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RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Another school year is gearing up — a good time to focus on one of the fastest-growing “people groups” on the planet: college students.
Worldwide, the number of college students has more than doubled — to 130 million — in the past 50 years, according to Ken Cochrum, global campus strategist for Campus Crusade for Christ.
“If taken as a whole, this generation of college students would constitute the world’s 10th-largest country,” Cochrum reports in the August edition of Lausanne World Pulse. “Governments of developing nations have realized that their future depends upon a well-educated population who can compete in today’s borderless ‘glocal’ economy.”
Those governments, joined by corporations and advertisers, “invest millions of dollars each year attempting to influence students and the choices they will make for the rest of their lives,” Cochrum observes. “What about the church? What level of urgency and intentionality do we give to making disciples and building Christ-centered movements among students today?”
Cochrum lists some of the major urban centers that have become magnets for students — Moscow with 1.2 million, Mexico City with 400,000, Rome with 250,000. The list grows, along with the hopes of millions of families riding on their sons and daughters seeking higher education.
I met several elite university students in Moscow a few years ago. They attended a professional development seminar based on Christian principles. The seminar stressed the “soft skills” seldom seen in Russia’s highly competitive business climate: relating to others, constructive criticism, encouragement and teamwork.
“We’re really trying to help students with their understanding of human relationships,” explained one of the seminar leaders, a Southern Baptist worker. “How do you treat people if you want to build trust? One of the most important principles we focus on with them is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated — with dignity and value.”
“We’ve had students who’ve finished the initial phase of training say to us, ‘This is going to change my life.’ Or they’ll say, ‘The Golden Rule is the most important rule in all of life.’ These are lost people saying what Jesus said. It really is business training, but it’s amazing what the Holy Spirit can do when we present truth.”
Maxim, an international business major, had tears in his eyes after the final session as he thanked the leaders. He wrote on his seminar evaluation form:
“I’d like to find out my values. Would you help me? Do you think that career is the meaning of life? When I’m dying, I want to be sure that I was a good man, that I’ve walked through a right life. Is there truth in business that’s going to help me?”
The next step: an invitation to one-on-one mentorships with Christian business professionals. After that, responsive students are invited to home worship groups to delve more deeply into the Gospel. When they become disciples, they will become leaders for Christ in Russia.
Churches and mission ministries probably will never have enough resources to reach every searching student like Maxim. The way to keep up with the global student explosion, Cochrum believes, is to nurture student-led movements that multiply disciples and leaders.
“Healthy student-led movements of spiritual multiplication serve as a leadership engine for the body of Christ,” he says. “Students don’t remain students forever. Within five years most of these 130 million will be on their journey to the marketplace. They will begin leading families and paying taxes. They will shape fields such as government, scientific research, education, sports and entertainment.
“Today’s students will determine tomorrow’s culture…. The next few years represent a significant window of opportunity.”
And let no one underestimate their spiritual potential. American Protestants counted fewer than 1,000 missionaries worldwide before the YMCA launched the Student Volunteer Movement in 1888, led by John R. Mott. By 1920, the movement had directly mobilized more than 8,700 missionaries for reaching the lost — and influenced many more to go — setting the stage for an unprecedented era of Christian expansion worldwide, despite the wars and upheavals of the 20th century.
A new student-led movement might do the same in our time.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.