‘Wow, you literally have a Bible study in your seminars! What an opportunity to share Jesus! I wish it was as easy for me’ my CU friend said to me. ‘Well, yes…and no.’ was my reply. And then I felt a bit guilty.
If you’re a Christian, perhaps part of what drove you to study theology or religion was a desire to know, live and speak more for Jesus. When expectation meets the reality of trying to speak for Jesus in our theology department we can often feel underwhelmed or discouraged. After all, we’re also trying to keep up with the reading, trying to understand the content just like everyone else – as well as trying to be mindful of our course mates.
So, what should we do in seminars or classroom-style lectures where we have the opportunity to speak and engage with course mates? How can we be faithful to Jesus as well as realistic about the opportunities? Through the means of my own struggles and failures as a Theology and Biblical Studies graduate, I want to suggest two dangers in our approach to speaking of Jesus in academic settings and then consider some practical ways forward.
When we consider speaking for Jesus in the classroom, we can be in danger of both overestimating and underestimating.
One way we can overestimate is thinking that because our seminars and lectures focus on a subject matter often more directly related to the gospel than our STEM peers that this somehow means our seminar is more akin to a CU event than an academic seminar. It’s important to remember and respect the setting we are in; our friends and course mates have signed up to a university module not Christianity Explored. They may not be on a spiritual search, but an academic endeavour.
Here, I’ve found the working world can help instruct us: just as a Christian office worker is paid to offer a service and work respectfully alongside colleagues, so you are in a university seminar with others to learn and discuss the subject matter. Whilst the Christian in an office environment will want to be open to talking about Jesus with colleagues – for instance, in an opening in conversation during a lunch break – they’d not do this in the middle of a planning meeting, it just wouldn’t be appropriate and might close further opportunities. Faithfulness to Jesus looks like being mindful of the setting we are in and seeking to honour the university and our colleagues interacting in ways appropriate to the setting God has placed us in.
Another way we can overestimate is in what we can do. As a nineteen-year-old heading to university to study Theology and Biblical Studies I was passionate to be a light; to bring change in every seminar, lecture, and to every student and teacher. Whilst I think my heart was largely in a good place, I was probably also quite naïve about what I could do and about the legitimate opportunities I’d have to speak. Overestimating ourselves and our speaking opportunities can be dangerous as we can often feel like we’re letting ourselves or God down if we’re failing to live up to what we’d hoped.
We should have a healthy estimation of ourselves and the opportunity – not forgetting the emotional toll that the academic study of the God, who is so precious to us, can take. The reality is our seminars can be different to our friends’ studying other subjects. Often for them the emotional stakes feel lower and so the pressure to speak feels different. Contrast my friend Tom’s History seminar on the debate of a magical view of women from Viking burials, with my seminar on the women in the Bible. Week after week my seminar leader was delivering a damning assessment on the Bible’s treatment of women, and of course, I felt the impulse to speak in a very different way to Tom. It’s important to be mindful of this and so not overestimate yourself. You’ll need others to be regularly praying for you. You’ll need to ask the Lord for help to speak in ways that are wise not prompted by an overestimation of defending the God you love.
One misstep common to Christians is the ranking of what pleases the Lord. I think whilst we’d agree in theory that God can be glorified in our pre-reading, our intellectual curiosity, and our hard work (more on this below!), we can act as if the thing that really pleases him above all is explicit verbal evangelism. Whilst this obviously does delight the Lord, we can be in danger of underplaying that God can be glorified in our seminar irrespective of whether we’ve had an opportunity to point to Jesus in a clear way. The way we seek to honour the seminar leader who has prepared material, who we choose to talk to in a break, the pursuit of learning as an end – a gift from God rather than a means to a degree – can all be beautiful and pleasing to the Lord. Speaking about Jesus is important, but I think this frees us from thinking that speaking about Jesus is the only important thing.
Linked to this, one area which inhibited my ability to live and speak for Jesus in seminars was my underestimation of how I’d need to work hard on my course! This can be true of all studies, but theology has particular challenges. All students in a secular university would do well to take the time to read, really read the material given to them. And to ask questions like: What is this author saying is wrong with the world? What about the solution? Where are they tapping into God’s truth, where are they suppressing and exchanging the truth? How might this help me speak of Jesus to classmates engaging with these ideas? Theology and religion students should be no different and we should desire to read and engage well with the material given us. This will inevitably mean hard work.
However, the uniqueness of theological study means that the directness of challenge to the Scriptures will require extra consideration and reading. Sometimes this will mean the extra work of finding academic writing not on the reading list (check out Theology Network’s annotated bibliographies for inspiration). My experience of this was mixed with some lecturers giving a diverse range of perspectives on the reading list while in other modules I had to do a good bit of digging to find evangelical perspectives. If I could give myself one bit of advice starting university again, it’d be read more. Don’t underestimate working hard!
Now at the risk of committing the fatal essay sin and U-turning on an argument in closing, one final danger could be underestimating the opportunity. With all caveats in place, we’d do well not to underestimate that God will provide opportunities to live and speak of Jesus. Perhaps just trying to keep going as a Christian, or negative experiences of trying to speak have left you in a rut wondering if it is possible. If this is the case, remember who God is and who you are. In every seminar you are placed there not merely by a course administration team but by the sovereign Lord who has placed you to be salt and light to specific group of people at a specific time. You are indwelt by the Spirit of the living God who guides and emboldens us. Furthermore, at their best, academic settings are where any opinion is valid provided it is justified. You have the opportunity to highlight viewpoints, speak compellingly of the beauty and rationality of the God you and your peers are studying.
The question is, what might this look like?
Hopefully your mind has already been joining the dots of how practically you might approach the opportunities you might have in your studies, but as for practically how to speak in these opportunities here are five guiding principles:
1. See your aim as not to out-argue but to out-love those you’re discussing with. How you say something is as important as what you are saying.
2. Listen. No, really listen. Not just to respond or offer a counter point. By listening well over a period of time you’ll begin to recognise coursemates’ obstacles to trust in Jesus – my experience was sometimes people studying Theology had experienced hurt from Christians. Listening well for these things can enable you to speak in the future in sensitive ways.
3. Speaking is more than just making a point. Use questions, both to genuinely understand and to point out assumptions and deficiencies. Perhaps in your pre-reading and preparation consider: ‘What is a good question I can ask to point to the truth and beauty of Jesus?’
4. Choose your moment: you don’t always have to speak in the moment. Sometimes wisdom looks like coming back to the seminar next week having genuinely thought through an issue rather than trying to jump to Jesus’ defence in the moment. Consider also where to follow up – as said above if you’ve noticed a personal reaction to a doctrine or subject matter, then why not ask more of their story over coffee.
5. Pray. Ultimately, we’d do well to be reminded we are engaged in a spiritual battle far beyond our speaking techniques and tactics. If you can do one thing, make it that you regularly pray for your coursemates, seminar leaders, and lecturers. Why not pause and pray now for those you know who need Jesus and that He’d use you to play a part?
God has placed you in your department to be His light. Don’t overestimate or underestimate what that might look like this coming year.
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