Wednesday, 16 September 2009

New universities and the need for community

One of the passions that has grown within me over recent years is the desire to see the 'new universities' of Britain reached with the gospel. The main stimulant of this desire was working with the Christian Union at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

I was often humbled by the Christian students in Preston, who continued to plug away with gospel proclamation and witness on campus, even though the odds were very much against them. CU numbers never really went over 70 in Preston, what is a university with a massive undergraduate presence.

No doubt there were other Christians on campus. One of the characteristics of new universities is that a large percentage of students commute in from nearby towns, and so never live permanently in their place of study. This makes it difficult to even grow a viable 'mission team' of any size.

There were other things that can make ministry hard and, for many, frustrating in new universities. Firstly, the subjects studied there are often more practical or vocational, making 'traditional' methods of apologetics and evangelistic proclamation less effective. In addition, my experience suggests that generally students at new universities are 'further back' in their appreciation for the gospel - particularly, there is the widespread assumption that becoming a Christian means you stop having fun (not the sort of objection that might be tackled effectively in an apologetic talk).

On top of all this, there are often no large halls of residence, a lack of emphasis across the university for involvement in extra-curricular activities and, perhaps above all, a lack of public meeting space. Certainly in Preston, students spent much of their time in their rooms, or out together in pubs and clubs. There was little sense of community.

A colleague yesterday was talking about another CU at a different new university. His observation of this group was that it was 'just a community' - that CU students had a tendency to sometimes huddle in a group. The evangelism that this group has tended to do has favoured first contact evangelism - this isn't surprising: as a relatively small group in a university of tens of thousands, it's tempting to think that first contact evangelism is the only way that it might be possible to make an evangelistic 'dent' in the university. The fact is, however, that such a large percentage of students on these campuses see Christianity as so functionally irrelevant, first contact is fairly ineffective. The students on these campuses need to see Christianity lived - to taste and see that the gospel is good - more even than students at traditional universities, who might be persuaded more easily to investigate Christianity through being convinced of its ring of truth. In fact, all of the people I know that have become Christians in Preston (and most of those who have shown any serious interest in Christianity) first became interested because they saw the gospel lived out in a friend or friends.

All this has got me thinking. I wonder if the need for friendship and community, that was so obvious in Preston, and which caused the CU my colleague was talking about yesterday to huddle, should be part of the outreach and evangelistic strategies at new university campuses. Obviously Christian huddling is a long way from the pattern of Biblical gospel ministry - but could CUs at these universities seek to meet the need for community to many around them with an outward emphasis? Sacrifical, outward-looking community, where everyone is accepted as they are, is - after all - a massive implication of authentic gospel living.

Imagine - building on solid gospel convictions, it's the CU at new universities including the lonely international students in dinner plans; it's the CU that runs a football team; it's CU members that offer their front rooms for other university meetings to take place. Imagine the way in which this would place gospel transformation on view, and the way in which this would require CU members to give a reason for the different hope they obviously have. Because CUs are currently very small at these universities, we're not going to talk about massive numbers coming into contact with CU members. But I wonder if the quality of contact might make CU evangelism in these tough mission fields more effective?


Kath said...

Hoorah! Please keep banging the drum for this, it's SO important and something I was very concerned about when working for the firm! You are spot on :) Hope the new job is going well!

peterdray said...

thanks Kath! I'm still getting clarity on all of these things, so your endorsement is very kind. Hope you are doing well too!

Becky said...

Thanks for this post Peter, it's lead to some very useful conversation with the Hallam committee!

Laura-Ashley said...

Hi Peter

My name is Ruth and I'm from Magee CU in Londonderry. I read your blog and it moved my heart - you described our situation almost exactly. it's encouraging to know even that others are in the same position. Community is something that has been on my mind a lot lately, thank-you for challenging me on it again.

peterdray said...

Hi Laura-Ashley, thanks for your comments!