Mediating Christ on Campus: Insights From IFES History

“The Priesthood of All Students” by Timothée Joset

A young man stands up in front of 200 students in a packed university hall. As he begins to make an impassioned speech his fellow students start nodding in vigorous agreement. He is a second-year engineering student. But this is not an engineering lecture.

He has just been appointed as the president of his university Christian club.

Over the next year this student will have the authority to determine the club’s teaching and theological vision. He will gain access to thousands of dollars which the club owns to execute their ministries. He will shape how the gospel is proclaimed. Its content. Its form. Its frequency.

After the meeting, this zealous young man is seen waiting at the bus stop. He has just turned 19. He still hasn’t passed his driver’s test. In fact, he has never been to Bible college, he is not an elder at his church, and he only became a Christian in the last year of high school.

Should this be allowed?

All Believers Includes All Students

Timothée Joset’s published thesis, The Priesthood of All Students: Historical, Theological and Missiological Foundations of a Global University Ministry encompasses the first peer-reviewed history of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). Within this historical survey, Joset makes the compelling claim that university student ministry is dependent on applying the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. All Christians are priests who represent God to the rest of the world. Believing students are Christians just like the rest of the church. Therefore, these students should be encouraged and expected to witness to their peers. All believers must mean all students.

The Priesthood of All Students: Historical, Theological and Missiological Foundations of a Global University Ministry

The Priesthood of All Students: Historical, Theological and Missiological Foundations of a Global University Ministry

Langham Publishing. 431.

Drawing on archival records and firsthand accounts, this work explores the history, theology, and missiology of the IFES. It examines IFES’s belief in the priesthood of all believers and missional ecclesiology that presupposes God’s involvement in all aspects of life, including the university. It traces the impact of diverse cultures and theologies upon the manifold expressions of mission IFES has engaged, and the role of IFES in extending the presence of God’s people in places, and among ideologies, where traditional church structures have limited access.

Langham Publishing. 431.

This is not a novel concept within Protestant Christianity. Luther rejected the medieval church view that only priests should mediate God to the world and contended that ‘we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians’.[1] However, Joset identifies university students have not been afforded this identity. Throughout IFES’s history:

[it was perceived] too dangerous for theologically untrained students to meet on their own, study the Bible, and encourage each other to share their faith without direct supervision from trained specialists. (356)

Joset rejects this view. Students have equal status with other believers because of their legitimate priesthood, which involves immediacy, mediation and participation. Students ‘by faith, have an immediate connection to Christ and do not need to rely upon the mediation of … [any] hierarchy’ (1). Students mediate ‘Christ to the world, calling those around them to direct fellowship with Christ’, and students ‘join in Christ’s priesthood by virtue of their participation in the whole priestly people of God: the church’ (1). Joset concludes that ‘any Christian student’ can be involved in ministry to other students because of their ‘immediate relationship with God’ (3).

Our ‘Unlicensed’ Student Priest

The bus arrives. The young student president gets on and joins a non-Christian friend. At the back of the bus they read God’s word together. That young man without a driver’s licence, guided by the Holy Spirit, has the capacity to mediate Christ to his peers. More so, it is his Christian responsibility ‘by virtue of [his] calling’ to participate in God’s mission at university (331).

The Australian arm of IFES (AFES) is enacting Joset’s principle in 2024. Students across the country will read John’s gospel with their peers so that they can Meet Jesus, hoping to reach over 1.4 million local and international university students. This national evangelistic campaign is built upon two core principles: 1) students can best mediate Jesus to their friends by simply sharing the Scriptures and 2) students are best situated to reach other students.[2]

Students do not need oversight to mediate Christ to their peers. Nevertheless, students across the Australia recognise the wisdom, experience and theological education AFES staff possess. They rightfully defer to older Christians and receive training (c.f. Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:5; 1 Tim 5:17).[3] In turn, staff gladly train students because of their conviction it is students who are on the ‘front-line’.

Any Christian student can mediate Christ. Every Christian student must mediate Christ. The first General Secretary of the IFES, Stacey Woods, decried a professionalised approach which discouraged evangelism amongst the ordinary people of the church. He maintained:

[evangelism] is not a task for the selected, gifted few  Rather, it is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian. Regardless of special gifts, all are called and commissioned to this task. Every Christian is a missionary sent by God, a witness to Jesus Christ, in his or her way a herald of the gospel. (332)[4]

So what would the IFES theologians of the past have to say to our Christian student president as he goes about mediating Christ to the campus? It’s a mixed bag.

Every Christian is a missionary sent by God, a witness to Jesus Christ, in his or her way a herald of the gospel.

—Stacey Woods

MIS1001 (6 cps): Missiology in the Undergraduate Setting

Joset contends that Renee Padilla’s ‘concept of integral mission is possibly the biggest theological and missiological contribution of IFES to the church’ (92). Integral mission (misión integral) is summarised as:

The proclamation of the gospel (kerygma) and the demonstration of the gospel (diakonia) … One without the other is an incomplete mutilated gospel … it is foolish to ask about the relative importance of evangelism and social responsibility. This would be equivalent to asking about the relative importance of the right wing and left wing of a plane. (98)[5]

IFES theologians have rightly highlighted the hypocritical tendency within the Western world to criticise majority–world missiological frameworks from a position of socio-economic security without ‘true concern for the total life of other persons’ (64–65, 96).[6] We ought to reform social structures because we care about the total life of the oppressed. In fact we are commanded to (Tit 3:4–8; Jas 2:14–17).

However, we should be wary not to incorporate social service as a pre-requisite for effective evangelism. Equating Christian social responsibility (building hospitals, feeding the sick) with preaching the gospel creates a human–powered gospel which detracts from the power of the cross (1 Cor 1:17–18). The thing that saves people is the gospel. Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and lordship should not share the pedestal with any other aspect of Christian missiology. Ultimately, the gospel (euangelion) is a noun, not a verb. It is a statement about something God has already done, not something Christians need to do. It is good news, not good instruction!

Equating Christian social responsibility with preaching the gospel creates a human–powered gospel which detracts from the power of the cross.

Readers may discover their missiology differs from that of the later theologians of IFES but resonates with the earlier theologians:

while believing that it is always part of the Christian duty to try and ameliorate distress, [we] cannot be enthusiastic about schemes for bringing about world peace … or social uplift by methods of reform … in the gospel of Christ alone lies the only hope for the world by regeneration of the individual. (23)[7]

After completing a theological survey of IFES’s history, Joset offers his own constructive proposals for student ministry. What vision does Joset cast for our Christian student president?

PRS1001 (6 cps): Introduction to Priesting on Campus

Joset asserts that university students best fulfill their priestly role through mediation which specifically addresses the ‘intellectual character’ of students (329). He sees the saturation of the intellectual environment as the pinnacle of effective Christian witness and encourages all students to make this their priority.

Joset’s proposal seems indistinguishable to that of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF). This is especially surprising given that IFES seceded from the liberal WSCF in 1947 due to increasingly divergent missional priorities.[8] Yet here Joset, an IFES theologian, praises the ‘remarkably contextualised approach’ (56) of the WSCF who in 1956 advanced,

the direct proclamation of the gospel … is an essential activity of the Federation … this being said … in our secularised universities many students will never be reached by so-called direct evangelism. We have to live among them … sharing in the interests and problems of our fellow students …Christian witness … should serve both to renew and to sustain intellectual ferment which is essential to the rational character of the University. (56–57)[9]

Joset (and the WSCF) promotes a missiology which emphasises the university’s renovation through the academic endeavour of Christian students.

Joset sees the saturation of the intellectual environment as the pinnacle of effective Christian witness.

He also exhorts student leaders to embrace a bilateral mediation. Christian students mediate God to their campus, but they also receive a mediation from the campus. Christian students, in their academic studies, ‘discover more about the ins and outs of the creation which they know belongs to the God they worship’, and in turn bless the church by bringing in ‘the good fruits of the academic land’ (337–338). This implies that non-Christian university staff mediate God to the Christian students and the church![10]

But most concerningly, Joset’s intellectual priestly mediation lacks gospel proclamation. He employs 1 Peter 2:4–9 to show how ‘witness and worship’ are a ‘logical consequence’ of priesthood (247). But such witness and worship have a significantly diminished emphasis in Joset’s vision for IFES student leaders; intellectual renovation remains the goal.

Beyond theological critique lies a pragmatic concern: even when evangelism is commended, socialising pressures can mean Christian witness reverts to social justice with gospel proclamation set aside. While Joset affirms a commitment to scriptural authority, repentance and faith (96), his proposed way forward does not capture the urgency of word-based gospel proclamation.[11]

A Cautionary Approval

Joset’s book is an academic work, and thus has a specific target audience. His work should be read by all university ministry workers. It may benefit youth/young adult workers seeking to develop a sense of ownership in their ministries.[12] The Priesthood of All Students may also encourage and instruct student leaders within university Christian societies. Finally, it would assist those seeking to understand IFES’s significant impact on contemporary evangelical perspectives on church, vocation, contextualisation, and mission. Church ministers may particularly benefit from reading Joset’s work given IFES’s bold claim that:

the evangelical student who fails to be sufficiently tenacious of evangelical belief and conduct in the University rarely succeeds in being so during the rest of his career (348).[13]

Joset has written a phenomenal book. After reviewing large quantities of IFES’ archival documents, he has produced a balanced and exhaustive historical theology. He brilliantly synthesises scholarship from every continent to complete the gargantuan task of producing a global theology of student ministry. He rejects viewing students as subpar Christians, upholds their dignity, and encourages them to thoughtfully pursue mission in their God given context.

However, Joset’s emphasis on intellectual mediation is suspect. Effective priestly mediation will not be achieved through the academic renovation of the university by undergraduates or the ethical renovation of society by graduates. It requires words. God’s priestly students should mediate him to the world by the verbal proclamation of the good news of salvation. For as Peter says,

But you are a royal priesthood that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1 Pet 2:9)

[1] Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520); see also Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520).

[2] Joset quotes Woods: ‘more university students have been truly converted through Bible study than through any other means’ (174); see Woods, Some Ways of God, 102.

[3] Joset highlights that a coaching metaphor is recurrently employed to describe staff-student relationships in IFES publications (126, 181). Clowney reflecting of his previous scepticism of student-led ministry states ‘I was wrong. Students do need instruction and counsel, but leadership develops where students have a real responsibility for witness’ (183); see Hunt and Hunt, For Christ and the University, 71.

[4] Woods, Some Ways of God, 106.

[5] David C. Kirkpatrick, ‘C. René Padilla and the Origins of Integral Mission in Post-war Latin America’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 67.2 (2016): 368. When Padilla speaks of ‘the demonstration of the gospel’ he is not talking about bread-and-butter Christian character. He is specifically talking about the ‘course of action [that the Christian university student] is to take in the presence of prevailing social problems and of the ideologies which purport to be able to solve them’; René Padilla, “Student Witness”, 11.

[6] Adeney, China, 56, 63; Burki, Confrontation, 26.

[7] Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, Old Paths for Perilous Times (2nd Ed, 1932), 38.

[8] Secessions occurred at various times, UK (1928), USA (1941). Other groups arose alongside the liberal WSCF groups, Australia (1930).

[9] WSCF, Report of the Commission on Evangelism (1956), 2–3.

[10] Consequently, he seems to contradict his central thesis that legitimate priesthood is established by an individual’s direct access to God.

[11] Evangelical Declaration of Cochabamba, 187.

[12] See also Ruth Lukabyo, From a Ministry for Youth to a Ministry of Youth: Aspects of Protestant Youth Ministry in Sydney 19301959 (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2020).

[13] Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions, ed., Principles of Co-Operation (London: IVD, n.d.), 16.