Hannah’s CU Story

I’ve been posting people’s university Christian Union stories for a few weeks now and we’re at the final one!  This one comes from Hannah Mudge.  She’s a marvellous woman and you can follow her on Twitter @boudledidge.  If you’d like to read the other CU stories, you’ll find them all HERE.  

 

I started university in 2003, having been brought up attending a C of E church. In the year or so before university I had decided to explore other options and checked out various denominations and church groups, which led to me doing the Alpha course at my local Baptist church and also visiting church – an evangelical, charismatic ‘new church’ – with my boyfriend and his family.

 

On visiting my university for the first time I had heard a lot about the Christian Union (CU) and was impressed by the number of members, the amount they seemed to have going on and how exciting everything appeared to be. Coming from a small town I had never had much experience of Christians my own age and was really looking forward to meeting some. Like most people going to university, I just wanted to make lots of new friends and ‘get stuck in’ to socialising.

 

People at church had encouraged me to get involved with the CU so I signed up at the Freshers’ Fayre and started attending meetings, also becoming a member of my hall’s cell group. A few years ago I dug out a lot of leaflets and notes I’d kept from that time. My leaflet from the first main meeting of term tells me that there were four prayer meetings a week, three ‘cold contact’ sessions a week (in which members went out and about on campus to evangelise), one ‘lunch bar’ per week (lunch and a talk on one aspect of Christianity, which we were encouraged to bring friends to) – and of course the main meeting. Then there was ‘Mission Week’ in Semester Two, the main outreach event of the year and a ‘house party’ at a residential centre in the countryside. The first flyer I received also included details of the now-infamous PURE course, which received a lot of attention from the national press in the mid-2000s.

 

I think I came away with quite a positive impression of the CU from that first meeting. My notebook tells me that it focused on being fearless about proclaiming the truth of the gospel in a world where people are ‘afraid to stand up for what they believe in’. My notes included: “God is the most important thing. We live in a society where tolerance and doing what you want is most valued but it requires great courage to speak up and say that we know how to live the right way.”

 

Topics covered at a later date included: ‘The church is the Spirit’s megaphone to the world’, ‘False teachers and the world leading us astray’ and ‘The persecuted church’. As time went on, I began to make some observations that went beyond my initial impressions – observations that weren’t always positive. I should probably point out that at first, I didn’t know or hadn’t understood that the CU wasn’t some sort of ecumenical organisation, so was slightly surprised that almost everyone was evangelical.

 

  • The emphasis on quite in-your-face evangelism seemed quite obsessive and intrusive.
  • There was an expectation that you’d attend all meetings and get-togethers, which I wasn’t always able to do due to visiting my boyfriend or simply due to wanting to spend time with friends.
  • I therefore didn’t feel as ‘included’ as many other people. I also ended up feeling quite paranoid that people felt my lifestyle was unacceptable. I came from a sheltered, middle-class background but one that was outside the evangelical bubble and I often felt as if I was saying the wrong things and doing things – like going on nights out, having close friends who weren’t Christian – that were disapproved of. There was a definite sense of ‘concern’ about people whose social life didn’t revolve around church and CU activities and the problem of non-Christian friends ‘leading Christians into sin’ was often discussed. Your non-Christian friends were people you invited to CU events and asked along to church, but not people you should spend too much time with.
  • Talk about sex and relationships was a key focus. Let’s expand on that:

 

I know it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen at a university. It’s full of young people – it’s unavoidable – and so there was plenty of discussion on ‘purity’ and ‘modesty’. Most of the people in my cell group were in a relationship – and like me, all but one of them were in relationships with someone at a different university. There was a lot of talk of ‘temptation’ and the importance of resisting it.

 

So during my first semester, I attended the PURE course –  billed as ‘Sex and Relationships – God’s Way. This took some commitment for a fresher – it was held over breakfast and involved getting up at 6.30am and trekking across campus in the cold and dark when no-one else seemed to be up. Interestingly, I looked back at the notes and handouts from the course some years later when PURE was making headlines about its allegedly homophobic teaching and interestingly there was absolutely nothing to be found about LGBT issues – so this may have been added into the course at a later date. Some session outlines were as follows (taken from handouts and my notes):

 

What does it mean to be a man/a woman? Man: work in and take care of the earth; be united with women. Women: Man’s helper on earth, be united with man. Equal but different. The world says men/women are not different and focus now is on empowered women and demeaning marriage. I was young; I’m not sure I had any critical thinking skills; I hadn’t yet encountered feminism and this was the first teaching on gender and Christianity that I’d ever heard. So it wouldn’t have registered that this is was complementarian teaching or that many Christians would not agree with it.

 

What’s wrong with relationships these days? Sex used wrongly – flirting, promiscuity, jealousy, control.

 

What can men/women do to help the opposite sex? Good communication, respect, friendship, modesty. girls can be helpful to guys by being careful what they wear. It was claimed that ‘Girls want friendship from guys, but guys need us to be helpful’. ‘Helpful’ was defined as dressing and behaving modestly and not ‘obsessing’ over getting into a relationship.

 

Pure sex Stay away from sexual sin and avoid immorality. Don’t lead people on, flee temptation, be accountable to a friend, control your thoughts. The ‘Big Five sexual problems for men and women’ were highlighted, with no. 1 for men being ‘masturbation’ and no. 1 for women being ‘fear of singleness’.

 

After the course, my hall group leader let me borrow her copy of Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It confused me, bemused me and angered me. It was my introduction to the idea of ‘courtship’ rather than just ‘going out’ with a person and I found it bizarre – never being alone with your partner, chaperoned dates, the idea that women shouldn’t make any moves and are ‘in need of protection’. It seemed totally irrelevant to UK culture and I didn’t find much to take from it, but at the same time felt vaguely ashamed that I might not be conducting my relationship with my boyfriend the ‘right way’ in the eyes of God.

 

As my first year wore on I attended CU meetings less and less. The feeling of having very little in common with other members had deepened. I remember feeling that the topics discussed were too repetitive (evangelism; resisting the evils of the world; relationships) and I had picked up that other students were quite hostile towards the CU and its methods in a way that they weren’t towards other Christian groups on campus. I was also struggling with mental health issues – becoming quite reclusive – and didn’t feel I could talk about this to my CU friends. They were nice people, well-meaning and committed Christians and just like me, young in their faith and their ways of relating to and understanding the world – but I just didn’t feel at home among them and I also felt that there was a very particular stereotype of being a woman promoted that I could never live up to. This point in particular was something that I struggled with for years after starting to attend evangelical churches.

 

It was after I left university that I started to understand more about gender and the church and it was around the same time that controversies over Christian Unions began to make headlines – the PURE course, a refusal to let women speak at main meetings or include women in leadership, negative attitudes towards other Christian groups, the UCCF doctrinal statement. My former university’s magazine ran a feature on sexism within the CU, in which the President affirmed a complementarian position.

 

It had never occurred to me to think too much about these issues as a first year student – but I was essentially new to evangelicalism and completely new to any church teaching on gender. It also didn’t necessarily occur to me to question anything I was told was fact. A couple of years down the line, it gave me great cause for concern that complementarian teaching seemed to be the default and that there was a lot more about gender going on in CUs that I had probably been oblivious to.

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Stephen’s CU Story

I’ve been posting different people’s university Christian Union stories over the last few weeks.  You can read the previous ones HERE.  Today’s story comes from Stephen Wigmore and you can follow him on Twitter: @stephen_wigmore.

 

I am generally a big fan of CU’s but I always thought that the CU at Warwick University was sadly harming its own mission by taking a narrow view of what Christian ‘mission’ and life should involve. 

 

The requirement that all events be aimed at evangelism, and from a relatively conservative evangelical protestant perspective, shuts them off to a whole world of potentially enriching practices, theology, perspectives and members. Not to mention being a truncated version of the Gospel. The Bible makes it astonishingly clear that good works and preaching the word of God cannot be separated. 

 

My CU at Warwick when challenged on this claimed that CU was’t meant to be ‘a church’ and so Christians should get those other things elsewhere. But that was a bit dishonest because in practice for most non-Christians and Christians on campus the CU was basically the Church on campus. Also, the CU refused to even mention events to its members from other Christian groups that might cover some of the good works and pastoral, spiritual areas it didn’t focus on. It’s called the ‘Christian Union’, not the Evangelical Christian Union, or the Christian Evangelism Union, it should present as complete a picture as possible of Christian faith and life.

 

I think the end result is that CU members get a reduced version of the rich spiritual heritage across the Christian Faith and their evangelism is weakened, not strengthened, by not presenting a more complex and rounded view of the Christian tradition to non-believers.

 

I have huge regard and respect for all the CU members and leaders I knew at Uni. They were the most lovely, kind, giving people. I say these things purely because I know how talented, devoted and hard-working CU members were, and I thought the whole structure ended up needlessly making their efforts less effective and fruitful than they otherwise would be. If I blame anyone it’s purely UCCF Central’s command and control attitude towards CUs.

Stephanie’s CU Story

I’ve been sharing people’s stories from their experiences within university Christian Unions.  You can read the previous stories HERE.  Today is Stephanie’s story:

 

I did have great kindness from some within the CU from other churches and I did find some of the speakers inspiring and helpful. Noteably Roger Carswell talking about his battle with mental health, a talk I cried through and which helped me come to terms with my own problems.

 

I became a Christian towards the end of my first year of university, so I had no previous experience with church or Christian culture therefore I assumed that this was how Christians should behave, going to loads of meetings and being very busy and frenetic. It was disastrous for my ME, but I guess to some extent I was trying to please God and although there was a cognitive dissonance between my feminist, more liberal values and the Christian world in which I found myself I felt it was part of being a Christian and “how things were”.

 

From a gender perspective, in my CU:

 

  • Clothing was policed at times, I remember a friend being very upset to be told that her top was too low. But the men saw nothing wrong with going topless in summer, women not being visual creatures etc.
  • Women didn’t even lead the small midweek groups in college CU meetings from memory.
  • It was very complementarian. There were lots of capable, gifted women who would talk about how wonderful it would be to be a vicar’s wife, but sadly none of my female university contemporaries have yet been ordained, although loads of my male university contemporaries have.
  • I was told swearing was worse in a woman than a man.
  • All this said there weren’t many male and female separate CU events, and I think women could be part of the worship team.

 

The university CU was very hardline while I was there (even 24/7 prayer rooms were considered suspect).  What I’ve seen in the time since I left is that they have softened a bit. One problem was that a particular extremely conservative evangelical local church was dominating everything.

 

I sometimes feel like my faith journey since I left university has been unpicking some of the hardline conservative doctrine I was taught at university.  In my third year when my health was in a terrible state in general (and my mental health was in a right state) I found Adrian Plass’ books and they were like a window into a different Christian world and helped me so much.

 

Students are very, very young and for some reason my CU seemed only to be undergraduates, some input from postgrads would have helped I think. It is hard when there are a lot of young people and insufficient older Christians in the student churches to disciple them.

H’s Christian Union Story

Over the last week or so I’ve been sharing guest posts from a number of different people about their experiences of university Christian Unions.  You can read the previous posts HERE.  Today is H’s story.

 

Though from an evangelical background, I arrived at university with fairly harsh preconceptions of Christian Unions – my older brother had been a Christian Union college rep and ended up losing his faith at the same time. When he did he also lost pretty much all his Christian friends. So I was cross with them.

 

When I arrived, however, I met some nice people in the Christian Union, I really wanted to do well at the whole ‘being an evangelical Christian’ thing, and I decided that maybe it was better to join and help from the inside rather than complain about something that I had never been part of. So I threw myself into my C.U pretty enthusiastically. I attended a conservative evangelical church in my university city that was one of their recommended options, and I regularly attended all the meetings. I attended a collegiate university, and so I had a college C.U as well as the main university C.U. The college C.Us ran basically independently of the main one – there was very little control over how we did things, so long as we had a meeting once a week that involved Bible study and aimed to put on some kind of event once a term where people would hear the gospel. Fortunately for me, I was in a more ‘open’ college C.U that had good relationships with the chaplain of the college and worked hard to maintain interdenominational, ecumenical friendships with students in chapel – my college rep when I first arrived largely ignored any prescriptions from the executive committee about college group content, and also ignored the executive committee position that Christian Unions should keep their distance from the college chaplain’s work. The independence of individual college groups just so happened to work in my favour, but, in retrospect, I also appreciate that this meant different students in CU had wildly different experiences, depending on where they lived.

 

I was asked to be my college CU rep mid-way through my first year, and gladly accepted. For one thing, I wanted to make my college group much less of a ‘boys’ club’ (I was often the only female student who attended) and I was also excited to learn more about leading small groups, organising events, and understanding the barriers my fellow students had when it came to the gospel. I threw myself into it wholeheartedly, which was no small commitment – each week our Christian Union had 5 early morning prayer meetings, college group, bible study training for college group, the whole university CU meeting, and an evangelistic talk – this was before you added on any additional outreach you were doing in college. I went to pretty much everything, which left very little time for actually socialising with my non-Christian friends. I was particularly committed to attending the prayer meetings, and really valued the experience of praying with other Christians every day – though I didn’t like feeling as though I had to have some kind of evangelistic story to share every time, nor did I enjoy being questioned by my peers about my personal spiritual life.

 

The power held by my Christian Union’s executive committee made me uncomfortable: these were students who were only a year older than me, and very few of them had formally studied any theology, but they would sometimes behave as though they were in a position to hand out unsolicited spiritual/theological/life advice because they led the Christian Union. This was particularly the case with the male leaders.

 

Mid-way through my time as CU rep, I began to feel less and less comfortable with the way things were run in the CU. This was triggered by a few things:

 

  • My male co-rep in my college was invited to be on the executive committee as Prayer Secretary, despite almost never having attended the Morning Prayer meetings. The reason given to me was that he was a theology student. His predecessor had studied maths. Despite my heavy commitment to the CU, I was not invited to take on any formal leadership role. I was told that they thought I would be of better service in ‘other ways’. I suspect this was partly sexism in not wanting a woman to head up prayer meetings, and partly a level of discomfort with my attitude of occasionally challenging the way things were done.

 

  • The executive committee overruled my choice of successor for the position of college rep. I wanted us to have one male leader and one female leader, which is the norm for college groups. One of my female friends faithfully attended college group, regularly prayed with me and helped with our college events, and also attended the chapel as she was in the choir. I thought this last point was a bonus – it was a wonderful bridge building opportunity – but the fact she didn’t attend an ‘approved’ church meant her leadership was refused by the executive committee. There was no one else suitable to ask, and so we ended up having no female leader, leaving the burden of running college group up to one male student. They even suggested I ask another guy who was in college group but rarely attended, rather than allowing my chapel-going female friend to lead.

 

  • I only ever remember there being one female speaker (at an evangelistic talk) during my entire time in the CU – and that was when the topic was ‘Is the church sexist?’ There were certainly never any female speakers at C.U meetings or during the main mission week.

 

  • During my 3rd year at university (the year following my time as college rep) I became extremely unwell physically, and this triggered a depression relapse. I had to stop attending CU meetings because I was not well enough. This went on for months, and I was barely able to complete the year. Despite the many (!) hours I had previously spent in their company, not one of my fellow CU students outside my college reached out to see how I was doing.

 

This highlights a very real problem with the CU model: the level of time/emotion/energy commitment required of students often goes way beyond the kind of commitment even asked of church members, but CUs don’t have the pastoral training or capacity to back this up, since they’re led by students. I remember once talking to a CU friend about my depression and illness and how much I didn’t want to even be alive anymore, and his response was ‘at least you know God is being glorified in all this’.

 

We never had any gender segregated/stereotyped events at my university, but the ‘CU approved’ churches often did, and this fed back into the atmosphere of the CU. I felt remarkably out of place just for not being a flowery-skirt-wearing girl and showing up to events in trackies and a hoody.

 

I still have a few good friends I met while in my CU, and on the whole I believe that the students involved are well-meaning, caring, passionate, people – but they are also basically teenagers, who will inevitably make immature decisions. The ‘adults’ that UCCF pair up with Christian Unions are also often barely out of university themselves – several of my CU friends went straight from leading our CU to supporting a CU at another university after they graduated. This is, in my mind, a big part of the problem.

Mark’s Christian Union Story

I’ve been sharing people’s university Christian Union stories over the last week, You can read those that have been written so far HERE.  Today’s story comes from Mark Hewerdine (you can follow him on Twitter HERE).

 

It was 20 years ago this week that I moved to Manchester to begin university, and 20 years since I was introduced to the Christian Union by two wonderful young women. They were second years and led our hall-based bible study group and were amazingly supportive and encouraging. My initial impression of the CU was overwhelmingly positive and I have to say that the three years I was part of it were deeply formative in a very positive way.

 

The CU seemed to gain a new lease of life and experienced rapid growth in my second year, partly as many young Christians fresh from Soul Survivor arrived with a passion not only for evangelism but for service and social justice. Interestingly, many were also from some of the newer free churches. I think this was significant since they tended to have experienced a more egalitarian brand of church and leadership.

 

In contrast, my CU at the time I joined – and many others – tended to be conservative evangelical in make-up and ethos, reflected in the insistence that the chair be a man (even if there was also a requirement that the vice-chair be a woman). This insistence seemed to stem from a (mis)understanding and (mis)application of teaching concerning church leadership. I think CUs falsely saw the need to apply a very conservative reading of leadership in a church context to something that wasn’t and isn’t a church.

 

However, it was quite obvious that in my time the chair and vice-chair acted and were treated as equals. Often it was the female vice-chair who was ostensibly taking the lead, showing just how ridiculous the official rules were.

 

I think it was significant that a large proportion of CU members joined churches where women were in positions of senior leadership, or at least were preaching and leading services regularly. It’s not that these members then actively kicked against complementation theology by argument; rather, men assumed that women could lead within the CU and could/should speak with authority. And women assumed the same. This lead to a largely healthy approach to gender.

 

I saw women leading and giving wise counsel, being affirmed and respected by (most) men for their gifts and leadership. Women were hall group leaders, and active on all committees. Although the majority of guest speakers were men – largely due to the dominance of men in local church leadership – there was no bar on women speaking and teaching at any meetings.

 

However, in hindsight I see that some of what I picked up regarding “how to be a Christian man/woman” was still influenced by a complementarian theology and narrow stereotypes. The rhetoric of delineated gender roles/characteristics was still floating around even if it was being challenged – as much by behaviour and example as in argument. When it came to the “a” word – accountability – there was an assumption that if women and men wished to meet to discuss their deepest issues and struggles (they were encouraged to do so) this would be in single sex groups. I don’t think that was altogether a bad thing and was the only example of gender segregation I recall.

 

I did sense a shift, a turning of the tide even across my three years. It seemed to me – and perhaps it’s wishful thinking – that the CU was part of a growing affirmation of women’s ministry and leadership, and critique of complementarianism. Thus it was rather sad to realise that the vast majority of churches being recommended to new students by the CU in Manchester either oppose the notion of women in senior leadership or are led solely by men.

 

After leaving university I began to pick up on the stories and experiences of other Christians from other CUs and was taken aback at just how “progressive” Manchester seemed to be in many ways: on gender, social justice, ecumenism, politics. Sexuality remained the last taboo, and sadly I suspect very few, if any CUs, have really made much progress on this area.

 

20 years on from Fresher’s week I continue to reflect on what formed me as a Christian, what mistakes I made as a younger man and what I would do differently if I had my time again. 
One theme keeps coming back to me: it is easy for 18 to 22-year-old students to be strongly influenced, guided (even misguided) by older Christians in positions of influence. The relationship between CU and local churches has always been complex and from time to time disagreement flares up regarding what that relationship should be. I was aware as a student of the positive and (in my view) negative influence local clergy and lay church leaders could have over students which seeped into the way CUs are run. I wonder if chaplaincies need to have a stronger role in being a support to CUs insofar as they are on the ground in student land constantly and can provide some continuity. Yes, chaplaincies are often regarded with suspicion by CUs for their liberal or interfaith leanings. Can that suspicion be overcome to the benefit of CUs? I also fear that some church leaders in my time (and today) actively discourage Christian students from being open to hearing other points of view or other theological positions for fear that young impressionable minds will be led astray. I think that does students a disservice in the long run and can actually precipitate a crisis of identity and faith later on when they realise just how complex theology and faith really are.

 

It’s easy to hurl rocks at CUs for being homophobic and sexist. And often they are those things. But when young passionate Christians crave certainty and security as they leave home, perhaps we should be holding to account those other, older Christian voices around them who collude with, even encourage that black and white thinking. I was often a bit of an idiot and at least mildly obnoxious as a passionate young student Christian eager to save the world, but today I try not to be too harsh towards my younger self. Perhaps we older Christians should treat students with similar gentleness and kindness, without colluding with bigotry or patronising young people who do need to take responsibility for their words and actions.

“Spud’s” Christian Union Story

Last week I began a series of guest posts from people sharing their stories of being in university Christian Unions.  You can read more about why HERE and Liz’s Story HERE.  Today’s story comes from someone who has asked to be named as Spud.

 

My CU has given me many positives over the year; by helping with my self-confidence, giving me a wonderful group of friends and a place to study the bible. Mostly I’ve had a positive experience with my CU, with everyone being welcoming and cheerful to me over my first year at university. I’ve become part of a weekly group where we can discuss the Bible and pray. 

 

However, I have witnessed my friend being made uncomfortable in Fresher’s week when telling a CU rep that she doesn’t believe in God, and I have been uncomfortable being told I should go into the streets and encourage strangers to become Christians. I’ve found it frustrating when my friends in CU don’t listen to me when I say that I don’t like loud and large churches and prefer a more traditional church. 

 

People I come into contact with in my CU are encouraging and friendly, but there are some things I disagree with about my CU but do not feel able to discuss these.

 

One of the things I don’t feel able to discuss is different ways of doing evangelism, as it feels like everyone is so set in their ways – I was brought up to believe you evangelise through your actions and how you portray yourself to others, and then that will lead people to question why you act as you do and you can explain why with God and Christianity. Most people I’ve met in the CU evangelise through telling people they’re Christians and why other people should be too which I feel can intimidate and put people off Christianity and the CU. 

 

Another topic is how you worship. They are used to loud worship, maybe Christian rock music or a loud preacher. As quite a self-conscious person, raising my hands in worship, praying out loud and responding aloud have always been things I avoid as I don’t like drawing attention to myself. My CU friends don’t seem to understand that I can worship in my church by listening to a sermon and singing hymns or music without raising my hands. 

 

The CU has such a bad reputation at my uni that I feel embarrassed to say I go to it, even though I know everyone in the CU is such good people at heart, they just sometimes go about showing it in the wrong way. I try to explain to non-Christian’s that in my view the CU is sort of like a denomination of Christianity, and although they act like that, not all Christians do.

Stories from University Christian Unions

Tonight on Twitter there were various conversations that occurred, motivated by these flyers that are being handed out at Freshers week in Chester University and LSE…

 

 

Putting aside the clear lack of understanding about their audience, these events include men/”guys” eating meat, playing FIFA and crazy haircuts.  Women/”ladies” get tea and… more tea.  I know that CUs have mainly had a rather problematic approach to gender theology (they’re usually either implicitly or explicitly complementarian) but strongly sex segregated events and groups do seem to be a new thing.

 

After seeing these flyers, some people began sharing their experiences of university CUs, with regards to gender, and a few other issues regarding sexuality and catholicism.  So…  I suggested it may be good for these stories to be shared!

 

If you, or anyone you know, has a story about a university CU that you would like to share, please email me 600-700 words sharing your story and letting me know what name you want it to be shared under and then I’ll get it up on my blog.  Email befreeuk (at) gmail (dot) com.

 

Just to be clear, I don’t want to be hating on CUs, I’m sure for a lot of people they have been an important part of their journey in faith.  Rarely is anything entirely bad and I know that my experience of faith communities is that God has used them and grown me through them, even if some (or even many) aspects of them have been difficult/painful/frustrating.  Sharing our stories enables others to makes sense of their story and gives us a way of shaping what is going on for us, both in the past, now and hopefully, in the future!

 

By sharing these stories, especially when there is enough distance from them to describe the longer term implications, perhaps we can encourage CUs to make different decisions and hopefully those who are still hurting or damaged can know that they are not alone!

 

Thanks in advance for getting involved!!!