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September Book Review

Peter Grier, 18/09/17

Peter Grier reviews “Serving the Church, Reaching the World”, edited by Richard Cunningham (Director of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship [UCCF]) and with contributions from Timothy Keller, Jim Packer, and John Piper.

September Book Review

This feast of writing was always going to be a treat, given the contributors involved, and it didn’t disappoint. It is testimony to the work of the Christian Union movement on these islands that editor Richard Cunningham (director of UCCF [CUI’s sister movement in Great Britain]) draws from a full spectrum of Christian voices and experiences and, although being a festschrift for Don Carson, also functions equally well as a marking post of the foundations for such a student ministry as IFES runs on these islands.

This is suited to an astute CU leader, willing to challenge themselves and shape their CU in light of what they’re reading. CUs that put these principles into practice will thrive and grow. Forget reading another 5 church growth books – this book will give you a solid foundation that will last, and that anyone willing to think, can live by!

With that in mind, “Preaching that changes the Church” (David Jackman, ex–Cornhill President) sets forward why we should expect God’s word to be the thing that will bring change when preached, how to make sure it’s Scripture speaking and not us twisting it, and how to speak to the whole person (not just the brain or the emotions etc). Is your CU one which has preaching at the heart of its meetings? Much as CU isn’t church, you’ll still see valuable change happening through God’s word being unpacked well. David helpfully explains what that should look like.

JI Packer then builds on this to call the preacher to also be a theologian, if he is going to make any impact at all. The word theology often rubs us up the wrong way as students, but ultimately we’re all theologians, the only question is whether what we know about God is true! Packer persuades us warmly that by studying theology, it’ll be like a tennis player receiving coaching, where it will increase their repertoire of strokes, and their ability to pull them off. Studying theology will increase our perceptiveness, our fruitfulness and will enable us to speak into the lives of others in a more searching way. Do our CUs learn from people who are well trained in theology and do we encourage each other in reading, and delving deeper in it together?

One of the highlights of the book, was a quite technical but sublime chapter from the late Mike Ovey (Oakhill Theological Seminary, London). Following on from Carson, he summarises why we don’t need to fear the post–modern claim that we can’t truly know anything, and that we have to stay agnostics on all things. True knowledge can be had, though not exhaustively. In a world that brands our CUs as arrogant to claim to know “The Truth” in Jesus, someone who understands this chapter, will be well guarded to never have to feel shameful in any attack on faith in the academic field.

Part 2 of the book looks at that truth. Charismatic Stefan Gustavsson of the Evangelical Alliance in Sweden takes to the floor against the common campus notion that we’re not to think, and we should just “let go and let God” (my words, not his). Kirsten Birkett adds that if this is true, that we should do apologetics, which according to her, is no cold academic argument, but a warm, embracing, embodied thing, that is not to be dichotomised with a simple “preaching Christ and Him crucified”. Wise words for my heart, that sometimes gets infuriated with the nuances of campus life and just wants to explode Christian–ese at people!

John Stevens (head of FIEC) then makes the case that such a robust view of truth, reason and apologetic is actually something that would united people, as he demonstrates in his church denomination and through the CUs doctrinal basis. He gets us thinking about what we should draw hard and fast boundaries on and what we should chill out on.

Finally in part 2, in case you still weren’t convinced by this whole apologetics stuff, William Edgar, a professor of apologetics, does a spectacular demonstration of it on paper, with a deeply resonating answer to “the silence of God” through modern culture and media.

The Climax of his book unsurprisingly is reached with Richard’s own explanation of how this looks in Scripture: to sit with our audience where they are, to persuade them away from it by walking with them, and then to invite them to believe the better way. He suggests and demonstrates that when we do this, we can engage with culture and don’t have to run from it.

Finally Tim Keller brings all this home to us by reminding us of the unprecedented opportunity that the university is, unlike any other. They are proof in the eating of the pudding these foundations that they really do work. And John Piper does what John Piper always does best: challenges us that in dying to self, suffering and sacrifice are the way ahead, but the prize of the nations knowing Christ is a joy, and the satisfaction will be in seeing Christ be glorified in the end. Truly, as the CU movement has shown from the start (when students sold their possessions in a bid to reach the nations and set up other CUs), our vision is too small if we think only of our small nation or our little campus as the aim. He wants all peoples to know Him!

I am so glad that such a book has been written that will be a challenge to us all, individual, CU, and church alike, as long as we remember the context in to which it has been written.