perseverance – can look like.
STORIES: PERSEVERING IN THE HEAT OF HOSTILITY
Around the world, many of our students and staff live in places that are hostile to the gospel and student ministry. It is often difficult to give much detail about them or their situations in public, as this can identify them and put their lives at risk. However, without citing names or regions, it is still possible to bring you a sense of what they are going through…
Anna* grew up in a predominantly Christian country, although it wasn’t until she joined her local IFES group that she encountered “a Jesus who I could talk to, who looked at me not to judge me but to transform me”. She also met people who embodied servanthood – she recalls her shock at seeing a pastor who was involved in the student ministry serving food and washing dishes. When Anna was later asked to become a staff volunteer for the national student movement, she felt called to accept the role, despite economic hardship and pressure from her parents to find a ‘real’ (i.e., well paid) job.
Her financial and domestic pressures were then multiplied when the country was engulfed by political crisis. For some time now, many universities and non-governmental organisations have been shut down. Criticism of the regime has been met with violence and arrest. Talk of Jesus amongst students is forbidden.
But the ministry continues. Anna says they moved groups online, as they had done during the pandemic. Although they could not gather on campus, she has been holding a small group in a café. But many students are scared. And many are scarred by the violence they have seen.
Anna tells of how it was only when she heard a loud noise one day – and immediately went into a panic for fear of gunfire – that she realised how affected she has been. In her small group at IFES World Assembly this August, removed from the situation and surrounded by loving support, she was finally able to cry and begin processing her trauma. God is blessing Anna in her faithfulness. Even her family have come to appreciate her role in IFES. During a particularly tough patch in recent months, a group involved in various Christian ministries turned up at the family home with baskets of food – and her parents realised that the student ministry genuinely cares.
Anna returned from World Assembly, refreshed and happy to continue in her role: “Right now, I know that students need to know that Jesus is walking alongside them – they need the hope that I have received”. But with restricted campuses, fearful students, and café meetings far from campus, she is understandably concerned about how the ministry will keep going. Let us pray for Anna and the movement to persevere.
In a different country, where Christians are a small minority, Ben* also faces hostile conditions. His country has been adversely affected by years of political turmoil and persecution. At a World Assembly meeting for IFES movements in his region, Ben shared news of the latest wave of violence: thousands dead, tens of thousands imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands of people leaving the country; there is active fighting; unemployment and inflation are high, and investments into the country have stopped; schools remain closed, and only about a quarter of students have enrolled for university.
But the ministry continues. Ben, a staff worker in his national movement, has been able to maintain contact with students at two of the four cities in which student ministry took place prior to the crisis – mostly through one-to-one online meetings. Although he can’t set foot on campus, he is still engaged each week in evangelism and discipleship. Meanwhile, his wife is trying to keep education alive by running a small homeschool in their house. Let us pray for Ben, his wife, and the movement to persevere.
STORIES: PERSEVERING IN THE HEAT OF DISAPPOINTMENT
It is not only the heat of violent persecution or hostile opposition that threatens to scorch us and our ministry. A lack of resources, isolation, or apathy can be just as menacing. In last month’s Conexión, we mentioned Sara Friis Børty, staff with KFS Denmark, who moved to Greenland with husband Filip in 2019 to pioneer student ministry. It was tough. Although they were sure that this was what God had called them to, it was disheartening when so few students turned up to events. And pioneering plans were also seriously disrupted by COVID.
But ministry continued. On soul-searching reflection, Sara came to see how the very small ‘small group’ allowed deep relations to develop that would not have otherwise been possible. And she remembers how a speaking engagement at a church, cancelled due to COVID, was replaced by a radio broadcast that reached the whole of Greenland! (Read more of Sara’s reflections here.)
Similarly, Jonathan Clark’s experience in Greece with Ethos SXEF, highlighted in this recent edition of Prayerline, shows how faithful perseverance was needed – and rewarded – in the face of disappointingly disruptive circumstances and wary students.
CONNECTION: CHRIST IN US
These varied stories highlight how the intense heat we face can take many forms. Whether persecution from an authoritarian regime, opposition from family, thwarted plans, or suspicious peers, the one thing that unites these experiences of living perseverance is a person: Jesus Christ. Anna*, Ben*, Sara, and Jonathan – and countless others alongside them – have persevered with the strength that Christ gives.
In fact, as followers of Christ, those words from Psalm 1 – “a tree planted by streams of water” – should surely remind us of some other words. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). In the scorching heat, Jesus is the one who quenches our thirst and lets loose streams of revitalising water in us (the Holy Spirit, John says in the following verse).
The hope of our perseverance is Jesus. As part of the resources available for World Student Day, you can receive devotional materials that will help connect the persevering tabah dan tangguh faith in the Psalms to Christ – and the hope we have in him.
In the pack, you will also find prayer cards with requests from students and movements from around our global family. As students, staff, and supporters, let us unite on 20 October to pray that we will persevere through ‘the heat’, rooted in Jesus, refreshed by the Spirit, bearing fruit in season.
^Video recordings of World Assembly 2023 talks and testimonies are available here.
*Name changed to protect identity.