Missionary Diary: Student ministry in Japan – in a pandemic

Kellie Nicholas is a CMS missionary who has been in Kobe, Japan since 2008. She has worked as a full-time staff worker for KGK (an International Fellowship of Evangelical Students affiliated student ministry) for the last ten years.

Two years is a long time in student ministry. Our student groups in KGK have almost a complete turnover every four years. This means that during the last two years while we have been ministering online, half our students have graduated and half our current students have never experienced our offline ministry. In a ministry that revolves around gathering university students together, sharing life and often enjoying a meal, the pandemic has created some new and unexpected challenges. But there have also been some unexpected advantages and joys, and those are what I would like to share with you now.

Unexpected advantages and joys

Back in February 2020 as our national training event and spring camps were cancelled, it was hard to imagine how we could possibly encourage and teach students when we couldn’t gather them together. Meeting with Christians their own age is a big drawcard for many involved in KGK. We quickly discovered, that despite spending lots of time online for their studies, students were looking to actually connect with each other, even if it, too, was online.

By the grace of God, the number of students that we have connected with over these two years has been similar to that in previous years, including the number of first-year students. In some senses, students have been more connected because there weren’t as many other distractions like part-time work and other clubs. I’ve been greatly encouraged by the students who have attended online campus groups and regional meetings. It has been a privilege to see them grow in their relationship with God and each other.

Camps and conferences are also a big part of our ministry, and I was pretty sceptical that they could be replicated online. Again, I was proven wrong. Planning online camps has given students the opportunity to rethink how we approach this part of our ministry and not just doing things the way that they have always been done. Being online meant that financial and time barriers were lessened, and there was a real sense of community, even though we were geographically spread out. We even had non-Christian students attend our online summer camp, which had a particular evangelistic focus. I thought it was probably too big a call for them to attend, but God had other plans.

Leaders training

Probably the most helpful thing that has come out of this time is our leaders’ training. Leaders’ training was something that I’d been keen to try since I first started with KGK, but there had been a number of things that had prevented it from happening. Finally, in the middle of 2019, I began with the students in my area. Then other staff asked me if I’d consider doing it for the whole region. This was exciting but also daunting. Most students in our region would need to travel over an hour to get to the Kansai KGK office for this training.

The pandemic solved that problem. We had been shown that there were other ways to meet together that would allow students to join, no matter where they lived. So after the summer break in 2020, we started leaders’ training online and opened it up to students from the whole region. Over the three semesters that we have run it, about four to eight students have come each time. They have been from universities all over the Kansai region, and many of them are leading their campus group or preparing to do so.

It has been a pleasure to see the students who have participated gain confidence in leading their groups. Some have even started groups for their campus (online). They have also wrestled with how they can invite non-Christians to join them. Particularly, I’ve been encouraged by their renewed enthusiasm to read the Bible together and pray for one another during a time that has many other things competing for their attention.

Although the last two years have created many challenges, I am so thankful for the way that God has been reminding me, and the students, that although challenges come, he will use them for his glory and to grow his kingdom. I thank God for our two years of online student ministry and pray that he will continue to use them to bear fruit for the years to come.