Thursday, April 18, 2019

Winter into Spring VIII: Muslims

In both Newcastle and Dundee, especially the latter, the events were attended by a number of Muslim students. I was struck by the diversity in this ‘community’. There was the British young lady in her hijab, the mature Iranian man who can’t go back home for fear of the state, the Egyptian post-graduate student who asked me why Christians are so reticent to be public about their religion, the young lady from a very tightly-controlled country who told me she had rejected the Wahabi interpretation of Islam when she saw what IS was doing, and the Arab student who identified as an atheist (more about him later).
Those that attended events listened respectfully and were happy to discuss the issues that arose. There were no heated arguments, no verbal attacks. On first entering the marquee they were perhaps a little uncomfortable, wondering, probably, if they were allowed. But a welcome by a student or CU guest soon put them at ease.
One leader of the Islamic Soc. in Newcastle attended a lunch bar and asked me a load of questions about the logistics of the venue, etc.: he was getting ideas for their own events week!
Another male student, from Pakistan, came during the morning slack time when the marquee was open for coffee. We had a respectful and frank exchange of views and I gave him my email if he should want to contact me later. I received an email a few weeks later apologising if he had given offence (he had not) and said he would come back to me with more questions.
The high point from the point of view of witness to Muslims, was the dialogue between an Imam and a Pastor in Dundee. Imam Jabil, a local mosque leader, shared the stage with Duncan Peters from Glasgow, with the two-hour event ably chaired by a retired Dundee lecturer. The chair had made a list of questions which he asked in turn, with each man having three minutes to answer each question. At the end, questions were fielded from the floor, with the whole event lasting two hours.
About 15 Muslim students attended as well as around the same number of CU members and a few of us others. The Arab atheist stood at the back nearly the whole time (arriving slightly late). He was clearly flabbergasted at what he was witnessing – a friendly sharing of views. He asked me who had organised the event. Afterwards he stayed to talk, not giving too much away but telling me he was unimpressed by the answers the Imam was making.
I thought this event was a modest success. The big gain for the CU is that it provided an environment for building relationships and in which the sharing of the gospel was entirely natural. It was important for those of us who organised this that the event should not be a debate but a dialogue. The former can sometimes cause people to feel threatened, leading them to become defensive and combative. Here no one felt under attack; all were happy to talk afterwards. Duncan’s fresh translation of Luke’s Gospel – Holy Injil: Luke– was available for people to take afterwards. A number of the Muslims who attended came back for subsequent events.
It would be great to see such events put on in universities throughout Europe, especially where there are a significant number of Muslim students. We need to help students to create concrete ways in which they can show love to their classmates, and in which the truth of the person of Jesus and his saving work can be shared respectfully and humanely.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Winter into Spring VII: Hindus

I got to share the gospel with a number of Hindus in all four locations I visited over the past few months. Nearly all were international students.
in Dundee a group of post-graduate students from India joined us for dinner one evening. It was hard to discern if they had anything more than a passing interest in what was going on. They asked intelligent questions and listened respectfully. There was a marked ignorance (I don’t mean that pejoratively) among the group, of our message. One asked me, “You know there are three types of Christianity?” I asked him what he meant, and he replied, “You know, those who worship Jesus, those who worship Mary, and those who worship Satan”! Some serious groundwork needed there. These were intelligent young men but with very little awareness of who Jesus is or what he has done. (On a side note, I just about managed to prevent them from eating the beef – ‘Cottage Pie’ could be anything to the uninitiated. Thankfully there was a vegetarian option.)
Two Hindus stood out for me. One was a young lady in Aber who had migrated from Nepal in her mid-teens. She had heard of Yeshu in Nepal and thought it must be a foreign god. She was astonished when I told her that the Jesus who we talk about here is the same person!
I had the joy of interacting with one recent Indian graduate in Utrecht. He had been involved in a Globe Café and was reading John Uncovered with his new friends. We talked seriously until it was time to leave. His first question to me after hearing Lindsay speak on ‘Why Bother with Jesus’ was this: If this is true what does it mean for the Indian villager who has never heard? Wow! This was no smug attempt to humiliate me – he was probably thinking of his grandmother. I told him how we all alike are held responsible for the way we have handled the light we have received and that we can only be saved by conscious faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His reaction was to say something along the lines that, if that is the case, people need to get the message out. Indeed.

I wrote a piece on Sharing Jesus with Hindu Friends for bethinking here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Winter into Spring VI: Roman Catholics

As last year, I had some very good conversations with students (and one tutor) who are practising Roman Catholics. One, an African student, had never heard an evangelical explanation of the cross of Christ. She came back later in the week and showed me how her Bible readings have taken on a new freshness – I had directed her to Romans and Hebrews. She is now in a follow-up group. The tutor told me frankly that he had been going to church his whole life, his friends had now all given up, and he was seriously wondering if it was all worth it.
The way I approach Roman Catholics is this: I tell them they have a great tradition – the Creeds and Councils of early Christianity. But traditions are always mixed because the people who develop them are not pure in their motives and make mistakes. So, we need something that is not dependent on the tradition to critique it and correct it. That’s the Bible, that has come to us from God himself and therefore should be respected as the ultimate authority. And we go from there. Not all will buy it – one graduate I talked with in Newcastle was sufficiently astute to realise my argument didn’t fit with official dogma and would not countenance going any further with it. But he kept coming along to the lunch bars, as he has done for years.
Any thoughtful Roman Catholic will have loads of questions that follow. If they have understood the argument for the authority of the Bible (even if they haven’t yet come to agree with it) they will be happy to hear how the Bible answers those questions.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Winter into Spring V: sub-Saharan Africans

In most of the universities I met a few students either from Africa itself or of African heritage. I will mention some under Islam and Roman Catholicism but here want to point out an African group of which we need to be aware – those who are scarred by the prosperity gospel. This is, of course, no gospel at all but a false teaching. In its milder forms it is repeated by poorly trained pastors who are simply not reading their Bibles carefully, leading to disappointment and disenchantment. In its extreme forms it can involve serious child abuse and even murder. In between are a host of different churches and denominations, many of which have a presence in the UK. Young people are coming to university in the UK from a background that is heavily impacted by such groups. 
On the one hand there will be those, like a young lady I met before in Leeds, who are sceptical of the claims of the gospel because they have never had their questions answered. Prosperity preachers confuse the gospel with material success and seem to have no inclination to engage with the difficult questions that are pressing to their young people – sexuality, climate change, work. 
On the other hand, there will be those, like a young man I met in Newcastle, who have been badly burned by their experience of church. Jim, I will call him, recounted how he had gone with his mother to a big event at the O2 Arena as a child and been thoroughly turned off by the obvious fraud that was going on – fake healing etc. He now considered himself an agnostic.
So young people from such backgrounds arrive at university with a shaky faith (if any) and a tenuous attachment to church. Reaching out to such students in their early days is vital if they are not going to be lost altogether.
Even still, however, events weeks will pull some along. They will listen. They will ask questions. Are we sufficiently aware of these folk and ready to handle them sensitively?

Friday, April 12, 2019

Winter into Spring IV: Chinese

As I pointed out yesterday, a number of CUs are actively seeking ways to engage international students in their events weeks. It is a joy for me to have been involved invited to help out with this. It is a great opportunity to share the gospel with such students while they are studying here. If they come to faith in Christ, then they get to take the Lord Jesus back with them to their families and friends. Friends International have staff workers in many towns and cities across the country supporting CUs and local churches in this ministry.
I have said before that CUs are doing so well in reaching out to sceptical British students, with their persuasive evangelistic approach. And many are putting a lot of effort into hospitality, especially in efforts to reach international students.
There are large numbers of students getting missed out, though, including British students from other religious traditions and internationals who have a strong sense of attachment to their own tradition. We need to be looking for ways to engage these folk as well as learning ways to be more sensitive to their heritage.
In the following blog posts, I will address ministry to such students grouped into the following categories: non-Muslim Africans, Roman Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims. But here I will start with a few words about the Chinese. A word of caution: this is all anecdotal; I have had little experience of this ministry compared with others. These are my observations and reflections only, not a thoroughgoing analysis.
In recent decades, in the West, there has been a significant movement of Chinese students to Christ, matching the great movement of Chinese more generally back home. I remember leading an Uncover John study with a tableful of Chinese students in Durham four years ago. They were so eager and so quick to pick up what we were sharing with them. I wonder if that window of blessing is closing now. I met many Chinese students on campuses over the past few months. In Dundee especially, I handed out hundreds of flyers to students from mainland China. But very few came along to events. Nothing wrong with the flyers – they were well-designed, and the information was clear. But there seemed to be a hardness I have not encountered before. Is it busyness? Surely that has always been the case. Could it be that the increasing hardness of the regime against the church in China is galvanising opposition against the gospel more generally? What about the Orwellian social credit system? Is that causing students to keep their heads down even when they are off camera and in another country? This is worthy of more research.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Winter into Spring III: Food

One topic in student ministry worth thinking about more is food – the great mark of hospitality. What better way is there to demonstrate love in a tangible way to our guests? A proper hot meal is characteristic of all the best events I have been involved in recently. Take the Aberystwyth CU special Globe Café, for example. Aber CU has a thriving Globe Café on Thursday evenings throughout the year, run by the students. This has become so fruitful that the CU has given over one of their regular CU meetings on Monday nights to a special Globe Café (without cancelling the Thursday event). I visited them for their Chinese New Year celebration. A big help for them is a post-doc Chinese student who is a great cook. Food was hot, tasty, and plentiful. The room was packed with Globe Café regulars and other CU members as well as some who had never been before.
In Dundee, the students put on an International Meal at 6 o’clock each evening in the marquee. As at Aber, hot food was served and much appreciated. This was cooked by local church members and brought over just in time for the meal. Sometimes the quantity was insufficient because more students turned up than expected. But it was good food. The talks given by me were short. My intention was to make international guests feel welcome and to pique interest in the main event to follow, rather than make it self-contained. I think this worked well. We also had an interview on two evenings, though I thought they were a mixed bag.
In Newcastle, the CU set their sights higher still, with the plan to feed everyone at the main evening event – a tall order when up to 100 were jammed into the marquee. They faced a big obstacle as well: having a marquee provided by the Students Union, they were obliged to follow their dictates, which were only to use the SU’s regular caterers. The upshot of this was cold food served in boxes. The students worked very hard to make a go of this and the food was certainly acceptable, but it lacked the welcoming warmth and smell of a hot meal.
The Newcastle CU pushed the boat out further by adding an ‘International Track’. It is great to give international students an invitation to events specially for them – part of what it means for the church in the UK to welcome the stranger in our midst (Lev 19:34). The arrangements for the main event, however, meant that canapés and squash from 5pm in a different building off-campus was not much of a draw. One who did come, though, – and from a different religious tradition – went on to attend other events and signed up for the follow-up course, so there was fruit even from this.
On the first evening, some of us skipped the main event in the marquee and popped over to a local church, where their weekly Globe Café was going on, with maybe 150 present – a mix of international students and church folk. This is a thriving regular work that feeds into a number of other activities during the week, including English classes and discovery Bible studies. It seems to me that some joined up thinking needs to go on here: would it not be better if the events week started on the Tuesday, with a big encouragement given at the Monday Globe Café, for international students to join in? As it was, the events week was scheduled to finish on Thursday because of other arrangements for the weekend. Clearly, cutting off the first evening event would have severely limited the effectiveness of the week. In hindsight, however, expecting international students to give up four hours of their evening was probably unrealistic. The Dundee model could be a great one for CUs to emulate.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Winter into Spring II: the Majority Student Community

Yesterday I took a general look at the student work I have been involved in. Now I want to reflect on the home student context, i.e. the majority student community in the places that I have visited. My perception is going to be biased towards those I spent more time with, i.e. those who showed more interest in what was going on. The British students that I talked with often seemed to sense both the supreme importance of the message and the cost involved in accepting it. I do not recall any conversation I had with a British student being flippant.
My perception of the students in the Netherlands, however, was not the same. Of course, my experience in Utrecht was short so I may be wrong, but my hunch is that it is harder to attract students to events there. Perhaps, then, Dutch students are lagging behind their British counterparts. Not that they are further back – if anything it is the other way around – but they do not show the same interest. Perhaps because there is more nominal Christianity there still. 
I would characterise many of the British students I met as ignorant, curious, reserved, and longing. Let me explain.
Many students at our universities have never heard a presentation of the claims of the gospel before. A core goal of the events weeks is to inform those who are ignorant. There can be no commitment to Christ if there is almost no knowledge of who he claimed to be. I had nearly an hour with a young man from a bicultural background who knew very little indeed and asked lots of thoughtful questions. Some may be tempted to dumb down their answers to such questions. But if someone asks penetrating questions about the Trinity it is important to be able to answer that question and show from the Bible where such an idea comes from.
Ignorance is matched by curiosity. Students see the marquee and wonder what it is that drives some of their peers to want to be so public about their beliefs. So many of them want to visit to find out more. But their curiosity is tempered by a reserve. I think there is a real fear of rejection or at least embarrassment. That can be overcome through personal contact: it is best if someone they know invites them along, but even being given a flyer by a friendly stranger can be a significant moment.
The CU member in charge of flyers this year at Dundee was far from God a year ago. Someone handed him a flyer, he stuffed it in his pocket, and went on a night out. In the early hours, walking back to his room and realising the hollowness of having just slept with a woman whose name he didn’t even know, he came across the flyer, found his way to an event the next day, and came to Christ.
That is unusual. Most of those who profess faith do so in the weeks and months following the events. It takes time to learn even the basics, when you are starting so far back. The follow up arrangements, then, are vital; groups to look further at Uncover John or Mark, for example, seem to be just right for many who have started on a journey to faith. As is also the offer to be taken to church, especially on the Sunday following. It is important, therefore, that every effort must be taken to ensure that the CU doesn’t take off for a weekend away immediately following the week. I know it is difficult in some situations to avoid this, but it is such an important time for continuity of witness.
I think there is also a longingin many for the message of Jesus to be real. But what prevents a student from immediate acceptance of the message, when it is presented so cogently and winsomely? Could it be that so many of our young people have had their hopes dashed too many times already? Is it the pain of family breakdown, or the broken promises of a friend, or the dispiriting effects of a lifetime of social media? For the most part I have not found the students attending events to be hard-nosed cynics. They are sceptical, to be sure, but not in a bad way. They throw out questions, but my impression is that these are not usually with the goal of tripping someone up.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Winter into Spring: Reflections on Student Ministry 2019

As winter turns to spring, it has become my custom, over the last three years, to focus my energies on student evangelism. This year it has been my privilege to be involved in four universities. My first trip was to Aberystwyth (my alma mater) to speak at a special Globe Café; after that I joined others to speak and help out at events weeks in Dundee, Newcastle, and Utrecht in the Netherlands. As in previous years, I was invited to these events especially, but not exclusively, in order to help the students with their outreach to international students.
As I experienced in 2017 and 2018, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and tired myself out in equal measure. I was impressed again with the hard work and dedication of the students in each of these universities. A significant core of leaders were joined by others pitching in to help with the many practical jobs that make an event like this work.
These students were ably supported by their staff workers (UCCF in the UK, and IFES, Ichthus, and CFSR in the Netherlands). One or two decisions that were made by the students might have been better had they consulted their staff worker or experienced guest speaker more closely, but it is easy to see this in hindsight, and I am sure the CUs will learn from experience for future years.
In each place, the students created an atmosphere of warm hospitality; there was a true community feel, which a number of guests remarked on. This is surely very significant. By doing this they are creating a ‘plausibility structure’, as Newbigin called it, for the gospel: as people are welcomed into a room or tent by a group of students who share a love for the Lord Jesus, they are presented with an apologetic for the gospel even before anyone opens their mouth. And as public life becomes increasingly rancorous and nasty, such honest friendliness stands out all the more.
I was struck again this year by the importance of the development of ongoing long-term relationships by CU members with their unbelieving friends. So many students I talked to told me that they had been brought along by a friend and in some cases by one with whom they were already reading the Bible. It is lovely to see the patient plodding of CU members rewarded with the acceptance of an invitation to a special event.
The Utrecht mission – Passion Week, as they call it there – was the first for me in Continental Europe. It was only the second Passion Week they had run – the idea is still quite new in the Netherlands. The week was run by a few keen students who worked well together.
The student scene in the Netherlands is complicated: not only do you have Agape (Campus Crusade) and the Navigators operating on campus (just as they are on a few campuses in the UK) but there are also multiple organisations affiliated to IFES. Ichthus, the group that was mainly running the Passion Week has about 120 students in Utrecht but only about a dozen were really involved in the events. The Passion Week has the potential to make a big impact on the university, but it needs to be brought front and centre of what Ichthus are doing, rather than continue as a side show for a special interest group. The result of the lack of wider involvement was a poor turn out for the most part, although, and I don’t know why, the last night was unexpectedly packed.
One of the key issues for the events is the venue. In recent years many CUs in the UK have hired a marquee. In both Dundee and Newcastle, the marquee was pitched bang in the centre of campus. Handing out flyers and inviting students along was easy. The sheer fact of the tent was a draw, but the value goes far beyond that. The CU make it their home for the week – the hard-core sleep in it overnight to keep any equipment from being nicked – and there is always coffee on the brew so people to drop in for a chat. It comes at a high price – Dundee paid £3.5k for theirs but the Student Union paid for Newcastle’s – but it is well worth it.
In Utrecht the group hired a large open room in the main campus building – a sort of balcony of the refectory – for the lunch bars, which also worked well. I was surprised to find, however, that some students struggled to find it.  Such venues need to be well sign posted. In the evening we met in a welcoming church building in the city centre, which I thought worked fine.
I am impressed with the quality of the talks in these events. This year was no exception, though one talk I heard mixed psychobabble with gospel creating a confusing message in my opinion. How important it is to ensure the speakers are up to the challenge of appropriate engagement with faithful content. When the message is clear and true and warmly delivered it is dynamite. I lost count of the times I heard a student say something like this: “I have never heard anything like that before!” How easy it makes the job of the student friend or CU guest as they seek to answer questions and urge them to consider the claims of Christ further.
We had quite a few interviews in Dundee and Newcastle and I was involved in some myself, as the interviewer. These were a mixed bag. CUs need to be careful who they ask to be interviewed. A guest interviewee who has a dramatic story may get carried away and give precious little for the interviewer to grab a hold of. Or the student might be so nervous he is constantly looking down at his script and it all looks so stilted and wooden. As the majority of guests these days are not from believing families, it is best to carefully limit the number of interviewees who have parents who took them to church from their infancy. It simply doesn’t connect with the experience of the listeners. The best interviews I listened to this year were of two students who, just a year before, had been invited along to an event and had trusted Christ. What a testimony!
Enough for now. In the coming days I shall comment on the students I met – national and international, secular and religious.