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How to love your uni?

’What does it mean to love our universities?’

This was the question asked by Rich Wilson, National Team Leader for Fusion, at a recent conference.1 Fusion’s answer to that question has become the ‘Love your Uni’ campaign, which is ‘dreaming about a whole generation of students who can love beyond themselves’.2 That sounds great. But digging beneath the surface reveals a more disturbing story…

Fusion’s aim for the Love your Uni campaign in 2008 is to see 1,000 new cell groups planted on campuses across the UK. In his vision-setting talk Rich Wilson is quite explicit that the driver for recruiting people to do this will be the Hope 08 events throughout the year, in which large numbers of churches are participating.

Launched with great fanfare in 1997, with a Council of Reference including many well-known names, Fusion presented itself as the future of student ministry in the UK. There was a clear implication, and sometimes explicit statements, that Christian Unions were outdated, conservative and unable to connect with student culture.

Few places

Since then Fusion has been the brand name used by some churches in university towns (from both established and new denominations) for their cells and other student work. Although some universities have Fusion societies, there are relatively few places where Fusion has a significant presence on campus. Love your Uni appears to be an attempt to re-launch Fusion work on campus with a different brand name on the back of Hope 08.

All of which might sound like an abstruse problem of (para)church politics best ignored by everyone. But all of us, and especially church leaders, ought to be concerned about Love your Uni for two main reasons…

1 Division under the guise of unity

Here, in Liverpool, one of the questions I am regularly asked by students and church leaders from churches with Fusion cells, is why the CU and Fusion groups can’t just merge and create a united witness on campus? My reply is that they used to have a united witness; it was called the Christian Union. It represented students from both charismatic and conservative churches and, with no more hiccoughs than you might expect for a student society, it was effective in drawing together all sorts of evangelical Christians and reaching all kinds of non-Christians with the good news about Jesus. Then some churches decided the Christian Union didn’t adequately reflect their priorities and took their ball away to start a new game. I’m perfectly happy to accept their right to do that, though I think it’s a shame. But once you’ve created a division, you can’t really bleat about a lack of unity as if it is someone else’s responsibility!

Love your Uni is being presented in some places as an ‘activist group’ around involvement in a particular aspect of university life, much like Friends International (FI) or Christians in Sport (CIS). Unwary churches may be led into thinking that here is something that can unite CU and Fusion groups. They may also feel that anybody from UCCF who is not enthusiastic for Love your Uni groups is simply being territorial about campus ministry.

The reality, however, is that Love your Uni is not an activist group that can run in parallel with the CU in the way that the excellent ministries of FI, CIS and others do. It is an initiative of Fusion whose primary vision is to establish campus cell groups linked to Fusion-affiliated churches in competition with the existing work of Christian Unions.

From my own observations over the last decade it is difficult to think of a single situation where the emergence of Fusion has not divided a pre-existing witness on campus. The practice of new Fusion groups has usually been to target existing CU members and ask them to start a new work that is sometimes explicitly critical of the evangelism done by the CU.

The emergence of Fusion in Sheffield University, for example, resulted in an effective CU of 250 members dwindling to a core of 30. The ‘takeover’ eventually ran out of steam and the CU has recovered strength and effectiveness. But the divided witness and loss of momentum in evangelism lasted for many years.

2 Opposition to proclaiming the gospel

At one university in England the CU recently asked to borrow some tea and coffee-making equipment from a local church which is involved with Love your Uni as part of a time of contact evangelism. A day before the event they had a phone call asking what exactly they were going to be doing. The CU explained they were going to give out some tracts and gospels. They were told that handing out gospels didn’t fit with the Love your Uni concept and that Love your Uni didn’t want an association with that kind of event.

Such a negative attitude to giving people the Words of Life fits with the official position of Love your Uni. Rich Wilson in his vision-setting talk quoted with approval a theologian who said: ‘Christianity is not a message that has to be believed’.

From the outset the Fusion view has been that proclamation evangelism is irrelevant and ineffective as a means of commending Christ in our culture. Now it seems that at least some people involved in Love your Uni are actively opposing the proclamation of the gospel as being unloving.

The issue here is not whether it is right that Christians should be active in the places where God has put them doing temporal good. It is whether it is actually wrong to proclaim the message of the Person and Work of Jesus, as well as doing good to all people.

So what does it mean to love our universities?

The kind of initiatives that Love your Uni commends include giving out bottles of water to students out clubbing. But, although many who have embraced the Fusion / Love your Uni model say that the kind of evangelism being done by CUs is ‘outdated’, the reality is that Christian Union groups have been doing precisely that for years — as well as lunch bars, balls, missions, carol services and the regular evangelism of personal friendship.

Rich Wilson has also said that there is no reason why Christian groups can’t get on well with university authorities and student unions. It appears that he has not visited either Exeter or Edinburgh Universities recently where perfectly reasonable activities by CU groups have incurred the wrath of, respectively, the student union and the university. If your starting position is that there is no reason not to get on with everybody, it is sadly inevitable that before too long you will evacuate your gospel of any potentially offensive content.

Of course we must love our neighbours. For the increasing numbers of Christians who are at or near a university that means we must love university students and staff. How can we do that best? The New Testament answer is that we do it the same way we love everybody else best. That is, by being those whose lives are transformed by the gospel of Christ and who bring that message, with all its implications for personal transformation and the reformation of society, to bear on the lives of everyone we can.

Here in Liverpool that sort of love is being demonstrated by the CU working to put on English classes for international student friends and also inviting them to hear the good news about Jesus in their recent mission week.

A decade after its launch, Fusion, despite undeniable energy and vitality, has not been a helpful influence on university campuses. Other evangelical campus-based groups, such as UCCF, Christians In Sport, Friends International, Agape, Navigators and Christian Medical Fellowship, work effectively together by being committed to seeing Christian Unions as ‘shop windows’ of united witness. Christian Unions have been faithful partners with evangelical churches in this work for the last 80 years. My plea is that if we really want to love our universities we should do our best to support our Christian Unions as a campus mission team.

My prayer is that the legacy of Hope 08 will be to enhance the effectiveness of existing ministries rather than to launch a novel, competitive ministry whose idea of evangelism seems to be drifting rapidly from the New Testament’s.

Andrew Evans,
full-time elder at Christ Church Liverpool and a former Christian Union Staff Worker in the North West

1 Fusion Networker Day, March 7 2007 - http://www.fusion.uk.com/Publisher/Article.aspx?id=73132
2 Rich Wilson, ibid