I believe that halls of residence provide Christians with one of the best opportunities for making Jesus known in the UK today. The description of Paul’s ministry amongst the Thessalonians – of sharing life and sharing gospel – is more possible in these communities than in many others. That’s part of the reason I’m excited about leading a track on making the most of CU small groups next week.

One of the things we’ll do in the track is to give CU small group leaders something to aim at. The idea isn’t that a legalistic standard is set, but that a picture is painted of what CU small groups can achieve. The points have been adapted from our friends at Crowded House Church in Sheffield – what I particularly love is how clearly these aims flow out of the nature of the gospel itself. And the aim is that each small group leader can genuinely affirm all ten statements across the course of any given term. Events would then be a helpful focus and catalyst for evangelism, but not it’s subtotal. I’m certain that many more students would encounter Jesus and that local churches would be built if this was the case.

Here are the ten statements:

  • There are non-Christians who would consider us their friends
  • We have come to know the personal stories of these friends
  • Through listening, we have come to know what their personal idols and functional saviours are
  • We have shown these friends how to celebrate well
  • We know how the bless these friends in a way that demonstrates the gospel
  • We have been and are actively blessing these friends as a demonstration of the gospel
  • We eat together with these friends regularly
  • Part of our social and recreational rhythm regularly includes these friends
  • These friends know the gospel of Jesus
  • We have shared something of the gospel of Jesus with them at least once this term

Some of these aims flow out of the nature of the gospel. When it comes to celebration, for instance, it strikes me that Christians have more to mourn than those around them, but also more to receive with thanks. Celebration is one of the ways in which Christians see all good things as coming from the hands of a generous God. Eating together provides a context for real relationships. Blessing demonstrates a commitment to the good of those that God has placed us amongst. These activities surely ‘adorn’ the proclaimed gospel in setting of the hall of residence.

This is Part 1 in a series of reaching students at the broad range of UK universities, and concerns ancient universities.

Durham University
Example Universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Durham

Ancient universities in a nutshell: These institutions have a global reputation. They are normally centuries old, collegiate-based and are concentrated into a small geographical area. There is a wide spread of traditional academic subjects offered, and a strong emphasis on research. Students are high achievers and are more likely to have been privately educated. Very high numbers of international students are in the student cohort. There are often well-known churches in the town, and a sizeable Christian Union with an influential history.

Opportunities at ancient universities: Plenty. It is easy to make a range of friends, both in quality and quantity. Shared college life accelerates the process of making friends, and there is often a developed extra-curricular and sporting programme (both in college, and across the university). The layout of the university means that students are never very far away from one another – it is relatively easy to draw a crowd of students either at lunchtime or in the evenings. Students at these universities often enjoy thinking (even beyond their own academic discipline) and can be willing to discuss ‘big issues.’

Challenges at ancient universities: The busyness of life at these universities can spread students very thin. The presence of a large cohort of Christian students often spread across a small number of local churches can sometimes lead to an unhealthy ‘competition’ between evangelical churches. Churches and CUs compete for time in what is an already crowded marketplace. ‘New atheism’ is at its strongest and most vociferous in some of these universities.

DICCUIdeas for mission for CUs at ancient universities – there are too many here to list, and here are just five:

  1. There’s an opportunity to engage a high proportion of the entire university through a well-planned and advertised events week or carol service
  2. Those living in college will probably never have the number of good friends that they are sharing life with in college: college CU groups have one of the best opportunities for sharing their lives as they share the gospel anywhere in the UK – make sure they’re well-resourced
  3. Regular lunch bars will give you the opportunity to intrigue non-believers and train the CU to answer their friends’ questions – almost certainly you will have an accessible venue, and fellow students will genuinely want to hear how a response is made
  4. Have an alternative ‘Freshers Fair’ after an early central CU meeting, where CU members share the clubs and societies they are part of. Encourage everyone present to join at least one more – witness is much easier when there’s more than one Christian present
  5. The CU is probably big enough and well-enough resourced to be able to support and arrange evangelistic events to particular groups – within departments, those with particular interests, creatives etc. Encourage CU members with shared passions for these groups to get together and give them permission to try new ideas in engaging these groups

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to ancient universities:

  1. Start a ‘local link’ scheme through which church members offer hospitality to international students (and their families, where appropriate). As a church it might be possible to arrange excursions for international students too
  2. Encourage postgraduates and academics within church to informally mentor undergraduate students in their discipline – demonstrating how they have found satisfactory answers to the intellectual challenges within the discipline, and sharing opportunities for witness
  3. Let the Students Union and Volunteering Society know about community projects your church is involved in – these groups are often looking for local projects to support, and may give you contact with a range of students (Christian and non-Christian)
  4. Host a guest service the Sunday after key CU outreach points (e.g. Freshers’ Week, the carol service, events week), arranging a meal afterwards and making it easy for seekers to hook into church life
  5. The CU is normally poorly placed to reach the vast number of postgraduate students at ancient universities. Talk to the postgraduate students in your churches about how the church might better catalyse mission amongst postgraduates.

Tomorrow, we’ll think about red brick universities.

As part of Northumbria CU’s mission week I gave a lunchtime talk: What kind of God interferes with my sex life? I made two points: God’s design for sex helps us to enjoy sex, and God’s design for sex helps us to enjoy God. Here’s the first of those points – the second will come tomorrow.

God’s design for sex helps us to enjoy sex.  No doubt this claim comes as a surprise to many.  Many people’s perception of God is that he’s anti-sex.  Why else would he place so many restrictions on our enjoyment of sex?  And, to be fair, Christians down the ages have sometimes contributed to this wrong idea.  Sometimes, even today, Christians give the impression that God is against sex.

All of this, of course, seems to jar with society today, which is obsessed with sex.  Some of you might remember the Bloundhood Gang’s song from a few years ago that included this line: “You and me, baby, aren’t nothing but mammals – so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” The Discovery Channel on television often portrays close-up detail of sex in the animal kingdom.  And the song is tapping into that: we’re animals – and sex is just an animal act to be enjoyed.

The problem is that, whilst this sounds great at first, this perspective runs into a whole load of unexpected problems.  Biologically speaking, the more we learn about human sexuality, the more we see that it differs from how animals do it.  But there aren’t just biological differences either.  There are social expectations placed on sex.  Whilst animals generally mate in public, humans generally don’t.  And unlike bulls or rams, which have sex with every receptive female within sniffing distance, some sort of consent is required between humans.  And when none exists, we call that rape and say that it’s worthy of punishment.  The sad truth is that one in seven British women confess that they have felt coerced into having sex.  Try telling them that sex is just an animal act.

A scene from the film, A Beautiful Mind, shows the shortcomings of the idea that sex is just an animal act. The brilliant but socially inept mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, goes up to an attractive woman in a bar. And he says this to her: “Listen, I don’t have the words to say whatever it is that’s necessary to get you into bed, so can we just pretend I said those things and skip to the part where we exchange bodily fluids?” And Crowe’s character learns quickly – not least through the imprint of her palm on his face – that this sort of approach to sex doesn’t work very well as a pick-up line.

That scene shows our confusion about sexuality today.  On the one hand, scientists insist that we are animals like any other animal, and that sex is a natural expression of that animal nature. We’re urged to do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.  But when people truly act out their animal natures, society frowns in disapproval.  John Nash gets a slap for telling the truth.  Yes, prostitution is legal in a few countries of the world, but no parents encourage their daughters down this career path.  Films may glamourise adultery, but in real life unfaithfulness provokes pain sometimes strong enough to drive the wounded party to murder or jump off a bridge.

You may not believe in God.  But for a moment, I want you to suspend your disbelief.  The claim of the Bible is that God created out of nothing.  He created humans.  And he created humans to be sexual. The Bible’s teaching is that God is the inventor of sex.  It was God that created sexual attraction, not to mention the soft parts, the moist parts and the millions of nerve cell endings, sensitive to pain yet also capable of producing great pleasure. The Bible is not a detailed manual on sex – but if God is the inventor of sex, then we can trust that he has a blueprint that is for our good.

The Bible teaches that sex is special.  We can know that ourselves, of course, through a simple though experiment.  Think of the biological purpose of sex.  Sex is completely different from other biological functions that a person has – like eating, digestion, growth.  For those biological functions to occur, you only need one body.  But it takes two bodies to bring about the biological function of procreating.  To be sexual is to be incomplete in yourself when it comes to procreation.  Our biology cries out that we are not self-sufficient – we can’t make it happen by ourselves.  In this, sex is completely unique.  This is one of the things that makes sex special.  In normal life, a man and a woman are completely separate organisms.  But in sex, they become ones.  Sex is a true merging of a man and a woman.  We might say that they become a ‘one flesh unity’.

Some of you might know that that last phrase – ‘one flesh’ – is a Biblical phrase to describe the state of a couple that have sex.  And the Bible teaches that it’s not just the body of a man and a woman that are united in sex.  The Bible teaches that we are designed for wholeness.  And so, in the act of sex, it’s as if the hearts and minds and spirits of a couple cooperate with their bodies.  In sexual intercourse, a man and a woman are united not just in their bodily dimension, but in every dimension.  And so the unity of a couple in sex is designed to be like the glue of their relationship, holding them together – admitting their need for each other, but also preparing them to be parents together.  And this hope of children joins a couple together in solidarity with every past and future generation.  And so here is a reason that God’s blueprint is for no sex outside of marriage.  Sex is an incredibly powerful act.

And that makes sex the most wonderful and powerful physical language we have.  It has more meaning than most people can imagine.  As we satisfy someone very deeply, we say to that person: all of me, for all of you, always.  And that’s why, even if condoms were 100% reliable, the Bible would still say that all sexual intimacy outside of marriage is wrong.

I remember once reading of a Christian university professor pressing a six-inch piece of duct tape onto a hairy man’s arm.  He then unceremoniously ripped it off.  The man gasped in pain as it was ripped off.  Everyone else there laughed.  And this happened again, five or six times.  Each time, the tape became a little less sticky – until finally it fell off.

And here’s the point that the Christian university professor was seeking to make.  He said, “Your sexuality is like that too.  The first time you use it, you’re going to stick to whoever it touches.  Sex can’t help sticking – that’s what it’s for.  It’s why a person’s experience of losing their virginity is so powerful.  But the image goes on: if you rip yourself loose from that person, then there’s going to be damage.  Something in both of your hearts will tear.  And not only that, but your sexuality is left less ‘sticky’ than it was beforehand.  And if you pull your sexuality loose from one person after another, eventually it won’t stick any more.  Sexual partners seem like strangers, you don’t feel any connection, and your capacity for intimacy is being slowly destroyed.

My wife and I decided not to have sex before we were married.  I lost my virginity on my wedding night.  And I’m so glad that we made that choice.  It means that we’ve experienced the intimacy between two people that I believe God wanted when he designed the good gift of sex.  And it also meant that I said to Linda, “I believe that you are worth waiting for.”

So God is not a kill-joy when it comes to sex.  He created us with bodies to enjoy, and he created us as sexual beings.  And as a good and kind God, he wants us to enjoy the gift of sex to its utmost.  There’s a whole book of the Bible that celebrates the gift of sex.  But you enjoy sex most not by having it with virtual partners through internet pornography, or with as many people as possible, or even experiencing it through serial monogamy.  The Bible teaches us that sex is enjoyed to its utmost within the context of the promise of marriage.  At a marriage ceremony, a couple essentially promise: “All of me, for all of you, always.” The language of sex echoes that promise and provides a context for the intimacy that helps us to keep that promise.

Keeping sex within marriage doesn’t guarantee better sexual gratification.  God’s design, however, does create an environment of safety, intimacy and trust where sex can be rightly enjoyed.  Marriage provides the security that we need to experience sex without restraint, and from free from guilt, danger and deceit.  Many people today worry that they’ll miss out on something if they keep sex for marriage.  Actually, God’s design is there to keep us from missing out.  The promises made within a marriage set a boundary in which sex can run free.

God’s design for sex helps us to enjoy sex.

War Horse tells the story of the relationship between Albert Narracott and his horse, Joey. When Albert’s father, egged on by pride, buys a thoroughbred colt at an auction, it seems that the family will lose everything. Yet Albert forms a fast bond with the horse and is able to train the reluctant animal to do the work of a farm horse. However, we soon learn that the impending First World War may separate Albert and his horse Joey forever.

I know that some people apparently really love this film (it’s been called Spielberg’s best film in more than a decade), and its capacity to bring people to tears has been well documented. I don’t love this film. I think I failed to really connect with the characters in the first 20 minutes of the film – I really wasn’t persuaded of either the way in which the horse came to be owned by the Narracott family, or by the friendship between Joey the horse and Albert Narracott. And because I wasn’t persuaded of these things, I don’t think I connected emotionally as others evidently have for the rest of the film. (I might add that I was also very disappointed by the screenplay – especially the dialogue – which I felt was often shallow, cheesy and full of cliche).

That’s not to say that there weren’t things in the film which I valued, though. There are a couple of very powerful scenes which are well-acted and beautifully shot. There’s one scene, set in nomansland, where a British and German soldier work together to free the horse from barbed wire during a hiatus between firing sessions at the Battle of the Somme. (I wonder if we’re supposed to think about the famous football match that happened in similar circumstances on Christmas Day during WWI). For a brief moment, the enemy soldiers are able to put aside their allegiances and cooperate in an activity of value. The climactic scenes at the end of the film are similarly memorable.

And it’s these scenes which sum up the message of the film. Joey the horse is used to be the foil for a series of vignettes showing how the war tore apart families – British, French and German alike. There’s a refrain throughout the film – “The war has taken everything from everyone” – and this is clearly illustrated. We even see the ongoing effects of war on those involved long after it’s finished, through the experience of Ted Darracott, Albie’s father. The film makers clearly want viewers to see that war is not something to enter into lightly. Yet at the same time of awful suffering, the film pictures shards of humanity – snapshots of goodness, generosity, fraternity, deep relationship and love. Indeed these fragments of humanity only exacerbate the horrors and tragedy of war. And so we’re left with the picture that – as one of my favourite authors put it – humans are ‘glorious ruins’: capable of wonderful goodness yet also capable of inflicting the most horrific suffering on themselves, each other and the natural world.

I have just the heard the very sad news that my friend Kevin Boyle’s body has been found in south London. Kevin had been missing for several months. I had written here on this blog before about my concern for him.

I have many fond memories of Kevin. I remember his zeal catering at CU houseparties – including his determination to make all of the food from basic ingredients, requiring an early morning party to spend hours coring apples to make a massive number of apple crumbles. At the same houseparties, I remember our joint love for ‘Get Your Elbows Off The Table’  and the way Kevin would skilfully draw people to putting their elbows on the table to set up a forfeit. I remember both his practical jokes aimed at me and his kind words at the CU Leavers’ Ball just before I left Lancaster (there’s a photo of him and some other of mutual friends below). I remember the honest way in which he came to me to speak about some of the personal problems he was facing at the UCCF North West New Leaders’ weekend back in 2009. I remember his love for international students and his important part in CU’s Globe team.

We had only bumped into each other from time to time after we left Lancaster, but he still sent me occasional emails and Facebook messages.

I know that many of us who knew Kevin from his time in Lancaster will miss him dearly. Our thoughts and prayers are with his grieving family.

Kevin was always the first to admit his faults and his flaws. However Kevin’s saviour is one who came for deeply faulty and flawed people. There is a deep wideness in God’s mercy and there is reassurance that even in tragic circumstances, Kevin is now with the God he trusted and loved.

Many of us will have many questions as we reflect on Kevin’s life and its end. However in our deep sadness we can know that safe in the arms of Jesus his older brother, Kevin has been delivered safe through the valley of the shadow of death. Kevin is safe with him now.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39]

Recently I discovered The World Unplugged, a global study of the use of media by university students compiled by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change.

The study asked a sample of students in ten countries– including some in the United Kingdom – to abstain from using all media for a full day. After their 24 hours of abstinence, the students were then asked to report their successes and admit to any failures.

The headlines from the summary of results from the United Kingdom make interesting reading:

  • Craving media: Students wrote that they couldn’t manage 24 hours without media: It felt like going ‘cold turkey,’ many reported. “The only feeling I can relate it to giving up my phone and Twitter is that of giving up smoking,” said one student. “When I gave up smoking and I saw others smoking, I felt as though I was missing out on something. During the 24 hours of the experience I actually craved having my phone, and routinely checked my pockets for it every 5 minutes.”
  • Separation anxiety: Students reported that going unplugged left them uneasy and anxious. “I’m panicking not knowing what is going on in not just the outside world but also my world,” said one student. “My friends, my family, my life.”
  • Out of touch with world news: Students reported that they really missed keeping up with national and global events. The fast-paced cycle of news, students wrote, meant that 24 hours away from the BBC and other outlets felt like an eternity.
  • A long, long day: A day without media was largely stressful, isolating – and educational. Participants in this project wrote about experiencing withdrawal symptoms and being constantly fidgety. They were sure their friends and family had important messages waiting for them – even if it turned out that most of the missed communications were banal. They stared at their phones (which were turned off) and came to the realization that they were lost without the ability to go online on-demand. While some students felt liberated during their media-free day, far more felt a great sense of relief shortly after the 24-hour blackout came to an end:
  • ‘I’m an addict’: Students reported that there was nothing to do without media. They tried writing letters. Re-reading a book that never was a favorite. Aimlessly wandering into rooms. But students felt trapped in routines that they saw as utterly boring:
  • The world goes on without them: Even though students were unable to check their text messages, update their Facebook pages and follow their friends on Twitter, everyone else in their lives could do all of the above, stoking a fear among students that they were being left behind.
  • Missing instant gratification: Students commonly wrote that they needed to scratch an itch during their 24 hours without media — the itch being checking their phones or typing a question into a search engine for quick information.
  • Disconnected from world affairs: The news cycle moves effectively every minute nowadays, and students responded that they felt completely out of the loop with world news after just 24 hours of being away.
  • Dreams of detachment: Students described feeling a sense of triumph upon finishing their 24-hour blackout. Some of them even wished they had the ability to force themselves to ”turn off” from time to time.

Over the next little while – as and when I have opportunity – I plan to think about the consequences of what this survey has noted for those of us promoting evangelism and discipleship amongst university students. I’d love to hear your immediate reflections on these findings too.

My friend Kevin Boyle has been missing for over a fortnight, having disappeared after leaving work in Putney one afternoon. There’s been quite an amount of media attention about his disappearance, particularly afterJamie Oliver, his friend, made an appeal for him to come home.

I knew Kevin from his time at university in Lancaster, where he was an active member of the Christian Union. He was a college group leader in my final year there. I have many happy memories of Kevin. In particular, he used his culinary expertise and background to good effect on CU weekends away. He once refused to make apple crumble using pre-pureed apples but made his cooking team get up at the crack of dawn to start from first principles!

I remember Kevin as someone who loved Jesus and knew he was accepted by him, despite his foibles, faults and fragility.

Many of us are extremely worried and distressed about Kevin following his disappearance. I keep praying that Kevin is alive and well, and that he’s able to make contact soon with his worried friends and family. Kevin is a dearly-loved and adopted son of God who is precious to him. It’s knowing that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus that directs my prayers.

The website has more about the appeal to find Kevin.