I continue my reflections on my past campus work with a third post that follows on from this one (1) and this one (2). The connections here to travel, apart from the obvious mentions, are the culture of individualism that has given rise both to travel and perhaps to some of the drive for activism. Keep an eye out and let me know what you think!
“Travel is wonderful. A near-perfect state of surprise, wonder, and excitement. A chance to challenge your assumptions, defeat your prejudices, and write a new story for yourself. As a traveller. An exile. An adventurer. An explorer. As someone with great stories of struggle, survival, curiosity, courage and reinvention. But the pursuit of those narratives can be harmful, too.
Everything in life is about dosage. I’d gotten the dosage wrong. I felt ready to reprioritise, to commit to [a place], to [a partner], to my job…, to staying when things got hard, instead of running away to some romanticised, mirage, wanderlust new.”Taken from chapter 13 of ‘Don’t Go There’ (Adam Fletcher)
There are great dangers of parachurch ministry amongst students. Firstly that the ‘parachurch’ bit can often come unstuck from the local church (we’ll come to this at some other point). But also that it is amongst students.
Students are deemed the next generation of world leaders, culture changers, thought shapers and activists. Increasingly much of society is encouraged to think about going to college – what perhaps once before was something just for a certain section of society. The student world is a fast-paced, fast-changing world, full of possibility, challenge and adventure, where the average student is impressionable and has plenty of free time (even if they don’t think so).
And so the role of the CU Staffworker is both a joy and a challenge. A joy, because very few other roles in ministry see so much change so quickly, so much fruit and such quick forgiveness (or memory) for mistakes made. And a challenge, for the same reason as the travel writer above articulated. Just as there are problems when the traveller lives for the romanticised travel-blog life, shaped by wanderlust and living every day as an their own adventure. So the staffworker when not grounded in the ancient gospel narrative, surrounded by the global church and embedded and submitted to a local gospel-preaching church, can quickly get the dosage wrong and forget the calling to which they are living. Let me explain how that looked in my life at times over these years.
“…the staffworker when not grounded in the ancient gospel narrative, surrounded by the global church and embedded and submitted to a local gospel-preaching church, can quickly get the dosage wrong and forget the calling to which they are living.”Tweet
The danger of activism
One of David Bebbington’s four key characteristics of evangelicalism is activism. Evangelicals are activists. We love living out the gospel and letting it shape everything in life. This, unsurprisingly, is a very popular thing these days. Here are 3 examples in the Irish church at large:
- Within the Church we are having vast swathes of people move from saying “God is building His Kingdom” to talk about how “we bring in the Kingdom of God”. We emphasize our action.
- Within a very young and fragile Irish evangelical Church, students are often infuriated by the lack of zeal and purity and so break off into activist groups who seek to live a ‘more authentic’ life (often seen in groups like The Last Reformation, some Torah-emphasizing ‘Christian’ groups, the lure of subtle cult groupings currently having sway in Ireland, and sometimes just in lone-wolf evangelists, burdened for the lost).
- And in a progressive theological scene which seeks to constantly find new things we missed in the Bible (like every PhD is designed to do), the New Perspective on Paul speaks into the vacuum that occurred when western individualism injected toxins into much of evangelicalism, and seeks to claim that free grace found in being united with Jesus and justified by faith alone is not good enough a motivator to propel us into bearing fruit. (Mr Vanhoozer gives a far better summary.)
So what about when we get the dosage wrong?
Well in each of these three things we’ve seen the disasters that have happened in the wider Church.
In the first, we often had many quick converts – the promise of God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in Heaven is a juicy one. Glimpses can be seen. But soon people get fed up of how hard life is, how slow spiritual change is in our hearts and others, and many grow disillusioned with all they were promised and wander from the faith. There are better activist groups out there, they think. I have seen this in the many churches who do such wonderful work in communities, and use language like the aforementioned.
In the second, the newly formed ‘authentic’ groups often die off quickly. Partly because they have no identity other than being the “radicals”. And that identity is a fragile one. Either they find flaws within the group and need to split again. Or they start drawing different lines and emphasis to what the scriptures emphasize, and so forsake the gospel. Sadly they often do so having already ruined young believers – giving them a deep disillusionment about faithful gospel churches, or even worse in the case of some cults operating in Ireland currently, also giving them a suspicion of their own family and friends, to the point of cutting connections with them.
In the third, those who fully embrace the NPP, perhaps as a right reaction to this over-individualistic reading of the scriptures, often end up unable to clearly articulate the gospel in a way that doesn’t lose the assurance of faith that the New Testament writers seem to have, and succumb to a bland ecumenism (which seems a wonderful unity until you arrive at it and try and figure what gospel you have left).
But as well as these general trends in church life in Ireland, I found the tug of activism on my own heart as a Staffworker.
- As a lone staffworker in Munster, I was tempted to think that I needed to work harder and longer, particularly with such short campus semesters. Campus X would not have a gospel presence unless I got there this week and met with strategic leaders and got everything done. That perhaps was true to some extent, and there are indeed times for sacrifice and hard graft (like in any part of life). But living on high doses of such activism without deep gospel roots would soon make me think more of myself and my role that I ought, and would soon lead me to burnout, cynicism and fatigue (as sadly happened with quite a proportion of staff who I served with, in different ways).
- The more I lived like the above, the more I would be tempted to start trying to take short-cuts to make life/ministry simpler and easier. Instead of shaping student convictions by discipling with God’s Word open and letting them lead (even if that meant in weakness or with failures), I would be tempted to primarily give my (good) advice, turn up to every meeting and try and maybe implicitly control the direction of things by my presence or reasoning. Instead of seeing that the longterm way that faithful gospel witness might be on a campus was to develop a sustainable model that didn’t depend on me, I would be tempted to run round trying to be the hero in some ways, receiving praise from many Christians for such “radical, sacrificial living”.
- And the more I was tempted to give myself to activism in small ways and big, the more exhausting it became, and the further from enjoying God’s heart I would drift. His yoke being light and his burden being easy were not recognisable to me in the day to day life I sometimes lived. And if His heart was not that of a generous Father, why would I pray?
…if His heart was not that of a generous Father, why would I pray?Tweet
I found prayer was the first thing to disappear when my hands crafted activism, my heart was enveloped in busyness and my mind chose reason. When I was weary or tired, I was filled with cynicism and bitterness. When I was unsure, my mind replayed scenarios again and again. When I had not completed my task list that day, my hands applied to work longer hours.
None of it brought it to our Heavenly Father in prayer.
None of it brought it to our Servant King ruling on the throne.
None of it brought it to the Holy Spirit for Him to be at work even when we couldn’t be.
None of it enjoyed the freedom of the gospel which meant things weren’t resting primarily on my shoulders.
None of it basked in the gentleness of Jesus.
None of it modelled a life, communing with our Triune God.
I must say that through it all, none of this may have been obvious to the outsider that I was battling and wrestling deep within me to decide each day who I worshipped. I prayed with everyone I met. I filled in work monthly report logs which showed my working hours. I sat under fantastic gospel teaching which sought to persuade my heart that people did not need my good advice (primarily) they needed to meet the living God and hear Him speak. I knew that team life was the ideal. And God graciously seemed to be powerfully at work in the region on the campuses, drawing many to Him. But the tug of activism was still strong.
If you want to hear my full story of how I ended up broken by my own activism physically, I tell it in my book (chapter 2). [Ironically my thoughts on travel were part motivated from long hours living the “activist” life on the road between campuses! How gracious He is to bring good from ugly times!]
- It took many car journeys to turn my cynical thought cycles into hours of prayer on the road.
- It took many prayer letters to persuade myself that I was not the hero telling my story, but that God was building His Church through His ordinary people and their prayers.
- It took many months of realising that God could, would and had raised up many to follow Him, even on the days I felt most alone in that role.
- It will be many years before I will ever be as content as the old ladies in many of my supporting churches, who sit in their living room and pray all afternoon, with sparkling joy in their eyes as they do so.
- I am thankful for the life of my praying mother, always starting each day in prayer over breakfast.
- I am thankful for the life of my praying father, leading the family to rhythms of prayer and worship in different ways over the years.
- I am thankful for praying churches that I was part of who always valued corporate prayer.
- I am thankful for those in other churches I learned so much about prayer from, as we prayed for the nations together each month.
- I am thankful for the example of many fellow-labourers, like the Cork campus workers/lecturers prayer group that met once a week to pray together without fail.
- I am thankful for my first ever supervisor, who suggested to me to take working hours (sometimes days) to spend in prayer alone.
- I am thankful for an older worker from another organisation who took me away on silent retreat to show me just how entwined my heart was to the noise and busyness of life.
- I am thankful for individuals and families who have lifted me (and the work in Munster) up to God for years upon years in faithful prayer.
- I am thankful for those on our island who for generations have been praying for the gospel to go out everywhere.
- I am thankful for those in other parts of the world who have been praying for Ireland, unbeknownst to me, not only in historically Christian parts of the world, but in places like China, burdened for unreached Europe.
And I’m thankful that the good news of a Triune God, played out over all history across all peoples, is a wonderful corrector against individualistic activism done from a restless heart. This, of course, is the evangelicalism I grew up with. A deep-rooted, apostolic faith, founded on God and His words (in the scriptures) which gives us much strength as we live out our faith in light of His finished work on the cross and his intercession on our behalf, and as we act together as a Church on our knees. Will the young church scene here embrace it and grow to participate in that tradition, contextualised to Irish life today? We pray onwards.