Young adults on street at night
Some of the events are overtly Christian, while others aim at community outreach (Photo: Merle Robillard)

Topics: Spirituality | Society

Evangelical students on campus aim to foster new leaders, believers

As mainstream churches, like the United Church, dwindle, evangelical groups have become the largest on campuses


With only half an hour to go before our event, the four of us dashed about, setting up tables, folding and stacking jeans, T-shirts and party dresses. We amassed a mountain of shoes and a tower of books. When everything was set, we — student members of Ryerson University’s Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship — opened our doors.

The March event was a clothing, accessories and books swap: students brought items they no longer needed and exchanged them for stuff others had donated. The leftovers were donated to a Toronto charity near Ryerson’s campus. It wasn’t radical activism, but as we packed the last of the shoes into boxes, we felt we’d made a small but positive contribution toward the environment and the poor. And we’d had the opportunity to share those values with our fellow students.

Welcome to Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry based in the evangelical ethos. I’m a student ministry geek. Growing up in the evangelical Christian Reformed Church, I joined Inter-Varsity during my first week on campus. This past school year, I served as president of the Ryerson chapter. 

Evangelical para-church groups, including Inter-Varsity, work in partnership with denominations but outside their official structure. Nearly invisible in the mid-20th century, evangelical groups are now among the largest religious organizations on Canadian campuses. In fact, Inter-Varsity and the more conservative evangelical Power to Change (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) appear to have filled a void left behind by dwindling mainline organizations such as the United Church-supported Student Christian Movement. 

Inter-Varsity Canada began in 1929 as a small group of students and recent graduates, an offshoot of a similar student movement in the United Kingdom. Today, it’s supported primarily by Canadian evangelical churches but serves young people of all denominations. 

Active on over 60 of Canada’s university and college campuses, Inter-Varsity has 106 campus ministry staff who fundraise their own modest salaries and train other students (like me) to run campus ministries. Each of Inter-Varsity’s campus fellowships receives $10,000 to $15,000 a year for activities and events. Adding staff salaries and administrative costs, Inter-Varsity spends $4.5 million annually on Canadian campus ministries.

Life as an Inter-Varsity president is demanding. Almost every night of the week, I’m either leading or planning a Bible study or an event, or attending a potluck dinner or spiritual workshop. Some of our events are overtly Christian, while others, like the clothing swap, are about community outreach. 

Church at Inter-Varsity doesn’t involve formal worship, since most of our members are already connected to a congregation. For us, church is a small gathering in a library room, where a few students gather around crunchy cookies and printed-out pages of Bible chapters. Encouraged to ask questions and write all over the verses, we investigate the Bible and our faith.

While Inter-Varsity is focused on developing student leaders, its more conservative counterpart, Power to Change Canada, is on a mission to help students discover Jesus. The first Canadian chapter, founded in 1967 at the University of British Columbia, grew out of the American Campus Crusade for Christ movement begun 16 years earlier. The organization challenges its members to share the Gospel widely on campus, with the aim that by 2016 it will annually engage 100,000 students. This means constant canvassing, with Power to Change members striking up “gospel-themed conversations” with other students based on a script. You might say it’s working: over the past three years, Power to Change has expanded its reach from 30 to 60 Canadian colleges and universities. Each campus group receives between $5,000 and $15,000 annually for its activities and events. Staff members raise their own salaries.

Since its inception in 1921, Student Christian Movement Canada (an offshoot of the World Student Christian Federation, founded in 1895) has promoted a socially engaged style of faith. Nearly five percent of students across English Canada were involved in the group up to the 1930s, according to researcher Bruce Douville. Until the 1960s, mainline ministries like SCM continued to be the dominant Christian force on campus, mirroring the era’s powerhouse mainline churches. SCM’s Canadian alumnae include Senator Nancy Ruth and Very Rev. Lois Wilson, a former senator and the first female moderator of the United Church. “For me, SCM was more significant than church. It made us think internationally and get busy working in the Christian mission at home and abroad,” Wilson says. 

Two years ago, with only its University of Toronto chapter still active, SCM took a sabbatical year to reflect and envision its future. Today, the Student Christian Movement is growing, albeit modestly. About 80 students are active in local units in Toronto, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Regina, as well as multi-campus groups in Winnipeg and Ottawa. Its 2014 operating budget is $90,422, of which $10,000 comes from The United Church of Canada. General secretary Sarah Mikhaiel, 30, of Toronto, is SCM’s sole full-time staff member. The expense budget per local unit is about $1,600 per year. 

Nationally, after salary, operation and administrative costs, SCM spends $27,600 on programming. Plans for the year include an exposure trip to El Salvador, an intentional community housing project, and Cahoots, a festival of faith, action and do-it-yourself culture happening later this month and expected to draw 150 participants.

Raised in the Anabaptist tradition, Mikhaiel joined Power to Change in her undergrad at Carleton University in Ottawa. But she was frustrated that the group and her church seemed only to care about an individual’s faith. “They weren’t challenging the status quo,” Mikhaiel says. “I wanted to be able to talk about resistance, but my church didn’t understand these words.”

As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, Mikhaiel ran into the Student Christian Movement at the G20 rally in 2010. She later joined the U of T group and “learned a lot of good theology and activist tools.” 

When Mikhaiel is told about the big budgets of her evangelical counterparts, she is initially disheartened but quickly recovers. “A movement doesn’t depend on money,” she says. “We focus on what the impact is on the people involved. . . . These other groups might focus on their number of members or how many converts. We want SCM to be an alternative space, where we ask difficult questions and engage with theology, where we learn practical ways to put faith into action as activists.”

Asked why more mainline Christian young people aren’t joining SCM, Mikhaiel wonders whether churches encourage them to transition from youth group to campus clubs, as they do in evangelical churches. She recognizes that SCM also has a responsibility to promote itself, but that’s not easy to accomplish on a tight budget. “It takes money to travel to churches.”

If United Church-affiliated university students aren’t joining the Student Christian Movement, they also aren’t joining Inter-Varsity. Of about 100 people I know through Inter-Varsity, only two have a United Church connection, but both have left the denomination. Perhaps the United Church members who sought us out felt we weren’t “progressive” enough or were frustrated by our continued use of male pronouns to describe God.

For my own part, I’ve always felt that Inter-Varsity provides a meaningful outlet for both my personal faith and my desire to engage in social activism. As I develop leadership skills, I’ve found my feminism encouraged and expanded in Inter-Varsity.

And yet, researching the Student Christian Movement, I realize Inter-Varsity has room to grow. For example, SCM had a four-year national campaign called “Queer and Christian Without Contradiction.” As an LGBT-affirming evangelical, I recognize that Inter-Varsity groups don’t always stand up as loudly or as assuredly as SCM to fight for the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgend people. 

Although Inter-Varsity is home to me, the Student Christian Movement continues to play an important role on campus. It offers much-needed gifts in queer theology, feminist theology and social justice work. These are discussions I hope more evangelical students will join in on. I know I’m going to keep inviting my peers into the conversation. 


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s April 2014 issue with the title “Big kids on campus.”


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