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How to run a Theology Network group
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For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaksMatt. 12:34
What is theology network?
So you want to get stuck in with a Theology Network group? Fantastic! Read on: Theology Network groups are springing up all over the country, where Christian students studying theology, Biblical studies and religious studies are coming together to get to know God better, love Jesus more, and bring God’s word to their course-mates.
So what is a Theology Network group all about? Well, Theology Network is part of UCCF: The Christian Unions, an interdenominational evangelical movement. UCCF staff help the Christian Unions in universities and colleges all across Great Britain – they’ve been doing this for a while! The CUs aim to give every student an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, through groups of Christian students living and speaking for Jesus at university.
The Arm of the CU
In the 1950s, UCCF set out to help Christian theology and religious studies students take the gospel to their departments where although Christ was studied, he was not Lord. Ever since, Theology Network groups1 have been helping theology and RS students live and speak for Jesus among their course-mates. So Theology Network groups are the arm of the Christian Union in the theology department, taking the mission of the CU to students who study Christ, but do not love him.
So at their heart, Theology Network groups are not discussion groups where anyone’s idea of God can be batted about for amusement and the exercise of intellectual muscles. No, Theology Network groups are mission teams where the foundational truths2 of Christianity are thought through…and loved! They are there to help you know the true and living God better, to love his self-sacrificing Son more, and to bring his message of peace with God through the cross to your peers.
Out of the overflow of the heart
So in order to help theology and religious studies students in this task, TN sets out to so fill them with love for the One who first loved them that they cannot but speak his wonderful message to their friends and course-mates. “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus said – so through teaching and discipleship Theology Network seeks to help develop groups of students whose hearts burst with confident love for Christ!
How does Theology Network do this?
So how does Theology Network do this? Well, theologynetwork.org is here for you to feed on – hundreds of articles and mp3s on Christian theology to help you know and love God better, and to help you commend the gospel to your friends more persuasively. But you are not alone! Theology Network staff and your CU Staff Worker are there to help you put a programme together, answer any questions you might have, and give advice on booking speakers to come and talk to your group, all the while helping you grow in your love for Christ!
What’s the aim?
Theology Network is about a revolution – the revolution of doing theology that transforms our minds to see the world as God sees it, and transforms our lives to be like Christ as we see him more clearly. We long to for theology and religious studies students to be confidently growing in their knowledge of God and their love for Christ, sharing this wonderful gospel with their friends, and preparing for a lifetime of Christ-exalting ministry.
How to run a Theology Network group
So that’s what a Theology Network group is – are you in?! Great, well here’s how to run one…
Rejoice in the gospel
Studying theology at university can be wonderfully mind expanding, but it can be dry and hard at times also. The most important thing to remember in running a Theology Network group, as with any form of Christian service, is that you must keep yourself in the love of God (Jude 1:21). “Remain in me, and I will remain in you”, Jesus said, “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). The power for the transformation of our own lives and the lives of others, lies not primarily in what we can do or think or argue for God, but in receiving and rejoicing in what he has done for us. More than that: in Christ himself. So Theology Network groups should be characterised by a joyful confidence in this great gospel that makes sinners, even us, children of God, united to him through Christ.3
Stand firm in the gospel
And yet, often it is theology and religious studies students who are least confident in their Christian faith. They spend every day studying the arena of faith and religion from all kinds of perspectives, and yet in many places, the only position that it is not acceptable to hold is historic evangelical faith! That’s why Theology Network invites students to come and stand firm with us in the core truths of the gospel as given in Scripture. We hold to UCCF’s doctrinal basis, which, in the tradition of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, affirms the basic truths of historic orthodox Christianity. To learn more about why we have a doctrinal basis, read Mike Reeve’s article. So we ask all leaders of Theology Network groups to sign the doctrinal basis, and ensure that the input the group receives is in accordance with these wonderful truths. Although it is true that you may find yourselves needing to “guard the good deposit” of the gospel (2 Tim. 1:14), this shouldn’t lead Theology Network groups to become the department’s ‘theology police’! But rather, as students think through and wrestle with these great truths, the groups will become more confident and joyful in the wonderful message that the DB summarises.
Unite in the gospel
It can be quite straightforward to get a Theology Network group started – just advertise it in Freshers’ week and announce it in the CU and the theology department. That may be enough to attract a dozen or more people to your first few meetings. But if that’s all you do, it probably won’t last long. People will come for their own reasons, and may want to take the group in different directions. That’s fine, but if you’re carrying the vision for Theology Network on your own, it will be very difficult to keep the group focused, and when you’re ready to hand over the leadership, there may be no-one appropriate to carry the vision forward. What you need are like-minded brothers and sisters who will stand with you, united in purpose and in the gospel.4 So you’ll need to get talking: talk about your ideas and the need for a group, talk about theology that creates love for God, read the Bible with these friends and see Jesus and his gospel on every page (cf. Luke 24). Time is limited, so pray and think carefully about whom you should invest time in sharing the vision with – they’ll likely be people who are already confident in faith and passionate about the gospel – these are the people who will be most able to understand the vision and run with it. It might be that you already have these ‘vision sharers’ around you – if so, go ahead and start advertising! But it’s just as likely that time is needed for you to share the vision with others, and more time for them to grasp it and own it, before you start organising a programme of events or meetings. So think people first, programmes second.
All this might sound like a big responsibility. But you are not alone! There are plenty of other Theology Network group leaders that you can connect with through facebook and UCCF events, and your CU staff worker and the Theology Network staff are here to help you every step of the way. And don't forget your CU - speak to your CU president about your ideas, and get the CU committee's support. It might be a good idea if you can go along to a CU committee meeting to explain what Theology Network is, and get the whole committee behind you - that will really help with spreading the word. Also, ask the president if you can get a slot at a CU main meeting to tell the rest of the CU about Theology Network and ask them to pray for you and the group. This will be a good opportunity to advertise the group to those who are doing single courses in your department, or just to students in the CU you didn't realise studied theology or RS.
So if starting a Theology Network group is on your heart, speak to your CU president, and then get in touch with us at Theology Network: we’d love to have a coffee and a chat and start dreaming with you!
Here are the kind of dreams we have for Theology Network groups: we’d love to see groups in every religion and theology department in the UK where Christian students, confident in their convictions, are making meaningful friendships with their non-Christian class-mates, spending time with them and boldly commending Jesus to them. And where Theology Network groups are, in their meetings and in evangelistic events, together prayerfully proclaiming the gospel of Jesus to their departments.
But here’s a danger: it’s so easy for Theology Network groups to become cosy clubs for Christians, where we feel comfortable because nobody challenges us in our beliefs and everyone agrees with us. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying spending time with other Christians (in fact, there’s a real problem if we don’t! cf. Jn 13:35), but we have to be careful that the teaching in the group doesn’t become a matter of training to win arguments, and that the evangelism we do doesn’t become something like throwing gospel bombs over battlements. Instead, the focus has to remain on Christ and his great good news. We come together to encourage each other in the gospel, and equip ourselves for persuasive and winsome witness to our friends – and then we go and hang out with them!
Every tutorial is an evangelistic event
Evangelistic events are good (we’ll talk about that more later), but it is essential that, from the beginning, you communicate to your group that every tutorial is an evangelistic event! As a theology or religious studies student, several times a week you meet with a group of people in your tutorials that are at least interested in ‘religion’, and for an hour you discuss with them about God, the Bible, other faiths etc. Other Christians would long for this kind of opportunity! The Apostle Paul encourages us: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:5-6). So encourage the people in your Theology Network group to be wise in the way they act in their tutorials – don’t arrive not having done the reading! Study the texts you are given for each tutorial, pray over it and ask God to give you clarity of mind so that you are able to input in a way that guides people to the truth. Often, this will require hard work! And it may be that you end up doing twice as much work for tutorials than other students! After reading the set text you may want to read an evangelical view on the subject “that you may know how to answer everyone.” So pray faithfully for your tutorial groups, work hard, speak gracious and salty words, and “make the most of every opportunity” to commend this great gospel of Jesus Christ to your course-mates.
So lead your Theology Network group in seeing every tutorial as an evangelistic event, and every hour afterwards as a follow-up course! In a similar way that God in Christ left heaven to dwell among us, to teach us the truth and draw us to himself, we also must be willing to leave the comfort of our Christian groups and ‘dwell among’ our non-Christian course-mates. So after the tutorial, go to the pub or for a coffee with them, get to know them as people, their beliefs and doubts, and make the most of every opportunity to share Jesus with them. Treat course-mates as people not projects, friends not targets: get to know them, join the department religious studies society or social action group, go to the canteen, pub or coffee shop with them; get to know them and share the love of Christ as His Spirit works in you.
Confident in the truth
Nobody is saying this is going to be easy! So many Christians choke with fear at the thought of evangelism to theology and religious studies students – they know so much! We’ve said already that the first thing to do in running a Theology Network group is to rejoice in the gospel. But many theology and RS students will find this difficult at times when they are dealing with big questions raised by their courses or friends. So you and those who are leading with you need to be getting yourselves equipped to help your group think through these questions. Direct them to theologynetwork.org where they’ll find plenty of articles and mp3s on why we believe the Bible is true, the cross is central, God is triune, and many more. There are also a number of introductory books that will help give Christian students confidence in their faith while studying theology, BS or RS. We’d recommend Keeping Your Balance: Approaching Theological and Religious Studies, The Trials of Theology: Becoming a Proven Worker in a Dangerous Business, and Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies. You may also find our sister apologetics website www.bethinking.org helpful.
So get reading, get listening, get your group doing the same, and get speakers in to train your group in godliness and sound doctrine. So you need a programme – that’s next.
Putting together a programme5
So let’s get practical. What should your Theology Network group look like? When should you meet and where? How should you organise your programme? Who should you get to speak? When should you do an evangelistic event and how?
A lot of this will depend on your context. But one thing is for sure: for a Theology Network group to work effectively there needs to be a well-organised, well-publicised programme for each term. The places where Theology Network groups are healthy and thriving are places where there are good programmes and students know the time, place, date and frequency of meetings as well as what will be happening when they do turn up. Of course, a programme doesn’t guarantee a good Theology Network group, but it will really help!
Now, please don’t be daunted by that because, having said the above, there are no hard and fast rules about what a programme should consist of, or how frequently you should meet – it’s up to you to work out what you think would be best on the basis of your needs.
Some groups meet weekly, some fortnightly, some monthly. Most groups do meet weekly, but some groups have early morning prayer and praise for their weekly meetings and each month or fortnight they arrange ‘Table Talks’ when a speaker is invited to talk and lead a discussion. It really is up to you! The key thing is gauging the levels of support and interest from other students – it would be better to have a full complement of people at three or four meetings a term than one or two at a weekly meeting. That might free up time and energy for you to meet with others to share and pass on the vision, and to read the Bible with younger students. Maybe later in the year, or the following year, you will be able to increase the frequency of meetings and events – remember, think people first, programmes second.
Another big factor here is trying to get a time and place that will suit everybody. This can be one of the biggest hassles, but don’t let that put you off – it’s a problem that every group has and in the end you won’t be able to please everybody.
Letting people know when and where is obviously very important – we have blank Theology Network posters which we can send to you for you to write on the details of when your particular group meets. Another very important idea is to try and get some printouts of the programme produced for the start of term so you can give everyone a copy. Try to get the email addresses of anyone who shows an interest, and set up a facebook group where you can let people know about each meeting, and share essential articles or mp3s from theologynetwork.org.
Once you have decided on the frequency of your meetings, the next step is working out what to put in each meeting. The following is a suggestion about what a programme should ideally aim to include:
is there enough time for praying and sharing?
will people feel comfortable sharing their struggles and doubts?
are there good opportunities for the group to get to know each other and form good friendships?
is there help with the issues being faced in the lecture room?
are there good speakers?
are there informal discussions within the group on relevant topics?
is it being communicated and reinforced that the group is part of the CU and evangelistic?
are people being encouraged to work hard to commend the gospel during tutorials and after lectures in the canteen?
what kind of evangelistic events would work for this group and this department?
Freshers week can be the most crucial week for a Theology Network group; it is very important to try to contact evangelical Theology and RS students to introduce them to the CU and Theology Network and what they have to offer. So get in touch with the CU committee or the CU Freshers team before the summer and get a Theology Network event listed on the CU’s Freshers week publicity material. It’s usually best to do this Freshers event on a Thursday – that will give you and others in your group time to meet Freshers at CU events and the Freshers Fair (volunteer for the CU Freshers stall!). Even before this, you may also be able to put a Theology Network flyer in the Freshers pack sent out by your theology department – you’ll need to ask the department secretary about this.
Plan to have your main introductory meeting over a buffet lunch or supper and have a clear and well presented explanation of what Theology Network is, why it matters, and how they can benefit from being involved. Make sure you invite theology and RS students in other years, and anyone already involved in your Theology Network group. It’s easier to get to know new students in a relaxed atmosphere, rather than a lecture-room setting and, of course, eating is always a good way of relaxing together and making friends. You can either do the speaking yourself if you feel confident about it, or one of the Theology Network staff would be delighted to come along and speak!
It is a good aim to have the first term’s programme ready for this event, so that Freshers can be given a copy of the programme. New students will then feel they are fitting into something that has already got off the ground and is worth joining. You might also find UCCF's advice for welcoming freshers to CUs helpful - follow this link to read it.
Ideas for meetings
Once Freshers Week is over, here are ten different suggestions for the content of a Theology Network programme, although it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to do all ten in one term’s programme! They’re just to give you some idea of the sort of things you could do, at whatever frequency you decide to meet. Some of the ideas you may want to use two or three times a term, others not at all.
Meeting 1 – Combining Academic Theology with Personal Devotions: either reflections from someone in 2nd and 3nd year or an outside speaker.
Meeting 2 – What I wish I’d known: personal reflections from a final year student on their degree course – things they struggled with, learnt, pitfalls to avoid and so on.
Meeting 3 – Theology Network staff visit: arrange a visit from the Theology Network/UCCF staff member who covers your area. They could do a talk, do a question and answer session, bring news of what’s happening in other Theology Network groups around the country, sell cheap books! They are there to help and will do just about anything you want them to … and you won’t have to pay their travel expenses!
Meeting 4 – Prayer and Sharing: what are the group’s current prayer needs? Start with a short exposition of Scripture to remind them of the gospel, and also remind them of the purpose of Theology Network groups. Then spend the rest of the time sharing and praying in small groups. Remember to encourage prayer for non-Christian friends.
Meeting 5 – Hot Potato: is there something from the lecture room that is proving particularly difficult for evangelical students? Often, but not always, the root issue is the authority of Scripture. Discuss it together, with maybe one person responsible for leading the discussion.
Meeting 6 – Bible Study: ask someone to be responsible for leading a Bible study that would have direct reference to theology students. You could study a book like 2 Timothy or study passages that have direct theological significance (e.g. Col. 1.15-20; Phil. 2.5-11). Aim to make these devotional and applied as well.
Meeting 7 – Outside Speaker: a visiting speaker could speak on a topic that you have given them (see Programme Speakers below), which could either be an area that they are experts in or which has been particularly troubling for some in your group. The speaker could also speak on the hot potato topic which you have discussed a few weeks earlier – that way you can let the speaker know in advance what the key issues are within the group. Follow this link for top tips on how to look after your speaker.
Meeting 8 – Evangelistic event: the thought of evangelism among theology students can be quite daunting and there are particular challenges. However, you could organise a guest event and invite an outside speaker to do an evangelistic talk on a topic that would interest theology students e.g. ‘A License to Kill? Christian faith and the Problem of Evil’ or ‘The Bible – Just Another Book?’ More on this below…
Meeting 9 – Article or Book Discussion: some groups have used a mid-term reading week to read a book together (you can usually get them dirt cheap second hand on amazon!) or an article from theologynetwork.org and discussed it (with food!) in a ‘Table Talk’ at the end of the week.
Some ideas for books:
The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation, Mike Reeves
Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God, Timothy Ward
Some ideas for articles:
First Things First and Last: The Authority of the Bible, Mark Meynell
The Freedom of the Christian, Martin Luther
Meeting 10 – Table Talk: listen to one of the Table Talks on theologynetwork.org, Don Carson on Studying Theology, for example, and discuss it afterwards (tell people to take notes – it makes sitting listening to a recording less awkward!).
We would love to see Theology Network groups to aim to put on one evangelistic event a term in their department. The primary format for CU evangelistic events is the classic lunchbar. These work really well in a central place in the university, with free food and good publicity – find out more about them on the UCCF website. You’ll be the best judge of whether this format is immediately transferable to the theology department. There’s more chance of being able to attract a crowd during the CU mission week (see below). Certainly, lunchbars, and any evangelistic event in your department, will be a whole lot more successful if the group have been making friends and engaging in discussion about the gospel with non-Christian course-mates for the past term (or year!). Also, you might be able to prepare the group for the event by spending the previous two weeks meetings looking into the topic that the speaker is going to be tackling. This way your group will be better placed to continue conversations with friends after the event. It may even be possible to have the speaker who’s to do the event come and do these sessions with your group.
There are other formats evangelistic events might take. You might organize a debate, a film night, a hot topic discussion or an evangelistic Bible study. But most of these will require that you and your group are in among your fellow students making genuine friendships and sharing your faith. Have a look at the evangelism section on the UCCF website for more ideas.
Linking with CU missions
CU Missions can be of great help to Theology Network. Find out from your CU president when the next mission is planned so that you can include something in your programme. You could either get the main missioner to speak at an event in the department or invite an outside speaker who would be willing to do an evangelistic talk. Your friends in the department might be more interested in coming along if it is part of a bigger week of events, and, if it’s advertised as part of the main CU mission week, then you may have students coming along from other parts of the university.
As a new leader of Theology Network group the thought of approaching outside speakers and organising topics for them to speak on can seem quite an intimidating task. In reality, there are many, many folks out there willing to help you out and a visiting speaker can be one of the highlights of a term’s programme and one of the biggest encouragements to students.
The speakers you approach should be willing to sign the DB and this is very important – just like a CU, the Theology Network group stands for the core truths of the gospel and we want to invite speakers who wholeheartedly affirm these truths and want to teach others more about them.
Booking speakers is an important aspect of planning a programme as it requires a good amount of forethought and organisation – giving a prospective speaker as much advance warning about the date, time and place, and very importantly, the topic you want them to speak on is essential. It is customary to meet the speaker’s travelling expenses and, if at all possible, give a small gift, although for most Theology Network groups doing either of these things can be a bit of a struggle. However, don’t let this put you off as there are ways around it – for instance, you can make a small charge to the rest of the group to cover their costs; you could approach the CU to help with the costs; and if all else fails explain the situation to your speaker and see if they are still willing to come! Follow this link for more advice on how to look after your speaker.
If you would like further advice on booking speakers or want to have the contact details of any near you, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us and we’ll do what we can to help. A number of groups have taken a term to go through the UCCF Doctrinal Basis together, usually alternating between invited speakers and student-led discussions. However, here is a list of possible topics and titles you could ask speakers to speak on, although it’s obviously not exhaustive and some may not be relevant to your situation:
- An Evangelical Approach to the study of Theology
- Combining Academic Theology with Personal Devotions
- The Truth, the whole Truth? What do we believe about the Bible?
- Christianity and other religions
- Good God, Bad World? Christian faith and the problem of evil
- The Bible – Just Another Book
- Gender Wars – modern theology and the Bible
- Approaches to hermeneutics
- Christian Faith and Religious Studies
- Presuppositions in Biblical studies
- Issues in Pentateuchal Critiscism
- Aspects of Pauline Theology:
- Is justification central to his theology?
- Was Paul a misogynist?
- Paul’s view of the law
- Did Paul’s theology develop?
- Paul’s theology of the Spirit
- John and the Synoptics – in conflict or harmony?
The reliability of the Gospels
- Old Testament Law and Christian Ethics
- Social Action and the gospel: how do they go together?
Jesus’s self-identification – what did he believe about himself and his mission?
- Theologians and the Church
- Postmodernism: friend or foe?
1. Theology Network began its life as the Theological Students Fellowship (TSF), and later changed its name to the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship (RTSF).
5. This section is based on a previous booklet published by RTSF and written by Dr. Daniel Strange and Dr. David Gibson.