"You can feel somewhat exposed entering a Zoom room of unknown faces."
As I write I am in the closing hours of the last of four university events weeks. Run by Christian Unions (CUs) across the UK, I have been the speaker for the international student meetings.
The fact that the events weeks happened at all, let alone with full international student tracks, is an amazing answer to prayer. It is a real credit to the obedience, commitment and enthusiasm of the CUs to persevere. It would have been all too easy to discard the international events, in an effort to trim down the mission to a manageable size. Yet, in all four locations (Edinburgh, Southampton, Birmingham and Belfast) the students’ commitment to reaching internationals was unwavering.
Jonnie Green, international speaker for Canterbury events week, felt that entering a Zoom ‘room’ is a bigger ask than we might have expected. When you go physically to a place, you can see who is there, and you normally do not go in alone. But you can feel somewhat exposed entering a Zoom room of unknown faces. Yet, I also found that once people were in, the rapport built quickly, and people tended to stay through the week and seemed keen to engage with the topic.
As a speaker, I could often not see people’s faces (some turned their screen blank), so there was little ‘feel’ for the room. That said, live talks rather than pre-recorded ones kept some sense of connection. I am convinced Slido.com is an excellent tool for using with international students, giving a safe space to ask questions anonymously. It was easier still to use Slido.com in a virtual meeting.
Each CU did things to lighten the mood and build rapport. This was sometimes funny (playing bossa-nova elevator music or 1970s disco at the start), and often creative. Edinburgh outdid themselves by sending out ‘culture packs’ filled with goodies, which were then used as part of the online events. These contacts meant they could send copies of my book to the participants afterwards.
Of the four events weeks I have been involved with, I could point to two that have gone well and two that have not. But that would only be based on the number of international students who have appeared on my Zoom screen, which is no real indication of success. In the best instance, there were 15-20 international guests logging on; in the worst, there was one.
So, why did some work and some not? Truthfully, I don’t know. In all four there was good support from local Friends International and UCCF staff, and all had established international cafés and Bible studies.
What has kept me going this whole time was discovering how much the Apostle Paul achieved for the Gospel during his regular and protracted times of ‘lockdown’ – i.e. prison. Acts 28:16-31 shows that being under house arrest was no restriction to the spread of the Gospel in Rome. The prison guard became his captive audience (Philippians 1:12-14). And in Colossians, he writes to those he had never met (2:2-5).
I am reminded, from Paul, that strategy, advertising, or fun-filled-frills are only important in that they are practical expressions of obedience and faithfulness – two words which describe real, tangible fruit. When we look back on this year, I am convinced that no-one will feel any of the events weeks to be a dead-loss. Rather, we will look back and say, “Look at what we achieved despite all the restrictions last year! Think how much more we can do this time!”