InterVarsity staff workers at the University of Washington (UW) decided last winter that they wanted evangelism to be a higher priority. A vision team began meeting and praying with the student leadership team. “The phrase that kept coming up in prayer was to be a light on campus,” reported campus staff member Phil Hoffman. “People really started to get excited about that.”
Almost immediately they saw an opportunity to act on their prayers. Students who had been to Urbana 06 and learned about World Vision’s AIDS ministry began talking with staff who were involved in a World Vision-sponsored AIDS outreach at a local church. A decision was made to bring the Acting on AIDS campaign to campus.
“A lot of students in InterVarsity got on board quickly,” Phil said. They set a goal to sell 2,000 orange T-shirts emblazoned with the word orphan. The number 2,000 represented five percent of the campus population, corresponding with the five percent of children in Africa orphaned by AIDS.
All 2,000 shirts were sold. The campus newspaper reported “a sea of orange flooded the campus.” World Vision staff said it was their largest orange shirt campaign in the country so far.
A rally was held at Red Square in the middle of campus. At least ten students signed up to become sponsors of children with AIDS after the rally. More signed up after visiting an AIDS tent exhibit at a nearby church.
Plans are already being laid to bring the AIDS tent on campus next year. An Acting on AIDS chapter is being formed at the University of Washington, led by InterVarsity students. The students are learning that social justice issues resonate well with their fellow students and offer a powerful platform for evangelism.
Secular Student Dialogue
Another unique evangelism event presented itself to the students through an unusual coalition with the Secular Student Union (SSU). Phil had met the leaders of the SSU last fall during a religious fair at the student union and decided he wanted to attend some of their meetings.
“I said ‘Hey, you know I’m not actually a student but I work with students. Is it OK if I come?’ I let them know I was a follower of Jesus. And they said ‘Yeah sure, we can use some diversity so it’s not just us agreeing with each other all the time.’”
Phil doesn’t have a strong background in apologetics, but he felt that his family experiences, both growing up and parenting a son born with Down’s syndrome, would help him answer some of the questions that SSU was posing.
“They were asking questions that seemed very relevant to their lives. ‘How can God be good when there’s suffering—like when babies die of SIDS?’ Or ‘Are there miracles any more?’ It’s been a huge learning experience, engaging with their questions.”
As he talks with the SSU students, Phil emphasizes the difference between religion and having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The response has been surprisingly positive. Just a couple of weeks ago one student told him, “You know, the more we talk about this the more I like who Jesus is.” Phil said, “It’s always exciting to hear that from someone who is a pretty strong post-modern, non-believer.”
At an atheist convention in Seattle, one of the SSU students met Hemant Mehta, the author of the recent book i>I Sold My Soul on eBay. One thing led to another and soon SSU and InterVarsity were co-sponsoring an appearance on campus by Jim Henderson, the pastor who won Mehta’s eBay auction. Henderson had invited Mehta to visit various churches and write about the visits on his weblog.
Attendance was about 30, most of whom were atheists curious about Henderson’s message. “He really earned their respect,” Phil reported. “It was really amazing to watch a Christian talk about evangelism and Jesus for an hour and have all these atheists in the room engage with it and listen to what he was saying.”
Phil attributed the success of pastor Henderson’s dialogue with the students to being very honest about his own shortcomings and the shortcomings of religion. “He did a good job of talking about Jesus and who he was and what he stood for,” Phil reported. “He even brought up how Jesus in his time railed against people who were religious but who didn’t know God.” He also apologized for how Christians have mistreated atheists.
“He was very good at asking questions and drawing people out in conversation,” Phil added. After the meeting a small group of attendees went out to dinner to continue the discussion. “It really reminded me of how Jesus interacted with people. It was so neat to see it in somebody up close and personal, how he would get people to dialogue and draw them out.”
Virginia Tech Vigil
When word of the Virginia Tech shooting reached the UW campus, UW officials sponsored a student vigil. The InterVarsity leaders cancelled their large group meeting that night in order to attend the vigil. Candles were handed out, and a very short program was held. The InterVarsity students decided to continue in prayer.
“Most of the people who were at the vigil turned around, saw as gathering in a circle to pray, and came over and joined us,” Phil said. They spent the next 45 minutes praying together as the evening’s darkness descended around them. “Here we had been praying last winter, asking God to help us be a light on campus. And now we were all in the middle of campus in Red Square, holding candles, praying for God to bring peace and hope and comfort to families affected in Virginia. It was another incredible opportunity to be a light on campus.”
Afterwards InterVarsity staff and students were able to have follow-up conversations and prayer times with a number of the prayer vigil attendees. One staff worker has started a GIG (Groups Investigating God Bible study) with one of the attendees.
Looking ahead to the resumption of classes in the fall, Phil has detected a spirit of anticipation growing in his InterVarsity students. “I think the freshmen especially have seen us do these things and they’ve thought it’s normal, we do this all the time. But we haven’t really done anything like this recently, or even when I was a student five to seven years ago.”
Plans are already being laid for further raising InterVarsity’s profile on the UW campus. T-shirts are being designed to express the chapter’s new vision statement, “Serve the campus and change the world.”
“We want to keep asking, ‘How can we serve,’” Phil said. “I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.”
Photo: Phil Hoffman (left) with students Dale and Ryan.
Get more details on this story by listening to the interview with Phil Hoffman. It’s this week’s InterVarsity podcast. You can listen or download the interview by going to InterVarsity’s audio page.
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