The University as a Cross-Cultural Mission

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The following post was written by Scott James and originally published on October 22, at Canon and Culture.

Christians within secular academic institutions have always had to navigate varying degrees of hostile waters as they seek to live out an active faith. While it is certainly a fertile harvest field, the pluralistic university environment can also pose a real hindrance to open Gospel proclamation. Add to that the recent trend of creedal Christian student groups losing campus privileges under the pretext of non-discrimination policies and it’s easy to see why many followers of Christ perceive an antagonistic climate within their universities.

Having spent the better part of my adult life on university campuses as either a student or faculty member, I can attest to the intimidating nature of this environment when it comes to religious expression. The new tolerance has shown itself to be decidedly intolerant if you intend to hold your beliefs tightly. Sadly, I cannot say that I have always responded to the challenge in faithful obedience. Fearing man more than God, the outward expression of my faith has at times been remarkably silent. Under the guise of professionalism and prudence, I convinced myself that a bold witness was simply not possible in the hallways and courtyards of my university. In doing so, I built an artificial barrier between sacred and secular, compartmentalizing my faith and ministry into a realm distinct from academic life.

But God has proven Himself faithful despite my reticence. As He has patiently worked in me, there is one thing in particular He has used to catalyze my understanding of what it means to be an authentic witness in an adversarial environment: global missions. I have had the privilege of being a small part of God’s work in countries that are closed to the Gospel, teaching and evangelizing in contexts with very real restrictions and very real consequences. And yet, through dependence on His Spirit and application of some basic cross-cultural strategies, I was able to boldly proclaim Christ and fuel the long-term disciple-making efforts in these countries. But despite seeing God’s astonishing work on these trips, when I returned home to my university appointment I would slide right back into a spirit of timidity. One day, the absurdity of the situation struck me—I was willing to fly to the other side of the world to proclaim the good news in an incredibly difficult context, yet unwilling to do it on my own campus! God used this fresh (and painfully obvious) conviction to show me that it was indeed possible to live out a winsome faith in a hard place.

So, if you are a Christ follower living, studying, or working within the increasingly difficult context of secular academic institutions, I offer 5 ways of applying the cross-cultural framework of global missions in the hope that it will help you as you seek to make disciples:

  1. View your campus as a mission field to which you have been sent

Mission fields are not limited to places abroad. The simple fact is that if you do not perceive yourself to be on mission at your university, it’s unlikely that you will consistently engage in disciple-making efforts there. Take ownership of your school’s community as a people group to which you have been sent to serve. In your daily interactions with classmates and colleagues, you have the privilege of being a part of a diverse community filled with lost people in need of a great Savior.

It’s important to realize that God has placed you where you are for a reason. No matter how gifted an evangelist your pastor may be, he will not normally have access to the classrooms, laboratories, departmental offices, and hospital wards in which you spend your days. God has given you this unique sphere of influence—use it for His glory. Pray for and engage your people group.

  1. Be sensitive to where God is already at work

I once attended a faculty orientation in which an administrator made a very practical request. She said, “Walk with your eyes up.” You see, our campus is sprawling and can be a difficult place for visitors to navigate, so her simple appeal was that we not walk around campus with earbuds in and noses buried in a book, oblivious to the needs of people around us. In essence, she asked us to serve our visitors by having a heightened awareness of opportunities to help people in need. As Christians we should also be attentive to what is going on around us.

Part of being an effective cross-cultural worker is simply having the spiritual sensitivity to see what God is doing and the willingness to set your agenda aside to join in with His work. Even if your environment is openly hostile to expressions of Christian belief, trust that God is at work under the surface and be on the lookout for where that might be. Much in the same way that missionaries pioneering gospel proclamation among unreached people groups will often find evidences of God already moving within the hearts of the people, we are likely to find that He is already stirring in unexpected ways within our university communities. Be alert to opportunities in which He is calling you to be a part of His work. As you go about your campus activities, walk with your eyes up, sensitive to where those opportunities might be.

  1. Live and work with excellence, as to the Lord

Even in settings where verbal proclamation of your faith is unwelcome or restricted, you are still able to express real and true things about God through the way you live.  In Titus 2:7-10, Paul says that we should “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” by the way we carry ourselves in society. He prescribes things such as good works, integrity, dignity, sound speech, submission to authority, and living with a general respect for those around us. In short, Paul is exhorting us to be good students and good employees. Strive to be excellent in everything you do because it commends the Gospel and because, ultimately, we are working as to the Lord (Colossians 3:22).

But what are we really trying to accomplish with our excellence? Are we seeking to earn the respect of others so that they’ll want to follow our God? Is this merely lifestyle evangelism? No, we strive for excellence in all of our interactions with others because it honors God and because we love people. In love, we build friendships with classmates and colleagues and it is within those relationships that we are truly able to serve them well (including the ultimate service—pointing them to Christ).

  1. Look for persons of peace

When you think about sharing your faith on campus your mind might immediately populate with the faces of antagonistic persons with whom religious talk is a non-starter. It’s that thought process that so often paralyzes our witness, and understandably so! Approaching a person like that can be quite daunting. But even in a setting where many people are known to be hostile to Christianity, not every person is equally so. There are always people who remain open to spiritual conversations, even if they are not followers of Christ. Identify those persons of peace within your campus circles and begin developing safe relationships with them.

One benefit of engaging persons of peace is that it lowers the threshold for having spiritual conversations. It’s an open door to Gospel conversations in a difficult place. Not only is it of direct benefit to the person with whom you are conversing, but it also creates a splash-over effect on those around you as they hear you openly discussing the things of God. It’s not that you are sneaking the Gospel to them, but it can lead to future conversations in which a person approaches you and says, “I heard you talking the other day and I was wondering about something you said.” In this way, people with whom I’ve had difficulty engaging in spiritual conversations have actually approached me on their own to discuss Scripture. When we cannot see a way in, sometimes God opens the door for us.

  1. Sew Gospel threads every chance you get

At some point, Gospel demonstration must lead to Gospel proclamation. Unfortunately, evangelism is often relegated to a presentation event, as if an uninterrupted 5-minute monologue is a normal thing in adult conversation. Viewing evangelism primarily in this way creates an unhelpful barrier in closed environments where proclaiming the Gospel is already difficult. But while the prospect of cornering a person to present a Gospel spiel may not seem feasible, we must also avoid choosing silence as the alternative. This is where the concept of sewing Gospel threads is particularly useful.

Rather than waiting for the perfect opportunity to uncork a presentation on someone, seek to build healthy relationships and allow the themes of the Gospel saturate your normal conversations. The basic concept of Gospel threads is that we are swimming so deeply in these glorious Biblical themes that they can’t help but overflow into our everyday language. If we are tuned in, we will see opportunities to weave Gospel threads all around us. Thinking through a classic framework such as God–Man–Christ–Response or Creation–Fall–Redemption–Consummation can also help you keep the big picture in mind (the whole tapestry, so to speak) as you underscore particular threads of the Gospel. Even in a highly secular environment, themes of creation, beauty, brokenness, yearning, salvation, and hope are pervasive. God has placed these refrains in each person’s heart. In our everyday conversations, we can resonate with these longings and, even better, we have the privilege of pointing people to their Author.

Now, in making this comparison to ministry in a closed country, I do not want to minimize in any way the persecution of our brothers and sisters living in those difficult places. My pluralistic university atmosphere is not on par with the threat of imprisonment and death that many believers face every day. My prayer, rather, is that as you seek to make disciples amid the very real obstacles in your setting it will fuel your awareness of their persecution all the more. Let the example of their sacrificial service compel you to pray for and support them, but also let it lead you to trust that God can work through the adversity you face at your university. He is faithful.

Scott James is as an Elder at The Church at Brook Hills, a Research Fellow with the ERLC Research Institute, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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