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In, Through, and For Christ – centering student groups around Jesus

CMS missionaries Joel & Tiff Atwood, serving in Vanuatu, faced the challenge of providing training for a student group that was initially pushed to scrap Bible teaching. How did they navigate cultural difficulties to help leaders think differently?

The last few years has been full of new things. It feels like we’re always exploring new territory and scrambling for new ways to train those God has entrusted to us. Here are two examples.

Tupou the leader

It was a new thing to look around the room two years ago and realise that maybe two of eight student leaders actually grasped the gospel. It became more novel for us when Tupou*, a student recently strong-armed into leadership, actively pushed to scrap our weekly Bible meeting in favour of mentoring sessions for university subjects. It seemed that a loud voice, a strong personality, and vaguely consistent attendance was greater qualification for leadership than beliefs, character, or even willingness to lead!

At the end of that first year, the ministry felt at the point of extinction. So we gathered the leaders who remained, and pushed the reset button to begin rethinking things from scratch. With trepidation we suggested we commit to only two regular things each week: small groups, and weekly leadership time. We would spend three hours every Saturday preparing the passage for the next small group. Just as importantly, our time was a chance to explore how Jesus’ gospel of salvation works itself out in every part of our life.

Our Saturday SALT gatherings (called ‘SALT’, to ‘season’ our leaders) took a while to find their feet. We tried to work out exactly how far back in explaining gospel understanding we needed to go. In the end we spent half our time preparing next week’s passage (with coffee and lunch, because how can you be together without food?), and the other half looking at different parts of the gospel story (what Jesus did, how the whole Bible tells his story), and how that touches different parts of life.

It’s not only that this was the first time anyone had walked most of these guys through the story of Jesus. It was the first time anyone had walked them through anything.

SALT is still pretty wild. Our wanderings in foundational theology last semester revealed a frankly bewildering set of cultural, denominational, and…well…peculiar differences in thinking and practice that we’re still unpicking. But soaking in the good news of Jesus week after week after week has been the greatest training we could have hoped for. Here’s Tupou again:

I’ve realised that my whole life had always been about me and what I want… but it was never about God. The last two years have shown me that it is ‘for in Him all things were created … all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:16-17) I now try to live a life that is in Christ through Christ and for Christ and making him hold my life together. You see if he is the one holding the universe together I sooo want Him to be the one holding my life together. 

Joel F the ministry trainee

The second ‘new thing’ has broken new ground not only for our ministry but for Vanuatu. Joel F is a brilliant student from the Solomon Islands who graduated in Law last year. He was offered several scholarships to pursue his Masters in Vanuatu, NZ, or Australia. Instead, he’s pressed pause on his legal career to be our first Stamba trainee. Stamba is the Bislama word for ‘tree stump’ and, by extension, ‘foundation’. It’s our Pacific take on ministry apprenticeship, a year to explore gospel ministry by doing it alongside someone who’s used to making mistakes in it.

Training in gospel ministry is a career path in itself in Vanuatu, usually for younger siblings who couldn’t afford to make it to university, and are destined more for the village than the town. To divert from a high paying, influential, and status-heavy law career to even glimpse at ministry is hard for people to get their heads around. But Joel F has broken new ground to show it can be done, and, in his words, ‘must be done.’ Like most ministry traineeships, it’s strongly practical—Joel F reads the Bible with 7-8 people every week (each one rapidly becoming their own small group as friends and roommates join), leads our small groups, and increasingly leads our leaders in leading small groups. Of course, given our university, this gets interesting. Leadership spans three languages every week and often in every group. This makes planning and debriefing a novel experience of translation, back-translation, and cross-checking that we’ve both fully understood what happened and our reflections on it. We made the formal part of the training pretty heavy to fill in some of the theological gaps, and have started developing a robust framework to take the gospel into legal academia in the future.

We are thankful to God for opportunities to keep teaching his word in a context that has thrown up challenges and joys both expected and unexpected.

*Names have been changed.

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The Atwoods work in the Pacific region with tertiary students. There are openings for similar work in Fiji and other neighbouring countries for the right candidate. Could that be you? Contact your CMS branch for more details.