This year, IFES will mark its 75th anniversary, an event we will commemorate with a 365-day celebration, culminating in our World Assembly conference next August. During this period, we invite you to join us in reflecting on IFES’s past and rejoicing in our present as we turn towards our future. Together we will recognise God’s faithfulness – giving thanks for all he has done and looking to him for the next season of student ministry.
Although IFES was formally established in 1947, one event 13 years earlier proved surprisingly significant. In 1934, delegates from nine countries gathered in Oslo, Norway for the first International Conference of Evangelical Students. This conference was one of the first formalised points of connection between national movements, whose members hoped that the gathering ‘may result in a new worldwide student missionary uprising’.
One of the delegates in attendance, Norwegian theologian Ole Hallesby, offered a message that ‘struck a particularly prophetic note.’ Professor Hallesby spoke of his excitement over the progress made in creating an international evangelical student movement. He explained that, in the cultural and theological contexts of his time, it was crucial for the student movement to embrace and hold fast to the Biblical distinctives being addressed at Oslo. This foundational message has remained a cornerstone of our global fellowship and, 88 years on, it is exciting to consider how far we’ve come, what has changed, and in what ways the hopes of that conference have been realised. However, these reflections also challenge us to remain steadfast – to honour the distinctives of IFES ministry, and, more crucially, the distinctives of gospel ministry. With that in mind, we offer you an adapted version of Hallesby’s message.
The hour of God
The Bible talks much of ‘the hour of God.’ When movements so alike, suddenly, and spontaneously, spring up in so many countries at the same time, then we must see that God wants to do something. It is God’s hour. It is an unspeakable privilege to move forward at God’s time.
It is as if I see the glow of morning, the dawn of a new day over the old unhappy world after a long dark night. For many years, a rationalistic theology has held most of the churches. The Christian movements have become liberal and have monopolised Christian work amongst students. We have had no door into the great unhappy student world; everything has looked hopeless until just a few years go. Today we are here, representatives of our many nations, and we can each tell of a Christian student work based on the Bible as the Word of God. A door which God Himself, in grace, has opened unto us.
Before liberal theology became popular, which has always mutilated the old gospel and made preaching hollow, we used to hear of sin and grace, sorrow for sin, and questions from the troubled conscience; now it is intellectual problems which are put in the centre. There is no further room for Christian repentance and conversion. Men have become satisfied with some vague religious experience. Everything is made relative – ethics, religion, truth, and even God Himself.
For us who were standing on a positive Biblical basis, the door to the student world was tightly shut, and during these long years we were in the greatest distress until we at last broke through and started our own work. This beginning was made with many misgivings, we must admit, and it was only a deep conviction that made us take that fortunate step. These same fears and conviction made us realise, too, how helpless we were, and forced us into the fight of prayer. Our fears were now our greatest asset. Our work started as a praying work. God Himself had to bend our stiff knees.
What did we mean by starting this work? We did not wish to start something new, we desired only to work on the old lines on which Christian student work had been run from the beginning. Our programme has been the old full gospel, preached for revival, conversion, and new life in service for our Lord, at home, and abroad in the mission field.
- First, our message is the Word of God. We have no right to add anything to it, nor to take anything from it. This gives us a firm position in this world of chaos today. Our modern world must not change our message, but our message must change our unhappy world. God’s creating word alone can remake those who are dead in trespasses and sin, and give them the new life, and this creating word God has given us. With this holy staff we smite the rock as Moses did and living water gushes forth – students are awakened and converted to God.
- Secondly, our message passes sentence of death on all men. Idealism has always sought to find something good in man which has only to be set free for his improvement and salvation. Our message, however, says that in man there is nothing essentially good or that can save him. This sentence of death has been passed on all men. “For there is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” With this truth the salvation of men must begin, for no man will ask to be pardoned if he is not first convinced that he is under sentence of death.
- Thirdly, our message is the Cross. To be saved, the sinner has only to admit his condemnation; God justifies the ungodly as soon as he believes in the Cross and comes to Christ with his sins. We find that students will listen to the word of the Cross. For fourteen years we have held our yearly student conference for Scandinavians, and we have had as many as six hundred for five or six days. One of the leaders in the liberal student movement one day asked a friend of mine, “What are you doing to the students to be able to get them to come in such large numbers, and that every year?” My friend quietly replied, “We preach the Gospel of the Cross.”
- Our message is the Preaching of the Holy Ghost. We believe in Easter and Pentecost. The Holy Ghost makes the historic, living revelation of God in Christ actual for us here and now. The Holy Ghost performs this great miracle, that Christ lives in us and we in Him. We preach to the student world this glad message of Him who gives victory over the sins and the great temptations of students.
- Our message is conversion. We know that students are very often perplexed by theoretical doubts and difficulties, but that theoretical doubts can never prevent anybody from becoming a Christian – it is not thoughts, but the will which hinders a man. He will not give up his sin. Therefore, we preach conversion to students as the only remedy against doubt. The Apostle says: “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” We would also like to be scholars for the scholars, to win the academic world to Christ; but it is in the old Gospel that we will preach in scholarly language 0n the full gospel of sin and grace, of conversion and a new creation in Christ.
- Our message is the Communion of Saints. We have learnt from the original student work fifty years ago how fertile these small prayer circles are, and, as already mentioned, God Himself in the beginning of our own work amongst students taught us to work on our knees. Right from the beginning there have been such prayer circles, in Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, how large I do not know; but we have had a circle where they have prayed for our summer meeting every day from one year’s meeting to the next. We pray that this fellowship of prayer may never cease in our work, but that it will always increase in inward deepening and outward conquering power. Think of it – a prayer-fellowship in many countries! Let us pray and not tire, until God sends a great deep revival over the student world in all our countries.
- Our message is everyday Christianity in service and self-denial. Our generation must not only hear Christianity, but see it lived out. If we today will try to live Christianity, we will experience mighty progress. Christianity is the Christ-life. But the life of Christ was love, service, self-denial, sacrifice and suffering. I wish all our young regenerate students would go into the modern student world with these realities of life; then they would see greater things than they dared to expect. We can only learn self-denial by practice; therefore, we all have to practise self-denial daily in our homes between father and mother, brothers and sisters, servants, and friends. The student world will certainly not be won for Christ by public lectures and talks, but by personal work, by personal sacrifice and conversations. But no one will take up this personal work until he has learnt for himself something of the happy secret of self-denial.
- Our message is the Christ who is to return. We are waiting for Him, who shall come to take His friends to a place of light, and to a life of light where we can no more have our souls spoiled by sin, nor grieve others by our selfishness, nor wound God and the Saviour by any unfaithfulness or disobedience. We are waiting.
- Our message must be brought to all nations. As I have already mentioned, the Christian student work started as a work for foreign missions. But I am afraid that they do not at present hold the place they should, at least not here in the northern countries, and if the time should come when we do not live and work for foreign missions the Christian student work will die out. We are convinced that the student world has a special service to perform in the mission field, and surely it has never been so great and important as in this age.
‘All present were conscious of a new spirit of hope and of sober expectation,’ writes Douglas Johnson, one of those who heard the message. In the years that followed, Hallesby’s vision continued to play out. A gathering was planned and took place in Sweden the next year, opening the way for increased cooperation in the years following. In 1947, IFES, as we know it today, was founded. We want to celebrate how God has moved through his people since then, to impact the church, the university, and the world for his glory. We will keep looking to him, as individuals and as a global fellowship, during the next 75 years of student ministry.
Our anniversary celebration will commence with an online gathering of the general secretaries who represent 160 IFES member movements. Over the next year, celebratory events will take place around the globe to mark our 75th, and stories will be shared from all corners of the IFES world. Watch our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter platforms for these testimonies of God’s incredible faithfulness and power over the last 75 years.