An interview with evangelist Michael Ots
2017 saw a record 190 mission weeks take place across 30 countries in Europe and Eurasia. Even more are expected to happen in 2018. We spoke with Michael Ots, international mission week speaker, to find out more about mission weeks, and university evangelism in Europe and Eurasia today.
What does a mission week look like?
A mission week is a series of public evangelistic talks on or near the university. It’s organised by the local Christian students and normally lasts from three to five days. However, it’s far more than just a series of lectures — events are normally held in attractive and welcoming venues with food and music. Talks are supplemented with testimonies, music, drama, poetry and spoken word. Having a series of talks and Q&A’s means that people get to hear the gospel multiple times, which often leads to some of them professing faith by the end of the week. Many others sign up for a follow-up course.
What’s been happening in Europe in recent years?
One of the encouragements I’ve seen across Europe over the last few years has been an increase in confidence of both public and personal evangelism. That’s both through the concept of mission weeks which have spread in the last eight years across most of the European IFES movements (now 35+), and also with the translations of the Uncover seeker Bible studies, which have given people confidence to open the Bible with their friends.
I did a mission week just a few weeks ago and by the end of the week we’d seen about 25 people profess faith in Christ, which is fantastic. But what was also really encouraging was that by the end of the week every single undergraduate was doing an Uncover Bible study with at least one friend, so the long-term impact of that week is going to be really significant.
Public proclamation, small groups or 1-to-1 evangelism: what’s the best approach?
If you look at the Acts of the Apostles you see all those three strands of evangelism being done by the early Christians. You’ve got public proclamation — Peter on the day of Pentecost or Paul in Athens. You’ve got small group discussion — Paul in the lecture hall of Tyrannus or with the women at the riverside in Philippi. And then of course you’ve got 1-to-1s: Philip and the Ethiopian, Ananias and Paul, Peter and Cornelius. So the early Christians were turning the world upside down through personal work, small group discussion and public proclamation. Similarly, the student movements that have had the greatest impact are those that do all three side by side. If you proclaim the gospel publicly in a mission week, that has much more impact if it’s also being followed up with good 1-to-1 evangelism, and people who are able to do a seeker Bible study with their friends.
I often say public evangelism without personal evangelism will lack depth; it won’t have much impact. But personal evangelism without public proclamation will lack breadth; it won’t reach many people.
What changes have you seen in Europe?
I’ve been doing missions for 14 years now and there have been gradual changes in that time. One of the things we’re seeing particularly in western Europe is that we’re going from being a post-Christian culture to ultimately what’s just going to be a non-Christian culture. Increasingly it’s not so much that people have had an experience of Christianity and rejected it, but that students have had no experience of Christianity; they haven’t really heard anything about the Bible and they’ve not read it for themselves. Obviously that presents challenges but I think it also presents opportunities.
Is it getting harder to share the gospel?
We see that the media and the establishment are increasingly hostile to Christianity. Yet in an ironic way that creates greater openness among the general society, and particularly among students. Most students don’t want to go with the status quo, they don’t want to be seen as supporting the establishment view. And as such, Christians are definitely not going with the status quo! Non-Christians are intrigued by that — they want to know why Christians are so counter-cultural. So there’s more of a willingness to come and hear what we have to say.
I think it is going to get harder to get into the university to do evangelism but I think we are going to see greater interest. We might go back to a similar situation to the first century where the Christian faith was opposed by the establishment but grew rapidly at the grass roots.
The gospel did pretty well in the first century and I think it can do pretty well in the 21st century as well!
What stories have encouraged you recently?
Recently I was speaking at a mission week. On the penultimate day I had done a lunchtime talk and afterwards spoke to an international student who had a number of intellectual objections and questions. She then came to the evening talk on the meaning of forgiveness and the cross. At the end of the meeting she came running up to me with a huge smile on her face, and said:
“I get it now! I get it! I get why Jesus died! As you were speaking tonight it was like you stopped speaking and God started speaking, and now I understand.”
Now this student had actually been going to Christian events on and off for three years with her friends. But it was that series of events and then that last talk that really brought it home. That was the result of three years of investing in her.
I went to a speak at one movement’s first ever mission week last year, and I went back again this year for their second mission week. Last year one student came along who was very resistant to the gospel and mocked what I had to say when I spoke about the resurrection of Christ. However, to my surprise he had actually gone to the follow-up course and then came back again for the mission week events this year. On the last night I spoke with him and asked him how he had found the week. “I’ve decided to ask Jesus into my life! I now know that I need him. Please come back next year and you will see the difference he has made in my life!”
What’s been happening in some of the places where it’s more difficult to share the gospel?
I was in eastern Europe recently in a country where it’s actually quite difficult to do evangelism — legally you’re not allowed to put on evangelistic events, but it doesn’t seem to stop them! We had a number of missions happening in different cities around the country. They’d booked out different venues, preaching in a pizzeria in the middle of the city and an arts centre out in the suburbs — anywhere they could get. We had 100–150 people coming to each event, several people responded to the gospel. There was one day that particularly stood out. At the end of the evening event a girl came up, obviously quite moved by what she’d heard. Through translation she explained that she’d come that lunchtime having received a flyer. She said:
‘I didn’t really know what to expect — I just came for the lunch, but I was so interested by what I heard that I came back this evening. Growing up in the Orthodox Church, all I ever really experienced was fear. But tonight I felt and experienced the freedom Jesus can bring. This day is going to be the day that changes my life.’
We had the joy of being able to pray together as she trusted Christ. We then introduced her to Christians who have now befriended her and drawn her into the local student group. It was amazing to see how someone could receive a flyer in the morning, come and hear two talks, and very dramatically come to know Christ. And we’re seeing that kind of thing happen around Europe in different contexts. It really does happen; it really does work! God is able to do above and beyond what we ask or imagine.
Can you share a bit about what’s been happening beyond Europe, in Eurasia?
Four years ago I was invited to go to Kiev and do a mission week there. We did it; it went quite well. We went the following year and did another one; it went even better. Ukraine have now started doing mission weeks in pretty much every university city across the country. They’ve also got a small team of student evangelists being trained up by one of their staff workers in public proclamation. What’s happening in Ukraine is encouraging, but also what’s really encouraging is that Ukraine has started to export that to others.
There have been teams from Ukraine going to other countries, like Latvia and Moldova, helping mission weeks get established there as well. It’s very much mission from everywhere to everywhere now. So it’s very encouraging! The growth is happening organically. It’s simply a case of sharing ideas, giving people an opportunity to witness it for themselves, and then equipping them to go and give it a go in their own context. That’s happened far more than we could have ever imagined.
Michael Ots is an IFES Europe Associate Regional Team Member. He works in partnership with FEUER (Fellowship of Evangelists in the Universities in Europe), a network of men and women committed to seeing the gospel proclaimed publicly in the universities of Europe.
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