4 Promising Opportunities in University Evangelism

We hope realism concerning the challenges of university evangelism doesn’t give the impression we think the prospects for university missions and evangelism are bleak. Not at all. The current climate, for all its challenges, also provides promising opportunities.

Here are four.

1. Need for Deep Relationships

First, there’s a deeper hunger for relationships than ever before. Students still intuitively want deeper friendships and relationships than their culture affords or encourages. Students are lonely and much more anxious than earlier generations. If they experience, not the thinness of late-modern consumer networking, but real friendship and love, they’ll be strongly attracted to it, despite the fact these relationships are harder for them to manage.

Yes, they’re afraid of commitment, can easily take offense, and can simply disappear without a word or notice if they get overwhelmed or anxious. But evangelists really motivated by love won’t be put off or daunted. A patient evangelist, who is not fragile and easily hurt, and who offers a tireless, listening ear, will gain a hearing. Student evangelism has always stressed the importance of relationship but, in our time, love will be as vital as argument for showing the plausibility of the gospel. Student workers will have no more important skill than the ability to maintain as many non-perfunctory, caring relationships as possible.

2. Christianity as Unique Moral Source

Second, there’s a genuine concern about the lack of moral sources in secularism. Long ago Nietzsche pointed out how deeply incoherent secular liberalism is. Most forms of modern secularism insist that the universe is purposeless, that there’s no supernatural, transcendent dimension, that we’re here only through a process of the strong eating the weak, and that there’s no afterlife or final judgment for our behavior. They then turn around and, in the same breath, insist even more loudly that every human being has inviolable dignity and rights, that we must care for the welfare of all people, and that we must alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, injustice, and suffering everywhere it exists.

Student evangelism has always stressed the importance of relationship but, in our time, love will be as important as argument for showing people the plausibility of the gospel.

These two beliefs—in materialism and humanistic moral values—are utterly contradictory, as Nietzsche and scores of other thinkers have pointed out. This could be the secular “Achilles heel.” Students won’t see this immediately, however. They’re so fully habituated to see these beliefs as compatible that they won’t immediately perceive the problem. Overzealous, triumphalistic evangelists who seem to be saying atheists can’t be moral people will only arouse students’ ire. It’s important to give full credit to moral, secular individuals, while also showing the lack of moral sources within the secular worldview to support the very ethical and justice commitments they have.

Done well, this is something that can trouble students in ways that lead to fruitful lines of inquiry. We’ve seen it many times. It’s not comfortable to be moralistic moral relativists, as so many students are. However, it’s much easier to convince them of the problem in private, personal dialogues than in public debates or impersonal mass communication. Those will almost inevitably draw the charge that “you think only Christians can be good.”

3. Disarming Demeanor

Third, there’s the powerful witness of graciousness. Communication in contemporary culture is increasingly shrill. Opinions are seldom expressed without being accompanied by denunciations, condemnation, and disdain for the contrary position. Ironically, these are the ugly marks of Pharisaism, the self-righteousness of religious pride. It’s the result of the profound spiritual anxiety that belongs to those trying to prove and save themselves, whether they’re formally religious or not.

By being courageous and plain-spoken, but gracious and kind at the same time, [you can become] a powerful, disarming, living embodiment of salvation by grace, not works.

Christian evangelists who exhibit a radically different spirit will stand out. Evangelists, of course, will be testifying to the existence of moral absolutes, but if they do it with obvious graciousness and humility, it will be deeply counterintuitive, yet attractive, for students. This humble boldness can only come from the knowledge that one is simul justus et peccator, both sinful yet infallibly loved. By being courageous and plain-spoken, but gracious and kind at the same time, the evangelist becomes a powerful, disarming, living embodiment of salvation by grace, not works.

4. Watertight Person

Finally, here’s the best news of all: Jesus himself is still a compelling figure for students. Exposing students to the person, life, and teachings of Jesus—either through direct Bible study and reading, or through the vivid exposition of biblical texts—continues to be the best “method” of evangelism.

In an era that is arguably more open to the imagination than to rational argument, nothing is more effective than plunging a student into Gospel narratives until Jesus begins to appear in his or her mind’s eye. In years past, as with the John Stott university missions of the 1950s, presenting the biblical Christ to students could be almost the whole of evangelism. We believe that today this must be accompanied by more apologetics than was necessary in those times. Nevertheless, showing students Jesus is still the meat of the ministry meal.

Like Everyone Else

Here’s one more thought for our encouragement. When Martyn Lloyd-Jones was criticized for preaching to undergraduates as if they were simple farmhands, the Doctor responded that Oxford students were “just ordinary common human clay and miserable sinners like everybody else,” and therefore their needs were “precisely the same as those of the agricultural laborer.” We doubt this bold retort convinced his critic. But we’re grateful that it has been preserved, because all of us who care about university mission and evangelism must never forget it.

It doesn’t matter how learned, sophisticated, jaded, postmodern, and skeptical contemporary students are. At bottom, their spiritual needs are the same as everyone else’s. Their sin and pride aren’t more impervious to the gospel than those of other classes and generations. Their hearts must be and can be opened up by God to the truth just like anyone else’s (Acts 16:14).

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Tim Keller and Michael Keller’s chapter, “University Missions and Evangelism Today,” in the new book Serving the Church, Reaching the World: Essays in Honour of Don Carson (IVP UK, 2017).

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