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University ministry, self-help and life skills

At TAFES finalists’ day, graduating students have a chance to ready themselves for their futures, with sessions like ‘Finding balance after campus life’ and ‘Career and work skills development’. The session I went to was ‘Discovering and utilising your potential’, and the bulk of it was devoted to specific life skills: ‘be proactive’, ‘begin with the end in mind’, ‘put first things first’, and so on.

Maybe you recognise those phrases; they’re the seven habits of highly effective people according to Stephen Covey in one of the most famous self-help books.

Christians using self-help? It’s hardly new. Plenty of Australian churches utilise this kind of stuff in their preaching, but in my circles, we tend to be suspicious. Why use worldly wisdom when you’ve got the Bible in front of you? Isn’t it selling out to the spirit of the age? But in Tanzania at least, this kind of thing can be truly spiritual.

For one thing, the Bible’s wisdom tradition is not opposed to worldly wisdom. Instead, it sees fit to ‘baptise’ the world’s learning as gifts from the sovereign, loving Creator. A classic example is the Instruction of Amenemope, a collection of ancient Egyptian life advice which has been incorporated into the Book of Proverbs and rebranded under the name of Israel’s God.

This means wisdom from the modern-day business world is not off-limits, and in light of the wisdom tradition, there is no such thing as ‘secular’ wisdom, because all life skills are part of living well in God’s world.

At the same time, it’s clear that this ‘baptism’ cannot leave things as-is. Instead it sets wisdom in theological context, reoriented completely around God. As a very simple example, we might point out that Stephen Covey’s seven habits have only a token acknowledgement of spirituality (habit #7, ‘sharpen the saw’), and we might instead seek to give each of the habits its own spiritual touchstone.

There was some attempt at this in finalists’ day with the addition of an eighth habit, ‘from effectiveness to greatness’, defining greatness in terms of humility (with examples like Moses and Jesus). But I asked myself: where is the foundational emphasis on identity in Christ? And where is the theological framing for the seven habits as a whole? Is this ‘baptism’ feeding dualistic thinking, the division of ‘faith’ and ‘life’ into separate compartments?

But then I wondered: what is the significance of the fact that it is the Christians in particular who are talking about these things in Tanzania?

I thought back to my own experience in Australia, where Christians often restrict their topics to ‘spiritual’ matters like Bible exposition and preaching. Where have I learned life skills myself? Come to think of it, I haven’t often had the chance. There were some workshops on study skills during year 9, but I can’t think of much else until more recent years. And I’ve definitely been through the relational wringer as someone with a high capacity for work, yet who ‘needs space’ to feel creative and productive, yet who is by nature pretty rubbish with deadlines and efficiency.

Life skills seems to be an increasingly popular topic for people like me coming into their thirties — especially for us ‘professionally religious’ people who are blessed/cursed with highly flexible or seasonal timetables. A recent equivalent to Stephen Covey’s work, Getting Things Done, has become enormously popular in ministry circles, and you might also have heard of the ‘baptised’ version, What’s Best Next: how the gospel transforms the way you get things done.

This is an area where conversation between Tanzania and Australia could be very fruitful, and it’s an area in which Australian evangelicals stand to learn from their Tanzanian brothers and sisters. What people like me have only woken up to in recent years is part of the fabric of life for my counterparts here.

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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