Christian Unions: Evangelism fails to help the most vulnerable students

Grace Murray 11 November 2015

“I know we’re all here because we love Jesus”, announced the leader of my college Christian Union, around the third day of Freshers’ Week. Except we weren’t. Many, including myself, were driven to the breakfast by the promise of free food, and anxiety about finding friends in an intimidating new environment. Active from before even the arrival of most freshers, the CU targeted early arrivals with gatherings before official freshers events started. They targeted lazy, or at least hungry, Sunday breakfasters when hall was closed. On a deeper level, the CU exploited the existential turmoil many face when they arrive at Cambridge. Official sounding “college share” events, framed as neutral discussions, were on closer scrutiny held in the head of the Christian Union’s room, while the local churches advertise furiously for fresher custom.

Arguably the CU’s evangelism is an expression of religious freedom by people who genuinely believe they are doing good. Certainly, the Church can provide a support network in a highly stressful environment, and we can all appreciate free food after leaving Cindies. But these kindnesses veil a serious, judgemental undercurrent to Cambridge Christianity. Standing outside nightclubs conveys not only an obvious, condescending moral judgement on what is an entirely normal facet of modern youth culture, it helps stoke inner turmoil in people trying to reconcile their faith with their real life. It’s extraordinary that while even the Pope, a former nightclub bouncer, accepts “who am I to judge?”, some student evangelists feel they can do just that.

But the motives that drive the Christian Union to prey on those who failed to pull at clubs can often lead to far nastier, far more damaging campaigns. Alongside posters advertising the story of a local person’s journey “from Hinduism to Christ” as if that implies some kind of neo-imperialist improvement in their moral character, the college CU has in recent years targeted their leaflets at openly LGBT people’s pidges, in an act of stunning victimisation by those who believe we should “love thy neighbour”.

Of course, most Cambridge Christians would never dream of this sort of behaviour, least of all the college chaplains, on the whole extremely friendly and open minded people. Yet the chaplain’s role itself presents serious problems. Like many, my college’s pastoral support hinges exclusively on the chaplain and the nurse. This means, short of illness, problems are dealt with by someone, however charming, who has dedicated their life to an organisation with the distinct power to alienate. As a gay man, I would feel highly uncomfortable discussing my private life with someone aligned to an institution still resisting my right to fully integrate into society. A woman might feel uncomfortable discussing her decisions with someone representing an institution at best ambiguous regarding, and at worst hostile to, her right to control her body.

Perhaps this discomfort is unfounded, but it exists, and the colleges must cater for their diverse student body, providing totally secular pastoral support. Simultaneously the wider Christian evangelical movement needs to seriously reconsider some of its more strident campaigning, especially targeting freshers. First term is tough, so don’t add guilt and moral judgement onto the mountain of stress we’re already dealing with. Only by exhibiting more compassion and empathy can Cambridge Christianity consider itself a force for good, even under its own, Biblical definition of the term.