On my count eight Freshers’ Weeks have gone by since I was rocking up at Uni for the first time, complete with my Dad’s ‘retro-look’ duffle coat and other luxuries. It’s a unique time for students, and so it’s a key time for University Christian Unions. This prompted me to begin a five-part series on how to make the most of Freshers’ Week and beyond as a CU. Part 1 looked at being clear on your identity as a student mission team, whilst Part 2 focused on having a CU culture that helps students to love the local church. I’d love to hear your thoughts – do comment below, but first here’s Part 3.
3. Be all about the gospel of Jesus
Let me explain what I mean, because you’re probably reading that and thinking ‘well, duh, that’s kind of an obvious one’. After all, which Christian Union is going to actively decide to try and avoid ‘the gospel’. CU committees don’t sit down together and say ‘ok, so how can we keep well away from Jesus’. But hear me out, because although it may seem like a crazy thing to do, I reckon sometimes we can all do a pretty good job of moving the gospel off centre-stage.
A few weeks ago I was looking at Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians with some friends, and I was hit by how stunningly clear Paul makes it that his ministry is all about presenting Jesus Christ. That is his message: 100% Jesus Christ; unrivalled in subject and unashamed in attitude. Have a read of this:
‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit…
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the trust we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God…
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’
– 2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:1-2, 5-6
See why Paul has put all his confidence in the message of Jesus? Because it is this that is going to bring about genuine spiritual change. Paul’s not after an external polish-and-scrub job; he knows that it is as people behold the Lord Jesus that their hearts will be transformed. Why? Because it is only in the person of Jesus Christ that we see the glory of God. Only the gospel of Jesus has a glory that can transform stubborn hearts and wills. And why would you settle for anything else in your message other than the staggering glory of God?
But how does this compare to where we’re at? Here’s a starter question to get you thinking: How many CU meetings do you think you’ve attended, whether evangelistic or those aimed at Christians, where Jesus and his works have hardly been mentioned? Have a ponder…
Maybe your instant reaction to that question is to assume you’re in the clear. But reconsider for just a moment, and mull on these: What is it you think your CU meetings really need for them to be effective? Or what do you long for your CU speakers to talk about? How do you expect unbelievers to encounter God this year? Sure, it’ll all be down to God, but through what means? What will people hear when they turn up to your events? And what are you spending all your time as a CU committee discussing and planning for? What do you think returning Christian students really need? And finally, to get a bit personal, where does your own confidence lie when it comes to yourself and your spiritual growth?
I find questions like these are helpful for me because they expose where I think the spiritual power lies in my life and the ministry I’m involved in. And what they often reveal is that I’ve moved the gospel, the epic and transforming news of Jesus Christ, off centre-stage. A friend recently sent me a great article by Aberdeen-based minister David Gibson in which he warns us of this very situation. Gibson argues that as evangelical Christians (i.e. Christians who hold to the authority of the Bible and are shaped by this gospel – the term evangelical simply comes from the Greek word, evangel, meaning gospel), we need to be careful we don’t assume the gospel. Paul gives us the model when he said ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). So let’s be big, really big, on Jesus.
Now don’t get me wrong: this isn’t about a token mention of Jesus’ name every few minutes. This is about unpacking, declaring and applying the riches of who Jesus is and what He has done, which is supremely seen in his hour of glory: his death in our place on the cross and his death-obliterating resurrection. In other words, we want to all about the whole gospel, the amazing news, of Jesus. We need to recalibrate all that we do to the gospel, and that begins with ourselves. As Gibson puts it, we need to ‘recover the sheer scandal of the gospel of grace’. He goes on:
The question to ask is: when was the last time my pulse quickened because of the wonder of God’s forgiveness of my sin that was so clearly being presented? In other words, the effect of truly grasping the gospel is to find ourselves amazed at the fact that what we do adds nothing and takes away nothing from what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus. When [we] realise that this gospel is what we need to encounter every day as Christians then it stops assuming the gospel and begins to give it centre-stage…
I think often the notion exists in our minds that ‘the gospel’ is simply the message we tell those people who don’t anything about Christianity, or who want to know something about Christianity. If that’s what you think then re-read that Gibson quotation above. The stunning reality of what our God has done for us in the person and works of Jesus Christ is neither something we could ever move on from, nor something we could ever grow out of. Now, don’t get me wrong: as time goes on we should mature in the faith. We understand the gospel better, our love for God increases, we see it’s implications and ramifications more, and so we battle to respond in obedient trust to our God with all of our lives. But we never graduate from the gospel onto ‘more spiritual things’ – it is everything; there are no other ‘spiritual things’ if they’ve been stripped of the gospel of Jesus.
So, back to our Freshers’ Week CU context, where does the rubber hit the road on this? Maybe you think this is being a bit pedantic, but let’s not just talk about ‘religion’, or ‘faith’, or even about a vague ‘God’. Isn’t that to assume the gospel? Anyone can talk about a ‘god’, but what actually makes our godtalk Christian is when it’s shaped by who our God is: the Father, Son and Spirit, who are together working to ‘give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. So in our meetings, in our talks, in our songs, in our testimonies, even in our 2-minute introductory spiel here and there, why not be thinking about how we can put Jesus Christ up front and central?
If you’re a member of a CU committee then you’re probably hungry to see people from your Uni who don’t know Jesus get converted and become Christians. Then make your meetings all about the gospel. The goal is people having a chance to respond to him with saving trust, so naturally they need to actually hear about him. Your CU event could be the coolest gig on campus, but if there’s no good news of Jesus, Christ crucified, then what are you expecting to happen? That’s why I’m so excited about the Uncover project – it’s all about reading through Luke’s gospel with your mates. Why? Because that’s where Jesus is!
But if you’re a member of a CU committee you’re probably also hungry to see returning Christian students get excited and equipped for evangelism on campus. Practically-speaking you’ll be wanting them to bring friends to the events you’re planning and, even more practically-speaking, you’ll be wanting them to offer to help with lots of stuff too so these events can even happen. Well, hey presto, make your meetings all about the gospel! Remember, don’t assume the gospel. It’s Jesus Christ through whom God’s Spirit blows people away with the glory of God. Whether someone’s coming back as an eager-beaver, whether they’re returning from a summer of struggle and strife, or whether they’re on the cusp of giving up on Christianity, it is hearing of Jesus Christ that’s gonna transform their hearts. If you’re wanting people to be moved to actually want to share Jesus with others, then teach them about Jesus. If you want people to be moved to want to get behind evangelism, so much so that they’re willing to bake cakes and design fliers and move chairs, then teach them about Jesus.
A final thought: all this means that you’ll need to have teaching from God’s word, because how else will people ‘see Jesus’ unless they hear about who he is and what he’s done. As American minister Mark Dever puts it, spiritually-speaking we’re living now in the ‘age of the ear’; we trust upon God’s word, walking by faith and not by sight, but knowing that one day we’ll see Jesus face-to-face. So in both your weekly CU meeting aimed at encouraging Christians and your evangelistic events, you’ll need to have the Scriptures opened, so people can behold him and put their trust in him and have their hearts warmed. Miss this out and it’s probably all a waste of space. It’s worth explaining to your speakers what you want from them. Why not make it clear you want them to open up the Scriptures and preach ‘Christ crucified’. CU is not the forum for debating about predestination, or gifts of the Spirit, or women in leadership; you’re a mission team and nothing less than glorious gospel of Jesus Christ will bring about real change.
What do you reckon? How’s this played out in your CU?
Part 4 is now available here.