Five years ago I wrote a slightly provocatively entitled post called “Saying Goodbye to student ministry?” At that time we had no idea that we would be continuing leading the student ministry (which we had been involved with on some level since 1998) for another 5 years. In 2014-2015 we had taken a year out from the student work because of health reasons. There was much uncertainty and I for one wondered whether we would return to that role. Now as we find ourselves saying goodbye to student ministry for real I have put together some reflections on our time in the ministry. For that purpose I have split the time into 4 periods: 1998-2001, 2001-2008, 2008-2013 and 2014-2020.
I also want to mention a Bible verse that I think sums up well how we might think about this ministry. During our time the ministry has never been massive in human terms, but we have never seen numbers as the most important thing. The vision we have been working out has instead been about impacting people deeply – this is not something you can really do with a multitude. No we’ve worked with those who God has brought our way and we have sought to be faithful in helping those people. The vision has been one of faith rather than sight:
“For we live by faith, not by sight.”2 Corinthians 5:7
As we look back it is hugely exciting to think about all the people who have been involved with the ministry in some way. The key measure of the ministry is not however about numbers but about the quality of people coming out the other side. In that regard we are even more excited to consider the people God has blessed and made to be a blessing in all kinds of different places.
1. The Early Years (1998-2001)
I first encountered the Navigators through groups run by Dave Morrish and Gez Perry. One morning after a breakfast Bible study, Gez suggested that I consider taking a year out to do the Connect Programme – suffice to say that I said yes! When I began the Connect programme Gez asked me to restart a lunchtime discussion group and along with a friend of mine (Stuart) we developed that group into a fantastic platform for disciple-making. The following year we shifted to an evening group and soon a significant proportion of the CU’s hall group leaders coming along. On that point, one of the strengths of these years (and the next decade) was a close relationship with the CU and other groups.
In my Connect year I was young, free and single and was able to start lots of new groups and bring in lots of students. It was an exciting time and lots of great people came into the ministry at that time including Dave Callaghan, Steve & Rachel Maddox and others. In some ways I only had a vague idea of what I was doing (at least in terms of vision) but Gez did his best to keep us on the straight and narrow. I had a good idea what it meant to start making disciples but at this time there was not much of a generational dimension.
Gez was the leader of what I saw as a network of key people involved in different things and I was one of them alongside Mike Spencer, Pieter & Suzanne vanLeeuwen and Rosie & Jeremy Grist. The strength was that this offered lots of ways for people to connect with the ministry but it did feel very quite segregated and perhaps did not have a clear sense of shared vision.
2. The Transition Years (2001-2007)
Leadership transitions are never easy and this was one I never really saw coming. I am not sure at what point Gez set about to hand on the ministry to us but this process was definitely in motion by 2004 when Gez & Alison set about to transition to Strasbourg, France with their family. They moved in 2006 once God had answered all their prayers – one of those was for a succession of leadership in the student work in Southampton.
On a personal level I met Debs in 2001 and we were married in 2005. She also served on the Connect Programme and after that year she worked part-time in the ministry alongside studying Occupational Therapy. In time we began leading a Christianity Explored group together which went on to become the key ministry context going forward. This was especially true when others moved away from Southampton leaving us to lead the group that Gez & Alison had previously led. We forged a new kind of group with a clear identity. It involved much food and Bible (as we had experienced with Gez & Alison) but it was less segregated that it had been previously. I remember with great fondness the Bible studies we had around the dinner table and how this group grew slowly but surely. During that time we saw people like Dave Watkins, Tim & Lowri Peters, Jane Mitchell, Lydia Clarke, Steve & Holly Price etc come into the ministry. What an impact each of them would go on to have!
3. The Maturing Years (2008-2014)
During the summer of 2007 Debs and I were sitting on a mountain in Norway (Eidshoven, Skjolden) and God made clear that there would be some big changes coming for us. Later that year (Oct 2007) we bought our current house (known for many years as the NAV house) and Debs began working as an Occupational therapist. Then in 2008 I quit my job in Pensions and went full-time with the Navigators. Finally at the end of 2008 a young Benjamin arrived and the stage was set for us to minister together as a family over the years ahead.
We made many mistakes in those early years but were thankful for the way that God grew the ministry nevertheless. There was a succession of great Connect Workers and God brought us some great people who themselves were able to bring many others. Our Thursdays evening Bible studies grew rapidly and the IGNITE ministry was also begun. In these years the likes of James Pritchard, Patrick Noonan, Luke O’Dowd, Chris Hinde, Ana Garcia and Adam & Kate Collett all came to the fore. We were also involved in a young ministry in Riga at this point and there were lots of trips in both directions which further enhanced the ministry. Our key team grew as we were joined for some years by Tim Peters and Dave Callaghan as trainee Reps. They enabled us to start new initiatives – Bible studies on different nights, a greater presence on campus and more focused work amongst internationals.
2011-2012 saw a significant recruitment drive and the likes of Tom Feather, Hugo Griffin, Stephen Hartwell, Sam Aylmer, Sarah Scarisbrick-Rowe, Alex Fisher & James Witham all joined the group. It was an energising time with lots of Bible studies, weekends away, prayer breakfasts and socials. There were plenty of people but it took tragedy (James Witham’s death in 2013) and our subsequent time-out to really bring greater clarity for me about what we were seeking to do. This was a phase of re-envisioning.
4. The Vision Years (2015-2020)
Humanly speaking the final block has probably been the least effective. And yet I think we have had more to give than at any other stage. Student work in many ways is a young persons game but with age comes maturity (well hopefully anyway). We began leading a new team of Lydia and Adam & Kate who had been interim leaders when we took our year out. Soon however these folk were gone: Adam & Kate moved to Latvia and Lydia moved on from student work. These were great opportunities for them, but it left us back in a cycle of rebuilding and relaunching the work.
Still God continued to bring people and He knew what we could handle! The ministry shifted at this time from having a weekly Bible study group to alternating between studies and upfront teaching. Indeed over the past 5 years we have taught a huge range of issues on vision, discipleship and mission. These were of course increasingly interactive and allowed us to talk about things we might not otherwise have done so. In my opinion the likes of Geoff Baker, Izzy Cooper, Emi Mocuta, Ian Dolby, Tess Asare, Tom & Sarah Candy & Naomi Andrew (as well as existing team) have had a far clearer vision communicated to them about how to be disciples who make disciples than in our earlier stages of ministry. During this time I forged a close relationship with Stephen Hartwell who has taken increasing responsibility over the years. As we look ahead, it is clear how this phase has also helped prepare us for making a contribution away from students.
5. The Future Years (2020 onwards)
I could probably write a whole book on these past 22 years but that would make a terrible blog! I’ve mentioned various individuals but there are a whole host of people who I have omitted. Because the ministry is relational it is primarily about people. As long as God continues to bring people I trust that the ministry under new leadership will have a significant role to play in the lives of many more people. Leadership changes happen from time to time and it is healthy that it does. New expressions rise up under the premise that when things don’t work out, that is completely fine. What will characterise the coming years – only time will tell and only God knows! We continue to walk by faith and not by sight…