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.