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students

Every so often, I want to feature a resource that I think can be helpful in assisting students to live and speak for Jesus during their time as undergraduates. I want to start with an excellent resource for a group of students who face a particular suite of challenges and opportunities: theology students.

Kelly Kapic is concerned that theology students should not embrace what he calls ‘theological detachment’ – in other words, theological study which willingly sits in an ivory tower and which does not enrich the lives of its students, the broader church community and ultimately the world. ‘A Little Book for New Theologians’, then, is what the title says it is: a short book (only 126 pages long) which acts as both guide and aspiration for those at the beginning of theological study.

The first three chapters summarise the necessity of theological study: to know God as he truly is – and, as creatures made by God, to rightly understand ourselves and the world around us in knowing him. Such knowledge touches both our understanding and our passions, and calls us to respond in faith and love. It also rightly shapes our experience of living in the world in the day to day: to, as Kapic beautifully puts it ‘know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope.’

Perhaps the strongest element of the book, though, is where it turns next: the thesis that theology can never be performed in a vacuum. Kapic refutes the premise of modern theology, which demands separation between its study and the life of the theologian. We do not approach the Bible as blank canvases, but as human beings, and so our experiences and practice in wider life both grow out of our theology and inform it. With this in mind, then, Kapic turns to characteristics of the life of the theologian that will best prepare them for theological study.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on faith and reason. Kapic rejects the ‘imaginary neutrality’ of pure reason, and instead calls for ‘faithful reasoning’ – a deep engagement in rational reflection within the context of a prior trust in God (whereby reasoning is therefore faithful to God). Elsewhere, Kapic counters the idea that Christian theologians must choose between prayer and hard work: ‘we cannot choose between prayer and study; faithful theology requires prayerful study.’

Finally, theology should never be engaged upon as a purely intellectual pursuit. Kapic has a striking chapter on suffering, justice and knowing God, which includes this sentence: ‘When we come to the question of knowing God, the Bible plunges us into caring for those he cares for, and thus into living with a concrete concern for the poor, the weak and those who suffer.’ And with that comes another exhortation to take theology out of the ivory tower and to the church and to the marginalised.

I loved this book because it refutes so many false dichotomies that theology students are so often fed, and on which they unnecessarily feel they need to take sides. The sad outcome is that theology students find that their studies either bears little or nothing in common with their Christian profession or their lives in church and CU, or that they fail to engage at all with what they are being taught. Their own discipleship is damaged, and a faithful engagement with non-believing lecturers and fellow students never gets going.

This book might be hard going reading for first year undergraduates – I wonder if it assumes a level of theological literacy that even they might be unfamiliar with – but I’m looking forward to getting it into their hands. As they are increasingly introduced to the philosophy upon which the study of theology is built in their university department, they may find themselves returning to this book and finding a mooring that encourages them to be wholehearted in both their Christian profession and in their studies.

One of the plenary talks that I enjoyed the most at the recent IFES World Assembly was the address by the outgoing President of IFES, Ramez Atallah. He spoke lucidly and passionately about the benefits of student leadership in campus outreach. The mp3 is well worth listening to if you have any connection to student ministry (note: early on in the address he speaks a few sentences of Arabic before returning to English!)

There are, of course, many different models of student ministry. Even in the UK, there are models of student ministry run by churches and para-church groups that would have little or no space for student leadership or initiative. But Ramez’s message recalled to mind several examples of student leadership I have seen and re-affirmed my commitment to it.

I remember, for example, a CU group that I was working with about six years ago. They were telling me, as their Staff Worker, that they were disappointed that no-one ever seemed to want to come to their carol service. As we chatted, it turned out that they had previously hosted it in the campus gym: not exactly an appealing venue. I asked them whether there was another more ‘festive’ venue they could host the carol service instead. (There was a lovely parish church near to the campus, that I had in mind). The CU leaders considered it for a moment. Then one of them suggested the National Trust caves just up the road! The students were all very enthusiastic – and, sure enough, the carol service went ahead by candlelight in the caves – with several hundred of the students from that university in attendance.

At their university, the CU were not allowed to enter halls of residence, but were keen to meet others from campus during their mission and to hear their questions about Christianity. They came up with text-a-toastie; the idea that students could text in for a toastie with their chosen filling, plus a question about Jesus or Christianity. I had to admit that I thought the idea was foolish at the time. And yet Gareth wrote then of how the Lord used that evening. Now the concept has spread to a whole number of other CUs (here, for example) and has even evolved to different contexts around the world. It’s hard to imagine that non-students would have come up with such an effective idea.

And I guess I’m particularly passionate about student leadership because, like Ramez, I can look back at my own student times and see how influential they were – not only for me, as a leader in church and Christian ministry today, and for many others.

I’m thinking in particular of those of us who sought to reach out to international students: we were pretty clueless in several respects. Yet we loved each other, loved Jesus, loved the international students and wanted them to come to know Jesus for themselves. And we knew that, in a way, with these convictions the world was our oyster. And despite our blunders, many international students came to know Jesus.

And it’s exciting to me to see how many of that group, who cut their teeth in leadership in that setting, are now leaders in a whole host of contexts: in business, in local churches, on the mission field, and elsewhere.