Wednesday 14 April 2021

The Unimportance of Being Earnest

[In 2004, seventeen years and six PCs ago, I pitched to the Christian website Ship of Fools a long form article about the upcoming Christian Union mission. I had thought it lost – it’s no longer online and I had long ago lost the file in the move from one machine to the next. But recently, I found a full printout of it in a drawer. This piece was written a long time ago, and it’s fair to say that I’m a much better writer than this now. It’s also fair to say that the students involved are now in their mid to late thirties, and the current crop of students were toddlers when this happened. We’re literally a generation down the line and, as you should hope was the case, as I’ve gotten older I’ve known better than to continue to mess with student politics. I am out of touch. I should be.

So how relevant is this piece now? Probably not very relevant at all. I’m keeping it because this was an important moment for me, professionally and personally. It’s part of my story.

If the practices of UCCF are anything to go by they have probably caught up by now with the cultural milieu as it was in 2004. They’ll hit relevance for 2021 sometime in the mid 2030s, I expect. I don’t know how much has changed. But certainly, the influence of evangelicalism was in a campus freefall in 2004 and I cannot see how that could have been reversed.

When I wrote this, I was not to know that the result of my weird week on the mission coalface would be to be publicly denounced and privately excommunicated by representatives of a national Christian organisation, and for the church I then attended to ban me from working with students. Did I deserve that? I think you should be the judge of that.

The one thing I think I learned from this experience is that you can’t ever expect to do this type of journalism and get an honest result. You know how you can’t observe quantum phenomena without changing the state of the thing you’re observing? Journalism is like that. It never gives you an unbiased view. I’ve annotated this piece to put it in context and perhaps think about what’s changed in the last 17 years.]

It’s Monday, and it’s raining, and I am walking onto the campus of Swansea University. Every pillar on the front of the James Callaghan Building has a poster proclaiming “life” in big lowercase letters, superimposed over a swirly pattern. As I approach the library, I see two students in hoodies with the same design, holding a video camera, and interviewing a random passerby about God.

It is Christian Union Mission Week, and this last term it has been happening all over the country.

Every three years, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) encourages each of its affiliated CUs to hold a mission. UCCF recently rebranded itself as the “Christian Union Movement”. It’s not a vain claim – the majority of the Christian Unions (CUs) in the country fall under UCCF’s aegis.

(2021 Footnote: This rebrand would barely last out the year. I have always wondered if this was because someone noticed that it was probably a bad acronym for an evangelical organisation.)

For any given mission, UCCF will supply staff workers and volunteers from other parts of the country as designated missioners, along with thousands of copies of one of the Gospels (it’s John this year), presented in an attractive booklet with explanatory notes, which they will deliver to as many students as they can.

The time round the brand of missions across the country is “Life”, and UCCF are marketing it more thoroughly than ever before. There’s a website with downloadable copies of the Life Gospel and notes, tracts, postcards and posters. There is even a CD-ROM containing graphics and resources designed for any Christian union across the country to bring the look of their mission in line with the brand. If you are a student in one of over 200 UK universities in the UK, wou will have been in contact with the brand this term.

(2021 Footnote: Of course, this specific detail dates this moment more thoroughly than anything else, placing it in that brief decade or so where the internet was a thing but social media hadn’t arrived. I would imagine that by 2010, UCCF was managing its communications very differently.)

I wanted to know what difference UCCF’s mission efforts actually make. As a student in the 1990s, I was a member of the CU and I participated in one of these missions. All we got out of that mission in our first year was a lot of hostility from the rest of the university. No one was converted. Is this still the way of things? Is the CU still a hated minority? What I found surprised me.

If it makes them happy

The very first student I talk to on Campus, I meet completely by chance. I am passing the library and I pass this guy giving out leaflets for a club night. “It’s OK,” he says to the people passing him, “you can take my leaflets. I’m not a Christian.” I stop and turn. He sees me looking at him. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he adds. He has had a lot of competition in the leaflet game today.

I ask him what he thinks of what the CU is doing this week. “Well, they’re pushing it on people, but religion is in such a total decline these days, they need to push it. If that makes them happy, I’m OK with that. But no one cares about religion these days.”

If it makes them happy, I’m OK with that. Through the course of this week, nearly all of the people I talk to include some variation of this sentiment. In 1994, you’d try to hand a copy of a Gospel to someone and they’d likely snarl at you for pushing your beliefs on them. Now, everyone is fine with it – if it makes you happy.

The CU have a stall in the foyer of Fulton House, the main university building. It’s kind of difficult to miss. There is a little group of students in mission hoodies (on the front, the Life logo; on the back: “Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the light”) stopping people and asking them if they want to fill in a questionnaire, and then maybe take a Gospel booklet or a tract. I spend quite a bit of time hanging about near the stall, asking people what they think of this. Even though the huge stall is in a very prominent place indeed, many students have – to my amazement – simply not noticed anything going on.

This seems to be the case elsewhere, too. A student from Warwick University I spoke to told me she hadn’t seen anything. I checked the website of the Warwick university CU and found that they had done their mission the preceding week. Talking more with her, it turned out that she had seen the posters, but she had no idea what they were about.

Of the people who did notice (including many who filled in the questionnaires), few even realised that it was the CU. It’s not surprising. Hardly anywhere on the publicity (and then only in really small letters) did it actually say “Christian Union”.

(2021 footnote: 17 years later, and knowing what I know now, I find the way in which the students were encouraged to evangelise a lot more concerning than I did then. Getting people to do questionnaires without telling them upfront that they were doing this to proselytise – and were more interested in recruitment and telling than hearing people’s opinions honestly – is a recruitment strategy out of the playbook of the Scientologists or the Moonies. Re-reading this so many years later, the UCCF strategies raise more red flags for me than a parade of the People’s Liberation Army through Tiananmen Square on International Workers’ Day.)

Some of the people I ask think they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, or in a cult. Why should they know? To expect people will immediately assume you are a Christian if you start talking about Jesus, God, the afterlife and stuff has become increasingly unrealistic. Faith has fallen so far off the radar that UCCF’s attempt to market it – all of which assume a baseline of knowledge as to what evangelical Christianity actually is – are met with either mild interest or complete bafflement.

The lunch is never free

What Christian Unions do in Mission Week is usually to some extent up to the CU (under the advice of the UCCF staff worker) and runs the gamut of proselytising activity, from standing around handing out leaflets through to people wandering around the student village knocking on doors and offering to do people’s washing up for them. There will always, however, be evangelistic talks, usually dealing with some sort of “issue”.

Swansea’s week has been pretty typical in this respect. The centrepiece of each day of the mission is a lunchtime talk, with added lunch. Variations of these subjects are being presented all over the country. God: why doesn’t He make Himself obvious? Evil: does it exist? Harold Shipman: did he escape justice? Jesus: is He the only way? Suffering: does God care?

I attend all of them, and the scene is pretty much the same each day. A long table laden with food stretches along the back of the room. Behind the table, a portable stereo plays tasteful music at a polite volume. People mill around with food before the talk starts. The atmosphere is friendly. The format is constant. Someone gives a talk – one of the outside missioners, one of the UCCF staffworkers, and on Wednesday, the minister of a local church – who is then joined by one of the other UCCF workers, who take questions from the floor.

Each day I ask one of the students in the hoodie how many people are here who they don’t know. It ranges from about 25 percent of the people on Monday and peaks at just about half on Wednesday.

I find this astonishing. In the 1990s, there was the implicit expectation that sometimes you wouldn’t get anyone outside of the CU coming at all. Consequently I am expecting some sort of reaction. And there isn’t, really.

Which isn’t to say that nothing happens at all. On Monday, one student asks a wildly tangential question which goes something like, “If Jesus knew everything, how come he didn’t know about Muhammad?” This one confuses the folks up front horribly. The missioner’s final answer (“All we need for life and eternity is in the Bible and if there’s anything else, we really don’t need to know that”) does not impress the questioner.

On Wednesday, things do at least get a little heated. The firebrand local minister, having given a talk on whether Harold Shipman escaped justice (actually a talk about the existence of a literal Hell) has to answer a question presented forcefully by a bearded student wearing a keffiyeh.

(2021 Footnote: This man is still pastor of the Baptist church in central Swansea known colloquially in some circles as the Church of the Apocalypse. It is notorious for its extremely conservative views on sexuality and Creation, its blistering hellfire sermons, its absolutely inflexible “leadership is male” stance, and its refusal to play nice in any way even with the other evangelical churches of the city. It is entirely the sort of church where the agonising death of Jesus on the Cross gets mentioned every week and you won’t hear about the resurrection for months, even though some might think that was where the really complicated bit was.)

If the perpetrators of the Holocaust could have conceivably come to faith after the Second World War and have been saved, the boy asks, what about their six million innocent Jewish victims? Did they go to Hell, after all they had suffered? Eventually, the increasingly wary minister, after some pressing gives the boy in the scarf the answer he was looking for: no, they only go to Heaven if they’ve accepted Jesus and become Christians.

I had spoken to the boy in the keffiyeh, a self-declared Marxist-Leninist, and his mate, a boy wearing an Alice band in his hair, before the talk had begun, and I had asked them if they’d tell me what they thought after the talk had finished. But after the talk, Keffiyah Boy is collared by the minister and they quickly enter a heated debate, so I can’t really talk to him. I find Alice Band, though. “It was good,” he says. “I thought it was really interesting. Yeah. I enjoyed that.”

I am dumbfounded. The minister has more or less yelled at the assembled people here for 20 solid minutes, has tried to drum into every single soul here using the most provocative language he can bring to bear that if you do not follow Jesus, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL  and the most reaction it gets from this boy is that it was “interesting.”

Getting them to pay attention

It is not easy to get reactions from the attendees at the talks. By Friday, it has become apparent to me that despite the quality of the speakers – and the hellfire minister apart, they are all personable and engaging – the reaction they get from the nonchristians on the floor can be boiled down to “So?”

The turnout for these lunchtime talks has been phenomenal. Students are interested in hearing new ideas more than ever. They will come to your meetings, they will eat your food and they will hear you out. But getting them to pay attention – now there’s the trick.

Over the course of the week the few students who have expressed any opinion other than “It’s all right by me. If it makes them happy, it’s cool,” all turned out to have had some sort of political ideology of their own, making them part of the same minority as the members of the CU – people with a cause.

For instance, Fran is president of the Conservation Society. She came to the Friday meeting because she did a deal with a CU friend. She would come to this, and he’d join the Conservation Society.

During the talk, the Mission Guy says, “I work in universities, and always the one society that is universally despised is the Christian Union.” Fran, sitting in the middle of the room, starts laughing loudly at this. “OK,” concedes the missioner to the floor, “maybe it’s not so true around here.”

(2021 Footnote: This, in the end, was the point on which I really acquired the enmity of the Christian Union Movement. At the time, British university Christian Unions were in large part busily disenfranchising themselves by engaging in practices that violated pretty much every discrimination policy most universities have and then claiming persecution, a tactic that Brexit stans, bigots and neonazis across the Western world have embraced wholeheartedly in more recent years. CUs were in fact facing consequences for persecuting people rather than being persecuted, but in 2004 UCCF was not only unwilling to countenance that, but went hard on the attack against anyone who might dare to propose that this might be the case, no matter how carefully.)

“It’s a bit vague, you know?” Fran says to me when I catch her afterwards. “This Life thing. No one really knows what it is. No one knows why they’re doing it.” Does she think it makes any difference? “Well, people might know the CU is out and about.” She isn’t really impressed with how they’re going about it. “I think that people would have more time for their message if the CU actually got out there and got involved in stuff, rather than standing around and telling people how great Jesus is.”

Ben Lockwood, a Bahá’i, is the student who asked the curveball question about Muhammad on Monday. I ask him about the answer he got. “Nothing more than expected. It wasn’t a particularly good answer,” he says. “The essential message they’re giving – and I know it’s not the way all Christians are – is a very exclusive, particular message.” So what effect does he think the mission is having? “Same effect it’s had for the last three or four years. I haven’t seen the CU change its tactics. I debate whether they’re effective.”

I mention to Ben how hard it’s been to get opinions from people. “That’s what I’d expect,” he says. “They’re not being open, and they’re expecting others to be open. That’s almost the definition of hypocrisy. They’ll say as a platitude, ‘We know where you’re coming from,’ and they’ll say ‘But you have to be here,’ and they’ll say, ‘You should be looking at these Bible verses and not those.’”

Does the mission make a difference? “Not the difference they’d like it to make. They want to bring Christ to the university. They want people to become Christian. It makes people like me who would like a positive, open dialogue disillusioned with Christians and Christian institutions.”

(2021 Footnote: Ben Lockwood, or Ben the Bahá’i as he was known by many, was a prominent and well-liked figure in Swansea University at that time, particularly in student community support groups and interfaith initiatives. In 2006, shortly after he graduated, Ben tragically died in a bike accident. He is still remembered in the university: every year since 2007 Swansea University Students’ Union has given the Ben Lockwood Award to the student who is considered to be the most active in improving the life of the University.)

Maybe it does, but the more I talk to students, the more convinced I am that a “positive, open dialogue” isn’t actually something most people are bothered about. Ben, Fran, and the Marxist-Leninist with the keffiyeh are glaring exceptions to the vast majority of students I have talk to, both here and in other universities across the country. I think the simple fact is that most students don’t seem to care.

Ben blames student apathy on the CU mission style. I think he is halfway there. But I am starting to get the impression that the issue is less that UCCF’s missions alienate people, and that it is more than they are simply out of touch. The university scene has changed. They are still pursuing mission exactly the same way that they were when I was a student [in the mid-90s] only with better graphics and nicer T-shirts.

One nonchristian student in an English university observed to me: “They seem to think that selling ‘jcuk’ T-shirts is the answer. I’d suggest that people should be bringing their attitudes up to 21st century standards, rather than their wardrobes.” He doesn’t mean exactly what I’m talking about here, but I do think he has a point. The way in which they communicate the message has not changed, no matter how nice the marketing graphics are.

Up for a scrap?

The university chaplaincy has a coffee lounge where people tend to hang around during the day when they should be going to lectures and stuff. It’s here on Thursday that I witness a brief frisson of excitement when someone in a mission hoodie reports that some CU posters have been taken down, until it gets pointed out that the posters were in places where they break university rules and it’s the porters who have been removing them. It’s almost disappointing.

(2021 Footnote: Swansea University Chaplaincy was replaced by a Costcutter some years ago.)

It’s also here on Thursday that I get the opportunity to speak to one of the UCCF missioners, a Scottish guy who like two others has come down from his own neck of the woods to do this. During the Q&A sessions in the lunchtime talks, this chap acquitted himself well, and in person he comes across as an intelligent, level-headed sort of a person. I warm to him.

He tells me some of his story. Christianity had been part of his background, and he had been thinking about it for a long time when he had converted in his second year at university, during a UCCF mission week. “I used to be quite sceptical of missions,” he says. “I’d been to some bad events which presented a side of Christianity as reluctant to do discourse, and where Christians were presented as arrogant and bigoted, and are in actuality arrogant and bigoted. But since I’ve been with UCCF, I’ve found them gracious and open. They listen to people and relate to it.”

Do they, though?

(2021 Footnote: Even if it had been ever in doubt, the events following the immediate aftermath of this article’s publication fairly conclusively supplied a definitive answer to this question, which was “Duh, no.”)

On Friday, I will catch the missioner from Scotland again, and ask him if the week met his expectations. “I was expecting to see some opposition,” he says. “I was also expecting to see the CU grow. And they have. They’ve learned a lot.”

Opposition? Have you actually seen any opposition? “No. No, I haven’t. There was only one guy all week who was really up for a scrap. It was a bit disappointing, really.”

He describes That One Guy. Long hair, beard, keffiyah. Yes, him. In fact, since Wednesday, most of the CU members have told me how they’ve had everyone being nice to them except This One Guy. The same guy, every time.

One student with an axe to grind, however you frame it, doesn’t really count as a persecution.

I can understand the missioner’s disappointment. A reaction – any reaction, even a negative one – would have been so much better than people simply nodding and saying, “If it makes you happy, that’s cool.” The fact is that even if people get mildly annoyed at the Christians, they’re simply too polite to say so these days. What we have in our universities is a student body that doesn’t even assert its right to be apathetic.

It’s not even that the CU are sadcases. Despite the hoodies, CU members are these days a fairly hip-looking group of young people. They’re likeable, attractive and on the whole they’re hardly the marginalised weirdos they often used to be. If they appear earnest, that’s only because earnestness is the only unfashionable trait they affect. To be honest, they’re only earnest by comparison. This seems to be the way things are going across the country. One student from a college in England told me that being approached by Christian Union members was “strangely like being accosted by Coldplay.”

Once you’ve unpacked that statement, it’s easy to see what it means. They have that “hip but unthreatening” thing going for them. But it says something about the scene today that the only byword for earnestness is a po-faced rock band from my generation. Saying something and really meaning it has gone out of fashion.

(2021 Footnote: I can’t help thinking that if anything has changed in the intervening 17 years, it’s this. This can’t be the case right now. It can’t be.)

A beleaguered minority

I ask Nick Bradley, this year’s Swansea Students Union president, if he is aware of the Life brand. “Yeah. It’s visible. They’ve been more proactive this week than they have for years. They’ve been out there – they’ve spoken to me, asked me what I think is the perfect life. They filmed me. They’ve been good, though. They’ve been really willing to listen to what people have to say. They’re getting out there and putting forward their own point of view without being preachy – if you’ll pardon the word. It’s been good.”

Swansea’s Union is something of a rarity in the British university scene. Often, SUs and CUs exist in open hostility to each other. UCCF told me when I contacted them that there are about a half-dozen CUs in 2004 alone who have been, or are in real danger of being expelled from their Student unions, including University College London, Warwick and Hull.

(2021 Footnote: Swansea CU is still currently affiliated with the SU, and this is still unusual.)

But if you look at the proportion of students who take part in student politics, the number is minimal. For example, in Swansea’s sabbatical elections this year, the winner got in with 650 votes. Out of a constituency of about 10,000 students, barely a thousand voted. The result is that those who actually take part are in the same minority as the CU – those who give a flying one.

UCCF disagree. “Apathy is always going to be a major obstacle in a postmodern, relativistic society. However, the flipside of apathetic relativism is a growing intolerance to truth claims. UCCF students and staff are more than aware that the majority on campus are apathetic about the claims of Christianity. But any who have known the national CU scene well for the past ten years will confirm that there has never been so much vocal opposition as in the past few years.”

True, it’s telling that the most vocal opposition is at the top. But then, it’s only the ones who care who have the force of personality to get there. It’s a dangerous situation in some ways, but still, it simply underlines the fact that Student Unions are only slightly more representative of student opinion than UCCF is. The silent majority, meanwhile, are increasingly silent.

A few CUs are beginning to wake up to this – low attendance at SU general business meetings across the UK makes a conservative lobby group like the CU potentially very powerful, if only they received any encouragement to get involved, beyond using it as a platform for proselytising, (a rationale offered, for example, in a recent issue of UCCF’s new magazine for members, The Blurb).

Ironically, in a climate where no one turns up for student politics, the potential power CUs could wield is vast. UCCF is the largest and most active student-based lobby group in the country, after the National Union of Students itself.

(2021 Footnote: I don’t know if this was true. I don’t know if it’s still true, even if it was back then. Either way, given how the last ten years have gone, I kind of regret having written this. It’s almost like the conservatives decided that I was right.)

And yes, paradoxically, UCCF just doesn’t register on people’s radar. Most students just don’t care. And while Student Unions may have people hostile to CUs in their executives, many are unaware of UCCF’s existence. University College London, for example, had voted not to expel their CU in a meeting; they only rescinded that decision after it was pointed out that the CU was affiliated with an outside organisation (UCCF) which held standards in violation of the UCL Student Union constitution.

UCCF’s culture seems to promote the belief in many of its members that CUs constitute a beleaguered, persecuted minority. Some even seem to believe that there is some sort of liberal conspiracy out to get Christians. Although the idea of getting a bunch of liberals to agree on anything long enough to form a conspiracy is frankly absurd, somehow I think that the idea that UCCF might turn out to be an irrelevance is somehow worse. If they persecute your organisation, it means they care about you. But if they just shrug and say “If it makes you happy,” that’s worse than death. Ironically, the recent crackdown by the small number of people who are active in SUs has given UCCF’s work meaning and direction.

Now I’m a believer

I’m heading to Friday’s end-of-mission meeting, and I run into a group of people, including the other missioner, hanging around the ground floor of Fulton House. It seems that the venue the CU had arranged for tonight’s meeting has been double-booked, and they have to find somewhere else. In the end, they are given the room next to the student bar.

“I need some sleep now,” the missioner says. “It hit me last night. I haven’t been home for three weeks.” He’s been doing missions for CUs most of the term so far, and he’ll probably do more this year. I ask him how he thinks it went. “Mostly good. Most of the CU have been involved. But not all of them. I’m a bit disappointed with that. When I started doing missions about 10 years ago, they’d all turn up to all the talks. Now a lot of them only decide to come to some of it.” I mention how apathetic so many students seem to be. “Even the Christians are apathetic,” he says.

It depends on what you mean by “apathetic”. By comparison, the members of the CU are about the most committed people in the university. The final meeting is another talk given by this missioner. About halfway through, he says that one of the ways that being a Christian in university is hard is that “people shake their fists at you and say, how dare you!” when you try to evangelise them. Which is not what he said to me a minute ago. He has given this talk before, and more than once. Not that there is anything wrong with that in and of itself – all preachers and public speakers have a repertoire. That’s normal. But if the talk is to stay relevant to real life, it’s going to need some edits soon.

When he is done, I am introduced to the CU’s one convert of the week. He is happy to tell me about his week. It has been the best week of this boy’s life. He’s happier now than he has ever been, he says. He looks it. He tells me that he had been thinking about Christianity for a long time, and had been surrounded b Christians for years. He went to the first evening meeting of the mission, but it was through talking with Christian friends late into the night that he came to the point where he made the decision. Talking to him, I can’t help inferring that he would have made this decision at some point anyway, mission or no mission.

So what do you want?

What do students want out of life? Expectations seem low. Take the answers to the CU’s questionnaires. Although quite a lot of people signed up for the Christianity Explored courses the CU will be running later in the term, the results of the questionnaires show little variation.

(2021 Footnote: Christianity Explored is a conservative answer to the better-known and already pretty conservative Alpha Course, with a heavy emphasis on Bible study and especially on penal substitution, the evangelical doctrine that, at roughly the time I wrote this piece, Steve Chalke famously and correctly dubbed “cosmic child abuse”.)

To the question “What do you want most out of life?” most people said “To be happy” (although the guy with the keffiyeh and the axe to grind wrote “a Marxist-Leninist revolution,” which at least gets points for an ideological stance). To the question, “If God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into My Heaven?’ what would you say?” the most common answer was some variation of, “I’m a good person. I’m all right.”

The Evangelical Alliance's 2002 report God and the Generations states: “...the new set of rising adults [are] more apolitical, self-sufficient, materialistic and hedonistic in their attitudes than any generation observed before.” These “millennials” (people who come of age since roughly 1999) just want to be happy. These people are the new silent majority in our universities.

(2021 Footnote: In retrospect, this is no more accurate than all that nonsense about avocado toast, but it was still new then. People hadn’t worked out the ins and outs of the millennial generation yet.)

Yes, they are curious of new ideas – especially those which claim to hold the key to happiness – hence the number of people who attend evangelistic meetings and sign up for Christianity Explored courses. And being a Christian is nowhere near the social stigma it was in universities even in the 90s. The only people who hate Christians are pretty much in the same boat.

But hardly anyone is being converted to Christianity through missions, and getting converts is, in the end, the measure by which the success of an evangelistic endeavour is gauged. Why? You have a crop of people who are not hostile to you, and who will come to your meetings, and who have no preconceptions about what you’re saying. It’s what the leaders of UCCF should consider a prime opportunity. And yes, somehow, they still manage to blow it.

(2021 Footnote: I am of course less afraid to say what I think about evangelicalism. But it’s fair to say that in the intervening time, the label “evangelical” has had a serious PR nosedive. And probably quite rightly.)

The old tactics – the shock of suffering, graphically explained, the horrors of the crucifixion, the fear of Hell – these things no longer have any effect. Virtually no one under the age of 22 cares about these things. Old-style missions don’t wash anymore. If the leaders of UCCF want to see people join them, a fundamentally new way of relating to the young adults of now needs to be found, and no amount of surface-level manipulation will change that.