A few weeks ago, I was with InterVarsity’s sister movement in Nigeria, at their student missions conference, which is similar to our Urbana Student Missions Conference. Nigerian staff and students worshiped loudly, passionately, hopefully, at a conference center guarded by security forces with automatic machine guns. A terrorist attack was possible at any moment.
In the midst of persecution by Boko Haram, where 1.5 million have already been forced from their homes and are without food in the Muslim North, thousands of students accepted the call to intentionally move to the North because, as they shared with me: “We won’t give in to fear. The gospel is worth sacrificing our lives.”
I returned with a full heart, encouraged to see how God is at work through our sister movement in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). As we face new challenges to our work on U.S. campuses, we can learn from movements who are facing challenges in other parts of the world. Here are five characteristics of Nigerian Christian students I saw that I believe we need to pay attention to and learn from.
1. Equipped to preach and passionate about the gospel
I was inspired by the evangelistic fervor of the Nigerian students. They had a clear focus on the importance of the eternal rather than the temporal, and a passion for seeing the salvation of their fellow students through sharing the good news of Jesus. In my one small group alone, I witnessed every student preach the gospel (and a mini-sermon) on the spot without any hesitation.
Moreover, there was practically a standing ovation when a speaker challenged the students to go to an east Asian country for their post-graduate studies. The government of that country is encouraging African students to attend their graduate-level universities, and Nigerian students see this as a wonderful opportunity to study abroad as mission. They have a vision to reach not only east Asians but also the more than 400,000 international students studying there. I saw similar enthusiasm in my seminar on missions in Asia; it was standing room only, as students desperately want to go to the unreached.
In another amazing story, the chaplain to the vice president of Nigeria described how, as a student, he kept pestering a professor with the gospel every week until finally the professor gave him the opportunity to sit down and share with him. That professor was convicted, gave his life to Christ—and is now the vice president of Nigeria!
It made me wonder, how can we continue to instill this zeal for evangelism in our students, so that they too would be willing to go anywhere in order to share the gospel?
2. Resilient in the midst of persecution
Militant Islam is the number one issue in Nigeria; 1.5 million people have already been forced from their homes and are without food in the Muslim North due to Boko Haram, who is attracting increasing numbers of recruits. Some NIFES students and staff have lost loved ones to attacks. The new Nigerian president is also putting into effect more Muslim-friendly and anti-Christian laws.
The students I met were amazingly resilient despite this constant threat, not giving into fear but boldly continuing to proclaim the gospel wherever they are, including on mission trips to rural villages. What can you say to the thousands of students who are accepting the call to intentionally move to the Muslim North, willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the gospel?
And terrorism is not the only challenge. Many students shared testimonies of how they came to the university with only a few dollars and constantly struggle with money. (The cost of the conference was 10 dollars, requiring scholarships for many students.) Yet they declared, “The gospel is always good news, and we need to share it,” and they considered their present sufferings as nothing compared to fellow students who suffer from not knowing the love of Christ.
They are also very aware of the spiritual warfare present, and confident in God’s power and victory over darkness, which was reflected in many of their prayers and during worship times. The resiliency found in the persecuted church around the world is a constant theme.
It made me wonder how we can develop an American student generation that is resilient, especially in the face of complex, cultural challenges on campus today. And how do we develop InterVarsity graduates who are equipped to engage an increasingly Muslim world?
3. Biblically literate and theologically mature
One of the biggest issues facing the Nigerian church is the propagation of the prosperity gospel, which is what the largest and fastest growing churches there espouse. But I was struck by how wise and discerning the students were about false teaching and false doctrine. They debate theology with one another in a healthy way.
Along the same lines, they are extremely literate when it comes to Scripture; it’s engrained in their hearts. One of the conference speakers paused about 10 times during his sermon to mention a Scripture passage, and would ask, “What does the Lord say in Acts X:X?” And the students would immediately recite the verse from memory. I wondered if most of us would be able to do that!
This biblical literacy extends to particular issues. Students and staff have frequent Bible study and a clear theology regarding issues such as spiritual warfare, sexual purity, the divinity of Christ, and money. They could preach a sermon on the spot!
On the other hand, Nigerian students are not entirely immune to cultural influences. The wide acceptance of the prosperity gospel in society means they are often tempted to give in to materialism or temporary pleasures, or “to seek blessings on this earth.” In this way, they were quite similar to American students (or any other students around the world for that matter).
It made me wonder how we can help our American students differentiate a false gospel from a true gospel. How do we better equip them biblically and theologically?
4. Committed to seeing their nation transformed
While their primary outcomes might be focused on evangelism or seeing the gospel penetrate the campus, Nigerian students seem clear about their desired impact: “to develop tomorrow’s leaders for transforming the nation,” which is written in their brochures and talked about up front. Would other Nigerians miss NIFES if it ceased to exist? It seemed clear that the answer would be yes—so much so that the vice president of Nigeria (and his entourage) planned a visit to the conference! In previous years, governors and senators have also visited, to affirm the importance of NIFES’ ministry in Nigeria.
In addition, NIFES leaders are often asked to speak at the Nigerian National Council of Churches, and are closely connected to the archbishops and other national Christian leaders. They are seen as instrumental in the building up of all of Nigeria—including the Muslim North—and in various ecumenical faith initiatives, all while still maintaining their primary focus on the campus.
It made me wonder if InterVarsity/USA would be missed if we ceased to exist. Would the university or the Christian church miss us? Would the government even notice?
5. Eager to grow global partnerships
Our mutual desire to learn from each other struck me. Many Nigerian staff directors spoke to me about how impactful Urbana was for them—how it inspired them in missions, and how they recommend it to as many students as they can. They also thanked Urbana 15 for the offering, which made it possible for more than 1,000 Nigerian student scholarships to be given out for this conference.
Additionally, Nigerian leaders expressed deep appreciation for the sacrifice of InterVarsity/USA and the Cabinet for sending me and having me spend six days at their conference. They realized that it was a significant investment, one that speaks highly of our desire for strong partnership.
There are dozens of Nigerian alumni groups in the U.S. who all would like to connect with U.S. chapters. Many of these Nigerian graduates would be inspirational speakers, and would challenge our American perspectives in a helpful way. How can we make connections and make space for Nigerians to participate in our chapters, and perhaps minister alongside us as volunteers?
There are also thousands of Nigerian international students studying in the U.S. Many have already found InterVarsity chapters. But the importance of ministry to international students was so evident, as they also see how strategic it is for their Nigerian students to reach students from other countries. Can they help with our ISM work?
Finally, it made me wonder how we can create space for senior leaders in our movement to invest more in global partnerships, by, for example, taking the time to visit a sister movement like Nigeria in order to learn from the global body of Christ.
My hope is that we can continue learning from the experiences of the majority world church and from our sister movements in IFES.