The History of IFES
From its roots, IFES has been focused on student-led evangelism: students telling others about Jesus Christ. This was the vision that captivated Norman Grubb in 1919 as a young student. He longed to see ordinary students sharing the gospel with others:
“God gave me a vision… I saw that not only must there be this witness in every university, but that God was going to do it.”
In the years that followed, God was indeed powerfully at work through Christian students across the world. From Canada to New Zealand, from Norway to China, students were sharing the good news with their friends, and many were turning to the Lord.
IFES was founded in 1947 when leaders from ten evangelical student movements met at Harvard University in the United States. Their ambitious dream was to see a clear witness to Jesus Christ established in every university in the world.
Here are some highlights of the IFES story:
1928 Howard Guinness - a medical student in London - is sent to Canada by students of the newly-formed British Inter-Varsity Fellowship, with a one-way ticket funded by the sale of students’ books and hockey sticks. His mission is to start a student movement in Canada. He later goes on to establish movements in Australia and New Zealand.
North America South Pacific
1934 The first International Conference for leaders of evangelical student movements is hosted in Norway. In his address, Norwegian Ole Hallesby speaks of the sense of God doing a new work in this generation of students.
1939 Students and leaders from 33 nations gather in Cambridge, England for the fourth International Conference. This probably would have marked the launch of IFES, had World War II not started so soon.
1944 Stacey Woods from Australia is marooned in Jamaica for five days, after the flying boat he is travelling on lands for repairs. He spends the days visiting schools, church leaders and Christians in education, who urge him to help them. As a result, IFES later sends IVCF Canada staff-worker Cathie Nicoll to Jamaica to help pioneer high-schools work and campus ministry.
1946 Douglas Johnson draws leaders of nine movements to a small meeting in Oxford, England to plan for an international movement.
1947 IFES is formally constituted in Harvard, USA. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is the first Chairman and Stacey Woods is the first General Secretary. The largest of the ten founding movements is the fellowship in China.
1947 A single student in Tokyo prays for a Christian friend. In answer to his prayers, a daily prayer meeting begins in the ruins of a bomb-damaged storeroom, among dust-covered desks. Momentum builds across the nation and 12 years later KGK Japan affiliates to IFES.
1956 John Stott, IFES Vice-President for 20 years, completes his first IFES tour to North American universities, establishing a model for university missions which is still in use today. The tour included Urbana, a conference focussed on mobilising students for global mission.
1963 The first IFES international day of prayer takes place. Students, staff and supporters unite across the global IFES movement to celebrate all that God is doing through IFES, and to pray for the coming year.
Find out more about World Student Day.
1964 The first IFES staff for Francophone Africa is appointed, based in Senegal. Student organisations are illegal, but the group continues to pray and asks a Muslim government minister if they can be registered. As a result, the GBU becomes the only officially-organised student group.
1965 Student ministry in Latin America gathers momentum amid opposition. 400 students attend an evangelistic event in Mexico during which a left-wing group pipe tear gas through the ventilators. 13 years later one of the tear gas instigators becomes a staff worker for the movement.
1965 Student ministry in Ghana starts to expand. A mission week in Kumasi draws an estimated 80% of the student population. Students rush through their dinners to arrive in time to get seats and all other society meetings are cancelled.
English- and Portuguese-speaking Africa
1971 Chua Wee Hian from Singapore is appointed IFES General Secretary. IFES becomes a more global movement under his leadership, doubling in size to include movements in 106 countries.
1977 A graduate of UESI India moves to Nepal to develop student ministry there. He sometimes walks hours on foot to meet with a single Christian student in a rural area.
1980 A student leader from Scotland makes an exploratory trip to Israel to see if campus ministry can be started. He finds there are already six active Bible study groups. Growth is slow but steady. The movement affiliates to IFES eight years later.
Middle East and North Africa
1980 Contact is established with students in communist Eastern Europe, and a team of IFES partners regularly visits international students and nationals in most of these countries. Before long, student movements begin to operate ‘unofficially’, with work established in Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
1989 As the Iron Curtain fell, opportunities for ministry in countries in Eastern Europe and the former-USSR increase. IFES movements are established across Central Europe and Eurasia in the coming years.
1995 Lindsay Brown from Wales is appointed IFES General Secretary. Under his leadership, 66 new movements are affiliated to IFES.
2003 The 16th IFES World Assembly takes places in The Netherlands. It’s the most widely representative student ministry event in history, with delegates from 111 countries. IFES students, faculty, staff and board members gather to meet together and hear from God.
2007 Daniel Bourdanné from Chad, is appointed IFES General Secretary. Under Daniel’s leadership, global ministries are developed to better support of the national movements. These include training in governance, indigenous support development and Scripture engagement.
2015 142 students are killed in a terrorist attack at Garissa University College, Kenya. Many of the victims are members of FOCUS Kenya, including 22 attending a prayer meeting at the time of the attack. FOCUS Kenya remains among the largest IFES movements, with over 45,000 students.
English- and Portuguese-speaking Africa
2019 The 20th IFES World Assembly is due to take place in South Africa. More national movements are expected to affiliate and a new General Secretary is due to be appointed.
Find out more about IFES World Assembly.
Today there are student movements in more than 160 countries affiliated with IFES, including countries like Cuba, Georgia and Albania, where it once seemed impossible to dream that a visible witness could be established. Christian students today are boldly sharing the gospel in the Middle East, in Eurasia and across the continent of Africa, where in some countries the growth of ministry in universities has been unprecedented.
There are still countries and campuses to be pioneered, or which need to be re-pioneered. Every year a new class of students takes the place of the class before. Politics, economics and technology continue to transform the student context, bringing new opportunities and challenges to this global ministry.
Our calling today remains the same: to establish and support a faithful witness to the Lord Jesus Christ in every university of the world.