Report from the Field
University Student Ministry Flourishing on the Arabian Peninsula
As the call to prayer blares from the centrally located mosque on campus, 20 University students are gradually filling a large study room in the library for a weekly Bible discussion. It's just one of three that happen on this campus each week. But what's particularly striking about this group is that the majority of those in attendance are Muslims. The third weekly meeting was added because of a request from the student president of the Muslim Student Association. A few Hindu's are mixed in as well as those from a nominal Christian background. Eight different nationalities are represented.
For the next hour, the group, led by Maged, a Egyptian first year student, discusses Luke 7:36-50 which recounts Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee. The participants all read from the Biblical passage printed on plain sheets of paper passed around the table. Each is allowed to make comments and draw their own conclusions about Jesus and are only pressed to be consistent and reasonable in their conclusions based on what the text actually says. The discussion is rousing and electric. Most of those in attendance have never read any of the Bible and only one or two have ever owned one. As the discussion draws to a close the leader asks about the implied identity of Jesus based on the parable he tells.
"He's clearly claiming to be God," pipes up one of the Gulf Arab students. Heads nod in agreement around the room.
An evangelical student ministry has been steadily growing for over a decade on the Arabian Peninsula. Bible discussions like the one described above are happening weekly on 16 campuses in one country where the work is based. A similar work has been sparked in a neighboring country as well while pioneering contact with Christian students has been made in another 3 bordering countries.
Students from almost every Gulf country, North Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, and other parts of Asia are involved in the Bible discussions and activities. Many students have become Christians and quite a few Muslim background believers have found their way into the fellowship where they are discipled.
The leaders of the movement point to several factors in the growth and spiritual vitality of the work.
1. The Centrality of a Clearly Defined Gospel Message
At the heart of this work is an ongoing focus on the gospel message with Jesus' perfect life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection at it's core (1 Cor 1:17, Rom 1:16, 1 Cor 15:3-8). Adult leaders in the ministry regularly study different aspects of the gospel message with the student leaders. Everyone is encouraged to be crystal clear on "what is the gospel" and is able to articulate it boldly and with ease in common everyday language. Even important topics in scripture like sanctification, the dignity of women derived from being made in the image of God, and the Trinity are understood to be connected to or flow from the message of redemption in the Bible. Every activity of the ministry is designed in light of the gospel as well.
Discipleship in the group emphasizes grace-driven growth in holiness and doing "the good works he has prepared in advance" (Eph 2:10) for us to do. But a key theme is the understanding that without hearing the verbally proclaimed message of Jesus' atoning work on the cross no one will repent of sin and believe in Christ and therefore enter the Kingdom of God (Rom 10:14).
Freddy, a zealous African student attended Bible discussions on campus and church services with fellow students in the ministry beginning his first few weeks on campus. He insisted he was a Christian and yet his understanding of the gospel was fundamentally flawed and his life did not "line up" with the gospel (Gal 3:14). Through friendly persistence and repeated explanation and clarification of the good news, Freddy repented and acknowledged his sin and distortion of the true gospel of grace. Radical character transformation began and he now has led many to Christ and is gathering many more to church and Bible discussions. He plans to join the ministry team as a full-time student worker once he graduates next year.
Every two years students and leaders of the ministry have planned and led a public Muslim-Christian Dialogue. Attendance at the last event was over 700 and even more watched online from at least 8 different surrounding countries. This has all happened in spite of local opposition from some Muslim government leaders. Each dialogue topic is chosen in order to allow the gospel to be examined and debated. Students and ministry leaders both know that while debates about the transmission and translation of scriptures is worthwhile, the ultimate goal is to explain the reason for the death and resurrection of the Messiah for the atonement of sin. The organizer's goal is for all discussions to hinge on this central message: the gospel.
2. A Biblical View of Conversion
Students in the ministry are taught to have discernment regarding true biblical conversion (Matt 7:17-20). Mere interest in the Bible, a desire to imitate Jesus, or even emotional renouncements of sin are not sure-fire indications of conversion. Students who exhibit these characteristics are encouraged to continue their involvement, but the group is slow to affirm that someone has become a Christian just because a fellow student says they follow Christ now. Leaders learn to look for heartfelt repentance from sin (2 Cor 7:10), ongoing trust in Christ's work on the cross rather than their own works of righteousness (Heb 6:1), and grace produced fruit (Gal 5:22,23; Luke 3:8) in the form of character change and good works (Eph 2:8-10).
Late one afternoon, Mohammed, an Arabian Peninsula citizen of the country, stopped by the local gathering spot for the Christian group on campus. He had been coming to the Bible discussions and had confessed admiration of Jesus. Now he was feeling depressed and despondent. The group member engaged him in conversation about the hope of Christ and the promises of the good news. He sighed and said, "I sure wish I could get that "born-again" feeling". A long conversation followed where the Christian student was able to explain the difference between true conversion and the sense of joy that he was seeing in his Christian friends.
Mohammed has not come to faith, but the group is continuing in friendship and gospel conversation with him. Conversations of this kind are happening daily on these campuses.
2. Partnership With and Service for the Local Church
At one of the student ministry's weekend conferences the topic of "The Importance of the Local Church" was chosen. Some Christian leaders in the community questioned whether the topic would be well attended or "excite" students enough to be worth focusing on. Yet, that conference alone has born more conversions and spiritual growth in the movement than perhaps any other conference in the last ten years. Students flooded into local churches in the weeks following the conference and many are now attending membership classes in preparation for entering the covenant community.
Early on in the formation of the ministry the leaders realized that partnership with strong local churches was crucial. The church, made up of all the local churches that have ever existed, is God's plan for displaying his glory to the watching universe (Eph 3:10). When the ministry was launched, they were seeing students come to Christ, yet they knew that if students were not going to be integrated into the local church and taught that the church was their primary community in the life of faith, then the spiritual growth in the students would slow significantly or be undermined by poor teaching in bad local churches or no church attendance at all (Heb 10:24,25).
The leadership began to invest and serve in a few local churches by participating in leadership and other ministries. The partnership has been of immense benefit to the student ministry. In addition to fruitful discipleship through the campus ministry, students sit under excellent expositional preaching each weekend. Truths they learn during the week in campus Bible studies are reinforced at church and vice versa. They not only invite students to on-campus Bible discussions but to church services as well. Many Muslim and Hindu students have been exposed to their first ever church services in healthy, gospel centered churches that the students attend. The local pastors of these churches are extremely supportive of the student ministry as well, and in the end, the local church is strengthened through the participation of the students.
On one campus, Lisa, Carlos, Steve, and Emily were led to Christ through the student ministry during their freshman year. Later, as they stepped into leadership of the group, one of the requirements for them was to be a member and active participant in a gospel-preaching local church. Each of them gives strong testimony that their few years of sitting under good teaching in the church has been invaluable in their spiritual growth. Some have even turned down attractive study abroad opportunities or job offers where there was no healthy church. Now they're graduating and they won't have the student ministry to be a part of but they already have a great love for the local church, which is where they will continue to live in covenant community until Christ calls them home.
Centrality of the gospel, a biblical view of conversion, and partnership with the local church have perhaps played the biggest role in growing a healthy and fruitful student ministry on the Peninsula. No matter what the country, no matter what the culture, God is glorified when these three principles are applied to ministry. May God be glorified through this work and may it spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula despite the obstacles to Christian ministry created by the deeply rooted Islamic culture and the more recent influence of rampant materialism.