The gospel for the university
A message from students
In 1889, a gathering of 500 Christian students in Japan sent a telegram that reached students in the USA, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Their message was simply: Make Jesus King.
IFES has grown as student groups began connecting across borders and oceans, partnering and praying together towards a shared vision. Today, we are made up of students and staff in more than 180 countries.
We’re pioneering student witness on new campuses, inspiring each other in campus evangelism, engaging with the big issues in our universities and seeing graduates going on to impact society for the glory of Christ.
Whether you are a student doing a Bible study on your campus, a graduate seeing your faith impact your workplace or a supporter praying and giving faithfully to the work, you are a vital part of IFES.
We are in this mission together.
Keep reading the story of IFES and find out how we’re working together today to make Jesus king.
Students with a mission
Howard Guinness, a young British medical student, stepped off a boat from England in November 1928.
His one-way ticket to Canada and thick winter overcoat had been bought for him by his fellow students. They had sold their hockey sticks and books to raise money to send him on a mission: to begin an evangelical witness in the universities of Canada.
Howard travelled between the major university cities, sharing the gospel and encouraging believing students to start meeting together. In many places he found that God was already at work, preparing the hearts of the students he met. They were ready for his challenge.
Within a year a national student movement was established in Canada, which is known today as InterVarsity Canada. Howard went on to help pioneer student ministry in Australia and New Zealand.
“We have been hiding. We will come out of our hiding place and form a definite evangelical witness for Christ so that the whole college shall know!”Student, Canada 1928
Canada was not the only country witnessing a move of God in the university.
Through the 1930s, student fellowships were multiplying around the world as Christ was proclaimed on campuses. National movements of Christian students started to form: from Argentina to Estonia, Jamaica to South Africa, Iceland to Russia, students were coming together with a shared passion to see Jesus made King in the university.
These independent national movements began meeting together to pray, encourage and learn from one another and pioneer ministries in new countries. In 1934 representatives from the movements of Great Britain, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia and Sweden gathered together in Norway. There was a real sense of God calling them on a global mission to the university.
Students from more and more nations joined in these gatherings. By 1939 over a thousand students gathered from 33 different countries.
Momentum was building.
“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: the old, full gospel, preached for revival, conversion, and new life in service for our Lord, at home and abroad.”Ole Hallesby, university professor, Norway 1934
A call to work together
At an international gathering in 1946, there was a unanimous feeling that God was calling for an international fellowship to be formed to further the growth of student ministry around the world.
The group then received an unexpected telegram from the rapidly-growing movement in China, suggesting the formation of a global movement of students witnessing for Jesus. It felt like the confirmation they had been waiting for.
Just a year later, in 1947, representatives from ten national student movements came together at Harvard University, USA, to form the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).
They agreed on a basis of faith, a constitution and the autonomy of every national movement member. Though they were from different cultures, languages and continents, they were united in their love for Christ and their vision to see a faithful witness to him on every campus of every university in the world.
This vision has been handed down through every generation of students. Through persistent prayer. Through sacrificial giving. Through a willingness to leave everything behind to go to the universities of the nations and make Jesus known.
Oyama was a first-year student. He had become a Christian just five months earlier.
He longed to meet with other Christians, but Sunday classes prevented him from going to church. So Oyama started praying for a Christian friend on campus.
Before long, a daily prayer meeting started. The group met in the ruins of a bomb-damaged storeroom, surrounded by dust-covered desks.
Daily prayer meetings were soon happening on three campuses, and a small revival began. The young movement was helped by missionaries from Great Britain and the USA – nations which, just two years before, had been at war with Japan.
Today around 1,500 students are involved in KGK Japan on 169 campuses across the country.
Stacey Woods, the General Secretary of InterVarsity Canada, was flying home when the small plane he was on developed a fault.
The plane landed in Jamaica for repairs and the unscheduled five-day stop gave Stacey the opportunity to explore the island. He wondered if there was potential to start a student movement there?
He visited schools, heard about the plans to open Jamaica’s first university, and met with church leaders and Christians in education. They were eager and ready to work together. They had already been praying for this.
Four years later, in 1948, at the request of three Jamaican students studying in Montreal, InterVarsity Canada sent one of their staff – Cathie Nicoll – to Jamaica for three months to help pioneer high school work and campus ministry.
Today an estimated 5,000 young people in schools and universities are involved in SCF/SU Jamaica.
Student ministry in Mexico began in the 1940s, but it was several years before the work started to thrive.
In a context of fierce anti-Protestant opposition, many Christian students kept quiet.
In 1963, one Christian student in Mexico City hesitantly invited her friends to study the Bible. They met out of sight, deep in the woods. Gradually, as their interest and confidence grew, the students moved out into the open. One morning while they sat together on a low wall to read the Bible, they were joined by three students passing by. On seeing this, the student leader’s heart was changed and from then on, the group met openly. The following year saw the start of 12 evangelistic student Bible studies.
Two years later, the Swiss evangelist Hans Bürki came to speak at a university. Hundreds of students gathered to hear him. During his talk, a left-wing group piped tear gas through the ventilators, causing momentary alarm around the auditorium. But the event continued until 11pm, and the movement continued to grow.
One of the instigators of the tear gas attack became a Christian and 13 years later was appointed as a staff worker for the local movement.
Today more than 1,000 students are involved in COMPA Mexico groups on 108 campuses across the country.
When UESI India graduate Thomas surrendered his life to God, he hadn’t expected to end up teaching in a secondary school in a remote village in Nepal.
His home was a mud-hut, a three-day walk from the nearest road. Preaching the gospel in the early 1970s was illegal. Even so, each evening Thomas would cook and eat dinner with students in his home, telling them about Jesus.
Six years later, Thomas was asked by IFES to move to Kathmandu, to pioneer a student ministry in the university there. He rented a larger mud house in the heart of the city, where he and a small group of students met together regularly. In August 1979, with fewer than ten Christian students, the national movement NBCBS was started.
Some of the students who cooked and ate with Thomas in his mud-hut home were among the first Bible study leaders of NBCBS.
Sharing the gospel was not always easy: it required courage and creativity. One student hid gospel tracts inside popular university library books, in the hope that they would be found and read by students. But in 1990, new religious freedom enabled students to organise a gospel campaign. They reached over 25,000 students and hundreds came to know Christ.
Today there are active student groups in 76 locations across the country.
UJC, the student movement in Chad, had been active for 22 years when a devastating civil war broke out.
Tens of thousands died and many of the UJC groups stopped meeting. Its bank account was cut off, publications ceased, and the headquarters were plundered.
Volunteers kept in contact with the students and encouraged them to start new fellowship groups. UJC even appointed its first staff worker, Djikoloum Magourna, at that time. Each group undertook to provide a certain number of litres of petrol to support his ministry. Despite the dangers, Djikoloum and the other staff continued to travel around the country and by late 1980 there were 34 student groups in Chad.
Meanwhile, thousands of students were forced to leave the country to continue their education elsewhere. As a result, several IFES movements were pioneered across Africa, as committed Chadian students lived out the gospel in their new universities: in Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Togo, Niger, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Morocco and Tunisia.
Scottish student John Woodhead had been on an archaeology field trip in Cyprus.
He heard that there was an IFES Middle East conference happening in the same place, so he went along.
At the conference, people prayed together for the country of Israel, where there was no immediate prospect of student work beginning.
John had grown up in Israel and had friends among both Arab Christians and Messianic Jews. “John, you should go and start the student work there!” they encouraged him. But he didn’t take it seriously: “I’m only a student”, he thought.
Later that year however, Chua Wee Hian, the IFES General Secretary, was visiting Scotland and met John in Edinburgh.
“John, I’ve spoken to all the Christian Unions around Scotland and they’ve all pledged to support you in going to Israel.”
So it was decided! With his ticket paid by fellow students, John set out in 1980 on a short-term trip around Israel, meeting up with his contacts to talk about starting a student ministry.
After graduating, John moved back to Israel to help establish the new movement further.
Today, FCSI Israel has fellowships in all the universities and large colleges in Israel, with more than 250 students involved.
Nino first heard the gospel at the age of 17, just after the Iron Curtain fell.
She came to faith a year later and immediately felt a desire to tell others about Jesus. She started reading the Bible with two university friends from her history class, and in the evenings Nino helped to lead the first student Bible studies in people’s homes.
Georgia in the 1990s was a dangerous place for Nino and other Christians. One student was beaten up by a street gang because he was a Christian. Another was threatened with a knife at her throat because she was sharing her faith. Any student turning to Christ in those days understood the costs involved.
Since then, Georgia has seen a remarkable transformation.
Because of the faithful witness of those who had gone before, there are now active student groups in three cities and pioneering work in a fourth. The movement is involved in high school work, university mission weeks and graduate ministry. Many students are turning to Christ.
Solomon Islands 2013
It wasn’t an impressive scene. Students were praying for different countries in the South Pacific at the IFES regional conference in 2013.
At the end of the session, six students got up and asked for prayer as their country had been overlooked. They pulled out a tiny flag: the Solomon Islands. To an outsider it must have looked like a very insignificant moment. Pioneering in the Solomon Islands wasn’t on anyone’s agenda, but together they prayed that one day God would start a student movement there.
Today, 30 students gather together each week to study the Bible and encourage each other in evangelism in this small, but thriving student movement.
Post-graduate student Sara stepped off the plane. It was minus 22°C – colder than she’d ever experienced before.
She was visiting Greenland for the first time, as part of a group of students from KFS, the IFES movement in Denmark. The country had been on Sara’s heart for some time. At World Assembly in 2015, she had witnessed eight new movements affiliating to IFES. Each of them had been supported by the movements in neighbouring countries. What about Greenland? Sara wondered. If Denmark does not go to start a student ministry there, who will?
During the two-week trip, Sara could feel God impressing on her heart a love for the beautiful country and its people. Although most identified as Christians, very few had a relationship with Jesus. Sara and her husband Filip could feel God calling them.
“The feeling I had was that I just needed to go home and pack a larger suitcase, and then I was ready to move there.”
KFS are now partnering with Sara and Filip as they move there to pioneer a student ministry.
Equatorial Guinea 2019
Spanish graduate Aida had a unique childhood. Until the age of seven she lived in Equatorial Guinea with her missionary parents.
Her friends called her mwana ntang (‘white girl’) and taught her to play with a stick and tyre in the bush. The country and its people have been on her heart ever since.
Aida recently spent two weeks back in Equatorial Guinea. While she was there she met up with local Christian students in Malabo and encouraged them to start meeting regularly. It was a significant time for them.
Aida, together with GBU Spain, are now responding to God’s call to move back and partner with these students to establish a movement.
Our global movement today
These stories give only a taste of how the gospel has been bearing fruit amongst students over the last hundred years.
There are now student movements in countries like Cuba, Myanmar, Timor-Leste and Albania, where it once seemed impossible to dream that a visible witness could be established. In the face of opposition, Christian students are boldly sharing the gospel in the Middle East, in Eurasia and across the continent of Africa.
And our global fellowship keeps growing. At World Assembly 2019, twelve national movements affiliated to IFES: Cambodia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Cayman Islands, Vanuatu, Myanmar, Faroe Islands, Montenegro, Guinea-Bissau, Grenada and two other movements in Eurasia and Europe.
In total, there are now 160 IFES-affiliated national movements and we’re working in over 180 different countries.
Through our regional teams and by supporting national movements, IFES is inspiring students in evangelism, equipping students and faculty to engage biblically and holistically with the university, pioneering new student groups, and forming disciples and future leaders who will go on to impact the church and society for the glory of Christ.
Find out how IFES is making an impact in your region and connect with your national movement:
We keep pioneering
The same pioneering spirit that moved the first IFES students to take the gospel to new places lives on in the students of this generation.
Groups are being planted on new campuses even now, in places like Fiji, Peru, Macedonia, Pakistan, Congo and South Sudan.
IFES is supporting students in Chile pioneering in Patagonia, and students in South Sudan creating a mobile Bible exhibition. Students in Ghana are holding inter-faith debates with their Muslim friends and students in Moldova are using a weekend hackathon as a platform to share the gospel.
We’re responding to a changing world
As we look ahead, we must stay alert to the changing world around us.
The list of challenges students face is long: issues of gender and sexuality, freedom of speech, aggressive religious pluralism, the impact of technology on society, political unrest, war, natural disasters, corruption and climate change.
But every challenge presents a gospel opportunity. We’re working to help students engage with their culture and context, to reach the unreached corners of the university world and speak into these issues with gospel power and perspective.
The number of students going to university outside of their home country is rising. This creates a huge opportunity for the gospel. There are now over five million international students around the world, including students from some of the least-gospel-reached nations like: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen. As students turn to Christ, national movements are learning how best to disciple new believers and help them return to their home countries to live out their faith there.
Now it’s our turn
A story like this can only happen when students take bold steps to share the gospel, when staff and churches support their students and when all of us pray and give sacrificially to enable ministry on campuses to flourish.
We are so thankful for what the Lord has done through IFES throughout its history. Now it’s our turn to play our part in this story.
Join us as we work and pray together to see students on every campus make Jesus King.
Watch the IFES Together film and introduce your friends to the story of our global movement.
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