Reaching students at ‘ancient’ universities

This is Part 1 in a series of reaching students at the broad range of UK universities, and concerns ancient universities.

Durham University
Example Universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Durham

Ancient universities in a nutshell: These institutions have a global reputation. They are normally centuries old, collegiate-based and are concentrated into a small geographical area. There is a wide spread of traditional academic subjects offered, and a strong emphasis on research. Students are high achievers and are more likely to have been privately educated. Very high numbers of international students are in the student cohort. There are often well-known churches in the town, and a sizeable Christian Union with an influential history.

Opportunities at ancient universities: Plenty. It is easy to make a range of friends, both in quality and quantity. Shared college life accelerates the process of making friends, and there is often a developed extra-curricular and sporting programme (both in college, and across the university). The layout of the university means that students are never very far away from one another – it is relatively easy to draw a crowd of students either at lunchtime or in the evenings. Students at these universities often enjoy thinking (even beyond their own academic discipline) and can be willing to discuss ‘big issues.’

Challenges at ancient universities: The busyness of life at these universities can spread students very thin. The presence of a large cohort of Christian students often spread across a small number of local churches can sometimes lead to an unhealthy ‘competition’ between evangelical churches. Churches and CUs compete for time in what is an already crowded marketplace. ‘New atheism’ is at its strongest and most vociferous in some of these universities.

DICCUIdeas for mission for CUs at ancient universities – there are too many here to list, and here are just five:

  1. There’s an opportunity to engage a high proportion of the entire university through a well-planned and advertised events week or carol service
  2. Those living in college will probably never have the number of good friends that they are sharing life with in college: college CU groups have one of the best opportunities for sharing their lives as they share the gospel anywhere in the UK – make sure they’re well-resourced
  3. Regular lunch bars will give you the opportunity to intrigue non-believers and train the CU to answer their friends’ questions – almost certainly you will have an accessible venue, and fellow students will genuinely want to hear how a response is made
  4. Have an alternative ‘Freshers Fair’ after an early central CU meeting, where CU members share the clubs and societies they are part of. Encourage everyone present to join at least one more – witness is much easier when there’s more than one Christian present
  5. The CU is probably big enough and well-enough resourced to be able to support and arrange evangelistic events to particular groups – within departments, those with particular interests, creatives etc. Encourage CU members with shared passions for these groups to get together and give them permission to try new ideas in engaging these groups

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to ancient universities:

  1. Start a ‘local link’ scheme through which church members offer hospitality to international students (and their families, where appropriate). As a church it might be possible to arrange excursions for international students too
  2. Encourage postgraduates and academics within church to informally mentor undergraduate students in their discipline – demonstrating how they have found satisfactory answers to the intellectual challenges within the discipline, and sharing opportunities for witness
  3. Let the Students Union and Volunteering Society know about community projects your church is involved in – these groups are often looking for local projects to support, and may give you contact with a range of students (Christian and non-Christian)
  4. Host a guest service the Sunday after key CU outreach points (e.g. Freshers’ Week, the carol service, events week), arranging a meal afterwards and making it easy for seekers to hook into church life
  5. The CU is normally poorly placed to reach the vast number of postgraduate students at ancient universities. Talk to the postgraduate students in your churches about how the church might better catalyse mission amongst postgraduates.

Tomorrow, we’ll think about red brick universities.

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