How can an assistant professor (junior faculty) witness to university students in an American secular-university context? Can he or she use office hours to pose probing questions to visiting students who, in turn, might ask about the hope that he or she has? Can the professor put Bible verses on the wall or office desk?
Opposition to Christianity on college campuses has been on the rise throughout the past century, but it seemed to kick into overdrive over the past couple decades as universities placed greater restrictions on speech in an attempt to shield students from perceived offensive or bigoted speech. Further, a 2014 court ruling appears to have set a precedent forbidding faculty at public institutions from speaking openly about their faith while teaching.
At the same time, the university setting is a unique mission field. It provides tremendous opportunity for evangelism and discipleship, which has the potential of making a global impact. Universities and colleges by nature attract people from all nations, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, supplying an opportunity to reach people we wouldn’t otherwise. Then, in four or five years, these students graduate and move throughout the country and world as they continue their education or begin their careers.
So, given the limitations that Christian faculty members face, what is the most effective way for us to witness to our students?
As an assistant professor at Baylor University, I have the privilege of sharing my testimony at the beginning of each semester. I always conclude with an open invitation for students to come to my office if they’d like to know more about how to have a relationship with God or if they’d like to talk with me about their faith. Through nine semesters, I have yet to have a single student take me up on my offer.
In contrast, while in graduate school at the University of Georgia I participated in a campus ministry known as The Great Exchange, which aids local churches and campus ministries in training their students in how to engage their peers in spiritual conversations. Through this ministry, I was able to have many great conversations about the gospel with students (and faculty members) from many different faiths and nationalities.
In addition, I have served alongside my wife in two exceptional college ministries. In each, several students were actively involved over the course of several years (including some students I had in class), which allowed for meaningful and lasting mentorship/discipleship relationships to develop.
Seek Relationships Through Campus Ministries
Building meaningful relationships with the students we teach can be difficult for several reasons. First, the majority of our students will only be enrolled in one or two of our courses, limiting our contact with them.
Second, as their professor, we are in a professional relationship with them in which we hold the position of authority. This (quite understandably) makes it difficult for our students to feel comfortable opening up to us about their personal lives, either out of fear of judgment or out of desire to act professionally. Finally, there are the aforementioned institutional barriers that limit how much we can talk to our students about our faith.
So in addition to making every effort (within the parameters provided by our employers) to proclaim the gospel to our students, I recommend, to any faculty member looking to influence their campus for Christ, to volunteer with an existing campus ministry.
Volunteering with an existing ministry offers several advantages:
- It provides an opportunity to use our spiritual gifts alongside fellow believers who are actively engaged in an ongoing and strategic mission to reach students.
- The students are usually engaged in these ministries over the course of several years, creating a genuine opportunity for evangelism and discipleship.
- As a volunteer with a campus ministry, particularly if you are acting as a faculty adviser, you may have a greater justification for talking about your faith with your students, since this is a form of service to the university.
- The university cannot place any restrictions on you outside of the classroom.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge how important—for better or for worse—our daily interactions with our students and colleagues can be for our testimony. For most of us, achieving tenure will hinge on our research productivity. As a result, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to devote most of our time and energy to research, viewing teaching and collegiality as mere distractions.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that being awarded tenure or building our reputation as a researcher within our field is not God’s primary purpose for us in our work. Instead, as is true in all things, our primary purpose is to glorify him (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17; 3:22–24; 1 Pet. 4:11). Therefore, let us make every effort to honor God in each aspect of our work, striving to be ambassadors of Christ to our students and colleagues by demonstrating kindness, patience, humility, and a willingness to serve in all our interactions.