Priorities in Post-Graduate Ministry
David Bacon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The size and range of the post-graduate community, the evident current lack of Christian ministry amongst post-grads, the spectrum and enormity of spiritual needs present, and the limited extent (in human terms) of the Church’s resources, all provoke the question: “What should our priorities be in beginning or continuing to minister amongst post-graduates?”
This section of the position paper seeks to find ways forward in developing priorities for ministry. We will begin by discussing the wide range of valid activities that post-grad fellowships, churches or chaplaincies might wish to pursue. We will then go on to point out critical issues which must be weighed in arriving at priorities for ministry. At the same time we will present a description of what we feel to be some absolute priorities which all evangelical groups will want to affirm, plus a flexible set of further priorities which will vary from group to group depending on local circumstances.
The Potential Range of Post-Graduate Ministry
In approaching the issue of what Christian work and fruit we would wish to see growing amongst post-graduates, it is important to have a wide vision. Practical limitations to our thinking, such as the small number of Christians currently involved, or time and energy constraints, will have a place later but must not restrict us here. What, in an ideal world (or better, in five years’ time) would we long to see God doing in our graduate communities?
A partial answer would include:
· Effective outreach by post-graduates. The vast majority of post-grads have little or no knowledge about the Good News, and are currently facing God’s everlasting wrath. Christ has died; God has sent us; the need is desperate, but the solution is already provided and at hand. It must surely be our strong passion and prayer that there would be large numbers of post-grads rescued from hell and brought to heaven, by them hearing the gospel from their friends, or in a church to which their friends have invited them.
· Effective nurturing and encouragement of Christians. Post-graduate Christians are as varied as one could imagine; some have been believers since childhood, others are recent converts. Some are avowedly evangelical, some are profoundly affected by liberal theology, some are devoutly Catholic, some are Orthodox, and many are nearly or utterly nominal in their faith. Some think in a complex and integrated fashion about their beliefs, others compartmentalise away a simple or even naïve faith. Our hope and desire would be to disciple this highly diverse group of God’s people, so that their love for God and understanding of the gospel would grow, their repentance and faith would be increasingly authentic, and their lives would burgeon with service and thanksgiving. This nurturing process could take place in a church, and partially in a network of Graduate Fellowship Bible studies and large meetings, for example. Vital components include exposure to the Bible, real fellowship, earnest prayer, and active outreach, as described above.
· Integration of faith and academic study. Post-graduates spend considerable amounts of their time thinking about and adding to the body of knowledge or opinion which constitutes their academic field. If the Christians among them are to acknowledge Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of their lives, it is vital that they form views as to how the gospel relates to their study. Moreover, this thoughtfulness may be significant in conversations with non-Christians regarding the truth of Christianity, which they may have dismissed due to particular stumbling-blocks in their discipline. More importantly still, given the well-known diffusion of originally academic ideas to the public at large, thought-out academic Christians may well affect the public perception of Christianity in coming years. So a forum for Christian post-graduates to discuss key academic/faith issues which they’re struggling with, or events where Christians who have thought hard about such issues are invited to speak, would be strongly beneficial. Attending Christians would be better informed; attending non-Christians may well be caused to think again.
· A community that gives out beyond its borders. Ambitiously, we could hope that post-graduate Christian activity could be so blessed by God that there is a super-abundance of well-taught, highly motivated Christians who will be ready and available to help in other areas of the Church’s life. Many possible new directions are possible, as varied as a particular church’s ministries. Perhaps the most immediately related would be for Christian post-grads to act as support for undergrads, by one-to-one discipleships, perhaps giving talks for undergrad CUs (evangelistic or academically related), or giving advice as approached.
The list could doubtless be extended; but the above gives an indication of the broad range of possibilities for post-graduate ministry. Given that not all of these worthy activities could initially be equally weighted, and that it is far from clear that they should be equally weighted in a Graduate Fellowship, we turn now to a consideration of what factors should guide us in prioritising our goals for ministry.
Issues in Prioritising
How should we divide our time, creative energy, and active participants between the strands of ministry discussed above? For concreteness, take for instance the case of a new group of four post-grads who would like to start a Christian Graduate Society in their University. How should they proceed? What should they aim for? Or alternatively, the case of a Graduate Fellowship that has existed for many years, but in which the new committee wants to examine carefully the Fellowship’s goals and emphases. How should they change? How should they effect the change?
At least the following points would be important to consider.
1. The overall priority must surely be that post-graduates are saved and glorify God. That is to say, our vision is unswervingly set by the Bible; we cannot have any primary goal other than a commitment to the gospel of Jesus being heard, believed and acted on, through God’s grace and for his sake. If post-graduates in a community have no real invitation to faith presented to them, or if Christian post-graduates are not growing in their faith, then the Christian ministry to post-grads present in that community is certainly failing comprehensively. We cannot afford to be inward looking.
2. Nowhere near all of the responsibility for acting on the overall priority need be, or should be, carried by a Graduate Fellowship. The local church family must be our primary loyalty; and for their part, it is the local church’s responsibility to preach the gospel, to teach, to incorporate graduates into the spiritual family, to care for them and to send them out equipped for outreach. Any concept of a Graduate Fellowship operating as an independent church must be opposed; God has not called us to fellowship only with people similar to ourselves, but also with those that we would never choose to mix with, and only bond with by the miracle of adoption.
Equally, we should be dissatisfied if attendance at a Graduate Fellowship’s meetings was perceived by someone to be a suitable end-point in their search for a church. We are delighted if such people come to such meetings, but our ultimate aim is that they settle in a church and become integrated with God’s wider family.
The precise proportion of evangelism and nurture that is done directly within a particular local church compared to the amount done by a Graduate Fellowship will vary according to the church in question. Regarding nurture, some churches will suggest that graduates join home-groups; others might suggest they go to a Grad Fellowship prayer and Bible study evening. At any rate, working with the churches is essential. We recommend discussion with church leaders regarding support, training and oversight of all involved in a Grad Fellowship, and especially Fellowship leaders.
3. One can make a strong case for a considerable responsibility in evangelism resting with a Graduate Fellowship: Christian post-graduates within the University are well-placed to share the gospel day-to-day, and must work together within the University in a coordinated fashion if they are to be effective. The argument is similar to that for the existence and evangelistic emphasis of undergraduate Christian Unions. Consequently, we believe that we should encourage churches to see members’ involvement in Graduate Fellowship as a very useful contribution to the outreach life of the church. Many churches actively supporting graduate evangelism by post-grads would make a huge difference in the Universities.
4. Prayer is vital. In deciding upon priorities, but far more importantly in the ongoing life of the group, the importance of prayer cannot be exaggerated. If there is only one weekly Grad Fellowship meeting for Christians (and that may well be desirable), earnest corporate prayer must surely be a major component of it.
5. We can’t do everything at once. As a graduate group grows, diversification may well be possible, but it’s important to consider how to make an impact regarding point (1) in a small area first. In the case of a small group which is just starting, helpful questions include, “What sort of graduates do we naturally come into contact with? How can we give them a chance to hear the gospel, given our abilities – a prayer support group and personal evangelism? A discussion group based on the basics of Christianity, or faith/academic issues? An evangelistic Bible study? Inviting people to church? How can we encourage the Christian grads we know? How can we find out about more of them? What can the church do well, and what are we better placed to do as a Grad Fellowship?” Starting where we are, with much prayer, and not trying to reach all grads at first or fill every ministry niche, will lead to sustainable development.
In this connection it is worth noting any other Christian groups on campus, as again we can avoid duplication by working together. For instance, if a Christians in Science group exists, it will deal with one large swathe of academic/faith issues, so a Grad Fellowship can enthuse about such a group to interested members.
6. Different sections of the graduate community may be interested in different styles of activity. If we find that, deliberately or accidentally, we are primarily ministering to one section of the grad community (the international students, say, or the Brits, or the scientists, or…), we must take into account the differences in what style of events is likely to appeal – either to the current section, or to other sections that we wish to reach (and asking ourselves how to reach new sections must be an important step in failing to get cosy). For instance, would scientists be more or less willing than arts students to come to a talk discussing faith and academic issues? Will Brits come to a coffee and cake party? Will Far-Easterners react well to an open discussion? These factors may influence the particular activities we choose to be involved in. However, regardless of the style of our events, we should always aim to be concentrating on presenting and honouring Christ, as in point (1).
The points above represent a significant portion of the prioritising process. No doubt much more can be said. But with prayer, frank discussion with peers and church leaders, and a clear vision of the overall aim of building the kingdom of God amongst graduates, there is no reason why a godly set of priorities should not be reached.
It will then be absolutely vital that the goals and aims are widely understood and accepted by the Christians involved in the group – a vision statement, plus widespread enthusing from the committee and other responsible members (e.g. Bible study group leaders), are advisable.
We have discussed the range of opportunities available for ministry amongst post-graduate students. These opportunities are broad, challenging, and extremely promising as one looks towards the next five years. Nevertheless, the workers are few, and we must pray for many more to join us.
Beyond this, we must choose how to prioritise the task. We have suggested that churches and Graduate Fellowships both have a key part to play in post-graduate ministry, and have emphasised that evangelism must always be at the forefront of our concerns. Wide variation will exist in the way that churches and grad groups share out the aspects of ministry, and this must be decided upon via detailed discussion between church and grad group leaders. Moreover, wide variation can exist in the detailed form of a grad group’s activities – one might emphasise academic/faith issues as a means to evangelism and edification; another might conduct its evangelistic work primarily through Bible studies. Such decisions should be taken with a primary concern in mind: that many post-graduates will be rescued, and that rescued post-graduates will become fuller disciples of Christ.