5 Principles for University Evangelism

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In our current environment, with its distinct challenges and opportunities, how should we go about the task of university evangelism? Is there anything practical we can say?

Yes, in fact. Here are five principles for university evangelism today.

1. More than ever, students will be won to faith through personal, long-term friendships and dialogues.

We’re afraid readers will think this statement is too obvious and won’t stop to consider its practical implications. In one sense this has always been true. But we’ve made the case here that personal, relationship-embedded evangelism is more important than ever. British universities have so far escaped the multiplication of campus groups that is the norm in the United States, which means the Christian Union (CU) can be just that: a union of Christians from all sorts of churches who form a genuine mission community.

For the average secular student, meeting real Christians in halls of residence, teaching groups, or sports teams who become long-term friends is a game changer. Accompanying a Christian friend to a lunchtime dialogue put on by the CU—where a hot topic is skillfully and sympathetically addressed and questions can be asked over a simple, shared lunch—has become incredibly popular. It’s the quality of the friendship and the warmth of the atmosphere that creates a “safe space” in which to discuss a dangerous topic.

Students are more likely to ignore mass communication campaigns but will come to events if invited by Christian friends. More than a hundred CU missions were run in British universities last year, and the majority of the 34,000 students who attended a mission event (such as a lunch bar) were brought and followed up by their Christian friends. The best way to tease out their real questions, and to get them to trust the messenger and be willing to investigate Christianity, will be to build a meaningful, personal relationship with them.

This isn’t to say public evangelistic events with a speaker can’t be fruitful, because clearly they have been, especially in the UK context of creative, student-run CU events weeks. But more and more, they’ll be fruitful only if the non-Christians present aren’t first- or second-time guests, but students who’ve been in process, in one-on-one evangelistic friendships.

2. More than ever, Christian evangelists will have to be as much ‘students of culture’ as traditional missionaries have been.

Again, the danger is this statement will seem too obvious. Cultural trends and generational shifts are occurring at a pace never before seen. Young adults in their mid-20s confess they can barely relate to the attitudes and beliefs of incoming freshmen, only seven years their junior. Exhibit A is the massive, seemingly overnight shift in public attitudes toward sexuality, which have left so many evangelicals in shock. But that’s only the most famous example.

Many of the main barriers and objections students have to Christianity will change very quickly going forward. This means Christian evangelists—even if relatively recent graduates of the same university where they minister—must assume the stance of “missionaries” and learn a new language and culture to communicate the gospel. Of course, like every missionary who ever lived, the campus evangelist must adapt without compromising the gospel message. That’s the challenge for Christian evangelists at universities in the West.

3. The two main ways to show Jesus to the students are still the meat of student ministry.

In a culture that puts more emphasis on imagination than rationality, it’s more important than ever to take students into the stories about Jesus in the Gospels, until they begin to “see” Jesus. The two ways to do this are still (1) reading the Bible with them one-on-one or in groups, and (2) expounding the biblical texts vividly to them.

We mention “vividly” because we believe contemporary students especially require Bible expositors to bring scriptural truths home to hearts, not just to the intellect. While we must always forge fresh versions of these two fundamental approaches, they’re always the fundamental means to do evangelism on college campuses.Lightstock

In recent years the emergence of Uncover (a set of evangelistic Bible studies set in a “cool” pocket-sized version of Luke or John’s Gospel) has meant that many of the students attending events have already been reading a Gospel with a Christian friend and are ready to hear and respond to public proclamation. The widespread uptake of one-to-one or small-group seeker studies has also created a generation of graduates confident in using the Bible in evangelism because they’ve seen Jesus walk off the pages of Scripture into the lives of fellow students.

4. Apologetics are important, but they should go beyond the older evidentialist forms and must be woven naturally into every aspect of student ministry.

Apologetics must play a greater role today. Evangelism proper is the answer to the “what” question: What is the gospel? Apologetics is the answer to the “why” question: Why should I believe that? Look at John Stott’s classic Basic Christianity, based on his mission talks at British universities in the early 1950s. Those talks are masterful, but they rightly assumed in their audience at least a rudimentary belief in the existence of God, of sin, and of moral norms. Stott does a remarkable job of clearly laying out the answer to the “what” question. But today many if not most student listeners will ask, “Why should I believe what the Bible says?” That leads naturally to apologetics regarding the reliability of the Gospels, and perhaps also to the evidence for the resurrection (to which, to be fair, Stott gives some attention).

But those older kinds of “evidentialist” apologetics, while fine and helpful, are insufficient. Everything Stott says in those talks militates today not just against a scientific mindset that wants empirical proof, but also against deeply held cultural narratives, such as how identity is formed and the nature of freedom. Basic Christianity will just seem nonsensical to a student if you don’t make those contemporary narratives visible, challenge them, and show how Christianity gives a better account of how human life can be understood and lived.

This too can be rightly called apologetics, since it removes barriers to belief and clears the way for students to consider the claims of Jesus. Students need to see how Christianity compares to secularism and other religions in its resources for meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, justice, and hope—things no human being can live without. Making such comparisons, and critiquing the dominant cultural narratives surrounding each of these concepts, is the work of an apologist.

Student workers should all be skilled in doing this work. They shouldn’t only rely on apologetics experts to come in, speak, and “mow down” objections to Christianity. Many of today’s students will be helped by those kinds of apologetics presentations, but more or most will simply hit the “off” button. It’s in relationships that this generation will be persuaded.

5. Evangelistic events should be marked by variety, vulnerability and often, also, by a light touch.

Despite all our caveats, we believe it’s important to have public evangelistic events on campus. One reason is students need models of how to do Christian persuasion, and skillful speakers provide them. Also, as we said previously, the traditional university mission with an evangelistic speaker can still be effective if the relational groundwork has been done. But remember that this relational groundwork is ten-times more important for the success of university missions than it was a generation ago.

However, there’s more to do than simply the relational and traditional. Here are three other examples of public outreach events.

At Columbia University, I (Tim) and a Columbia University professor—well-respected atheist Philip Kitcher—were invited to address the question “Do you have to be a good person to have a good life?” After each of us gave opening remarks, a member of the Columbia faculty (who was not an evangelical) chaired a discussion between us and then fielded questions for us from the audience.

A different kind of event was one Michael did every semester with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) City Campus Ministry. It was called “Stump the Chump.” Christian students invited skeptical friends to come and try to “stump” the campus minister (Michael). They were to ask him any question or pose any objection to Christianity and have him try to answer it. Then the entire room would vote on whether they believed he had been stumped or had answered pretty well. (You could vote “answered well” even if you didn’t agree with the answer.) Sometimes prizes were given to a student who the room thought had stumped Michael. He put himself on the hot seat like this at least once a semester. It was disarming both by being lighthearted and also by making the Christian speaker somewhat vulnerable. It made dialogue and discussion of spiritual issues much less threatening. Yet it was also a way for Michael to present the claims of Christ clearly to many non-believing students.

A final example was organized around John Patitucci, who at the time was a professor of music at City College in New York City. John is a believer and a famous jazz bass player. We held an evening called “The Spiritual Music of John Coltrane.” Coltrane is the late, legendary jazz saxophonist who claimed to have a religious experience of God’s love that changed his approach to music. We advertised it by email to the jazz music community of New York City and especially to music students at the college. That night John Patitucci and a jazz group performed a 45-minute concert of Coltrane music. Then Tim interviewed John about his faith and how his experience of God’s saving grace had changed his attitude toward his music and everything else in his life. Tim was given time to provide brief summaries of the gospel. Finally, we took questions from the audience. We estimate that 300 or 400 non-Christian jazz musicians were present that night.

What did these events have in common? One was vulnerability. In each case the gospel communicator was not standing “six feet above contradiction.” None was a simple monologue. There were ways for people to “talk back.” A second quality was a note of humor or joy. Even the Columbia forum was fortunately not all somber and formal because my conversation partner was friendly and relaxed and willing to laugh. Finally, these venues were creative and innovative. Non-Christian students found them intriguing and unlike the more stilted and self-important Christian presentations they might’ve been exposed to in the past.

There’s no greater mission field than the university today. Student evangelism has never been more challenged—or more needed.


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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