How to Organise an Evangelistic Event as a Postgraduate Christian Group
Dr Zachary Ardern
How does one go about organising an evangelistic event for fellow postgrads? Is that a good thing to do in the first place?
I believe that it is always a good thing for Christian faith to be credibly proclaimed in a public setting, regardless of direct results.
I also believe many Christian academics and postgraduate students are ready or might be ready with a little help to present an intriguing public case for Christian faith - for instance through answering an objection relevant to their field of expertise, or offering a surprising piece of evidence for the credibility of the gospel and a Christian worldview.
But how do you go about organising that type of event? Do you need a big team? What do you need to do, and in what order? Here I outline some of the practicalities of hosting such events, as opportunities for our non-Christian friends and colleagues to engage with questions of faith.
Components of an Event
Here is an acronym for some of the components I consider key. It won’t win any prizes for mnemonics as it repeats most of its letters, but the words help to indicate what these events are about: “CARE CAFE”.
Not all of the elements are crucial, and you may disagree with some or add others - I’ve certainly never got them all quite ‘right’ after being involved in perhaps 50+ related events. But I think covering most of these will get you going in the right direction for fruitful engagement with postgraduates, academics, and associated people in your networks.
Relaxed, friendly atmosphere
Engaging topic connected to Christian faith
Clear follow-up opportunity
Advertising from 3 weeks before
Event organisers (3 people)
The Event Itself
The first four (in blue) are, roughly, about the event itself.
Credible speaker + Engaging topic connected to the Christian faith
The core of the kind of event I’m thinking of is a credible and competent speaker with an engaging topic which touches on Christian faith. In an academic context, (I think) credibility quite likely includes having a PhD. Personally I prefer to ask people to speak on topics quite specific to their expertise where possible, rather than e.g. a general “science and faith” talk.
Accessible location and relaxed, friendly atmosphere
Getting this together is a great start, but more is needed for an event to work. The event shouldn’t run too late and should stick to time. An accessible location is important, particularly for students, who often/typically rely on public transport in most European cities. It should be both physically accessible and ‘culturally’ accessible - so ideally not a church, unless there is a good case for it. A cafe, bar, or room that can be set up similarly is generally ideal for promoting conversation and connection - a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Can you perhaps hire a cafe on campus or a room in a centrally located restaurant? My university in NZ had a pub on campus that was always happy to hire out a side room - and a very successful church (which soon outgrew the venue) was even started there; a win-win situation given that uni pubs generally aren’t doing great business on a Sunday evening.
The Logistics Around the Event
The next four points (in green) concern some important logistical details around the event.
Clear follow-up opportunity
Firstly, and perhaps most important regarding having observable impact, is having a plan for the future - a clear follow-up. What’s the next step for an interested inquirer who comes to our event? How does it fit with our ministry and other opportunities for engaging with Jesus and the gospel for our non-Christian friends? Some possibilities are the next event in a series, a course such as Alpha or Christianity Explored (at a partner church?), Christian literature and gospels, or a personal invitation to an intentional conversation.
It’s a good idea to have both a less personal ‘public’ and more personal ‘private’ option, for people at different stages. Perhaps a public option can be advertised, and group members can be encouraged beforehand to invite their interested friends to a more direct follow-up conversation over lunch in the next few days, or a social event like a hike for those who might like to get to know others in the group before delving deeper. A new inquirer may want to first come to another event before engaging more, while others may be ready for a more direct conversation about the gospel. Public proclamation needs to feed into personal evangelism. Having to-the-point literature, such as an individual gospel or short credible apologetics books available is always a good idea I think - and organising something that the speaker is willing to promote is helpful.
Collecting contact details for an email list to advertise future events via feedback forms might be useful, to the extent that this is permissible in light of relevant data privacy laws.
Food is important - not always crucial, but generally helpful! If you can be generous (e.g. providing pizza or subsidising food at the cafe where it is hosted), while being appropriate to the context, people will appreciate it - postgrads are stressed, and having one less meal to plan is always helpful and helps reduce the barriers to attending. There are many real social, practical, and psychological barriers to attending a religious event in one’s spare time - we need to reduce them. Some people in your group have gifts in hospitality - this is their opportunity to help create a welcoming context which adorns the message.
Advertising from 3 weeks before
Advertising should be from 3 weeks before. This is an arbitrary number with no research behind it, but it needs to be more than one week, and to be consistent for a few days and ideally multi-modal. Posters; facebook invitations; personal invitations by Whatsapp or even actually talking to someone(!)
Event organisers (3 people)
Finally, you need people to organise the event. At least three, and not too many. For instance one in charge of the room and advertising, one in charge of organising details with the speaker and hosting/moderating the event, and one for logistics e.g. technology if there will be a presentation. These three should be committed to the aims of the event, inviting their friends, and praying together for the event.
Putting it into Practice
Aside from the kind of event I’m outlining here there are lots of other possibilities, so don’t let me stop you being creative! Other options include “discussion dinners” hosted in people’s homes, with short video clips to discuss or a guest speaker joining, a book study group for interested skeptics, or a lecture or debate on campus followed by free pizza and discussion afterwards. I’ve tried each, and each has pros and cons. For comparison, however, here are approximate details of a fairly typical example of the kind of event I’m thinking of, from our series of “God in the Pub” events in Munich (run approx. once per 2 or 3 months, pre-COVID):
Dr. Micah Green, Assoc. Prof. of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University was visiting Munich for a conference and available to speak on science and evidence for God (or similar). When I heard this, I booked him in for a talk and with the help of co-leaders organised a different location than the usual one which was not available.
As with the rest of the series the event was co-hosted by ‘Christian Academics Munich’ and the church some of us attended. This helps gives some critical mass.
We booked a nice room in a restaurant, for ~45 people. Not a church - accessible. Medium-sized group, good for discussion around tables.
Attendees were largely postgrad student aged. A number of people invited friends.
7pm - People arrive slowly and sit around tables, chat, order dinner. Note - people having to pay for dinner is not ideal, but I think the very nice environment and high quality presentation makes up for it - it’s a special event.
7:15pm - Host/MC introduces the evening. Food arrives, people start to eat.
7:30pm - Dr. Green, an experienced presenter, spoke without slides for maybe 25 minutes
7:55pm - Discussion around tables. Note - I always find it helpful, in any format, to get people to discuss a little with those next to them directly after a talk. This helps people relax, feel connected, and ask questions.
8pm - Extensive Q&A
8:45pm - Feedback forms filled in, people invited to the next event. Discussion continues for those who want to stay.
Why Do This?
There are lots of reasons to run invitational events for postgrads, academics, and friends. Some people do become Christians with this kind of event being an important part of the story.
But this is not the only reason! It encourages Christians that these things can be discussed - not a small matter in our secular cultures; it opens and normalises faith conversations (even just the advertising); and speakers can model careful articulation of Christian faith. I think it is good to pick people who might not be well-known, such as younger speakers, and it is important that both men and women are speakers.
So these events can not only be used by God to bring people to faith, but they also help to develop Christian speakers - and the organisers! So why not have a go at organising one - it might be a blessing to more people than you expected!
Dr. Zachary Ardern is a postdoc in microbial evolutionary genomics in Karlsruhe. He is originally from NZ, was previously in Munich, where he helped to set up Christian Academics Munich (CAM), and will move to the UK for another research position later in the year. Zachary is available to answer your questions on this topic or to help find speakers for events at firstname.lastname@example.org.