The beginning of the new year has been an exciting time of outreach activities at universities across the country. It has been particularly joyful for me (David) to get involved with Christian Unions again and engage with questioning students. In the past month I have been to three very different mission weeks – each unique and reflective of the university they are in.
First of all was Durham – a beautiful university town with a large and active CU – I loved doing the lunch bar there and then had the delight of sitting beside a couple of people at the main meeting, who had only come because of the lunch bar. It was a long but worthwhile journey.
Contrast that with the University of Abertay (Dundee) lunch bar the following week. A handful of people with only a couple of non-Christians present. You would think that this would have been very discouraging – think again. Firstly, I was really encouraged by the two mission speakers, Simon Attwood and Lucy Thompson – who were part of my congregation in Dundee during their own student days. Part of the Solas mission is to help train young workers like Simon and Lucy. But even more encouraging was the fact that the two non-Christians turned up at church on Sunday! Never despise the day of small things.
Finally on to Aberdeen, where the CU ran a weeks’ worth of lunch bars and evening talks. I did five talks for the lunch bars. These were well attended with an attentive audience asking lots of questions. It was very stimulating to speak to people who knew little about Christianity and who were very open.
There is no doubt that there is ignorance, opposition and apathy in many of our universities – but there is also an open door, open minds and hearts that are being opened by the Holy Spirit. Andy and I are delighted to share in that work with UCCF.
As I write these words, the news has been filled with the growing death toll and horrific stories from the Grenfell Tower disaster. Grenfell raises many deeply disturbing questions. How could so many people burn to death right in the heart of one of the most modern cities in the world? How could so many mistakes be made? The Grenfell tragedy also reminds us how suffering and evil are also bound up together—an accidental fire is in one sense a ‘natural disaster’, but then into the mix is added poverty, greed, bad management, and gross human error.
But an event like Grenfell—and the other examples of suffering, tragedy, violence and death that daily fill the headlines—raises another question too. Where is God in all of this? Indeed, many sceptics and doubters would argue that pain and suffering clearly tell us that there is no God. As Richard Dawkins put it:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.
It’s to answer tough questions like this that we created the SHORT/ANSWERS video series—brief, 3-4 minute films, taking the hardest questions and the sharpest challenges to the Christian faith, and addressing them in a way that both Christians and non-Christians can understand.
Our latest film addresses the question of pain and suffering and suggests the question isn’t so much what God may have said about suffering and evil, but whether God has done anything about it. You can watch the video on YouTube here and it’s also on Facebook and in even shorter form on Instagram.
Last week, Andy and Al were at a Quench event in a coffee shop in Perth. Andy spoke on ‘How Can I Believe in Christianity When the Church Is So Evil?’ Among the audience was a gentlemen who had begun attending an Alpha Course at a local church but still had questions—indeed, we were told that this very question was one of the major stumbling blocks for him. The man asked questions in the Q&A and afterwards, he and Andy were able to talk. He said to Andy: “That’s the first time I’ve heard somebody answer that question in a way that’s persuasive”.
Apologetics, which we’re passionate about at Solas, is about just that: dealing with people’s honest questions so they are no longer stumbling blocks, so they can see Jesus clearly. Whether it’s the historic misbehaviour of parts of the church, or suffering and evil, or science and faith, or any of a thousand other questions, Solas is there at the coalface, online and offline, helping people see, as 1 Peter 3:15 puts it, that there are reasons for the hope that we have. Thanks for your prayers and your financial support that make this possible.
These last few weeks it’s been exciting to walk onto university campus after university campus and to talk to thousands of students about Jesus and the gospel. We’re in the middle of university mission season and so far this year, David and I have been at Edinburgh University, Aberdeen University, Dundee University, Abertay University and, internationally, at five universities in Canada. Coming up later this month, I’ll be at Liverpool Hope University, one of two main speakers for their mission week.
A university mission week is an annual event where the Christian groups on campus come together to organise a week of events—usually centred around lunch-bar and evening talks. Christian students mobilise to saturate the campus in flyers and posters, invite their friends and drum up publicity, so that the talks are filled. We then take controversial, engaging topics, tackling questions that people are really asking. For example, at Edinburgh University I spoke on “Isn’t God Irrelevant in the 21st Century?” whilst at Aberdeen University my first talk was entitled “Many Paths, One God?”
Too often the church is perceived as being afraid of or not interested in people’s honest questions—but what we find in reality is that when you tackle them head on, answer them with clarity and compassion, then allow time for dialogue and Q&A, and finally show how the answer connects to the gospel and to Jesus, God often shows up in amazing ways.
At one mission week in January, as well as the regular talks, we also organised a dialogue with an atheist member of the Philosophy Department, one of the most well-known faculty members on campus. The Christian Unions partnered with the Secular Alliance to sponsor the event entitled “Is Christianity Irrational?” I had the privilege of addressing hundreds of young skeptics as the professor and I interacted and answered questions. Afterwards, we had many signing up for the follow-up courses. You can watch an interview with two members of the Secular Alliance here: https://www.facebook.com/rzimcanada/videos/1430999990253039/
One of the pressures that a secular society tries to assert is to encourage Christians to privatise our faith—to withdraw from the public square and to shrink our faith to something that has absolutely nothing to say to the worlds of education, or work, or politics. University missions are a great corrective, as they remind us that Christianity is a public truth claim—if the gospel is true, it effects everything, not just “my personal relationship with Jesus”. They also remind me that the gospel can stand up in the marketplace of ideas, in the very heart of our universities, and more than hold its own.
Whenever I do a university mission, what excites me is not just the examples of God at work in the lives of non-Christian students, but the way these mission weeks excite a passion for evangelism in the Christian students who get involved in them. I remember a student at a mission last year who began the week incredibly timid and shy. Mid week, she plucked up the boldness, with much encouragement from friends, to invite a non-Christian friend to a talk. Her friend came, listened, asked questions in the Q&A, then hung around afterwards and talked to the speaker for several hours. Later that same afternoon, her friend gave her life to Christ. I will never forget the joy on that student’s face as the realisation sunk in that God had worked so powerfully through her.
I often tell students that being a student is a wonderful time of life. (I loved it so much that I did a PhD and managed to remain a student, at least part-time, for ten years, by which point if I hadn’t graduated my wife would have bludgeoned me to death with a blunt object.) But being a student is also a time when you have to make some big choices, before work and life and family and money and everything else crowds in. Two choices in particular. How much time you will invest with God and how much time you invest into the lives of others. Your answers to those questions will ultimately determine the impact you make on your culture.
In a world desperate for answers, we need Christian men and women prepared to commit to Christ wholeheartedly, live boldly, give dangerously, think deeply and speak and live authentically. University missions offer an incredible opportunity to help students lay some strong foundations for this.
Insight for January 2017 is now available. Read it online at ISSUU.com (embedded below) or download the PDF file.
This will be the last PDF version of Insight. We will be moving to a bi-weekly email newsletter soon. To continue receiving the newsletter, make sure you are signed up to our mailing list (see the subscribe form at the bottom of this page).
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