Why do Christians on campus put themselves out so much?

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Fancy grilling a Christian?

Last Tuesday I came across a small advertisement on a bike shed in James College, advertising an event in which I would be able to “Grill a Christian.” I would be presented with a “panel of Christians” who would tell me what they “actually think” on things that matter to me. It made me think of a sort of sinister interrogation, in which a string of believers would be chained before me and submitted to my relentless questioning – an inquisition, if you will. Alternatively, I could just attend the event for the free food.

The Christian Union is arguably the biggest and most well-known religious organisation on the campus. Its members enthusiastically welcome Freshers during their first week of university life, handing out free goodies and inviting them to various events in the week. They hold regular ‘Big Questions’ meetings in Yourspace, the YUSU common room, in which speakers from local churches and organisations visit to discuss religious dilemmas including the relevance of God in science and university life, the relationship between Christianity and women, the nature of God and whether we can be good without God and His influence. On Tuesdays, each college division of the Christian Union meets for small events including discussions, Bible studies and games nights.

The Christian Union is renowned for its acts of generosity and goodwill around the campus. Most events, big and small, involve plenty of free food for anyone, religious, agnostic or atheist, who attends. Toasted sandwiches are a well-known delicacy at Christian Union events. In exchange for a short, sentence-long extract from the Bible, you will receive the toasted sandwich. What makes this goodwill all the more evident is the knowledge that the Christians themselves receive no funding from the student union. The ham, cheese, chocolate and sweets are paid with the pounds in the pockets of the Christian Union members.

As much as charity and general niceness are good virtues, the campus Christians seem willing to put themselves into the spotlight with a smile. Some students will readily admit that they do take advantage of this, visiting the events simply for the convenience of a free and ready dinner. Who would willingly sacrifice weekly a portion of their student loan to pay for toasted sandwiches for everyone else?

Being open to all religious faiths and none, occasionally Christian Union events can be sabotaged, by accident or by intention, by questions from audience members that are deliberately chosen to be uncomfortable. Christian Q&A sessions often feature queries on the instructions concerning slavery in the Bible, the attitude of the Church toward homosexuality, the prophecies on the apocalypse or whether God’s chosen people are stronger than iron chariots. Some people ask how it is possible for some Christians to believe the world to have been created in six days, six thousand years ago, in contrast with the mainstream scientific understanding of the age and nature of the planet.

Reading the advertisement, it seemed to me that the Christian Union was once again setting itself up to be used and abused, whether by students who were ready to ask a difficult question on Christian practices or simply looking for an unearned toasted sandwich. But it was the James College Christians themselves, not others, who were offering their members up to be “grilled.” I went along to the advertised event and put a question to the panel of Christians. Why do you put on these kinds of events e.g. being ‘grilled’? I wrote. Doesn’t it feel like you’re putting yourselves in the line of fire? One panellist said:

We are putting ourselves in the line of fire, but why do we do it? It’s ultimately what the Christian Union is all about: creating a space where people can come and have the safety and freedom to ask the questions about life and investigate Christianity.

Ultimately, the Christian Union is motivated by their belief and confidence in the good news and message of Christ. The Union wishes to spread His good news and enable students to learn more about Him and His story. The Christian Union may expose itself and its members to flak with its open, public discussions and its occasional dogmatism, but what could be more commitment to free discussion than the provision of opportunities to learn, question ideas and develop oneself?

Though I do not align myself with the religious beliefs of the Christian Union, I am convinced that its members are some of the kindest students on the campus. Over biscuits and lemonade with the Christians of James College I had some of the most pleasant and thoughtful conversations I think I have had at university. Few others are so willing to sit down and speak to strangers with such keenness to learn about you and the inability to lose a smile on their faces. At no point did I ever feel that my lack of faith made me unwelcome.

Are the Christian Union members aware that many people turn up just for the sandwiches? Of course they are. Do they mind? No. The Christian Union wishes to express their goodwill to everyone. People who turn up experience their good intentions, whether they turn up to learn about God or learn about sandwiches. Cleaning Constantine College’s kitchens free of charge last year was an expression of the Christian Union’s love for the residents.

Across many universities beside York, from St. Andrews to Chester, university Christian Unions are known for their regular acts of goodwill and their members’ enthusiasm. ‘Grilling a Christian’ is not the first time that the University of York’s Christian Union has hosted an atypical event on campus and it won’t be the last.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy graduate, studying for MA in Philosophy at University of York.
  • Lola

    “Christian Union events can be sabotaged, by accident or by intention, by questions from audience members that are deliberately chosen to be uncomfortable”

    Umm… I have a lot of good experiences around the CU, and think it does some great things around campus, but these events are supposed to be about educating people about Christianity, as well as handing out toasties… Questions about homosexuality and prejudice in the church are not “sabotage”. They are reasonable questions. As a queer Christian, I wouldn’t want to be a part of any society that wasn’t willing to address these issues, or which considered being asked about them disrespectful or inappropriate… Being kind and handing out food doesn’t negate the damage that bigotry does… Why shouldn’t people ask their religious groups what they’re doing to distance themselves from the institutionalised prejudices that organised religion often perpetrates?!

    • Mark

      I agree, partly. Any truth claim has to be internally coherent – to not ask difficult questions prevents you from grasping a worldview or from instigating change in the listener’s perspective. However, to ask a provocative question and know from the outset that you are not going to listen to the answer is surely a mark of fundamentalism – and potentially a way of sabotaging rational discourse.

    • xtc

      You are broadly right. There is a difference between wanting to genuinely understand someone’s position on a sensitive issue, and wanting to derail a discussion and stir up trouble. In my experience, the vast majority of questions are sincere.

    • Zytigon

      Justin Brierley is the editor of the Premier Christian radio magazine. See Premierchristianity dot com article on 30th January 2016, “‘4 New Theological Ideas You Need To Know About’

      Theology isn’t meant to remain within the confines of theological college. Justin Brierley presents a rough guide to some of the most exciting (and controversial) concepts that are trickling down to Christians in the pew today”

      Justin also hosts a humanities talk show called “Unbelievable” and does a super job of looking at a wide range of points of view while putting a Christian slant on it.

      David Robertson who is current moderator for the Free church of Scotland goes around debating with people who have other religious ideas or atheistic ideas. He has a blog called the wee flea & heads the Solas outreach thing.

      The Bible geek Robert M. Price wrote a great book called, “The reason driven life” which is his reply to Rick Warren’s, “Purpose driven life” Price shows a much wider range of interpretations of the Bible and it’s historical background.

      I think the Bible gives a picture of societies struggling over theology and trying to guess or assert what a God might want them to do. Was their god nothing more than the decisions from a committee of men ? It is a fact that in the many denominations of Christianity today, as in all the other religious sects there is a complete spectrum of positions held in every conceivable permutation, mostly syncretisms between modern science and old fables.

      I think it can be generally helpful to be aware of all the options on the table so as not to be held captive by anyone, especially not a doom laden one.At least then you can’t complain of being cheated or conned. It might even make you more appreciative of the position you eventually pick and help you be more sympathetic to the other positions adopted.
      In fact I think many schools attempt to start this process of learning about the history of religion and comparative religion but sadly too few people investigate further. But Wikipedia can make it easy.