Friday, 30 October 2009

Engaging with Foucault: can we believe in truth any more?

I spoke earlier in the week at Sheffield CU's lunchbar, engaging with issues of truth. As a social scientist, it's great to be engaging with writers like Michel Foucault. (I've written before on whether Foucault is correct in thinking power must always be used in a way that invariably restricts freedoms). I owe part of my thinking here to Tim Keller. Here's a summary of what I said:

20th Century philosophies of truth: your perspective informs what you understand the truth to be. When we look at the world around us, each of us sees it from within the horizons of our own world, whether those horizons are linguistic, emotional, social, artistic or whatever. Actually our perception of things is, at best, a limited or partial view of the truth.

Foucault's bit: he added to the above by claiming that truth claims are invariably power plays (as they limit the freedoms of others to chose to live as they like).

This leads us to a kind of paralysis. The big questions are unanswerable. And when we do decide to land on one answer as opposed to another, we can get accused of trying to get power over someone else. We long for truth - but instead all we have is lots of information, a whole load of 'partial truths' at best.

Jesus on Foucault: Jesus agreed that truth can be used as a power play (e.g. in the way that he confronts the teachers of the Law in Luke 11).

We’ve all experienced times when people have spoken genuine truth to us but they have not spoken it to us in love. Instead they’ve told it to us to hurt us, to wound us, to injure us. Yes, we can step back and say, 'What you’ve said is true, but the way you said it; well, you are intending to hurt me, not to help me.' And Jesus would say: "Listen, it’s not the claim to truth that does this – that hurts people. It’s what’s in the truth claim and its intent that matters."

Let's look at Jesus by these criteria...

1. Jesus claimed to speak as someone not limited by his humanity. Jesus was a Jewish man in the 1st Century. But he claimed to speak as God in human form: that he had a God’s-eye view of the Universe. And so he claimed not just to be having a good guess about how things are, but to reveal and embody the truth.

2. Jesus' mission (in his own words) was to bring freedom. While most religions and belief systems present God as static and making demands upon us, Christianity trusts in the God who has served us, in coming to us and dying for us. And so for Christians, true freedom is found in relationship with God. When we realize all that Jesus has done to serve us and give himself for us, this speaks to our fears of giving up our independence, finding true freedom in him.

3. The intent behind Jesus' truth claims. Jesus claimed that he isn’t out to control people like us, rather he’s out to free us and to bring us into the relationship with God we’re made for. In fact Jesus was so committed to us that it ultimately led to his voluntary death in our place. So as you consider Jesus’ truth claims, test the person of Jesus: does he seem out to coerce or control?

A person is transformed when they encounter undeserved sacrifice. Once you’ve encountered someone who sacrifices on your behalf and you know you don’t deserve it, you’re aware you can never be the same. It requires transformation. That is what drives Christians. Out of love for Christ and love for others, they long to see others entering into that relationship of life with Jesus. And so Christians are committed to loving their friends (and their enemies) and pointing them to Jesus, building strong relationships based on truth. That is the natural outcome of Jesus’ teaching and intent.

So, as a Christian, can you believe in truth any more?

This was a question I used to wrestle through as I did my Masters which embraced lots of continental philosophy. Can I believe in truth any more as a Christian? Yes, because truth has made itself known in the person of Jesus; because truth diagnoses me as I really am, then offers an antidote; and because truth shows itself when lived out fully in beautiful others-centred relationships that do not hurt others but build them up.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Seven steps towards building outreach into CU small groups

I've been thinking a bit recently about how to make CU small groups in all sorts of different university contexts more effective in outreach.

Here are seven steps I've come up with that can build a more of a missional edge in CU small groups:

1. Work hard to show your small group members how all components of small group time are inter-related. CU small group outreach tends to fail if outreach is seen as an unnatural intrusion to small group life. Outreach becomes more effective and natural when, for instance, Bible study is presented as something which energises the group's mission; as group members grow in trust and relationship with each other, they gain a sense of community in witness, and so on. Prayer topics in CU small groups should be wide-ranging (and it’s important to make space for the real needs that small group members have), but there should be an ongoing eye on outreach.

I made some practical suggestions on how to do this in a post a while back.

2. Ask questions that encourage discussion in the small group about how the gospel really is news that is good for people today. For instance, in a Bible study on 1 Peter 2:9, you could ask:

  • What are Christ’s deeds?
  • Why are they wonderful?
  • What kind of darkness previously surrounded you?
  • What is your present experience of God’s light?

(This is based on an approach I read in the book Good Things Come in Small Groups, which I believe is now out of print). Questions like these help small group members grapple with the specifics of God’s love, encourage them to appreciate the grace of the gospel, and help them begin to personalise and talk about it.

3. Set the perspective from the beginning that outreach is both necessary and natural. If your small group is less confident in evangelism, start initially in forms of non-threatening outreach, in which group members confident. As gospel confidence increases in your group, you can step up into more stretching forms of outreach.

4. Ask for help. If you need help in your outreach, don't let this stop you! Speak to your CU's small group coordinator or your CU Staff Worker for help.

5. Press for group ownership in outreach. Work towards small group members seeing your small group as a think tank. Work together to reach consensus on what specific task God has for you. Group ownership enables everyone in the small group to work as a team: this is much more fun, more effective and you'll find small group members are more committed.

6. Plan time for planning. To reduce undesirable last-minute panic, start the planning process far enough in advance. Factor in small group time to make these plans. Make sure too that you've thought about how you'll follow up those people who show interest in the gospel.

7. Surround all outreach in prayer. As we ask God to intervene in lives and events, we learn to rely on his strength rather than ours. While God commands us to be stewards of our gifts, energy and resources, it is not our job to change hearts. The Holy Spirit alone can do that. Our role is to serve as signposts pointing to Jesus.

It’s great when small group members keep a list of 3-5 friends, praying that they get opportunities to share the gospel and that their friends hearts would be open to the gospel. Set aside time regularly for prayer for these friends who are without the knowledge and experience of Christ's love.

When you have an event, ask for prayer wherever you can - at your church, in CU central meetings - and, of course, spend good time praying together in your small group too.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Lord of the dance

I was listening recently to Pixie Lott's Boys and Girls on the radio. It got me thinking: why are there so many pop songs about dancing?

I guess at one level there's an easy answer to this question: because a lot of the songs that are popular are played in pubs and clubs where people go to dance. But why is dancing championed in so many songs?

Of course, dancing is fun ('it sure feels good, feels good, yeah, we're gonna lose control'). But there's more too it. Again, as Pixie puts it, 'when the beat kicks in you feel it in your bones.' It's interesting to think that many people feel at their most 'free' and their most 'natural' when they're abandoned from their cares and concerns in dance (at least at the points when they're not worried about what people think of their dancing).

Perhaps we love dancing so much because we yearn to be away from our troubles and be in perfect sync with our surroundings.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Reaching university subcultures

One of the things I am passionate about is encouraging CU students to be strategic and to reach students in those subcultures who appear to be the very 'hardest' reach with the gospel in their local settings.

When I say this, I'm not saying that CU students should just ignore the pre-existing opportunities that they have in evangelism already; rather, that they should think carefully about how they can best serve the church through engaging with those only realistically reached through CU outreach.

Sometimes some churches in student towns can put on a 'guest service' that will attract a certain type of student - most often those who have come from a Christian or religious background; whether that is lapsed Christians, nominal Christians, those who have attended chapel at school - and so on. Of course, the Holy Spirit blows where he wants as his word is proclaimed, but - without partnership with the CU - church-based student evangelism is often relatively ineffective at reaching others.

I have taken to asking CU leaders to identify those groups or subcultures on campus that they consider that only the CU can realistically reach, with their privileges of contact, access and student-run evangelism. I've been asking Christian students to isolate those groups who wouldn't even consider or have the opportunity to enter the doors of a local church without prior CU contact. It's been quite eye-opening: at many universities it's Muslims, hard-core clubbers and those in private halls of residence. Chatting to a fourth year Durham student yesterday, he identified members of the Conservative club and non-Christian theology students.

I love it when CUs think strategically about reaching their campuses. I love it when local churches encourage their students to think this way, and set them free to be 'missionaries' within the university.