It is a particular privilege, when rattling through the same four or five questions in conversation after conversation during Freshers’ Week, to have a trump card up your sleeve almost guaranteed to give you an opportunity to share that you are a Christian.
Me: What are you studying?
Me: Oh interesting. What made you want to study it?
Friend: (Answer about why they love history)… And what about you? What are you studying?
Friend: Ah, why are you studying theology?
In this very brief interaction, I’ve immediately been presented with the opportunity to share that I am a Christian and that this gives me a particular joy in reading the Bible, a particular desire to study words that I think are written by God Himself, a particular excitement at the prospect of getting to learn more about the God I believe in.
It all sounds rather easy, doesn’t it? But if you’re a theology student who’s had this experience of Freshers’ Week, you’ll know that these conversations quite often stop there. Now, that’s not to undervalue them – the opportunity to nail your colours to the mast early on in your time at university is really important and the boldness to do so should be celebrated, but how do you move the conversation on from there?
Whether it’s a fellow theology student or a mate from another course asking the question; how do we get from ‘why are you studying theology’ to ‘why do you believe that about Jesus?’
Keep Asking Questions
Perhaps the best bit of advice I’ve ever been given when thinking about evangelism was this: Ask questions until you’re asked one back.
That’s all that happened in the Freshers’ Week scenario right? I asked questions and took an interest in a friend until I had the opportunity to answer a question myself. This is easy during Freshers’ Week – everyone is trying to make friends and get to know other people and so questions are easy to come by.
It’s harder to do year-round, but if you can get into the habit of taking a genuine interest in your friends and course mates, asking them questions about what they’re working on, how they’re doing and being interested in their passions, you’ll find that you get the opportunity to share your passions - to share the gospel.
Worth noting at this point, this has to be a genuine interest. The message of the gospel can never be separated from our means of sharing it and so as we seek to take an interest in the lives and passions of our friends, we must be genuinely interested in and concerned for them.
People see through disingenuousness and any attempt to take an interest in people, purely with the hope of getting to talk about ourselves is not only ineffective, it also runs counter to the heart of the gospel of love that we are sharing. However, genuine love and concern for our friends will lead to genuine questions and opportunities to share the hope that we have.
‘Live such good lives…’
This is the approach that Peter takes in his first letter to the persecuted Church in Asia Minor. Peter argues that genuine and distinctive lives and love lead to gospel opportunities.
I’ve often been struck by the confidence with which Peter writes in that famous verse: ‘But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’ 1 Peter 3:15.
The striking thing for me here is not the expectation that Peter placed on these persecuted Christians to be ready to answer questions, but the confidence he had in the fact that people would ask! Our love for those around us and our desire to invest in their passions and interests must be genuine, but when it is genuine it is also distinctive and that’s what leads us into opportunities to share the gospel.
Peter spends large portions of his letter expressing a deep concern for the witness of Christians’ lives to those around them. In 1 Peter 2:12, Peter exhorts these followers of Christ to ‘live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us,’ and, right before his encouragement to ‘always be prepared to give an answer,’ Peter reminds the Church to do good, to love one another, to be compassionate and humble, and even to repay evil with blessing.
Peter is confident that the questions will come when their lives are distinctive and attractive to such a degree that those around them cannot help but enquire as to what it is that makes them live in such a way.
So, what makes a distinctive theologian?
In many ways your distinctiveness as a Christian theologian looks no different to someone studying any other degree. The way you love and take an interest in your friends and the questions you ask them won’t differ all that much, but there are particular opportunities that being a theologian offers, especially when thinking about how you study.
Handling the Bible:
As a theology student you have the privilege of getting to study the Bible as part of your degree. The way you treat this privilege will be noticed by your course mates. Do you pray before you open the Bible? Even in an academic setting? This doesn’t need to be out loud, but a short prayer, in your head every time you open up God’s Word to study it will change your attitude towards your studies.
Try to share your enthusiasm. When something that you’re studying excites you, try to talk about it with your course mates. Ask them what they think about it, whether they find it intriguing. Your mates will notice how different your attitude towards the Bible is compared to their own. There is something incredibly attractive about delighting in the texts you get to study as the very words of God, not just a textbook to examined and analysed.
Something I noticed as a theology student, and I’ve been noticing more and more over the years since then, is just how little knowledge people have of the Bible, even those coming to study theology. This actually offers us a huge opportunity as Christians who do know and love God’s Word.
Can you be the mate who others know they can come to, to get their head around chunks of scripture? What about a Bible overview event put on by theologians in the CU that aims to share the gospel and give your mates some helpful notes for their revision?
Engaging with other beliefs:
In most theology courses you will be given the opportunity to engage with other religions and systems of belief. Some courses may in fact require this. Where that opportunity is on offer, think hard about taking it.
I loved getting to study Islam at uni and it made for rich conversations with my Muslim friends. I would seek their help to understand what I was reading and the content of my study each week offered the opportunity to talk about their faith and mine.
People come to study theology for all sorts of reasons, many because they believe in a god or many gods. Stay in the habit of asking that question ‘why theology?’ And be interested in the answers that people give, trying to engage with their worldview and share something of your own hope. The theology faculty is perhaps the most natural environment on campus for these conversations to take place.
‘So, why are you studying theology?’
Being a theology student offers a huge range of opportunities to learn and grow in your faith whilst at university. You’ll be challenged, excited, gripped by the Bible in new ways, perhaps even encouraged to engage with Biblical Greek and Hebrew. Do take every opportunity that comes. Wrestle with scripture, God’s word can handle your questions; rejoice in your study of the saints of the past that one day you will meet in glory, but don’t overlook the greatest of opportunities you’ll be met with. Perhaps you’re studying theology, at least in part, to share the hope that you have in the one who grants our restless souls rest.