Students with a mission to succeed

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Kevin Berry finds out about evangelists in the modern world and learns how they earn their wings at a well-established college in the heart of the Peak District.

EVANGELISTS at Cliff College in Derbyshire are used to explaining exactly what it is they do, and good humouredly correcting any misconceptions.

"When I have to give my occupation for something like car insurance there's usually a long silence," says Gini Carlin. "and then they say: 'Ah! A preacher!' And I say 'No' and we go into a long rigmarole about what it is and isn't, and then they usually mark me down as an 'ordained minister'."

Ms Carlin qualified as an evangelist at Cliff College and she now works there as a tutor. Situated in the heart of the Peak District, the college has been teaching people how to go and and preach the gospel since 1883 and missionaries were trained there in the 19th century. She helps to prepare students for their practical work as evangelists and arranges placements for them on church missions.

"People think that we need feeding up!" she says. "They have the idea that we haven't had a decent meal in ages, that we've been used to eating raw locusts in the wilderness, or something like that."

Cliff College offers certificate, diploma and degree courses in Biblical and evangelical ministry and all qualifications are validated by Sheffield University. It has places for 70 full-time students. Some go on to other occupations, some are eventually ordained but most become evangelists.

The courses involve many work experience placements on church mission teams. A mission is best described as an event intended to spread and strengthen Christian belief. There are placements in schools, and some students go abroad. In schools, usually local ones, the student evangelists are invited to take assemblies and lessons as a means of explaining their faith.

What is an evangelist? Definitely not a person threatening hellfire and damnation in the

middle of a shopping precinct,

definitely not someone who knocks on your door and will not go away.

The Rev Howard Mellor, principal at Cliff College, insists that an evangelist is not a manipulator of people. He shudders at comparisons with notorious personalities in the United States.

"An evangelist is someone who has a compulsion to share their faith in God," he says. "Someone who shares a love of Jesus, who wants to get out and about and share the good news."

Potential students need to show a sincere and driven conviction and an ability to learn. Many do not have formal education and qualifications and they are painfully aware of what they have missed.

Barry Woodward, a student due to graduate in a few weeks' time, had been working as an evangelist before going to Cliff College. When he leaves he will be a freelance itinerant evangelist and he has already set up the Proclaim Trust, a charitable organisation to supervise his work.

"Coming to Cliff has equipped me to be more effective in my work. The theory of evangelism, the understanding of God, myself and culture. It has been a necessity, it has given me the tools I need to do the job."

Cliff College is a Methodist establishment but it takes students from partner churches, such as the Episcopalian, the Baptist and the United Reform. Students are taught communication skills, how to run a discussion group, how to organise an after-school club, a youth club and so on. They have role play and drama sessions and anyone with a musical skill is encouraged to develop it.

Flamboyance is not the norm. There are probably more quiet

students than extrovert characters. Looking at them at lunchtime the impression is of just another group of students, all shapes and sizes - and they are fed well.

Employment prospects for this year's graduates are excellent. Howard Mellor is dealing with many letters from churches and organisations asking for suitable people.

He says: "Some state that they want a lay worker, or a youth worker, or a schools worker. But what they really want, when you examine the job description, is people who are versed in evangelistic ministry and are keen about the mission of the church."

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