Let me explain. For my generation, missions has become conflated with acts of service. Take, for instance, the following descriptions found on prominent missions websites.
"Focuses vary by location," notes one organization, "but most are centered on continuing the building of campus ministries, bringing the gospel to unreached villages, or serving a community by comforting the sick and the lonely."
Another explains, "Some days will be packed full with construction, VBS, building relationships with orphans, or praying for the sick at a hospital."
Yet another offers students the opportunity of "teaching life skills, doing medical work, youth ministry, construction, [and] Bible camps" for orphans overseas.
But none of these tasks is specific to collegians. Most anyone could help lead a VBS or hand out literature on the street. In other words, student missions appeal to the lowest common denominator. It doesn't need to be this way. I believe academia is positioned to open doors for the gospel in ways no other discipline can.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a study that warned of increasing government restrictions and social hostilities to religious activities. Missionaries in the 10/40 window have told me how difficult it is becoming to stay in-country without good reason or an evident source of income. Government officials tended to look warily on such foreigners, they added.
Students, however, have almost unfettered access to these same locations through the network of higher education. With an array of study abroad programs, cultural exchanges, and international conferences, college students have ample opportunity to initiate conversations about faith in closed countries without arousing suspicion.
I have experienced this firsthand through a program called International Ventures, which enables students to engage in purposeful conversation in academic settings overseas. After we finished a conference with a local university last year, we traveled together to visit a nearby historic region. Among the various sites we visited were several ancient churches. When we stepped inside one, a few of the local students wondered about it. "So this is a church," they said. "Tell us all about it." The questions initiated a discussion about Christianity and the importance of the faith to members on our team.
Our experience was typical of the program. Friends of mine who took a similar trip shared the gospel with Communist officials. Once again, this opportunity resulted from teaching foreign students about Western values and beliefs at the university level.
Such efforts reveal the potential in treating academia as vocational ministry. Rather than staying stateside, graduates might elect to study abroad for an advanced degree. Professors might opt to teach a semester overseas or attend international conferences related to their discipline. Like Christians doing business as mission or medical missions, Christians in academia—whether professors, staff, or students—can combine their faith and work in intentional cross-cultural engagement.
Academic missions bolster the effectiveness of ministry overseas for two key reasons. For one, interaction typically occurs within the same age bracket, which provides ample opportunity to build deeper relationships. Not only do students connect over classes and concepts, but they also share similar experiences, aspirations, and frustrations.
Moreover, academia traditionally serves as the clearinghouse for ideas. Questions are welcome, debate encouraged, truth sought. Imagine how many natural opportunities already exist for conversations about faith. None can find more fertile ground for the gospel.
There is no doubt that we could continue to employ traditional methods as well. We could find ways to share the gospel by assisting long-term missionaries or helping fledgling church plants. We could likewise do traditional campus ministry, where groups of students roam the university in search of a willing conversant. I do not deny that God uses these efforts to bring himself glory. But we could also leverage our skills with an academic-based approach.
This strategy for academia in turn helps my generation develop a more robust theology of work. Academic life need not be divorced from missions. Rather, by bringing them together, students better embody sociologist James Davison Hunter's idea of "faithful presence" in society. With many doors closing for missionaries abroad, it is increasingly important for students and ministries to think beyond the conventional.
In a changing missions landscape, the church must fully examine our available resources and opportunities. College students represent one such underutilized asset. If we expand our efforts there, who knows where else the gospel might go?