Reaching the Secular University

Recently I’ve been wondering how seriously evangelical churches have been over the past generation in reaching the secular universities in the United States and the Western world in general. My concern is less about the parachurch organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, but rather with evangelical churches, denominations and church leaders. I’m wondering if there has been a people blindness to the secular universities among some. Here are some questions that I would put to denominational leaders and pastors:

  • How many evangelical churches make the secular universities around them a regular focus in prayer?
  • How many evangelical churches seek to include secular universities as a focus in a church evangelistic program?
  • How many denominational leaders see cities, towns and regions with a secular university in their midst as a strategic place to plant new churches with a substantial emphasis on outreach to the university?
  • How many denominational leaders see the need for church redevelopment in small, ingrown churches which are in proximity to a secular university to include a substantial emphasis on outreach to the university?
  • How many evangelical churches, when seeking a location for new facilities, consider moving their facilities closer to a secular university as giving greater opportunities for ministry and outreach to the university community?
  • How many denominational leaders and pastors see a possibility for satellite churches and campuses adjacent to a secular university to provide outreach and ministry to the university?
  • How many evangelical churches treat the ‘college and career’ group as a simply another post high school youth group with pretty much the same format and curriculum?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university see that something is missing if their congregation is primarily families who have no relation to the university?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university have a staff member with a primary mission as leading outreach and ministry to the secular university?
  • How many pastors of evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university know the leaders of the parachurch ministries such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, encourage them to attend and to be involved in local churches on Sundays, develop relationships with them, seek to minister to them, include them in the church fellowship and treat them as brothers and sisters to show love and support in prayer?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university see outreach and ministry to the faculty and staff of the university as important as ministry to the students?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university seek to sponsor and promote special outreach events with speakers on apologetics and relational issues and quality Christian artists include the secular university in their focus and promotion?

I’m certain that there are many churches, pastors and leaders who can point to efforts that they have made on outreach to the people in the secular university who are their close neighbors. Nevertheless, I do wonder if many pastors, leaders and churches have a significant blind spot in their vision for ministry and outreach if they do not see the secular university which is nearby.

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The Legacy of Josh McDowell

On Saturday, May 1, 2010, Josh McDowell will be speaking at the church which I’ve been attending. My plans are to be in attendance with the others from this area, and it will be the sixth time that I’ve heard him in person. The last time was several years ago when he travelled to various churches warning about the faulty scholarship lying behind the story in The Da Vinci Code. The first four times were in the fall of 1975, when he came to Miami University, during the first semester of my freshman year.

I would have to say that he was the first speaker that I heard that gave both a strong intellectual and apologetic foundation to the Christian faith, and yet with a real joy and enthusiasm and evangelistic fervor. Though I had both Edwin Yamauchi and Ravi Zacharias for professors, Josh’s apologetic and evangelistic ministry gave me a genuine foundation in the reasonable foundation of faith in Christ. And though I’ve read through a number of other defenses of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ, I have never come across one which did not cover pretty much the same ground and reasons as Josh did. And his ministry communicated to me then, as a college freshman, not much over one year since my conversion, in a way which others may not have done so at the time. He communicated to us where we were, neither talking above our heads nor down to us as anything less than adults.

Josh also spoke several times on marriage, sex and dating to us. For those who later came to know his ministry through the Why Wait? campaign in the 1980s, he had already been ministering to us through the scripture and with the candor of his own life and experiences long before that campaign started. For those of us in the sexual pressure of the modern university, his guidance and candor definitely helped to bolster a desire to honor God in our lives in the areas of marriage, sex and dating during those years.

Though Josh’s ministry did lead to my purchasing his books, I found them to be the gateway to a number of other authors that I would find helpful over the years through his numerous quotations and references: C. S. Lewis, Kenneth Kitchen, Norman Geisler among others. In addition, the inclusion of the experiences of well known believers as corroboration of the life changing power of the gospel introduced me to the lives of believers such as Sadhu Sundar Singh.

In these days of high tech advertisement, the students who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ found a very low tech and very effective way of advertising. Every morning, they would go throughout the classrooms and lecture halls and write on a blackboard off to the side something like, “Josh is coming!” These announcements piqued interest yet were very unobtrusive. I can’t remember a single professor or student who either found them offensive or intrusive upon the learning process. And the campus was very well prepared for his arrival.

I don’t know how many came to Christ through his ministry during those days, but I do know that many believers also were strengthened in their faith and in their desires to live to glorify God in their dating lives during that time. I don’t think that our campus and my fellow believers are alone by any means in having been blessed by his ministry during those days.

I am NOT Charlotte Simmons

Recently I’ve read this book to get an idea of what Tom Wolfe’s experience was with modern campus life while researching this book. I regret that I cannot recommend it for general reading because of the pervasive profanity and sexually explicit scenes. Throughout the book, I noticed only two real differences that I could identify with my own experiences as a Christian at a secular university in the late 1970’s. First, there does seem to be a greater amount of profanity in regular conversation according to the narration, although profanity was very definitely a part of what some saw as their coming of age to adulthood. Second, the coed bathrooms were a different feature, although I’ve read that private bathrooms for each dorm room is part of new construction now. Maybe there were more complaints by parents and alumni than had been publicized.

I’ve heard some evangelical commentators speak of the main character, Charlotte Simmons, as an example of someone whose Christian background was overturned by her experiences at a secular university. Frankly, I did not see her as an example of someone with a background of more than church association — what I’ve termed evangelical churchianity. Her Christian commitment seemed pretty shallow, as more of a church association with her family, and as a social and family influence that had produced real little depth of character.

Here are some ways in which she demonstrated her rootlessness. A series of small compromises led to her eventual moral downfall, and in the conclusion, she did not seem to come to any kind of real repentance and spiritual renewal. These then point out some ways which I and others of my age group maintained our faith and grew in Christ even amidst a secular university. It should be noted that these criticisms are, after all, only criticisms of a fictional character, and not those of any real person. But I am hopeful that real people might find some guidance through the following points.

  • Neglect of Christian Disciplines

    Not once is Charlotte Simmons shown as cracking open her Bible to read for her own spiritual growth or to seek guidance on any issue. Not once is she shown as spending any time in private prayer or praise. It does not seem that she had developed any kind of personal devotional life prior to or during her coming to the secular university.

    By contrast, the time in the secular university was where I and many others found that having a personal time in the Bible and prayer was utterly necessary to maintain the depth and reality of one’s faith in and walk with Christ. The challenges that we faced spiritually, intellectually and socially, drove us to the Word and to our knees before God. This kept my own contact with the Lord Jesus real, and my heart warm and fervent for him amidst influences which could easily cause the heart to grow cold.

  • Isolation from Christian Fellowship

    Charlotte Simmons neither had nor sought any relationship with an evangelical church or any other evangelical student fellowships or any other evangelical students while she was on campus. This is one of the key factors for, if not spiritual growth, at least spiritual survival. Separation from fellow believers, the ministry of preaching and teaching in the church, and regular praise, prayer and fellowship cannot but make the heart grow cold and backslidden.

    By contrast, I count contact with a strong and caring pastor and fellow students who shared a like precious faith in Christ as one of the factors that helped me to stand firm and grow in Christ through these key years in the secular university. For many years afterward I have maintained contact with these fellow believers. The roots of Christian commitment can reach deeper and become stronger if there is continuing contact with other believers.

  • Lack of Scriptural Standards for Dating and Courtship

    Charlotte Simmons fell into exploitative dating relationships. Apparently she had no standards for dating, courtship and eventual marriage beyond wanting to be the recipient of the attraction of a prominent fellow student. The result was over a series of small compromises she eventually became just another sexual conquest. Her virginity upon coming to the university does not appear to have come from a scriptural conviction that sex outside of marriage was against the will of God for her life. Nor does she appear to have had any scriptural guidance or standards to her dating life as far as her choices on whom she would date and why.

    This is the one area in which many believers on campus can fall into coldness, backsliding and transgression of scripture. Yet for many of us, the challenges here again called us to search the scriptures, and find God’s standards. We learned not to pursue romantic relationships with those who did not share our faith in Christ or who were lukewarm and shallow. We stayed by the scriptural standards of sex within marriage even when we were mocked and ridiculed and our manhood and womanhood were being challenged.

  • Lack of Scriptural Guidance for Spiritual and Intellectual Exploration and Growth

    Charlotte Simmons fell into the view of a secular university as a place for experimentation with anything and everything, where anything goes. She did not let the Lordship of Christ guide her explorations and continue to use scripture as her guide for life. Therefore she ended up exploring into areas which scripture’s exhortations are to ‘flee.’

    In contrast, I and many others found that our time of Christ centered exploration in the secular university became a time of tremendous spiritual growth and discovery. For myself, I discovered the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Francis Schaeffer, among others. It was a time where the exploration under the boundaries of scripture meant a great deepening of convictions and strengthening of spiritual disciplines that formed the foundation of a growing Christian life. I came to know several strong Christians with deep spiritual lives and intellectual convictions among the faculty and staff at the university. Certainly there were many professors who did not share my evangelical convictions, and some that did actively try to ridicule and overturn the evangelical convictions of their students, but this testing of our convictions became rather a strengthening in the end.

  • Lack of Family Preparation for Challenges

    The parents of Charlotte Simmons did not appear to have any sort of awareness of the challenges that their gifted daughter would face. No one else in her life appeared to do anything to help prepare her for the spiritual, intellectual and social challenges that she would face at the secular university. While many Christian parents and churches do neglect their students, many more do try to do what they can to prepare them for the challenges that they face.

In writing these things, I am fully aware that the book I Am Charlotte Simmons is a work of fiction. My hope and prayer is that for the vast majority of those students from an evangelical background who attend secular universities that it remains so, and the experiences depicted are a warning but not a reality to them.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life.
Put away perversity from your mouth;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead,
fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet
and take only ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.

Proverbs 4:23-27.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.