This past week was a mission week for FOCUS at the University of Canberra. FOCUS holds a couple of missions each year. The aim is to take a bit more time out of our timetables to speak to friends and colleagues about Jesus. We are always trying to be involved in evangelism but Mission Week is a time for heightened activity and a bit more planning about the best way to reach people.
Mission Week is nearly always exhausting, it can sometimes (unfortunately) be a bit discouraging as well. Praise God, this year we have come through to the end of the week exhausted but encouraged and full of excitement about what God is doing among us.
In the past I have found it discouraging to see the amount of work put into running events, the emotional energy invested in having difficult conversations with friends, the physical tiredness from standing around in the middle of campus for hours each day, and the sheer amount of time, and often for what appears to be very little result. I’ve been challenged by this in the past, not least by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 about God working in weakness to demonstrate the completeness of his power. It’s also true that we can’t always see the outcome of our witness to the gospel – God in his sovereignty knows how he will use his word to bring people to himself. I’m also encouraged by what J.I. Packer says in his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God: that we are foolish if we expect evangelism to be easy – in fact, in our own strength it is impossible that anyone would become a Christian, it takes a miracle of God. All of that is a bit of background for my mingled feelings of dread and hope when Mission comes around each year. I imagine that I am not altogether alone in feeling this way. I have even spoken to friends who come to the end of a mission time feeling depressed and doubting God because they have worked so hard and seen little fruit, or had a friend who came to an evangelistic meeting but went away with nothing. As I said, this is all in preface…
This mission week has been hard work. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we ran a stall in the courtyard at the center of the Uni. We wrote questions to stir people into thinking about truth and the claims of Jesus in chalk all around the campus, we created pictures out of bottle-tops that lay out the central message of Christianity and used the pictures to engage curious onlookers in conversations about the gospel. (for the philosophically minded – it always makes me think of Socrates, “the stinging gadfly” of Athens, who used to continually ask people to think about the difficult questions about Truth that they avoided) This year we also provided a free BBQ breakfast for the students on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. In our planning for the mission we talked about our desire to be clearly speaking the gospel to the campus, but also to be seen by the students as people who genuinely care for the Uni and are willing to spend our resources to help others. We want to be an attractive adornment to the gospel message. One of my prayers for the week was that we would be attractive people (I know you’re wondering how I could be any more attractive, and I thank you for the thought 😉 The BBQ’s were a huge success and set the tone for our outreach, we were able to have great conversations with people who were standing around eating bacon and egg rolls, we handed out heaps of flyers to our main talks, and one of the most satisfying things was to overhear a number of conversations in the cafes around Uni about the questions we were asking people to consider (the reality of truth, the possibility of knowing God, and the role of Jesus in all these things). Jesus used food a lot in his evangelism, I’m starting to see why. Food greases the social wheels (particularly bacon) and more importantly, it’s easier to share your hope when you’ve shared your meal.
One of the other very encouraging things was to see a wider circle of students being involved in outreach. Sometimes in mission week, the keen students jump into everything while the less confident people suddenly acquire a new study habit. Running the BBQ gave some of these quieter people a way to be involved. For some of them it’s a huge thing just to stand in the middle of uni and be clearly identified as a Christian.
God was very merciful to us with the weather. It’s always cold this time of year in Canberra – but mission this time last year was the coldest week of the year. I still have painful memories of standing in the SNOW!!! while trying to invite people to come to talks. This week has been mostly sunny, particularly Tuesday which was a glorious day to be outside. It’s much easier to interest people in standing around and talking when they aren’t in imminent danger of frostbite…
All the noise we were creating around the campus was basically designed to get people along to hear John Dickson speak at our 2 main public lectures. John is a great speaker with an incredible amount of experience in evangelism who in the past few years has completed a Phd in Ancient History and currently teaches a course in world religions at Macquarrie University. He has a lot of credibility with students and his talks were brilliantly pitched at the questions most students ask. His talks were primarily apologetic rather than evangelistic and centered on the historical evidence for Jesus and the illogicality of pluralism. They were thought-provokers designed to send people away to find out more or have a conversation with a Christian friend. I hadn’t thought about this before but it is a great approach for uni people. Most students, (probably most people of my generation) are skeptical and turned off by people who are trying to sell them something. We have been so heavily exposed to advertising that makes truth claims that we know are false and meant to manipulate. When people come to hear an evangelistic talk they often hear a sales pitch and all the normal skeptical barriers go up. John’s approach appealed to people to make the decision for themselves on the basis of the facts, all he did was give them the places to start looking at the facts. In both his talks he spent a considerable amount of time referring to sources that are hostile to Christianity and with the claims of other religions – encouraging people to look at this evidence as well as the Christian. It worked to reassure people that they weren’t hearing a sales pitch and that nothing was being held back. It certainly sent a lot of people away with a desire to find out more – and the greatest testimony was that at least one guy who came along to the first talk (lunch time wednesday) after being invited in the morning at the stall came back to hear John again in the evening on Thursday (a bigger commitment requiring him to turn up at Uni out of hours)
The Thursday evening talk was held at International House, part of the residential accommodation at UC. Our experience with evening events at UC has been pretty dismal. We have had some success with open forums but they tend to focus on the issues which people have against Christians rather than challenging students to think further for themselves. We decided to combine the talk with a dinner and trivia night – the advertising was “Truth, Trivia, and Tasty Italian”. The idea was that people would get into the mood of question and answering and also get into discussions with each other on the tables. It worked really well , praise God! The room we booked was full, there were lots of guests. I sat between 1 guy who was a confessed atheist, and another who was not a Christian but had been seriously challenged by the first talk. The trivia generated a really good atmosphere of fun and discussion, and I had a great conversation over dinner with one of the guys about questions raised by the talk. The students put heaps of work into the night. The questions were great and the format was really well organised. It was easily the most successful outreach event I’ve ever been to.
So that was last night…
Today we are trying to recover. W
e had a staff meeting with John this morning and had a great discussion over the content of evangelistic preaching from what we can read in the New Testament. It was helpful in sharpening us up in our thinking.
We have another BBQ tomorrow morning for residential students, but I think that will be a little more low key.
It’s turning out to be a busy weekend – I have a 21st birthday of one of the FOCUS students, in Young, which will be an overnight trip. John Dickson is speaking at UniChurch on Sunday night and I’m leading the meeting which will require some preparation.
Praise God for a great week! The gospel went out, people heard the news for the first time each day, I was there and saw it. Pray for the students that they would be encouraged by this and have joy in Jesus and desire to keep spreading this news.
I’m very tired, my personality seems to require plenty of time to daydream and have space and I have to override this need so that I can spend the time with people each day and provide leadership for the students. It takes its toll and eventually you have to pay the piper – either a few weeks of being depressed or preferably a softer landing and a few days of time to talk to myself. These times are always hard for Emma. Pray for the two of us.
It’s a beautiful thing to see the work of the Spirit in people’s lives – even your own. It’s one of the things God uses to encourage us and reassure us. It’s why we will struggle always and the gospel will never fail to triumph.
2 Cor 12:9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.