When I started at Hull University in 1991, I joined three societies at the ‘freshers fair’. Firstly, the Cricket Club, secondly, the Christian Union and thirdly, the Student Community Action organisation, which was called HUSSO.
HUSSO (Hull University Social Services Organisation) was, and remains, an incredible organisation. Back in those days, it organised over 800 students each week in 35 different projects which served the local community. These included visiting isolated older people, helping children to read in local primary schools, taking blind people to the pub and running activities for disabled children. Also each term, large events were organised such as tea dances and outings for older people as well as a 6 week summer play-scheme for at risk children.
The project I got involved in was volunteering each week at a drop in centre and night shelter called the Hull Homeless and Rootless Project.
HUSSO was brilliant to be involved in. As it has done for generations of students in Hull, it gave me experiences which had a big impact on my life and it took me into a very different world from what I was used to. I was studying social work but HUSSO helped me understand poverty in a far more real way than I ever would in lectures and seminars within the bubble of a university campus.
In in my final year I was elected as HUSSO’s Chair, which was a full-time, paid position. I did this for a year after graduating and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
A personal gospel
In contrast, I struggled to feel similarly passionate about the Christian Union (CU). One of the key issues was that there was very little emphasis on the issues I was concerned about. Issues of social justice and poverty did not really feature at all in what was discussed and their relevance to the Christian faith was controversial. The priorities were providing a supportive community to Christians and personal evangelism.
In my first year, the CU used to sing worship songs on the steps of the Student Union and there were few things I found more cringey than hearing ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ sung out across campus. I remember an initiative called ‘blue hair evangelism’ where members of the CU had their hair sprayed blue and went and sat in the Union bar, waiting for someone to ask them ‘Why is your hair blue?’ This, the theory went, provided a great opportunity to share the message of the gospel.
I continually grappled with the tensions this created for me. I felt guilty for not being more involved in the CU but I never felt comfortable within it’s sub-culture.
When I was elected to run HUSSO full-time, I did some research on its history. I discovered that it had actually been started at a meeting of the Christian Union in the early 1960s.
I wrote a brief history of the organisation and referenced these origins – and I remember people being surprised, and slightly uncomfortable, with this link because they did not see the contemporary connection. When I went back a few years later, I saw that the history was still being used but it had been edited – and the reference to the CU had been removed.
This is just one example of the dis-integration that so frequently occurs between faith and action, between churches and the social organisations they found. I would later work for Centrepoint, one of many homeless organisations started by Christians, but which rapidly grew away from an active connection with the church. There are countless others examples.
And it is not just an organisational issue. One consequence for me personally was that my faith withered – it dis-integrated itself from the action I was committed to. I left university with a degree in social work and a CV full of experience but my Christian faith had dried up. It was no one’s fault but my own – but a key factor was the lack of integration between faith and action. It was only to be later on in my journey when I was able to bridge this gap.
So, for all these reasons, it is really encouraging to see positive developments in student Christian circles since. Sure, there are still the hard-line conservatives their maintain the heresy that Christian faith has nothing to do with social justice and addressing poverty – but much has changed in the last 20 years. Speak have been doing brilliant work for many years and more recently I have been in contact with a newer group called Just Love.
Last week, I led a seminar on homelessness at one of their training events. I met a great bunch of students, deeply committed to helping homeless people and talking seriously about how they could best make a difference. They were passionate – both about justice and Jesus – and they embodied an integration I never found when I was a student.
What groups like Just Love and Speak show is that faith and social justice belong together. It is important, because whether on campus or in communities, there is no bigger priority than for Christians to show the connection between what we believe and how we put it into action.
12 thoughts on “Faith without deeds: the dis-integration of student Christianity”
This also happens at other levels including Ciocesan activity where much JS said but little if any money is invested in social action. If you want to search for the true priorities , follow the money
Thank you Jon! Do you think I should link up with them? They might like to share some of our best practice stuff?
Ooops sorry Jon- I meant shall I link up with Just Love, Oxford?
On 21 September 2015 at 10:52, Katie Huggins wrote:
> Thank you Jon! Do you think I should link up with them? They might like to > share some of our best practice stuff? > > On 20 September 2015 at 21:09, Resistance & Renewal <
Hi Katie – sure I am sure they will appreciate that – will email you.
Jon, that’s so sad to hear. I had a slightly better experience at Cambridge with CICCU – social action wasn’t a high priority but it had its place in the mix, and I remember hearing good stuff about it in CU talks from Clive Calver, Mike Schluter and John Stott in particular. Then I went to Leeds and found their CU more up for social justice in their thinking and in their lives – it still wasn’t that high on the CU’s agenda but it definitely had its place. St George’s Leeds was a church that worked a lot with the CU, and also ran St George’s Crypt working with homeless and addicted people, so it was right on our doorstep, and I think that helped. CUs aren’t monolithic I guess.
Hi Ben – it does sound a bit different to my experience – I think you are a bit younger than me but certainly with those speakers I can see a different message being shared. Also I don’t want to be too hard on my CU – there were really great people involved – it was more just a period of time when a certain approach dominated – and I am glad to see the direction things have gone in since.
I was just thinking the other day about a similar thing that happened within a homeless organization I’ve encountered oop north (i.e. it was founded by Christians but later grew away from its original, active connection with the church). We are called to be salt and light and as such should be taking a leading role in social action, not laying down our tools in order for secular groups to pick up and continue the work. Very encouraging to read of exciting things going on!
Yes, I think the salt and light metaphors are really vital – sometimes Christian influence is not high profile but is working away bringing preservation and flavour like salt – whereas other times it needs to shine out brightly like light. Either way, it needs to be active and intentional.
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There is a tension here – which ultimately arises from the fact that if CUs aren’t doing evangelism on campus, noone else will. There’s only so much energy for activities, and to DEMAND that all Christians are following your agenda shows a lack of belief that the body of Christ is made of many members, all with their own gifts and roles.
On the whole it is easier to do ‘social justice’ than evangelism – because you are with all the fashionable, right on people if you are doing social justice: demanding THEY change is always fun. Challenging your friends to ask hard questions about what their life is about is far harder. As a result church history is replete with examples of revival movements that end up with minimal evangelism any more. The classic example of this is the Salvation Army – which is known for its social action, but is often not even recognised as a church, to the point that it appears in ‘Yellow Pages’ under social service NOT churches.
The reality is that we must all determine before God what He is calling us to do. Yes, we must wonder if we are gifted for social action, but we must also recognise that Jesus’ last command was ‘Go and make disciples’, and ask how we can best obey Him in our lives.
Hi Enders – thanks for the comment. I don’t think that I was ‘DEMANDING that all Christians follow my agenda’ – this was just a reflection on my own journey and how faith and action got separated – both in my own life and within the life of two organisations that were organically linked.
I agree with you about the importance of evangelism and how it has become sidelined in many organisations and movements. And you are right that making disciples needs to be the priority for the church.
My point is that this is best done when actions and beliefs are integrated – that we show the world that we love God and love people. I think, especially in student circles, that showing a concern for social justice is now an essential to sharing your faith. People need to see the relevance of our faith through what we do – to see people who are concerned about the kinds of things Jesus was concerned about: justice, compassion, wholeness and transformation. I would really recommend the leaflet that Just Love has produced called ‘Evangelism and Social Justice’ which unpacks this excellently.
Christians are not called to either a secular commitment to social justice, or a detached, overly spiritualised and individualised witness. Our calling is the narrow path in bringing these things together – to care for the world and its people out of our belief in God and what he has done and what he will do. As Paul puts it ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Gal. 5:6) or John ‘Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.’ (1 John 3:18)
“My point is that this is best done when actions and beliefs are integrated – that we show the world that we love God and love people.”
I write as someone currently doing an MA in Church History, and look in vain for an example of this being achieved effectively in the long term; instead the Christian organisations set up to achieve these objectives within a few generations turn into secular ones; indeed I’m hoping to go on to do a PhD to defend the thesis that the drift into a focus on secular, ‘social justice’, concerns has seen seen every move of the Spirit run into the sand for the past 1000 years. (Well – that’s my theory – though in practice the PhD would only be able to focus on a few examples). Certainly it is challenging to offer a biblical justification for this priority and the failure of the NT church to overtly critique slavery – though there are hints – is an embarrassment if you want to be ‘respectable’ in the eyes of the world.
It is therefore my concern that the Charismatic movement seems to be drifting down precisely this track with ever less enthusiasm for active evangelism and rather a concern to be ‘relevant’ and ‘respectable’ by pursuing such priorities. The point of course is that it is ultimately the Spirit who will convince and convict people of the truth of the gospel; I’m convinced therefore that we need to be very cautious in making a priority of an area that has proved to be a trap in some many previous generations. It MAY be right – but be VERY VERY certain that it is God’s leading, not just your own desire to impress the world.
I would agree that the extinguishing of spiritual vibrancy is a danger and I have argued against this creeping secularism in many articles and it has been the subject of much of my professional work in the last 12 years within The Shaftesbury Society (now Livability) and also within the West London Mission. But the fact that it is a danger should never mean that we abandon the call to work for social justice – what is the choice? To stay silent about poverty and social issues? Was the white evangelical church in South Africa more holy for not standing against apartheid in the 1970s – or was the evangelical church in Germany more sound for not opposing Hitler?
These are historic examples where the faithful church should stand up against oppression and for social justice. There were plenty of people telling people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu that social justice as no concern of the church and that it should remain spiritually focussed – but these people were the heretics.
And going further back the same is true for Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery and Shaftesbury’s against child labour in the 19th century. Both were deeply criticised by ‘sound churchmen’ for invoking God in their political activism
And sure, the Salvation Army has faced similar challenges to the Shaftesbury Society and many others – but how much good they have done in the process. Would it have been better if they just concerned themselves with a ‘spiritual approach’?
I think a lot of this comes down to your eschatology – what you think God will do at the end of time. I believe that God, through Christ, is at work renewing, redeeming and restoring all of his creation – and we need to be about joining him this task. I agree this means maintaining our spiritual energy but don’t make the assumption (which I hear in your comments) that we are doing this to impress the world. Many are doing it because they believe deeply that this is the mandate from scripture – ‘to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’