Student witness in confusion
Questions about Fusion
Rupert Evans, former president of Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, speaks out on the spiritual malaise in our colleges and universities.
Many church leaders and youth workers and many Christian parents, relatives and friends encourage Christian students to join the Christian Union (CU) when they start life at university.
Many also try to link other new students with the CU in the hope that they may hear of Christ and turn to him. Having recently been a student, I want to urge Christians to continue such links with CUs; they are vital to individual lives and to the health and strength of ongoing witness on campuses.
The Christian landscape on campus, however, has changed significantly in the last few years. It is very different from even ten years ago. Those with a concern for students may not know what has changed. Many evangelical churches have heard reports from particular universities without being in a position to see the overall picture. Many have been asking questions about the emerging situation and what the changes mean. This article attempts to describe one major aspect of the current Christian scene on campus; and it does so in the hope of strengthening the CUs affiliated to UCCF.
In 1997, several of the 'new' churches in Britain (Pioneer, Ichthus, the New Salvation Army and YWAM) launched Fusion, a new student initiative designed to reach a new generation of students with the gospel.
At the time concerns were raised about this new movement and its effects on a united student witness in British universities, particularly expressing worries with Fusion's views of leadership and unity.
Over five years on from its launch, Fusion still has a very high profile and is the largest Christian organisation on many campuses. From March 2001 until March 2002, I served as President of the CICCU (Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union). The presence of Fusion in Cambridge meant that during that time I thoroughly researched the history, methods, theology and practice of Fusion both locally and nationally and concluded that many of the concerns expressed in 1997 have proved valid.
It is often rightly said that students have a large amount of free time and that non-Christians are much more open to hearing the gospel during their student days than later in their lives. Therefore there are great opportunities for evangelism and discipleship in student circles. This, and the fact that we live in a postmodern world where experience and personal preference often replace absolute truths, means that it is important for Christian Union leaders to be very clear on those core biblical truths and principles which need to be upheld in a non-denominational context.
Fusion is publicised very strongly and attractively at events such as 'Soul Survivor' and since it therefore captures the imagination of many freshers, they often join a Fusion cell without ever considering or comprehending the differences between its theology and that of the UCCF Christian Union on the campus. Fusion's public profile is further boosted by having a plethora of well known figures on its 'Core team' and 'Council of Reference', including Roger Ellis, Laurence Singlehurst, Clive Calver, Steve Chalke, Gerald Coates, Rob Frost, Joel Edwards, J. John, Sandy Millar, Dave Pope, Mike Pilavachi, Nick Pollard, Elaine Storkey, Derek Tidball and Lynn Green.
Sadly, there are four areas of particular concern which I believe are resulting in serious damage to student evangelism in many British universities: Fusion's definition of unity; its method of evangelism; its gospel; and its denominational and church ties.
1 Fusion's definition of unity
Rather than seeking unity around biblical truth and, where it is possible to do so without compromise, leaving behind non-essential issues for the sake of evangelism, Fusion stresses the idea of 'unity in diversity'. However, such 'unity' ceases to be true unity at all since truth is not ambiguous, subjective or 'diverse', but absolute and tied to God's character. Fusion's approach leads to a lack of concern for doctrinal faithfulness, and celebrates diverse theologies at a time when the church desperately needs to assert the existence of non-negotiable, revealed truth. It emphasises the validity of worshipping and meeting with God in whatever ways a person wishes, instead of looking at how the Bible has defined worship and how God has ordained that we are to meet him.
This misunderstanding of unity is particularly damaging because most churches up to now have viewed the CUs in UCCF as the 'evangelistic arm' of all the local churches to students in the area and have therefore put aside differences over 'non-essential' issues for the sake of presenting a united witness to the student world. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the UCCF's witness over the years is that it has largely been the only Christian organisation seeking to do evangelism on campuses, and, when other organisations such as 'Christians in Sport' have been present, they have generally sought to reach a narrow field of people and have therefore complemented UCCF's witness. However, we now risk losing that great advantage of a single, united witness to non-Christians in universities and instead having more than one student organisation apparently trying to do the same job (which has been such a great hindrance to student evangelism in the US). For example, in Cambridge, an objective of the vision statement of one of the churches running Fusion is to 'aggressively plant cells' in the university, even though every college already has a CICCU group. This creates confusion for young Christians and leads to an unhelpful, divided witness to non-Christians. It is a serious thing to divide a previously united witness.
2 Fusion's method of evangelism
The reason for Fusion's willingness to risk harming a united witness to students is perhaps connected with the second area of concern with its approach: its method of evangelism. Fusion groups tend to marginalise the need for the verbal proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of Scripture in evangelism by arguing that people are not reached effectively in such ways today. Therefore, Fusion emphasises an approach of 'belonging before believing' instead. In other words, non-Christians need to be welcomed into a community of Christians and as they experience the love of that community and see God's power at work in that community (often through highly emotional experiences or the practice of prophecy and speaking in tongues) they will somehow become Christians just by being members of that community.
While we do, of course, want to strongly emphasise the importance of being welcoming to outsiders and showing brotherly love to one another, the Bible is very clear that people cannot be saved unless the biblical gospel is verbally proclaimed to them (Romans 10.14,17). Indeed, when the Old Testament prophets preached a gospel of coming judgement and urged Israel to repent, they didn't change their method of evangelism solely because few people seemed to be turning back to God. If God chooses not to save people through that method, it is not because the method needs changing and we can be sure that God will still be glorified by justly judging the impenitent. Indeed, if someone is not preaching the gospel, they are not doing evangelism at all. As J.I. Packer has written, to Paul 'the only right method of evangelism was the teaching method' (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p.49). The bottom line is that the gospel is a message.
In contrast, the Fusion training manual says that 'prayer is evangelism' and tells leaders to 'remember that evangelism is also concerned with social transformation and meeting physical as well as spiritual needs'. Moreover, the first set of notes for cell leaders says, 'worshipping together, then, is an important part of evangelism' and quotes Francis of Assisi, saying 'at all times preach the gospel; if necessary use words'.
Fusion's evangelistic approach is perhaps best summed up by the following quotation from its leaders' training manual which says that one of the goals of a cell meeting is for the group to 'work together in evangelism. That only happens when Jesus, by his Spirit, is in the centre of the group through worship and use of gifts, as well as through an expectation of his transforming presence'. Evangelism is therefore reduced to an experience of Jesus completely independent of the Bible and conversion is no longer conditional upon repentance and faith. Clearly, Fusion is right to stress the importance of the work of the Spirit in evangelism. But Fusion cells have a dangerous expectation of meeting with Jesus outside of his Word as stressed in the leaders' manual when it says, 'as you get into worship, some may bring words of knowledge, or prophecy, which can lead to prayer or ministry. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, expecting God to speak to you and for the group to respond'. Such a statement reveals a serious misunderstanding of both the method of God's revelation to us and what constitutes biblical worship.
3 Fusion's gospel
The third and perhaps most serious area of concern with Fusion's approach is its gospel. It is perhaps unsurprising that cells which underplay verbal proclamation will also distort the gospel message. Indeed, the continual reluctance of many Fusion groups to be pinned down on a theology or doctrinal position demonstrates their apathy about the importance of communicating a biblical definition of the gospel to non-Christians. They seem more concerned with people 'meeting' or 'experiencing' Jesus in some subjective sense than they are with preaching a gospel of Christ's death propitiating the just wrath of an angry God.
As a result they downplay the need for truth (even though it is truth rather than experience which leads to Godliness; compare Titus 1.1 and 2.11-15 with Colossians 2.18b,23) and so are not concerned with doctrinal clarity or fidelity. The consequence is that Fusion's material is very weak on emphasising key elements of the gospel and Fusion is happy for churches and organisations to be part of its movement even if it also is not clear on such central issues.
For example, the only clause on the cross in the statement of faith of the organisation which planted the church which started Fusion in Cambridge says, 'the cross provides healing of the human body and deliverance from demonic bondage in answer to believing prayer'. Neither the truths of substitutionary atonement nor of God's wrath are mentioned at all in the statement of faith.
We have seen before, with the history of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the earlier part of the 20th century, what happens when the atoning blood of Christ's cross is not central. Similarly, the core values of the church which runs Fusion in Loughborough include 'taking people seriously and developing them to achieve their full potential in God' and 'expressing and outworking God's heart for justice and social transformation' but include nothing about preaching the gospel to people.
4 Fusion's denominational and church ties
Despite its claims to be interdenominational and its insistence that it is not a charismatic 'alternative' to UCCF, in reality Fusion is almost invariably run by charismatic churches and often in universities where the CU has generally been more conservative (e.g. Cambridge, Oxford, Durham). Thus it is either dividing 'evangelical' witness on campuses or else CU leaders are compromising their traditional, biblical doctrinal position and methods to appease those who threaten to set up an alternative 'evangelical' group. Moreover, Fusion leaders seem constantly reluctant to define what Fusion is. When Christian Unions question Fusion's work as being divisive Fusion tends to argue that they are a church work and therefore it would be inappropriate for the CU to criticise them as a CU is supposed to be 'interdenominational'. However, if university authorities get suspicious about a church working on campus or if a Fusion group wishes to advertise at a freshers fair, the Fusion cell leaders will immediately argue that they are not a church work but rather a student organisation, much like the Christian Union. Such an approach lacks integrity and has made it very hard for CU committees in Cambridge, for example, to know whether or how to tackle Fusion cells in colleges. In reality, Fusion is effectively a 'rival' CU as its cells seek to do pretty much the same thing as CU small groups - Bible studies, evangelism and prayer (although Fusion cells' definition of each of these three things may be very different from that of the CU). Furthermore, Fusion cells are supported by full-time Fusion 'associates' who are employed by local charismatic churches. This makes life very hard for Christian Unions as their leaders do not have the time or resources to 'compete' with full-time, paid, church workers. Again, the inconsistent definition of a Fusion cell is also dangerous for the long-term freedom of Christians to do evangelism on campuses. In the current political climate, university authorities are very wary of any outside, non-student led, 'religious' group trying to influence students and there is a very real concern that the fact that churches employ 'Fusion' associates could eventually lead to university authorities (who won't be able to distinguish between different strands of 'evangelicalism') banning all Christian groups from campuses.
Therefore, Fusion gives serious cause for concern in its methodology, theology and practice because of its definitions of unity, evangelism and the gospel and because it is not student-led. Moreover, there is a further, equally great concern which permeates through and is demonstrated by each of the above concerns. In practice, Fusion denies the sufficiency of Scripture. Fusion's emphasis upon 'experiencing' and hearing God independent of Scripture, its marginalising of biblical preaching in evangelism and the way in which the Bible is used in cell meetings all suggest that Fusion does not trust that the Bible's teaching alone is sufficient to convict sinners of their sin, to edify, equip and guide Christians in their daily lives or for a Christian to enjoy the full blessings of relationship with the Lord Jesus. There can be little doubt therefore, that there is good reason to be alarmed about Fusion's methods, which rely on 'evangelistic techniques' (which arise and change according to the trends of the non-Christian world around us rather than according to biblical models and definitions of evangelism) rather than the Spirit's power to save according to God's sovereign will through the simple preaching of the Word. There is reason also to be alarmed about Fusion's theology, which in practice seems neither anchored in nor safeguarded by the limits of the biblical canon.
Why is Fusion being allowed to flourish in many places with almost no public voice of concern from Christian leaders? There is a serious pastoral question here if we care passionately for the spiritual welfare of students. Surely we should be doing more to protect Christian students, many of whom are very young in their faith? The influence of Fusion is widespread and has led to UCCF CUs effectively disappearing in certain areas. Moreover, many UCCF CUs use Fusion material in their meetings. Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Chichester, Derby, Durham, Edinburgh, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Loughborough, Manchester, Oxford, Queen's Belfast, Sheffield and Southampton universities are amongst those which have been particularly affected by Fusion and Fusion is planning to plant cells imminently in two other large British universities which already have Christian Unions. In Oxford, the number of students in Fusion cells is several times greater than those who attend central OICCU meetings and in Cambridge the majority of colleges have a Fusion cell as well as a CICCU group. Considering many colleges only have 10-15 committed Christians, there is a very real danger of CICCU groups disappearing in some colleges and decades of biblical evangelistic witness being seriously threatened (indeed the influence of Fusion means that there is no CICCU group in King's College at the moment).
In the light of all this, many past and current CU leaders have been looking to UCCF student ministries' leadership to brief its students openly on Fusion but they have still failed to do this. CU leaders need guidelines from UCCF (staffworkers) but so far there seems to be silence when their CUs use Fusion material or CU leaders are faced by students who want to break away to form a fusion cell. There are many excellent UCCF staff workers but until a public policy towards Fusion is made known by the UCCF leadership it will be very difficult for them to advise CU leaders to take a stand against Fusion cells which are often wrecking years of fruitful, united student witness in universities.
Although it is difficult for UCCF to make too specific comments about Fusion because Fusion cells differ from place to place (and some of the concerns outlined above may not apply to all Fusion groups), there is enough of a common thread between cells and sufficient evidence in Fusion material to suggest that it stands for radically different principles than those of UCCF. Indeed, Fusion's very existence demonstrates that its founders believe the practice of charismatic gifts in evangelism to be so important that it was worth jeopardising years of united student witness in Britain in order to set up Fusion. Fusion's authority and method of outreach are significantly different from the historic and Biblical position of UCCF to warrant a public statement for CUs explaining the differences.
What do we stand for?
Any robust evangelical group or leader faces difficult decisions today. The great temptation for a body like UCCF [today] is to try to embrace everything which claims to be 'evangelical'. However, by standing for everything one ends up standing for little or nothing, and at the moment UCCF is allowing Fusion to spread rapidly by its failure to show how it offers a biblical alternative. UCCF started out being a small alternative to the liberal evangelical SCM (Student Christian Movement) and it must be prepared in our current theological climate even to risk becoming small again for the sake of maintaining its commitment to true unity and a biblical gospel. Indeed, the charismatic and conservative wings of 'evangelicalism' have diverged so much in the last 20 years that it may not be entirely unhealthy to stop pretending that we only disagree on minor issues and to have two different student groups to show both Christians and non-Christians that we do stand for different gospels sitting under different authorities. In reality Fusion has stopped this pretence by creating a second and different student group anyway. Although having two Christian groups on campus would be very sad, it is preferable to UCCF broadening its position or moving its theology in order to accommodate everyone who claims to be an evangelical. It is a great shame that Fusion has been allowed to grow over the last five years but sometimes God allows such groups to flourish for a time. It would be a greater shame if there was no biblical alternative to Fusion because UCCF was more concerned with maintaining numbers than standing up for the truth for which it has historically stood (N.B. Oliver Barclay's excellent book, Evangelicalism in Britain 1935-95, gives a very helpful insight into the historical basis of the UCCF).
In reality, Fusion is an example of the postmodern philosophy of our culture influencing Christian circles. Its 'unity in diversity' approach is very similar to the prevalent idea in our society today that whatever 'feels' right for a particular person must be right in reality and therefore must be a legitimate way to hear God speak or to know His presence or to worship Him. In the light of this and our postmodern world, UCCF must not shift its theology in order to tackle Fusion but rather must emphasise even more strongly those truths which have allowed it to flourish for so long: God's sovereignty in evangelism, the sufficiency of Scripture, a gospel centred upon penal substitution and a desire for unity which is based only upon biblical truth. UCCF is at a critical stage at the moment with no permanent General Secretary and it has important choices to make about its future direction. As Bob Horn, the last UCCF General Secretary, has written with regard to the debate about CICCU and Fusion in Cambridge, 'at stake were questions about which truths were central to biblical evangelism and vital for the unbeliever to hear. Crucial differences seemed to be on the priority of making the gospel known, the duty to express unity in witness and the governing place of the Bible' (From Cambridge To The World, p.189).
As a convinced supporter of the CU movement and as one who benefited greatly from my own CU experience, my prayer is that these comments will enable churches and individuals better to prepare their Christian young people for life and witness in a student world that so desperately needs the gospel. Let's also pray that however small and unpopular it may become, UCCF will keep going in its historical commitment to unite Bible-believing Christian students, to stand firmly and unashamedly for the power and sufficiency of Scripture and to faithfully support students in the urgent task of preaching the biblical gospel in British universities.
Copies of this article have been sent to leaders of Fusion and UCCF. We hope to be able to carry some comment and reaction in a later issue of Evangelicals Now.