The Challenge of University Evangelism

A biography of John Stott shows that the large numbers of conversions British university missionaries saw in the 1940s and 1950s diminished markedly in the 1960s and thereafter. After World War II, the secularism that largely had been confined to European intellectual elites for 200 years finally broke out into the population at large, especially among the college-educated. Its components included the sexual revolution, as well as various liberation movements that stressed the autonomy of the individual. The Marxist critique of social power captured the imaginations of many students.

Religion in general and Christianity in particular were implicated by their involvement in historic, unjust social structures. Religion was seen to be an obstruction to human progress and scientific discovery. In more recent decades, especially in Europe and Britain, religion has appeared more and more to be simply irrelevant to leading a good life and making a better world. Nonetheless, Christian student movements continued to grow and even flourish in various parts of the Western world up to the end of the 20th century.

Some believe, however, that the university may be entering a new era of opposition to student ministry, and particularly to evangelism. When weighing what seems to be the beginning of a shift or trend, it’s always hard to know whether it’ll be localized and temporary or sweeping and lasting. However, particularly in elite American universities, students are becoming highly sensitive, traumatized, and outraged by opposing viewpoints.

Vindictive Protectiveness

There has begun a strong movement to control speech on campus and to punish any statements perceived to be bigoted or discriminatory. A discriminatory statement is now defined as that which offends the listener and which is perceived to violate his or her dignity and identity. So, in contrast to former times, students no longer demand only respectful, civil disagreement, but full recognition and affirmation. Any failure to provide an environment that keeps dignity “safe” must be punished, both by college administrators and also social media. Don Carson did some reconnaissance on this trend in his 2013 book The Intolerance of Tolerance, but it has accentuated almost exponentially even in the last three years into what is now called “vindictive protectiveness.”

This new climate finds the absolute claims of Christianity, no matter how carefully and warmly expressed, to be a violation of the dignity and identities of others. In a New York Times article titled “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” Judith Shulevitz addresses the belief that colleges should keep students safe from distressing viewpoints and therefore from psychological angst. She argues that “while keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else.” Shielded from unfamiliar ideas, students will never learn the discipline of seeing the world through the eyes of someone with a sharply different viewpoint. They’ll be unable to process new arguments and ideas because their intellectual climate has been so tightly controlled.

The reasons for this change are complex. One is the flowering of an approach to personal identity that no longer looks outward to norms, commitments, and communities, but that’s wholly inward and individualistic. Charles Taylor, in The Malaise of Modernity, explains that this kind of identity is fragile, needs constant affirmation, and, ironically, requires more recognition and support from popular opinion. In the past, all conceptions of identity involved connecting to some outside truth bigger than yourself. The contemporary view, however, is that we need no “truth” other than our own. Religion of any kind is seen as destructive to the unimpeded inward journey necessary to become “true to one’s self.”

In the 1940s, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones could be nonchalantly dismissed as being simply unenlightened. Today, the gospel message is more likely to be taken seriously as a threat to freedom and the full expression of personal identity.

Moralistic Moral Relativists

Another root of the new “weaponized tolerance” is the convoluted moral relativism of our culture, which is an entailment of this individualistic identity. Morality is now seen to have no grounding except in one’s personal feelings. There’s no moral source outside the self to which two people could have recourse in order to come to some agreement on an ethical issue.

Sociologist Christian Smith shows how this makes young American adults essentially schizophrenic. On the one hand, they are often moralistic, with vehement convictions that some practices are very, very wrong. But almost in the same breath they’ll say that there are no moral absolutes, that everyone must determine what is right or wrong for themselves. 

This profound inarticulacy makes it hard for many students to conceive of anything like a “search for truth” that once marked the university. It also means students can (1) denounce a speaker for his beliefs and views, but (2) then say to their own critics, “No one has the right to tell anyone what is wrong for them,” and after doing both (3) see absolutely no inconsistency in this at all. To call this a conversation-stopper is putting it mildly. How does a Christian evangelist get traction, not just with moral relativists, but with moralistic moral relativists? 

Effect of Technology

Other roots of the current climate lie in trends in popular culture and technology, as detailed by Jonathan Haidt and some others. Perhaps the most obvious and pervasive influence is the internet. Today’s undergraduate students are the first to have spent their entire adolescence on social media, and there has been much analysis about its effects on them. Studies have shown that social media make relationships controllable but also (and therefore) much “thinner” and more superficial.

Also, by comparison, social media make face-to-face encounters feel much more threatening. For example—how do you just “block” a critic who is physically standing in front of you? You can’t. That’s why aggrieved parties have their interchanges online, where they can simply hit the “off” button to end it. Before hitting the “off” button, however, internet communication makes possible the kind of cutting insults and dehumanizing declarations that few feel able to make to someone’s face.

In sum, critics show that the internet has led to a kind of illiteracy with regard to conflict resolution and committed relationships in general. Even more foreign to the internet user, for all the reasons just cited, is the very idea of forgiveness. Jonathan Haidt and others show how, for all these reasons, the internet has contributed to tolerant-looking intolerance, the breakdown of dialogue on campus, and the growing outrage and hostility toward religion and toward classical understandings of a virtuous human life.


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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