Change the university and you change the world
The global vision of IFES extends to impacting our whole society for the glory of Christ. That means more than winning students for the kingdom: it means seeing kingdom values shape our cultures and change the world.
The university is the place where people engage with the big questions. The debates happening there today will shape the decisions of tomorrow’s leaders.
We believe the gospel has something vital to say across every discipline, from politics, economics and science to ethics, education and the arts. We want to see disciples of Jesus confidently and compellingly participating in the conversations happening in their universities.
We have a calling as ambassadors of Christ in the world’s universities. We have a vision to see the gospel transform our societies. The future of a whole generation is at stake. We need to think bigger.
“What if God has put us in universities with a bigger purpose? What if he wants us to be faithful in our studies, to start thinking — Where can I take part in this and be a blessing? What are the needs and current issues in my study field, and in my university? How can I make it a more just place?”
Recent Graduate of LKSB Latvia
Engaging with the Big Issues
The Big Issues in the University Project was established to help Christian students and faculty better engage with the academic world and the big issues of the university today. The project provided opportunities for students and faculty from IFES movements around the world to share ideas and resources, as together we learn how to bring a biblical perspective to bear in our universities.
The project team carried out a global survey and a number of regional consultations. These consultations were an opportunity to highlight and celebrate how national movements are already engaging the university and to consider what the needs are moving forward.
The Big Issues Project was made possible with financial support from the John Templeton Foundation.
“Since our creation, IFES movements have often gone into the campuses as if we were fishing in a lake, without really worrying about the environment of the lake. But our mission in the university should be done with an organic perspective, an incarnational perspective. We should form our people to be part of the university community and to act to transform the university itself – all the university – for Jesus. This is about going into the university with an integral, holistic perspective.”
Daniel Bourdanné, IFES General Secretary 2007-2019
The Global Picture
Each IFES national movement operates in a unique context, so how we engage the university inevitably looks different.
Many regions are encountering new challenges: issues of gender and sexuality, freedom of speech, aggressive religious pluralism and a generation of social-media-obsessed students. Other regions face more specific issues: war in the Middle East; the spread of Islam in North Africa; natural disasters in East Asia; corruption and environmental destruction in Latin America.
Engaging with these big issues is essential for the Christian, but far from straightforward.
IFES wants to empower each national movement to engage the whole university, so that the message of the gospel penetrates to all people and all aspects of society.
Explore regions below to find out about some of the big issues identified and examples of how students, staff and faculty are already responding as they seek to impact the university and wider society for the glory of Christ.
“I have discovered that without the full understanding of the context of the university, the impact of our work may have a short life span. But if we consider the university as a whole, then we will be able to transform students while they are in universities and then later as they live in communities. Our responsibility is to reveal Christ in every aspect of university life: in academic, social and political arenas.”
TAFES Tanzania staff worker
Europe is one of the regions which has seen tremendous change in the last decade.
Conversations surrounding transgender issues and sexuality, mental health, immigration and freedom of speech have spread across campuses throughout the continent. Christian students are needing to find answers for questions that weren’t even being asked a generation ago.
As Europe gradually shifts from a post-Christian culture to a predominantly non-Christian culture, access to campus and freedom of speech are increasingly under threat. The right to speak and question and think critically – arguably the very heartbeat of the university, and indeed the starting point for evangelism – is at risk.
Christian Union members at a university in Great Britain, for example, were banned from having a stall at the freshers’ fair for fear it could cause ‘potential harm’ to first year students.
“What is at stake here is not just the integrity and reputation of our universities, but also the foundations of western, liberal thought and all the good that goes with it. Christians, out of concern for the flourishing of all citizens, must surely challenge campus censorship when they encounter it.”Richard Cunningham, General Secretary of UCCF Great Britain
The big issues discussed in the EPSA and Francophone Africa regions cannot be approached as abstract ideas – they are tangible, daily problems demanding practical solutions.
Poverty means that many students cannot afford tuition fees or resources. Political instability and persecution of Christians mean that students are at risk. Sexual immorality, exam malpractice and corruption often make the campus a difficult place to be a Christian, and particularly for a Christian who wants to contribute a biblical perspective to the conversations.
Despite the challenges, students, staff and faculty across Africa are engaged in initiatives, determined to impact these big issues.
Even with limited resources and infrastructure, there is a strong network of Christian faculty in Francophone Africa.
Annual regional events give academics the opportunity to share their area of research and consider together how to bring a Christian perspective to bear in the university. Conversations are wide-ranging, including subjects like:
– the role of the sacred in nature conservation
– a Christian perspective on political culture in Africa
– medicine and HIV
It is exciting to see academics start to explore how a biblical worldview speaks into these issues.
English- and Portuguese-Speaking Africa (EPSA)
Many national movements in EPSA are already moving from conversation to action.
In Nigeria, for example, NIFES has opened a School of Entrepreneurship to help students struggling with poverty. Students learn skills like bead-making and candle-making to help fund their tuition.
In Sierra Leone, one of the biggest challenges is internet connectivity. Only the private universities have access to the internet. In response to this need, a group of SLEFES students have put together a project to enable students to access websites and online journals for their research. Christian and non-Christian students alike are now coming together to do their work, providing opportunities for SLEFES students to build relationships with their peers.
The conversations in the universities of Latin America are, in many cases, of huge political, social and personal consequence.
- How should the Christian respond to the prevalence of sexual violence against women in the university?
- What should the Christian do when confronted with corrupt examining in the faculty or unjust governmental practices affecting tuition fees and admission?
The battles are being fought alongside those from diverse backgrounds and beliefs, but what does it look like to stand up for justice as a Christian? How can we work towards building a better university model that embraces transparency, inclusion and dialogue?
Though the battle for change is tough, across the region movements have been taking the initiative to engage in the big issues. These efforts powerfully demonstrate that social concerns matter to Christians.
- MUC El Salvador put on theatre productions to reflect on the issue of violence.
- UCU Colombia organised forums to present different opinions on the country’s peace agreement referendum.
- ADEE Dominican Republic organised a panel discussion on the abortion law.
- AGEUP Peru, with a few student representatives, took part in the drafting of the country’s University Law.
- GBU Chile students organised an event to discuss issues of sexual violence on campus.
As with other Western countries, the universities of Canada and the United States are seeing a rapid move away from a biblical worldview towards secularisation.
One of the current debates on campus concerns the definition of gender and sexuality. Students and faculty are needing to address the big issues with great wisdom, combining courage and love as they speak the truth. The environment is another contentious subject: the impact of climate change and responsibility in responding to it.
Increasingly, Christians on campuses across the region are coming together to share ideas and consider a biblical response to some of these big conversations.
One group in the USA has been gathering together as graduates for Passion Talks. These conferences give Christian graduates an opportunity to speak as both academics and Christians and explore interactions between their faith and their research.
An astro-physicist, working on cosmic microwave background research, gave a Passion Talk on the Big Bang and the first chapter of Genesis. A student of mathematics spoke about how the Christian framework makes maths possible. Another talked about how he is seeing truths about who God is and who we are, through his study of the computability theory.
The initiative has been successful in achieving better integration between faith and academia:
“Passion talks have been important for us in starting our fellowship on the journey towards better integration. I don’t think we are there yet, but it has been an important catalyst. It has also been a lot of fun.”
Wendy Quay Honeycutt, IVCF staff worker, Stanford
In the conversations of South Asia’s universities, we can see both the agenda for change and the pull of tradition being played out.
With distance learning becoming more popular and institutions being privatised, the campus is a different place.
In contrast, other aspects of university life demonstrate the challenge of moving away from practices and attitudes many would consider harmful: bribery; rigid hierarchy within the university; caste and gender issues, to name but a few. For other national movements in the region, the main concerns relate to persecution and opposition to the Christian faith.
Engaging in conversations at university takes determination, vision and perseverance. In many cases, the Christian academic is fighting not only against anti-Christian university structures, but against the engrained worldview of the whole society.
In Sri Lanka, one law graduate spent a year trying to encourage both staff and students to end the practice of ‘ragging’ in the law faculty. Ragging is an often-abusive initiation that freshmen endure at the hands of their seniors. While there is still progress to be made in his department, the initiative was largely successful. Even just one determined Christian in the university can make a profound cultural impact.
Within the region there are two different worlds: the Western (Australia and New Zealand) and the majority world (Pacific Islands), and therefore a wide range of conversations.
The Islands struggle with problems of corruption, student strikes, broken families, and a culture of passivity towards academia and the Bible. New Zealand and Australia, though also geographically isolated, are both heavily influenced by secular Western culture. Biblical illiteracy and spiritual apathy are marks of the university environment.
The Simeon Network is a ministry of AFES Australia which, for a number of years, has been organising conferences to gather Christian faculty and PhD students from around the country. Participants present papers to explore the connections between a biblical worldview and their current academic research. From quantum chemistry to literature, anthropology to engineering – all disciplines are represented.
PSFC Fiji is partnering with the Trauma Healing Institute of the American Bible Society to provide training for staff so they can better support students suffering from trauma. There is an increasing awareness in the Pacific Islands that many students have experienced childhood abuse. Associated trauma is often detrimental to students succeeding in their studies, having healthy personal relationships, and being able to take on Christian leadership responsibilities, or even grow as Christians.
PSFC Fiji is a good example of a national movement partnering with professional psychologists and counsellors to serve their students and campuses.
It seems inevitable that struggles with mental health in universities across the world will continue to grow. It is difficult to say whether that’s due to external factors or just an increased openness and awareness of issues that have been present for some time.
The path ahead
In such a rapidly-changing world, never was it more important for the Christian to engage in the conversations of the university, and to be equipped to do so.
But, as research from the project has shown, there are often obstacles that stand in the way.
University students and faculty who try to integrate their academic and Christian lives often feel isolated. There is a need for better networking and mentoring. There is a need to invest in the young theologians of the majority world as they grapple with the big issues in their unique contexts. There is also a need for resources addressing interaction between the sciences (both natural and social) and theology in many IFES movements around the world.
Through the ministry of Engaging the University, IFES will continue to address these needs and equip national movements to better engage with these big issues.
Priorities will include supporting the writing and publishing of resources, funding a competitive grant program for IFES regions and national movements, and developing a mentoring network.
IFES will also continue to build on the Engaging the University e-learning course. Participants from over 50 countries have already been connected through it, exploring together the relationship between their faith, their discipline and the conversations happening around them in the university.
As we look ahead to the coming years, we must not let the
size of the task overwhelm us such that we do nothing. Yes, engaging the
university is a huge challenge. But we have a great God who is at work even in
the darkest corners of the world. We must listen and work to understand the big
issues in our context, praying for wisdom as we speak into them and take
action. It may be costly, but we must embrace our identity and responsibility as
agents of radical, gospel-fuelled, life-giving change in the university. We
must think bigger.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 1:5 (NIV)