IFES: A Snapshot of its History

Pete Lowman

Did you know you’re part of a huge international fellowship that spans the entire globe? If you’re a member of an InterVarsity chapter, then you’re also a part of the student movement called IFES. That’s short for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (quite a mouthful!), a network of students reaching around the world.

In fact, North American InterVarsity chapters wouldn’t even exist had not some students in the 1920s begun extending their reach. Those students were members of the British InterVarsity Fellowship, now called the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF). And it was their concern for students in other countries that resulted in InterVarsity’s taking root in North America.

When the British InterVarsity Fellowship had its first conference in 1928, most of the groups were still tiny. They were facing academic scorn. Some of the groups had just started. During this first conference a message came from Canada. Canada had one evangelical student group in the whole country involved in evangelism, in Vancouver. The group asked, “Could you send somebody to tell us what you’re doing and how you’re doing it?”

Now the British fellowship could have answered, “We’re small, we’ve got enough problems, we’ve only got an annual guaranteed income of about one hundred dollars.” In fact, they kept their income in an Ovaltine tin because they had so little. That wasn’t much of a basis for doing anything about Canada.

And yet they cared. So they had an auction. They sold sports equipment, books and so on. And they got enough money to send one of their members, Howard Guinness, to Canada. He took off with a one-way ticket, a list of names in a notebook, a map, and a lot of faith, and the Lord used him: the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship-Canada was formed within twelve months, in 1929.

Then the American movement was started from Canada when the Canadians students started giving money to their staff and saying, “What about the States?” The Canadian movement paid a very heavy price for their concern to go into the world and spread the gospel on campuses elsewhere. But because of that self-sacrificial attitude, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship-USA exists today. That Christlike way of seeing the needs of the world and giving sacrificially has to be the mark of an evangelical student movement.

No sooner had the U.S. movement begun than the North American students started giving money to their staff and saying, “What about Latin America?” Within a year of their inception, the young North American movements already had begun to care about Latin America.

Worldwide Work

IFES—the International Fellowship of Evangelical Studentsbegan in 1946. In those days, national evangelical student movements had arisen in just nine countries. But the Lord was at work. He doubled that movement of autonomous member movements by 1959, and he doubled it again by 1971. As of 2002, IFES claimed work in about seventy-five countries and pioneering efforts in about twenty-five more. In 2012, that number has doubled and they are present in 154 countries around the world. It’s thrilling to see the kinds of things God is doing through IFES. Join me on a worldwide excursion to see how God has been working.

The National University of Singapore had eight thousand students in 2002. Now, pick a U.S. college of comparable size. How many students would you expect to find in the InterVarsity chapter there? Then consider that of those eight thousand, fifteen hundred students met every week at that university in Singapore for Bible study, prayer and evangelism. And they were beginning to be missionaries, reaching out to other parts of Asia. Their graduates are still going out and using the evangelistic Bible study training they’ve gotten in their groups in Singapore to form evangelistic Bible studies in bus depots, hospitals and office blocks.

We see the same sort of missionary vision in other parts of East Asia. Taiwan held a student missionary conference in 2002 with eighteen hundred attending. That was more than any such event anywhere in the world outside the United States. A student missionary conference which took place in late 1980 in the Philippines drew five hundred students—potential missionaries who can share the gospel in Asia in a genuinely Asian manner.

African Odyssey

Let’s journey across to Africa, where in four countries—Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swazilandten per cent of all the students in 2002 were in evangelical groups. A fifth country, Nigeria, also had a strong movement, the second biggest in the world at the time, not as large as IVCF-USA but drawing from a much smaller student population. You could go to a campus like Benin, for example, where of the five thousand students on campus, five hundred participated in the NIFES group. I spoke at their prayer meeting which got 250 every week. It’s exciting to see that, especially in the Muslim parts of the country.

I traveled to Nigeria in 2001, during Pope John Paul II’s visit. The day before I got to Zaria, a Muslim city, fanatical students demonstrated on campus. “What is the pope doing coming to a Muslim part of the country?” they protested. There were even placards threatening to kill the pope. It was that fanatical. Yet the Christian minority is active: 250 students attended the InterVarsity prayer meeting in Zaria.

There are problems too. There was a lack of Bible expositors in that country and, consequently, according to the Nigerian leaders, all sorts of imbalances. Nonetheless, many students were committed to the gospel and committed to an evangelical faith. A number of groups in Nigeria had from three hundred to six hundred members in 2002.

Road to Rio

Crossing the Atlantic from Nigeria, we come to Brazil. In the 1970s, four out of every five Christians who went on for a university education lost their faith there. That was a whole generation of future Christian leaders being decimated. But God changed that. A movement arose called the Alianca Biblica Universitaria (University Bible Alliance), the equivalent to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, with about two thousand members on sixty campuses in 2002.

This movement really believed in reaching out. A number of graduates—for example, a couple of doctors, a nurse, an agriculturalist, a health educatorwould leave behind the lucrative jobs in the city. They went out as graduates into the rural areas, to build a hospital and start a churchusing their qualifications for the people of the country and to preach the gospel. And the ABU had already sent one of its staff to work with IFES in Europe in 2002.

From the university work, a high school ministry has developed in Brazil. The younger brothers and sisters of the InterVarsity members, seeing the groups in the universities, have gone back into the high schools and started work there. But many staff workers are needed. Statistics in 2002 indicate that sixty percent of adult Brazilians are occultists or have contact with spiritism. So it’s a question of whether the occult groups or the Christians can get to the Brazilian high schools first.

Pioneer Work

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that with IFES everything is rosy in the garden, as we say in England. A great deal of work still needs to be done, especially in four areas.

One major pioneering area is China. China used to have the biggest IFES movement in the world, before the revolution in 1949. One in fifteen Chinese students was in IVCF-China before the revolution. There was a revival on a number of campuses. David Adeney, in his book China: Christian Students Face the Revolution (IVP) tells how that movement was crushed in the early fifties. The challenge for Christians in Chinese universities today is one of starting over.

A second pioneering area is the Islamic world. If you travel through the whole Islamic world—starting off maybe in Morocco and trekking across North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt), then taking in the whole area around the Middle East (the lands around Palestine, the whole of Saudi Arabia, and the Arabian peninsula), and the Persian Gulf area across to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistanif you travel through that whole sweep of country and visit the many campuses and students, in 2002 you would find a movement like InterVarsity in just two, Pakistan and Lebanon. And you can imagine what it’s like being in the Lebanon InterVarsity Fellowship and saying to people, “Christianity is a gospel of love. Christians are people who love their enemies.”

Turkey had 350,000 students in 2002. At that time, only five or ten people out of that huge student population were known Christians. So you see the work that’s to be done in that area.

A third area of need is French-speaking Africa, which includes nineteen or twenty countries. We have groups in those countries, but there’s a desperate shortage of staff. Because of the extended family system, it’s difficult to get African staff. In 2002, two staff members—one American and one from Madagascarwere covering eleven of those countries on their own. That was too big a parish for two staffstretching across the entire African continent from Senegal on the Atlantic to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. There’s a particular need for people to go into secular jobs and help with the work as lectures in the universities of French-speaking Africa.

The fourth area, surprisingly enough, is Western Europe. Western Europe has had the gospel for centuries, and some countries, like Britain or Norway, have very strong InterVarsity groups. But in others, if you took all the InterVarsity groups and put them together in one room, you’d have less than a hundred students. That was true of Belgium, Greece, Portugal, and Italy in 2002.

Get Involved!

So, there is much work left to be done. According to 2 Corinthians, those of us where the body of Christ is strong (as it is in North America) must channel some of our resources to the areas where the body of Christ is weak. How?

You can get involved with the work of IFES worldwide in four specific ways. The first of these ways, obviously, is prayer. It’s not by human efforts; it’s not by financial power; it’s not by intellectual power. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). It’s easy for me to forget that. I’m sometimes in danger of thinking that if only we can get our techniques right, then everything else will follow. But in the long run, of course, it is God who must do the work. As he says to us in James, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). We can, as it were, storm our way by prayer into some of these tough countries, so that the gospel can go forth.

So IFES needs prayer supporters who are praying their way onto the campuses of the world and praying those tough campuses open to the gospel. IFES’s weekly prayer bulletin, "Prayerline", is a prayer email sent each week with news and information to help you pray for a particular situation. You could use this at breakfast or before you go to bed to pray for IFES’s work around the world.

Share the Wealth

The second way you can get involved is through financial giving. When I read letters from some of our movements in other parts of the world, I realize just how rich we in the First World are. There are countries in the world where the average per capita income is about sixty dollars a year. Think of how much the money we casually throw around on luxuries would mean in some parts of the world.

In Britain, virtually every InterVarsity staff worker has a car. But there are countries where that’s quite rare. I once met a brother who was the only staff worker in Uganda. He didn’t have a car. He was going 150 miles from campus to campus, visiting the student groups and carrying boxes of books. Well, some German Christians bought that movement a minibus. Unfortunately, gas then went up to thirty-five dollars a gallon. So rather than spend all their money on gas, the Ugandan students walked ten miles to go to an InterVarsity conference. You can help meet financial needs such as these. Transportation costs, literature, and airfares for the staff workers going across French-speaking Africa, where budget airfares are not common, also require extra funds.

International Affair

A third major way you can build up the worldwide body of Christ is by working among international students. Many countries have sent their best students to the United States and Canada—people who are going to go back home and call the shots there.

Derek Mutungu, an IFES staff member leading the work in Zambia in 2002, became a Christian as an international student in England. Another, now working with students in an Islamic country, became a Christian while studying in Montreal. If Karl Marx had been reached when he was an international student in London in the late nineteenth century, the world would be much different place.

Mainland Chinese are studying in North America. They are eager to learn about your country, your view of the world, your concept of God. If you witness to a Malay in Malaysia, you’ve committed an offense for which you theoretically can be jailed for an unspecified period. Yet you can befriend Malays here. In 2002, there were officially no known national Christians living in Saudi Arabia. Yet you can meet Saudi Arabian Christians here. What an opportunity!

Join the Club

Finally, consider serving on the IFES staff. IFES is particularly interested in cross-culturally sensitive people with InterVarsity staff experience. There are always several countries in need of staff workers. (Students are needed, too, to study abroad.)

You could first serve with a mission board and, after learning the new culture, work with IFES in student work. Some mission boards lend or “second” people to IFES. Or you can go into a secular job in a pioneering country and witness among the students there. Islamic countries, in particular, won’t allow full-time staff workers. But some of these same countries are expanding and developing very fast. And they’re crying out for accountants, engineers, doctors, nurses, lecturers and teachers (particularly in math, science and English).

Many students wonder what to do with their humanities or liberal arts degree. With that kind of background, you can become a teacher of English as a foreign language. Many academic textbooks are produced by the English-speaking countries, so these countries need English teachers. In 2002, one Islamic country advertised for English teachers, offering $35,000 salary over two years. Someone in that job could have served the church there and supported four or five missionaries besides.

Become an active member of your worldwide fellowship. Pray. Give. Work with internationals. And consider going. If our discipleship is to be biblical, it must contain a strong ingredient of concern for the world and world evangelism. That’s been evident throughout the history of InterVarsity. It continues through the work of IFES.


Pete Lowman, at the time of this writing, worked in London as editor of an IFES publication. This article is adapted from a talk he gave while in the United States. Some minor edits have been made to keep the article current.

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