Tag: Gospel

The gospel in school and university

by on Apr.14, 2011, under Sermon

To perform a piece of music really well, there are two things you need to know: (1) the ‘shape’ of the music – what is its main theme, structure, and major components (verse/chorus/bridge etc.); and (2) the ‘style’ of the song – will it be fast or slow, loud or soft, jazz or rock and so on. The first one won’t change much – if it does, you are actually singing a new and different song. The second one, however, may change every time you sing or play it – and this is largely determined by your context, particularly the context of your audience. If they are feeling energised and upbeat then they may appreciate a quiet, reflective song. Similarly if they are quiet, or sad, or introspective then wild rock music will grate on them and your music will be rejected.

We see this all the time, don’t we? Who hasn’t been to a wedding where the band mistakenly thought they were the main attraction and belted their tunes out at top volume. One of my abiding memories of the first Blues Brothers movie is Jake and Elwood Blues (and their band) rocking up at a venue that enjoys both kinds of music – Country and Western – and launching into their standard blues revue. The results are predictable: empty beer bottles fly at the performers caught only by the chicken-wire shield erected in front of the stage. In fact, the entire premise of both Blues Brothers movies is a group who are unwilling to change their songs or their style in response to their context – instead, they must keep going until they eventually find the right context for their music.

We must know the same two things when we proclaim and promote the gospel: (1) what is the message we are proclaiming? (i.e. the tune) and (2) what is our method for proclaiming it? (i.e. the style). The message does not change, but the style of its presentation must match the context if the message is to be received. Unlike the Blues Brothers, we cannot wait for people to adopt Christian culture and context before we share the gospel – although many have tried! To use the language of the subtitle of this series, we must ensure that the ‘real gospel’ (the ‘tune’) is applied to ‘real life’ (the ‘style’).

So the goal tonight will be to understand the distinctive characteristics of a student’s context in order to better understand how to share the gospel with them. And yet I can only paint in broad brush strokes – you will have to take what I say and decide for yourself how well it fits with your own context… and modify accordingly.

So, what makes a student different from, say, a lawyer or a mother, a pensioner or an athlete? I have identified a number of characteristics (in no particular order), each of which presents its own unique opportunities and challenges for the proclamation of gospel.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, characteristic of a student is that they’re there to learn. This could be for any number of reasons – to get a job, for the sake of learning, or because Mum & Dad made them – but the end result is the same: they rock up each day to school or uni expecting to be confronted with new ideas. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for the gospel. Obviously it is an opportunity, because the gospel is just such an idea. In fact, you could say it is the idea, against which all other ideas must be measured. Students spend their days learning facts, which mean that they are ideally placed to hear about the occurrences of the gospel (to borrow Mark’s language) – Jesus’ sinless life, death on a cross, resurrection and so on – in a way that few other groups in the world are. However, it is also a challenge because it is all too easy for the distinctive nature of the gospel to be lost; it becomes just one more idea among many. I remember this was a common response at my uni, where lunch-time Christian meetings were spoken of as ‘just another lecture’ by Christians an non-Christians alike. Furthermore, many of the other teachers are professionals, paid to be effective teachers, meaning that there is a certain pressure to be ‘professional’ in the way we teach the gospel.

I believe that the only possible response to these challenges is to ensure that the message you have to proclaim is proclaimed as clearly as possible. Make sure that you understand the gospel and its importance and impact on your life. If you don’t understand how will you be able to share it? If it’s not important to you, why should it be to them? At the same time, don’t feel you need to be as slick a teacher as your teachers. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, a town totally immersed in slick teachers and speakers, he said,

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Cor 2:1–5)

This is excellent advice.

The second characteristic is that they’re learning to think critically about what they are being taught, particularly as you get toward the end of high school and even more so at university. No longer is it enough to accept the teacher’s word, instead they must evaluate and integrate ideas for themselves. Again, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is an opportunity because it means that they are willing to consider evidence and reconsider their presuppositions. In fact, university is often the first time people have moved out of home, and they take advantage of that by reconsidering the assumptions they have inherited from their parents. In some cases, this means they re-think their Christian heritage, but there are many others who are suddenly ready to consider the claims of Christianity.

Sometimes this can go too far: some people will set themselves up as judges over everything, presuming to render verdicts on matters which they have little or no familiarity with. Others are too lazy to push past their own misconceptions and stereotypes of Christianity, whilst others still have their own agenda to push and Christianity stands in their way and must be fought at all costs. Sadly, all these kinds of people are all too common on a university campus. Take, for example, the well-known militant atheist Richard Dawkins, formerly Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford university. In his 2006 book, The God Delusion, Dawkins sets out to discredit what he calls the God Hypothesis – that there is a creator God or gods. He writes,

Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many… I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.1

This is actually symptomatic of Dawkins’ approach to the whole discussion: he lumps all religions together so that he can speak in generalities and not deal with the specific claims of any one of them – although he is not shy in adopting examples from any of them that he thinks might support his cause. It is not clear what his motivation in doing this is – ignorance? laziness? malice? – but the end result is a work that would be rightly laughed out of any scientific forum or court of law! He trades on his expertise in one field (biology) as a platform for pontificating authoritatively on where he has little or no expertise (theology, cosmology, philosophy to name but a few). Such self-styled ‘intellectuals’ pop up in every academic institution, and aim to persuade by virtue of their reputation or pseudo-argumentation.

Our response should be to always encourage honest scrutiny of the claims made by Jesus Christ. Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6), thus any genuine search for truth will and must find its way to Jesus. There is no need to feel threatened or defensive. In particular, unless that is your gifting don’t spend so much time debating with ‘intellectuals’ that you neglect to spend time with others more open to hearing the gospel.

Another characteristic of students, particularly uni students, is that they have more discretionary time than any other adult group save, perhaps, retirees. Those of you who are currently at uni may disagree, and this is indeed a generalisation meaning that there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. But sit on a university campus sometime and look at how many people spend hours sitting on the lawn, or haunting the unibar, and then try telling me that uni students have no free time!

How is this an opportunity for the gospel? In several ways: (1) you have time for gospel work; and (2) the people you’re sharing with have no excuse for rushing off! The flip side of the coin is that you are only at school and uni for so many years – don’t miss out on the opportunity. The Apostle Paul was only in Thessalonica for 3 weeks, yet he still had enough time to found a church which, a short time later, he would call his ‘joy and crown’ (1 Thess 2:19-20).

When Paul was in Athens, he met people with exactly these characteristics. He met with the Jews in the synagogue and reasoned and argued with them, but he also proclaimed his message in the marketplace where people of that time and place would go to buy a good philosophy along with their eggs and milk. The result was that he was brought before the Areopagus, a group of (presumably wealthy) people who ‘spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’ (Acts 17:21). I believe that we can learn a lot from Paul’s example in this instance.

First, we note that Paul spent some time in immersing himself in the context (as we are doing tonight). He spent time walking around Athens, understanding what the people did day by day, and thinking about why they did it. When he spoke to the people on Mars Hill (another name for the Areopagus), he did so using the language of the great Greek poets, meaning that he was at least familiar with their literature. In our terms, this might mean participating in the broader life of your school or uni. Join a choir or a sports team. Know what the controversial political issues are on campus (even if you don’t participate in the debate). Go and see the school play. Help out at the working bee. And so on. In this way, you will have a shared context with those to whom you are witnessing, and you will show that you have made the effort to understand them and their context, even if you don’t agree.

Our response to this opportunity must be to reflect on our observations and experiences, asking questions about why things are the way they are, and happen the way they do. In particular, I find it helpful to ask myself the question, ‘What need or desire are they meeting by doing that?’ I then ask, ‘How does the gospel meet that need or desire?’ Paul noticed that the Athenians were ‘very religious’ (Acts 17:22), with a desire for peace with all of the gods even if they didn’t know who they all were. Paul’s response was to show that their desire was honourable but misguided, for there was only one God. Pleasing God is not a matter of temples and altars, but is achieved purely and simply by Christ’s actions on our behalf.

When invited to do so, Paul presented his beliefs clearly and unflinchingly. Here were gathered some of the greatest ‘intellectuals’ of his day – the Richard Dawkinses and the like. He would have known that proclaiming a physical resurrection of any person, let alone all people, would have been treated with incredulity by these people, yet because it was a core gospel issue he declared it anyway. We, like Paul, must be true to our beliefs and proclaim the whole gospel and not just the parts that are currently fashionable. At the moment, for example, there is a debate raging about whether a loving God could ever consign people to an eternity in hell. As a result, it is tempting to step around, or downplay, and discussion of sin and hell when proclaiming the gospel. It is not my intention to teach on the topic of hell tonight, but only to point out that you need to work out what issues are core to the gospel, and make sure that you don’t compromise in their proclamation.

Finally, Paul evaluated the response from his audience. In Thessalonica he taught in the synagogue and many were persuaded, though some were jealous and caused him trouble (Acts 17:1-9). In response, he moved on but made provisions for those who had come to faith, as evidenced by the two letters that he wrote to them (1 Thess 3:1-5). This raises two important points: (1) as already mentioned, don’t spend so much time arguing with those militantly opposed to you that you neglect those who do respond positively; and (2) always have a follow-up strategy.

It is not always easy to discern why someone is opposed to the gospel. Sometimes it is because of the manner in which you present the gospel, in which case your manner may need to be changed. In other cases it is because of a prior ‘defeater’ belief – a belief (usually a misunderstanding) that seems to preclude belief in the gospel. Examples of this might include the belief that ‘all religions are equal’, that a good God wouldn’t allow suffering on the scale that we observe in the world every day, that science has disproved Christianity and so on. In these cases, it may be worth addressing that specific issue first, and in this there are many great resources that might be of assistance. One which I would particularly recommend is a book by Tim Keller, called The Reason for God.2 This addresses a number of common misconceptions about Christianity in a way that is easy to read and understand. For more specific issues, have a chat to one of the pastoral staff or elders who may be able to recommend something appropriate.

Often your follow-up strategy will (and should) involve other people – usually a church or Bible study community – which is a good reason not to go it alone. One of my regrets from my own time at uni is that, for various reasons, I decided not to be a part of the university church but to attend instead a church down the road. This had some small advantages, in that though I was known as a Christian I was not rejected as a so-called ‘campus Christian’. But the disadvantages were that I had no immediate support network when sharing the gospel, and I missed out on the work being done by the campus church to equip students for university mission.

So, to recap, proclaiming and promoting the gospel requires that we know the shape (the gospel) and the style (the manner of presenting the gospel, dictated by context). And for a school or uni student the context is dominated by such things as developing habits of learning and critical thinking, an excess of discretionary time, intellectuals and intellectualism, and so on.

If this all seems a bit intimidating, well… you’re not alone in that! But, fortunately, neither are we alone in doing the work because, ultimately, it is God himself who is responsible for contextualising the gospel. It is his gospel, and he sends his Spirit to do this very work. He has already done so by putting his word into human language, which we can read and share. And the Holy Spirit works through us to translate words written thousands of years ago into culture of all kinds in order to reach and transform those very cultures.

Bibliography

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.

Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008.


Endnotes

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 35-6.
  2. Timothy J. Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008).
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