Monthly Archives: November 2011

Tomorrow I’m giving sessions for new UCCF staff workers on how CU small groups can be part of a CU’s mission strategy.

My love for CU small groups dates back more than a decade. I remember being cornered at a CU world mission night when I was a Fresher at university. I got talking to one of the mission representatives and described life as a first year undergraduate, living in a hall of residence.  I’ve never forgotten what he said.

“You’re a bit like a missionary in a North African country.”

I remember thinking, “No – I’m nothing like a missionary in a North African country! I’m a first year geography student in Bristol!”

The mission rep could probably tell from my facial expression that I was confused and so he went on: “It’s impossible to get missionaries into some countries in North Africa. We resource the believers who are already there. They’re the ones who have to be salt and light. That’s the same for you in your hall of residence.”

He hit the nail on the head. Local churches and mission agencies cannot gain access to many areas of our universities. As security steps up, it seems you need a code for every different corridor within some university buildings! Yet there are missionaries who are already there: Christian students.

More than 400,000 full-time undergraduates – over 25% from overseas – head to UK universities each autumn. Many will live in communities that render them inaccessible and unreachable during their time at university. Unless, that is, Christian students reach them with the gospel.

CUs are missional communities on campus. And CU small groups play a significant part in reaching the campus with the good news of the gospel. Through loving one another, sharing their lives with others and passing on the gospel, CU small groups function as ‘mini mission teams’ or ‘incarnational communities’ within the university.

Christians living in a hall of residence or college, for example, can engage those living around them much more powerfully together, united in a CU small group as members of different local churches. CU small groups have better (and, in many cases, unique) access and are able to demonstrate the love of Christ by being a community of love in a hall or college. Indeed, without the CU small group many halls and colleges would be left without any corporate witness. In a hall of residence or college, t’s hard to think of a more natural expression of ‘incarnational mission’ than a CU small group. Students can genuinely can share lives as they share the gospel – working, resting and eating alongside their mates.

I plan to share some different ideas of what’s possible through CU small groups in occasional posts over the next few weeks.

On Friday night, a group of us from church hired out the local Esquire’s coffee bar to consider the question: is there more to life than death?

It was the first time we’d tried something at Esquire’s. The coffee shop manager urged us to come back and I’m sure we will. I was really happy with the atmosphere there, and we had some good discussions and great questions.

The question ‘is there more to life than death?’ is one that is pervasive. Even though we might rationalise along with Bertrand Russell, ‘when I die, I will rot’, death feels unnatural. It feels like a rupture. And none of us live as though death is the end – we certainly don’t give the impression that we are people who will die who are members of a human race that will one day die in a universe that will one day die. We feel as though our lives have purpose, meaning and value. We instinctively feel that there must be more. The problem is that no-one can come back from the dead and tell us what is next.

We considered the Christian claim: that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. If this is so, then there is one person who can authoritatively speak about death and what comes after it.

After a short consideration of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, we thought about the implications if Jesus really did rise:

  • Certainty for the future. Jesus claims that he has done everything to bring us into life with him that not even death can rob. When this is experienced in its fullness, this will be a physical existence bringing solid joy and lasting pleasure.
  • Forgiveness for the past. We briefly considered the experience of Peter. He betrayed Jesus before his crucifixion, yet Jesus said to him after his resurrection, “Come and have breakfast.” The God who invites us to have breakfast offers forgiveness and fellowship with us too because of what his death and resurrection achieved.
  • Value for the present. Atheists may say that purpose is just an illusion – yet the resurrection of Jesus confirms our hunch: our lives today really do matter. Death will not undo the significance of our lives.

The questions that followed were interesting too:

  • What happens to babies who die before the age of understanding the gospel?
  • Did Jesus die just in order to be resurrected?
  • Why do psychics claim to be able to make contact with the dead?
  • What should we make of what people say about near-death experiences?

Linda, Samuel and I had the pleasure of hosting our Relay Workers over the past couple of days for some sessions on law and gospel – I may blog on that sometime in the future if I get a chance. But in thist post, I wanted to comment on the film we went to see last night to unwind, In Time.

In Time casts Justin Timberlake as Will Salas, a poor man set in the ghetto of a futuristic world where the currency is time, which can be added to your ‘account’ to prolong your life above the set lower-limit, 25 years. Time really is money – and the poor must struggle and strive merely to top up their credits and stay alive.

Will’s life changes when a rich man from a more exclusive ‘time zone’ – in other words, another part of the city – gives away all of his time to him. The rich man says that he has lived long enough – time has become monotony to him. The rest of the film follows Will’s story from this point onward.

There were several weak aspects to the film – over dinner after the film, we noticed several plot holes. Justin Timberlake’s acting was wooden at some occasions (again, there was consensus over dinner that Justin is a better singer than actor!). The ‘time’ puns got tiresome pretty early on (“I don’t have time for a girlfriend”, “Don’t waste my time”, etc.), and the script was weak in places. I also got very confused about the film’s view of human nature – on occasions it seemed very positive, on others less so.

But there were cleverer aspects too, though. Perhaps the thing I liked most about In Time was the concept of time being money. Several questions were posed. Would those of us who are ‘rich’ remain unmoved if we really thought that poverty affected their life spans? Would we really want to live forever, if we could? How would your lifestyle change if you knew when your time was up? Is the best way of living your life to live every day as if it was your last? And the film has the interesting tag-line: live forever, or die trying.

In Time illustrates several desires: we long for a world of justice, a world where we feel fully human, a world of relational depth, a world where those with influence use it to bless and not to suit themselves, a world where death has lost its sting, and a world where we are freed from striving (caused by lack of the resources we need). The movie closes and this world has still not come about. But just maybe the world we all want really does exist.

A few weeks ago, Durham CU hosted a night called ‘Create’. The idea of the evening was to consider creative ways to share the gospel. We are, after all, made in the image of a wonderful creative God who expects us to mirror that creativity as we tell the world about him. I’m thrilled that the CU in Durham is actively thinking about making their outreach more creative.

Ellie has written generally about her experience of the evening. Meanwhile several of those who led parts of the evening have also put their material online. Ellie attended a workshop led by my friend Chris Morgan of King’s Church Durham on social networking and outreach – the first part of his notes are here. Another friend, Durham CU graduate John Castling, led a workshop on music – some of his thoughts are online too. Finally, Relay Worker (and friend!) JP Wright has thoughts on film and outreach in two parts – here and here. If you’ve never been part of a film discussion and seen how they can very easily be used to get to chatting about life’s big issues, do enjoy the example he works through in part 2.

It’s exciting to see a great partnership between churches, graduates and CU students, and very encouraging to see students being urged to try new things. In my opinion, CUs work best when students know that they are accepted completely by their adoptive Father, knowing that they have nothing to prove and therefore knowing the world is their oyster when it comes to making Jesus known. Hopefully the ‘Create’ evening will have that effect in Durham!

This week I was sent a report issued by some of the trustees of a major mainline Protestant denomination. The report concerned, in part, the treatment of one of its ministers, against whom some allegations had been made. Given that I know the minister well, I have taken a close interest in this case and have followed it all along. This eventually led me to make a grievance claim on behalf of the minister for the lack of pastoral care he, his family and his local church were given through this process. This has been a protracted process that has now stretched over more than two years, and has included investigation by the Police and the Charity Commission (both of which vindicated the minister in full).

My grievance was not upheld. I was so flabbergasted at the reasons that were given that I have felt compelled to write this entry. I am sure that many Christians would be shocked to know the justification of this major denomination.

Here is a quote from the report I have received from the denomination’s trustees:

‘… the staff of [the denomination] cannot, and are not expected to offer pastoral care to individual churches. They are expected to operate the national systems fairly and consistently, and deal appropriately with the people from local churches they have contact with…. Such support for the church is not about supporting individuals but about supporting officers… in carrying out their responsibilities. This means such things as advising… officers on best practice, sign-posting them to appropriate information (e.g. [denomination] fact sheets)…, chairing special church meetings when certain issues are on the agenda, providing them with information… and offering to help find outside expertise if necessary.’

Here is the judgement that they made explaining why my grievance was not upheld:

‘Whilst you clearly felt that your… friend… [had] not been appropriately cared for and it has been a distressing time for you all, we have seen evidence that all normal avenues of care were offered [I presume these are those mentioned above, such as sending out fact sheets]. There is a mismatch of expectations about what constitutes pastoral care and what can reasonably be offered. The [denomination] set up the ministerial counselling service for ministers and their dependent families precisely because it cannot always offer care and to ensure there was specialist help to people in extremis….’

Meanwhile, no-one from the denomination has ever visited the minister, their family or the local church during a period where they have been under extreme pressure. No-one has listened to them, no-one with prayed with them, no-one has opened the Scriptures with them, and no-one intervened to prevent the situation from escalating further, despite a whole host desperate pleas, emails and phone calls to the denomination.

I have just responded to the trustees outlining my incredulity at what they have written. It is true that, as they say, there is a ‘mismatch of expectations’ between us about ‘what constitutes pastoral care.’ I have included the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of both ‘pastoral’ and ‘care’ in my response. And I believe the denomination’s definition of ‘pastoral care’ not only differs from the OED, but also from the definitions most Christians would offer and – I might suggest – from the expectations in the Bible for how Christians care for each other (particularly those in leadership).

Is my expectation for pastoral care of minister in times of crisis by a denomination unrealistic? What might you wish to say to this denomination? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A few weeks ago I spoke at Nottingham University Christian Union on ‘church and CU.’ I was impressed by how warmly I was welcomed by the students and the obvious excitement about missional opportunities amongst them.

Most of my time was spent expositing Ephesians 3, outlining God’s amazing design for the local church. Much of my love for the local church comes from being part of UCCF; being around people who’ve shown me that Jesus loves the church and what that means for me. I then outlined the CU vision: that we’re better together for the gospel when united from different local churches around the core truths about Jesus.

I was also asked to give some practical wisdom on how to best parnert with local churches in the city.In particular, I was told: sometimes meetings will clash and diaries will conflict – what should students do at this point? Here’s what I said – I’m aware I could have said loads more – I’ve love to know what you think if you’re involved in student ministry.

1. When there are clashes, remember that the choice is not between the good and the bad, but more frequently the problem of deciding between the good, the better and the best. You need real wisdom in knowing how to respond to the considerable variety of Christian activities in which you might participate. Pray that for yourself, and for other Christian students you know.

2. It’s not very helpful to force a wedge between the ministries of the CU and the local church. Ideally, local churches should see the CU as just an extension of their own ministry. The ideal is when local churches commission their students to be missionaries on campus, freeing them up from other activities so that they can be part of the CU. In turn CUs determine not to undertake ministries that don’t help them achieve their vision of giving each student at their university a chance to hear the gospel for themselves.

So CUs are all about building local churches. One of the highlights for me working with CUs is when I attend baptism services in local churches where people have become Christians through CU. I’ve been to many over the years.

Not only that, but CUs build local churches as students are discipled and given opportunities to lead. At our church in Doncaster, some of our keenest members and most skilled small group leaders are those who cut their teeth in leadership through CU whilst students. Through investing in students and giving them opportunities to lead, CUs continue to build local churches long after graduation.

In practice, you can help yourselves by not thinking about your choices in terms of ‘church or CU’, or even ‘church and CU’, but ‘church therefore CU.’ Church comes first. And you should see yourselves as representatives of your local churches together living and speaking for Jesus on campus, seeking to build those churches and those you’ll be part of after graduation.

3. Know that in all probability you’ll never live amongst a mission field like you currently do again in your life. University life is odd. In much of life, those you live with are different from those you work with, and they’re both different from the groups you hang out with and relax with. At university, these groups become conflated. Most of you will never have the quantity and quality of relationships you currently have after you graduate. It means that 1 Thessalonians 2:8 – of sharing your life as you share the gospel – is genuinely possible in the student context. This is one of the reasons why universities are such strategic places for the gospel. Students have a deep quality of relationship where sharing Jesus often can be organic, natural and often in the context of relationship. Believe me, that’s much harder after graduation. And so – gently – might I suggest that you withhold certain church commitments until beyond graduation. You have a lifetime to give after graduation to invest in church ministries that are more preparation heavy, like time-intensive youth-work. There are plenty of other ways to get stuck into local church where you can love and serve others. Why not attend your local church’s prayer meeting? That’s a way of really building the kingdom – and in doing so you’ll get to know some pretty cool people in your own local church.

You won’t have your time at university again. Why not seek to build the local church through CU whilst you can? You’ll still find there are loads of ways you can serve and build your church. Why not chat through your options with a church leader?

Earlier in the week, I went with two of my colleagues to watch the new Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. Films give us an opportunity to celebrate the creative gifts God has given different people (Christian or not), to be alerted to our own cultural captivity, and to get a glimpse into and to engage with a worldview different from our own. I’ve found watching films really helpful as I seek to talk and share the gospel with others different from me.

All three of us enjoyed the film. The cinematography is excellent: Paris looks stunning and something of its bustle and ‘joie de vivre’ is captured. Right from the opening scene, there’s a wonderfully evocative soundtrack which enhances all of the action on screen, and will have you humming swing tunes away for hours. The cast are excellent too – in particular, the ever-brilliant Michael Sheen plays Paul, an annoying faux-intellectual, whilst Alan ‘Arnie Vinick’ Aida’s cameo is also superbly acted.

The film itself concerns nostalgia. The main character, Gil, is a writer in a loveless relationship, soon to be married, and visiting Paris with his fiancée and her parents. His life takes a turn when one night, when walking the Parisian streets alone, he finds himself in 1920s Paris: an era he always wanted to live in. Soon he is able to rub shoulders with many of his artistic heroes who were active in the city at that time – including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. However, it’s another that Gil becomes particularly drawn to: the beautiful Adriana, who has been the mistress of many an artist based in Paris. Gil returns night after night – and these forays into the 1920s gradually help him to see his life in the 21st Century in sharper relief, and what he really wants. Time travel has obviously been created on the big screen on innumerable occasions, but I still felt that the story was fresh.

Midnight in Paris is essentially a commentary on how both the past and our hopes and expectations for the future can prevent us from living in the moment, and enjoying it to its full potential. Whilst the 1920s appear magical to Gil from his position in history, they feel dull to those there at the time. Similarly, the film suggests that commitment (and particularly the commitment of marriage) can prevent an individual from experiencing all that they might at any given moment. Living in the moment, free from obligation and from the tyranny of unrealistic expectations (past or present) is what truly brings life. The arts can flourish in this environment. More seriously, according to the film, enjoying each moment to its fullest is the only thing that makes death bearable.

There’s plenty to endorse in the film, and in its message. But I’d want to ask a few questions of Woody Allen, who wrote the film as well as directed it. Is it really true to say that life is better without any commitment? And what about when living for the moment isn’t all its cracked up to be? Isn’t there something more solid on which we can build our lives?