2023 Ministry Insights

by EU GradsFund

As staffworkers on campus, there are a number of questions that we keep trying to answer in order to minister well on campus. In order to reach unbelieving students with the gospel, we ask questions such as, “What are the felt needs of students today? What methods of communication and invitation are effective in helping students engage with Jesus? What are their belief blockers? And how do our Christian students need to be trained and equipped to engage with their friends?”

Similarly, in order to encourage and equip the Christian students toward maturity in mind, character, and skill, we ask questions such as, “What factors are preventing students from taking advantage of the opportunities available to grow in their relationship with God and service of him? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the students that we see today? And what are the key ways that students need to be formed in thought, habit, and skill for a lifetime of faith and fruitful service of others?”

As we come to the end of 2023, we are continuing to reshape our answers to these questions as the student population and culture keeps changing.

Felt needs. According to research done by McCrindle, Gen Z’s major hopes and fears revolve around pragmatic financial realities. They want to own their own home, have full financial freedom and independence, and travel and see the world. Along with this, they fear that they won’t have enough money to live comfortably, or will never be able to buy their own home. They are also very concerned about working conditions – the third topmost fear is being stuck in a job they don’t enjoy or find fulfilment in.

To a large extent we might expect all of these to be top of mind for university students: they are trying to set themselves up for life and have ideals for work that they want to pursue. These hopes and fears also reflect the economic reality in which young people find themselves: homes today cost 13 times more than the average full-time annual income, compared to the average house costing 6 times the average full-time annual income for Baby Boomers. Yet at the same time we might notice that there is a narrowness to this vision – “living comfortably” is a smaller vision than “see a positive impact in the world”. And to be sure, the latter is still attractive to young people even if the former is the more pressing felt need.

In our ministry, we’ve noticed that the number of students working significant hours in part-time jobs seems to have increased in recent years, reducing the time and the number of days students spend on campus and therefore also their availability to participate in bible studies and other ministries. One way we’ve tried to respond to this is by giving a couple of weeks in our first year bible studies to time management and money management skills through our Living Wisely in the World series – a set of studies that combines a biblical and theological foundation with a brief introduction to key skills for uni students.

Mental health. Another trend we are seeing in Gen Z is an increase in talk around issues of mental health. There is a very positive aspect to the increased awareness of mental health issues that are so common such as depression and anxiety, and the decrease in stigma attached to suffering from mental illness. At the same time, however, it seems that it is not only reports of mental ill-health that are increasing, but the real prevalence of mental health issues also seem to be on the rise. The factors contributing to this range from poor sleep and extensive social media use to climate change and other distressing world events.

One of our fears is that, along with the positive impact of increased awareness and willingness to talk about mental health issues, young people are now also more likely to “dilute” language around mental health issues by self-diagnosing issues that should be treated by professionals, or using language around poor mental health in imprecise ways that are not necessarily constructive. An example of this is when students talk about being “burnt out” when what they are describing might be seen by others as simply a normal level of tiredness or stress experienced at the end of a semester.

Mental health issues, both real and perceived, impact the ministry in multiple ways. Social anxiety stops students from being bold to share the good news of Jesus with their friends – more than that, it often hinders them from making friends in the first place. Similar issues of anxiety and social overwhelm prevent some students from coming to AnCon or other conferences. Issues of self-confidence and stress about workload often prevent students from stepping up into serving and leading roles, and prevent graduates from pursuing ministry experience and training as Howies.

At times we find ourselves coaching students in social skills, and making contingency plans with them to reduce their experience of anxiety, stress, or overwhelm. With many students there are similar concerns with skills such as conflict management and speaking up for themselves.

Leadership and initiative. Gen Z crave leadership that is accessible, approachable, clear in communication, and empathetic. They want to be given lots of opportunity to grow, learn, and develop, and they want to be well supported in their roles. They value work-life balance, though they are also used to the idea of having a side-hustle. They want meaning and purpose in the work that they do, though as we noted above, they also want to be compensated for the work they do.

In many respects the history, culture, and structure of the EU should be a great fit for Gen Z. Training and growth is built in to almost every activity and team. We are experts (I think!?) at team-building and get-to-know-you games. We pursue a culture of rich relationship with lots of encouragement and support structures, where we share our lives and pray for one another; and we have in Jesus a far more satisfying motivation, meaning, and purpose to participation and service than what the world has to offer.

Our practical experience, however, is that there are many barriers to helping students take full advantage of all this. Sometimes it is simply that we’ve failed to communicate well enough that these opportunities exist; sometimes we have lacked the resources to fully provide the kind of training and support that we would love students to have. Usually the primary factor for students is their study load, which for many students can be highly competitive or demanding; often paid work and class times place rigid demands on time that exclude some of the opportunities to take part in on-campus activities.

Reduced availability on campus was one of the major factors behind the approach we took this year to integrate much of our training material into small group bible studies. However, we are also seeking to help students examine their own values and hidden assumptions around the importance of part-time work, money, and ministry. Study and work are good and important things; but so too is investment in Christian growth, relationships, biblical knowledge, and ministry skills that will serve the Gen Z student for life. We want to put forward the case that being a core member of the EU will ultimately be good not only for them, but for their future work, church, and social lives, because of the time spent dwelling on God’s word, being formed in their character, and experiencing ministry in an environment designed to help them learn from the experience.

Demographic changes. It’s not exactly news that there are many non-white faces on campus and in the EU. We have been keenly aware for some time that the proportion of international students at Sydney Uni has been increasing: as of 2022, international students comprised 43% of all enrolments. Not only that, but as Sydney as a city continues to become more diverse, a large proportion of our local students in the EU, just like the broader student population, represent East Asian, South Asian, and other non-European cultures.

For a number of years we have been increasing the resources for our FOCUS (international student) ministry, and each year under God we have seen international students come to faith in Christ. Even for domestic students, however, we are realising that we need to be open to change. There are a large number of students who do not only have their cultural roots in Western cultural assumptions, but as members of migrant families and Asian-Australian or other ethnic cultural circles, are also deeply shaped by non-Western cultural beliefs, values, and practices.

This means that the assumptions we make in the ministry about so many things need to be re-examined. From attitudes to social life and community to values around work and money; from the influence of parents and broader family concerns to underlying beliefs about ministry; from communication styles all the way to web design, we need to be open to change and curious enough to inquire where we may have made assumptions about students that are now outdated – or even where we have made biblical inferences that import unnecessary cultural assumptions. As we look toward an increasingly multiethnic and even multilingual EU – inspired by the diverse church of Revelation 7:9 – this work of self-examination will hopefully allow us both to be more effective in our ministry to all kinds of people, and more careful in our understanding and exposition of Scripture.

The continuing impact of Covid-19. Students who started uni during the pandemic years (2020 and 2021) are now beginning to graduate. For those who managed to connect to the EU, they often report that the Christian community has been invaluable for them – giving them friends and space to connect with others in years where on-campus connections were scarce or impossible. Many of them have only been to AnCon once or twice in-person, but have been very thankful for whatever opportunity they have had.

Although the main cohorts of students who experienced Covid-19 as part of their university experience are largely moving on, we can anticipate lasting effects of the pandemic on our ministry for future years yet to come. Covid-19 will have been a significant factor in future students’ schooling experience, including their HSC years. The pandemic accelerated changes and changed norms around video calling, remote learning, and expectations around flexibility and working from home. Sydney University no longer intends to offer large in-person lectures to classes of more than 120 students; instead these are only offered online. It seems likely that for future cohorts of students, one of the continuing effects we will see is in the social needs of students – they may need more of their own space and show heightened social anxiety in large gatherings.

The faithfulness of God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) It is good news that God is unchanging and that we have a sure and steady foundation in Jesus in every generation as culture, language, science, and technology all keep racing ahead. Yet as every new generation and every new cohort of students needs to hear the gospel in a way that is intelligible to them, and in a way that speaks into their particular hopes, fears, challenges and cultural narratives, so we must continue to do the work of good contextualisation. That means continually looking to the Bible as God’s word on one hand, and on the other hand continuing to be curious about each generation of students – their felt needs, the key influences on them, and their experience of the world.

– Brian Leung, EU Senior Staff

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