Meet Nathan. He went to Swansea University last year to study Maths. During his first week, he trialled for the University football team, along with nearly 200 other freshers. At the end of the trial, Nathan was ranked in the top five of those trialling. He’s an extremely good footballer, on the books of Cardiff City, so when the first team was announced, there was no surprise that he’d been chosen in the University first XI.

In the run up to the first game, he was told he first needed to be initiated into the squad, which involved him getting blind drunk along with the rest of the lads. Now, Nathan is a Christian and so he refused. And so he was dropped. And when the team lists were announced for the first game of the season, he had been put in the University seventh team.

Following Jesus is costly. How do you stand for Jesus in that kind of situation?

“Come on Nathan! No one’s ever heard of a fresher making the University squad! Here’s a chance for you to play for the firsts! What’s one wild night out with the boys between friends?”

Welcome to University life. Welcome to a world of opportunities and excitement and essay crises and assignments and cheap beer and free condoms and 24–7 internet access and a box of delights to distract you and tempt you away from Jesus.

So how are you going to play it?

Here’s some advice from a recent student guide in the music magazine, the New Musical Express (NME):

In your first few months as a fresher, you’ll be besieged by inanely grinning & glassy eyed nutters peddling all manner of made up, superstitious, stone-age nonsense under the guise of religion. Look out for the warning signs: Virginity, smugness, acoustic guitars, woollen jumpers, clear complexions and vacuous grins. Don’t even make eye contact with this scum. You’ll think you can handle it at first, but these people are experts at luring in, sane rational people & brain-washing them into believing. No matter how depressed or lonely you become, DO NOT SUCCUMB. Remember that it is better to be the most horrible, friendless, despised atheist on the planet than it is to be the world’s most popular Christian.

Welcome to University! And how are you going to play it?

Three temptations

Very often it’s tempting to do one of three things:

1) The temptation to lie low

Overwhelmed by work, fearful of people’s opposition to Christianity, not really sure how to answer your mates’ questions. You decide you are just going to bury your head in work and only if you absolutely have to, will you head off-piste from the daily cycle of bed-to-lecture-to-library-to-Aldi-to-kitchen-to-bed. You decide to keep yourself to yourself. Lie low.

2) The temptation to blend in

Often this begins with good intent: “I want to be salt and light! I don’t want to hide my light under a bushel (whatever a bushel is)”. But (to be honest) you sense the pull of everything university has to offer you”. You’re sociable, you enjoy a good time. “Christians can be cool”, you think. “If I show my mates they can be just as they are, only Christian, they’ll see that it wouldn’t be that hard or that big a deal for them to follow Jesus.”

But before you know it, you’re being carried home after a night of ‘friendship evangelism’. And there it is: the temptation to blend in.

3) The temptation to group off

You want to avoid compromise and so you struggle to know what to say to your non-Christian mates, but equally you want to be sociable and get to know new people.

And the perfect answer is in front of you: The Christian Union (CU)! And at the start that’s a great thing. Here there will be Christians who will encourage you and help you to follow Jesus, people who won’t lead to into temptation, or at least won’t want to.

But before you know it, your whole university experience yo-yos between lectures, assignments and your Christian mates. And this bubble begins to form around you: it’s safe, it’s holy, and it is encouraging. It’s not of the world, but it’s not in the world, either.

Evangelism takes the form of making occasional raids into the outside world, perhaps to buy some washing powder (if you’re lucky) and to stuff a flyer into someone’s hand in the queue, before then rushing back into the safety of your Christian friends: “Phew – I made it.”

It’s a massive temptation, when there are lots of nice friendly Christian around the place. But I’m convinced the Lord has something better for you, from 1 Peter 3.

The background is the apostle Peter is writing to a group of Christians scattered throughout Asia, experiencing unbelievable pressure. We don’t know exactly what Peter’s readers were facing, but he uses language like: ‘the fiery ordeal you’re enduring’ (1 Peter 4:12); ‘evil’, ‘insult’, ‘suffer’ and ‘threat’ (1 Peter 3:9–13).

So it doesn’t a great deal of imagination to know that they too had huge incentive to either lie low, blend in or group off. Yet Peter has a better way for them, and for us: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” (1 Peter 3:13).

if Jesus is the King and He's in my corner, then everything else is cut down to size in comparison

Well Peter, unfortunately that would be writers of that NME article, and many other people who think we’re crazy for siding with Jesus. But in fact Peter got there first: “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened” (1 Peter 3:14). Don’t waver, says Peter, don’t regret siding with Jesus, “But in your hearts revere [set apart] Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:15).

Later on, in verses 18–22, Peter explains why Jesus is Lord. Having died, and risen again, Jesus’s victory was proclaimed in mighty triumph, and He’s now seated at the control room of the universe at His Father’s right hand.

But back in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter is saying, “Lord, be number one for me. Lord Jesus, take and have control. Be so huge on my horizon, in my dreams and my outlook, that however big and scary it is talking to a mate about Jesus, however difficult it is maintaining my stand when the world thinks I’m mad, however challenging it is facing up to the Students’ Union over their discrimination policy – however challenging all those things might seem and however tiny and weak I might feel, if Jesus is Lord, if He’s the King and He’s in my corner, then everything else is cut down to size in comparison”.

The key verse is 1 Peter 3:15:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

It’s a well-known verse, often quoted, and full of great truth. We’re going to see four implications from this one verse that flow from a rock solid commitment to the Lordship of Jesus, to prizing King Jesus as the most valuable, most glorious, most magnificent treasure that you have. Peter wants to challenge the temptation to lie low or blend in or group off.

Confidence: Christians are to be people of hope

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

If you’re a Christian, says Peter, then it is a ‘given’ that you will have hope. Now we need to be clear about what hope does and does not mean.

It does not mean going through life with our fingers crossed behind our backs, like we “hope” we packed our toothbrush where probably the odds are in our favour, or we “hope” the world famous Forum microclimate will give us constant sunshine, where probably the odds are pretty even.

No, Bible hope is Christian certainty about a glorious future.

Look back at 1 Peter 1:3

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Bible hope is grounded on the historical reality of the resurrection. Since Jesus rose to new life in glory, so He guarantees that His people will rise to new life in glory too. Jesus leads the way, and so there’s no sense of uncertainty affecting our hope and our future. We’ve been promised an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade.

A number of years ago a wife played a wicked April Fools’ Day trick on her husband. She videoed the Saturday night National Lottery programme. Then the next week she bought a lottery ticket, filled in the previous week’s winning numbers, and gave it to her husband.

I think you might know where this is going!

So at the time of the current week’s programme she sat him down in front of the television and, without him realising, played the previous week’s video. He thought he was watching a live draw.

He ticked the numbers off. His heart pounding, he started screaming “Yes, yes, yes!” She let him believe it for 15 minutes. And then she said “April Fool” and showed him the video. Apparently he was later quoted as saying: “It was not very funny at the time”.

“Living in hope” means we’ve been assured a future inheritance that no “April fool” prank can take away; no moth or rust can destroy; no thief can break in and steal.

However weak and poor and marginalised and laughed at we may feel in this life, we have been promised the glory of being with our risen King Jesus forever. Our names have been permanent-markered into a roll-over jackpot of a spiritual inheritance that would make our eyes water if we really got our heads round it now.

But why does Peter pick on “hope”? Ever wondered that? Why doesn’t he say “the reason for the faith that you have” or “the love that you have”? Why hope? I think it’s because if you have hope you’ll stand out a mile. Anne Frank, the Holocaust victim whose diary has sold 30 million copies, famously wrote: “where there’s hope, there’s life”.

if you have
hope, you'll be unmissable

And if you have hope – confident, unshakable, unflappable Christian certainty about a glorious future – then when the heat is on, whether that’s the temptation to compromise, or a dissertation that gives you migraines, or the stress of relationships, or the pressure of spinning 100 CU plates, or the fear of rejection by a non-Christiancourse mate, rather than flip out or freak out, rather than lie low or blend in or group off, you’ll be unmissable.

This brings us to our second implication of prizing Jesus as Lord.

Intrigue: People of hope will be asked why

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Again, Peter takes it as read that Christians are public Christians. In other words, we need to be close enough to unbelievers for them to see our hope. If they don’t see anything, then perhaps it’s not there after all.

We’re not to lie low, or group off. We are to be fully engaged in university life. But we’re to be unmistakably distinct as salt and light – so distinct that they just can’t miss us. We’re to flavour every conversation and shine God’s light in the darkest places on campus. We’re to be embedded in networks of relationships and friendships with both believers and unbelievers. This makes our hope unmissable!

A few months ago we had a church mission and in some respects, it went very well. There was great publicity. The events were high quality. The gospel was clearly explained. The follow-up was in place.

And yet (if I’m honest) we didn’t see a ton of fruit. One older church friend said to me: “Dave, it was a great mission, but I just don’t have many non-Christian friends. I didn’t really know who to invite”. It was very honest of him.

If you’re part of an active Christian Union (CU), it’s possible to be in:

  • prayer meetings on one day
  • small group another day
  • main CU meeting a third day
  • church Bible study a fourth day
  • Sunday services a fifth day

All before you’ve even been to your first lecture!

We can be so frenetically busy organising events such as city-wide missions, and carol services and weekends away, which are all good things in their own way and yet all the while we are slowly drifting away from the world around us.

CU events are servants, not masters. The moment we find them taking us away from front line missional relationships – we need to ask some serious questions about our use of time.

if Jesus is your ultimate treasure, then you’ll always be communicating the gospel – through your unspoken actions

Author Jim Packer helpfully defined evangelism as: “Christians being Christian in the world”. We’ll come on to the words we say in a moment, but from the outset it is important to remember that following Jesus doesn’t mean having to be weird or that our existence is only validated when we’ve crowbarred the gospel into every conversation. Rather, it means that if Jesus is your ultimate treasure and if you’ve set him apart as LORD, and he’s transforming your life, then you’ll always be communicating the gospel – non-verbally, through your unspoken actions. That might mean:

  • Not flaring up when someone cuts in on you
  • Not holding a grudge when you are repeatedly let down
  • Not needing to have the last word in a discussion
  • Being a trustworthy friend, and not a leaky bucket
  • Counting Jesus as your Lord and therefore not worrying about what other people think of you.

If you lived that way all the time in full view of your non-Christian mates, then I assure you that will not go unnoticed.

Now don’t mishear me: I’m not saying that if you do those things, then the floodgates will open and you’ll be swamped with gospel conversations. I guess what I’m saying is what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:12:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.

Don’t lie low, group off or blend in – live your life among the pagans! And don’t be surprised if and when the questions or comments start coming.

This brings us to our third point. If Christians are to be people of hope and people of hope will be asked “why?” then we should not be surprised by what comes next.

Engagement: When asked why we should know what to say

Let’s look again at our key verse:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

1 Peter 3:15 is the famous text for apologetics. The word translated “give an answer” – is apologia, which is nothing to do with apologising, but instead means: “to make a defence like a lawyer.”

Now some of us hear the word “apologetics” and freak out a little, thinking we’ve got to do a degree in philosophy or know loads of clever arguments before we can talk to our mates. And very often, we think: “That’s not for me, I’ll just shut up and head back to the Xbox.”

Well Peter would say to us: “Friends, being prepared to give an answer is actually something for us all”. So when someone asks you something more personal like: “Why doesn’t exam stress wipe you out like the rest of us?” or “Why don’t you sleep with your girlfriend?” – You will want to have thought in advance about what you’re going to say.

Or when they ask you something more theoretical like: “How can an Italian still believe in a God after that dreadful earthquake last week? Or: Hasn’t science disproved God? – You will want to have done some work ahead of time, so you’ll know where you start.

Don’t get caught napping – check out UCCF’s fantastic website – bethinking.org. And if you don’t know – don’t fudge it – say you don’t know, and promise to get back to them on that one. And phone your UCCF staff worker or your pastor and get an answer.

don’t just say what you believe, say why you believe it

You see, God is calling us not only to present to people the truth about Jesus, he’s urging us to persuade people with the truth about Jesus.

I’m a massive believer in “showing your working” – don’t just say what you believe, say why you believe it. We’re not simply to run up to people – ram a funnel in their ear and pour in the gospel like the BFG with his dream jars, hoping people will suddenly wake up believe something they don’t get and don’t want.

Peter is talking about engaging people in a way that treats them as humans, made in God’s image, that listens to their questions and concerns, that hears their passions and longings and heartaches and that connects them to the life-giving hope of Jesus Christ.

Note how expansive Peter is. He doesn’t say sometimes be prepared for somepeople who ask you and occasionally be prepared. No – we are always to be prepared, for everyone who asks us. We are supposed to be always praying for opportunities, always listening for openings, always convinced that the gospel is just a hair’s breadth away from a serious conversation.

  • Christians are to be people of hope
  • People of hope will be asked why
  • When asked why we should know what to say (that’s engagement)

Love: How we answer shows that we care

But do it with gentleness and respect.

Have you ever thought about printing the words: “Jesus loves you” on the side of a nuclear missile and launching it into the university campus? Probably not! But if you did, what message do you think people are going to hear other than a loud bang?

One of the reasons we find evangelism so scary is because we’re afraid of offending people.

There’s you over there: minding your own business, a good friend perhaps, no clue about Jesus, not particularly interested in Christian things.

There’s me over here: longing for an opportunity to talk to you about someone you don’t know, don’t care about, but who wants you to base your life on Him. And that’s scary because no one likes telling their mates hard things and we’re afraid that talking about Jesus will mean burning our bridges.

Now talking about Jesus does involve using some challenging words. It’s not easy to talk about His exclusivity, or the call to take up our cross and die. But friends, can I urge you – let the offence stay with the gospel. Don’t be offensive in how you share it. Do it with gentleness and respect.

let the offence stay with the gospel. Don’t be offensive in how you share it

We’re not interested in winning an argument or rattling through our pre-fab gospel presentations at the first opening or bullying people into coming to a talk or using manipulative tactics such as “free food” (written in massive letters) “with talk” (in a minute eight-point font).

Gospel witness is a long game, so we don’t need to be in a panicked rush worrying because we’ve not invited anyone to “Events Week” and “it starts tomorrow!” Consider the fact that we’ve got three years around our mates. Time is on your side: Time to be patient and gracious and respectful.

We’re commending Jesus our Lord – the one who came full of truth and grace, who didn’t soft peddle talking about sin, but did so with a heart of love and compassion and genuineness.

Rosaria Butterfield was Professor of English at a Syracuse University in the United States. Rosaria was intellectual, fiercely anti-Christian, and in a lesbian relationship for many years.

And then she met some Christians: Christians who loved her and welcomed her into their lives.

This is a quote from her:

Even though obviously these Christians and I were very different, they seemed to know that I wasn’t just a blank slate that I had values and opinions too, and they talked with me in a way that didn’t make me feel erased.

She describes a dinner party at the house of local church pastor, Ken Smith & his wife:

During our meal, they did not share the gospel with me. After our meal, they did not invite me to church. Because of these glaring omissions to the Christian script as I had come to know it, when the evening ended and Pastor Ken said he wanted to stay in touch, I knew that it was truly safe to accept his open hand.

And so she did. And Ken Smith and his wife continued to minister to Rosaria. To listen to her questions, to give her reasons for the hope they had and to do so with compassion.

She describes the experience:

Had a pastor named Ken Smith not shared the gospel with me for years and years, over and over again, not in some used-car-salesman way, but in an organic, spontaneous and compassionate way, those questions might still be lodged in the crevices of my mind and I might never have met the most unlikely of friends, Jesus Christ himself.

And Rosaria Butterfield put her faith in Jesus. She describes her conversion in a stunning book: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.

Today Rosaria speaks at churches around the world about the transforming grace of Jesus: Grace she first saw in the transparent hope of an unassuming pastor and his wife, who were so full of Jesus, so struck by His Lordship, that despite fears and threats and pressure were prepared to give an answer to everyone who asked them, to give the reason for the hope they had and to do this with gentleness and respect.

How might God use you this term if you did the same?

© 2016 Dave Gobbett

This resource is based on a teaching session from Forum, UCCF's national training conference for CU leaders.