An interview with Tim Adams, the new General Secretary of the global movement IFES. “This student generation has the opportunity to show that faith makes a difference to who we are - it’s not just a set of ideas”.
Tim Adams, from the UK, is the new General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).
IFES unites over 160 national student movements, all of which share a focus on “impacting the university, the church and society for the glory of Christ”.
After 22 years of a strong involvement in the IFES leadership on different levels, Tim Adams spoke to Evangelical Focus about what his priorities will be in his role leading the global community of IFES.
[photo_footer]Tim Adams, the new General Secretary of IFES. / IFES
Question. As many others, you were also once a student. What do you remember of your own university years?
Answer. I first studied in the early 90s in a university in Kent (Canterbury). Although I came from a Christian family, leaving home and being suddenly free and on my own felt like a crazy situation. There were so many options. I remember very much my first day at university. My dad dropped me off, and for the first time in my life I had to establish myself as a person. But before he left, we went around looking for information about the Christian Union [CU, the name with which Christian student groups are known in the UK]. Even the very first evening, there was a welcome event of the Christian Union, a film night, and I started to be part of a community there.
I don’t know how I would have survived if I didn’t have the anchor of the Christian Union there to strengthen me in my faith and root me in the community.
In my particular corridor there were no other Christians, and this forced me to be more open about my faith. I hosted a small Bible study group in my room, other Christian student were coming in every every week at a certain time. That made me very conscious of what it means to be a faithful witness, because the people in my corridor became friends, a community I was part of. I was “the Christian” there, so I had to be able to explain my faith and to live a life that was worthy of the gospel. Of course, others lived their lives differently.
The CU years were of much personal growth in my faith. I was asked to join the exec [the leadership team] in my first year. I was part of the discussions and the decisions about mission weeks, etc, and was the person inviting speakers to come; and when they would arrive, I would meet them, take them for a meal, chat with them… That was a great chance to get to know local church leaders and other Christians from other places.
Q. Student leadership is a very central value of IFES. How can the global fellowship continue to strengthen this priority?
A. You are absolutely right that in IFES, the heart of our ministry is equipping and empowering students to be active and live out their faith on campus. Staff workers teach and train, but the real witness is done by the students to the students.
Students are really the players on the football pitch, they are the ones playing the game for the Kingdom in the university. Local staff workers from the national movements support them in this task, encourage them, advise them, and spur them on. And then, there are national leadership training events that students can attend, and we as a global IFES fellowship are behind, supporting the national movements.
The current student generation is the “connected generation”, digital natives, so at the beginning of the pandemic it was the students that became the teachers, coming up with many ways of continuing in fellowship, bible study and evangelism online.
In the UK, for example, many Christian Unions are having their mission weeks as virtual events, and they are seeing students coming to faith.
Q. How should student groups and the church in general behave in increasingly pluralistic and polarised societies in which Biblical Christianity is never one of the main worldviews?
A. The situation is different in every country. Christianity is still one of the main worldviews in many places, but this needs to match up with the way that we live out our lives. In most countries, there can be a discipleship gap: a difference between identifying as a Christian and living as a Christian. Those of us in student ministry need to ensure that what we teach our students is relevant and connected to the issues they face and helping to close this gap.
In terms of philosophies of life, there is so much on offer for students now. I think it is important that Christian students are equipped to respond and engage with these other ways of living. We believe that faith makes a difference to who we are - it’s not just a set of ideas. This generation has the opportunity to demonstrate this.
[destacate]“Students are really the players on the football pitch, playing the game for the Kingdom in the university”
We are living in an increasingly liberal culture and everyone has a right to have an equal voice. This can in some ways be perceived as threat, especially in Christian Europe where we were used to have an advantage that we no longer have.
But it is also an opportunity to stand up for the right to share what God has done in our lives. It begins with Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his ascension, saying ‘go into Judea, Samaria, the ends of the world, and be my witnesses’. This is our job on campuses, to be Christ’s witnesses there.
Q. In these times of Covid-19 pandemic, everything seems to have gone online. How to be salt and light in a context such as this?
A. I think it is harder now. That is what I hear from different general secretaries from IFES groups from around the world. They find it ok to reach the students inside the groups, including the discipleship work, the Bible studies… Those things are working. But it is not so easy to invite others in.
Of course, we continue to be called to speak out about different things. If you talk to students in Africa, they will say that corruption is still a big issue in their lives, in their societies and in their universities, and they want to speak up about it.
The “Logos and Cosmos” initiative is another example. It helps students think about science and faith issues.
There are many ways in which we can be salt and light. Living in a way that demonstrates our love, our care and concern for each other, and for a world that is going through such a difficult time, is always a light to those around us.
[photo_footer]Christians students in Vanatu. / IFES
Q. Does IFES have a strategy about using new technologies to build synergies between student movements in different countries?
A. Yes! We are in the process of developing a platform for online communities. One of IFES’ strengths is our wide network, and we want to do a lot more to connect people in student ministry together so that they can share resources, advice, and encourage one another.
Q. Missiologists speak of the growing influence of Christianity in the Global South. How do you see this inside the student world?
A. In terms of numbers, many of the biggest IFES movements are in the south, but IFES has always been a place where every national movement is recognised for its unique contribution. Our first General Secretary, Stacey Woods, was Australian. After him, Chua Wee Hian is Singaporian, Lindsay Brown is Welsh, and Daniel Bourdanné is from Chad.
We are all shaped by our context and culture, and our understanding of God and the gospel is both shaped and limited by our subjective perspective. In recent years, places like Ethiopia and Kenya have seen huge numbers of students coming to faith.
But although the centre of gravity of the global church has moved towards the Global South, a lot of the power structures, including the worship songs and most popular Christian books, are still coming from the places with the most money. If this continues, then we are all missing out.
[destacate]“We try to be intentional, hearing from different parts of the global church and allow cultural perspectives to enrich us”
In IFES events and publications we have tried to be intentional about hearing from different parts of the global church and allowing these other cultural perspectives to enrich and enhance our own understanding. The talks from our World Assembly in 2019, and publications such as “IFES Word & World” are a good examples of how we try to do that.
There is a passion, enthusiasm, and optimism in the student movement in the Global South that contrasts with the pessimism sometimes seen in Europe. Of course, there are challenges in Europe and North America around the right to be able to share our faith with people and the presence of groups on campus that could explain this mood. But it is encouraging to have the dynamism of other movements in their witness.
Q. Talking about Europe, what should be the priorities here in the secularised campuses?
A. One of the things that will not change under my leadership is that we are called to be Christ’s witnesses on campuses and beyond. We used to have a tagline: “Students reaching students”. This continues to be our main focus: students being able to explain the gospel, justify their faith, and connect faith in Jesus to issues they are looking at in their studies.
Evangelism and witness should continue to be a priority, even when it is hard. As well as developing disciples, equipping students so that even after they leave university they are ready to live a life of Christian witness in their professions and in their societies.
Many Christian organisations have a similar vision than ours, we all want to impact church and society for the glory of Christ.
In recent years we have seen God encouraging student movements to have a push for growth, to establish groups in new cities where there had not been presence before. We had an initiative called “Breaking New Ground”, in which we trained people who wanted to pioneer new groups, and even offered small grants to lift barriers that were stopping them from doing it. In the future, we should continue to expand our reach, making sure we have a vibrant witness in all university campuses in our countries.
And another priority for me is to build ministries that last. That means that we have good leadership “pipelines”. We need to work towards sustainability instead of creating a bubble of excitement around something for 1 or 2 years, and then letting it die. We need structures that will help ministries last for a long time.
Q. This growth may also include graduates. Do you see IFES further developing this ministry among young professionals?
A. Yes, over the last few years we have been researching with our national movements the areas of need. Graduate ministry was one of them.
After graduation, in those early years of you career, your faith hits the frontline. Therefore, it is important to equip people in their different professional settings and in ethical issues they will find in the workplace.
We want to make this training more accessible to more people in more countries.
Q. Finally, how can people around the world pray for you?
A. We have many prayer requests! One is the situation of students all over the world. We are realising the challenges of mental health and anxiety that a lot of students face. Ot has to do with the question of how they are going to do in their studies when they have been interrupted so badly over the last year. But also, in terms of their future career prospects and what will it be like to try to find work after they finished their studies. The combination of these worries puts a lot of pressure on students. Pray for them. Pray also for national student movements who try to develop resources to help them in this context.
[destacate]“Pray for the challenges of mental health and anxiety that a lot of students face”
[/destacate]Pray for IFES, we had a leadership transition and it has taken a bit longer than we expected. We are now beginning to articulate the framework for our vision and priorities for the rest of this decade. Until 20202, our vision framework was called “Living Stones”, and we have seen that our national movements have strengthened organisationally, and there has been an increased focus on evangelism, which has been good.
As we start to develop and roll out our vision and priorities for the next decade, I would really appreciate people’s prayers. That we hear God’s voice, and that we are bold in the goals that we set ourselves. Pray that the vision can be a means of unifying this amazing network of 160 member movements and the initiatives in 20 more countries.
And, as I said earlier, the issue of student leadership is a significant prayer point for many IFES movements. Students are usually studying for 3-5 years, so every year between 20% and 33% of our groups will leave, and a new generation of students come in. While Christian student groups have been able to continue lots of their ministry online, I hear from some IFES movements that it is very difficult to really get to know the new intake of students and to identify the leaders for the coming years. This is a big prayer point!