A Missiology for the Academy (3): Three Practical Steps & A Conclusion

There are many ways to minimize God’s glory. One way is to reduce his Lordship to immaterial “spiritual” things like our devotional lives and personal ethics. Those things are very, very important, and in fact build the core muscles with which we do everything in life. But alongside of those things we must also recognize Christ’s Lordship over the material and “cultural” aspects of our lives. If we minimize the academy—thereby minimizing the arts, the sciences, the public square, business, sports, and any other realm represented by the academy—we rob ourselves of the ability to fully glorify the Lord.

Practical Steps

What are some practical steps we may take toward building a missiology for the academy? For starters, I’ll say that we should continue to do the one thing that evangelicals have not neglected: campus evangelism through student ministries. We should throw our support behind local church college ministries such as Generation Link and Campus Outreach, and behind campus ministries such as Campus Crusade or Baptist Campus Ministries. In addition to this aspect of campus ministry (on which evangelicals have focused), we must take at least three other practical steps (which we have often neglected):

First, our churches should preach and teach in such a way that they assign significance to the life of the mind, and to the realms of life represented by the academic disciplines. We must rid Christianity of the sub-Christian belief that our physical, material, and intellectual life doesn’t matter to God. It does matter, because Christ is Lord. Every station of life—whether it is biology, philosophy, literary criticism, or business marketing—matters to Christ and should be undertaken in a Christian manner. In taking these stations of life seriously, we are able to leverage them for Christ and his gospel. We proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives.

Second, our churches should encourage people with PhDs to take their credentials and their vocation overseas. There are hundreds of major universities in Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East who are eager to hire Americans who hold a PhD. Many of them are willing even to hire an evangelical whose PhD is from a seminary and whose expertise is in New Testament or Theology. Most American students who graduate with a PhD will never find a full-time teaching job here in the United States, but they might easily find one overseas in a country where their gospel influence would be significant.

Third, our churches should encourage some of their most gifted young people to take their PhDs from Ivy League schools or well-respected state universities, so that they might find themselves in tenure-track positions in those same types of institutions. The whole world is sending their best and brightest children to study in American universities. Those children are shaped by our American professors, and then are launched into influential positions here in the USA or elsewhere. Why not send them on their way after having been shaped by several robustly Christian professors who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to earn a position teaching in a major university?

Conclusion

Missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to shape it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[1] Missional Christians recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, and the Christian life is always lived, within a cultural context. Instead of chafing against this reality, we may participate in the joyful task of working out the gospel’s implications in those cultures, allowing the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation, and seeking to redirect them toward God’s design.

“We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”[2]God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to promote the gospel within our creational and cultural context rather than attempting to withdraw from it. As such, we find ourselves with the opportunity to promote the gospel within the university context rather than denigrating it, minimizing it, neglecting it, or withdrawing from it.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 176.

[2] Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.

 

 

  9Comments

  1. Steven Allen   •  

    Thanks for these very on-point observations. Might I add that, from my perspective, such a missiology for the academy can afford critical preparation for mission in the coming generation, which will be increasingly urban and more cosmopolitan domestically than we have ever experienced.

  2. robc   •  

    Excellent points. I agree with these directions. I have some thoughts and questions. Is academia in an academic sense confined to four walls, a professor and thousands of dollars? I agree our churches should rid themselves of the notions that academic disciplines are not important. However, do they need to send members to seminary to train them academicaly? Can a missiology of academia include institutions of learning outside the university? Such as the institutions of pastor and disciple and some self learning. I agree the depth and accountability would be missing. Yet, if done well, they should not be excluded from this conversation. Imagine the enrolees of seminary that had previously been pick out from among a flock to learn to pastor and the flock had invested what academic training in them they could. This is a missiology of academia that may be missing and the church could use some help in developing it. Even if the individual or the church can’t afford to send the student for higher education, at least we can say they have been invested in for the glory of God. My apologies if this as been touched on already or if I am off topic.

  3. John   •  

    Thanks for this series. As a bivocational pastor who works at a community college and teaches at the local university, I see a desperate need for Christian faculty.

    I also see a need for Southern Baptists in another field: the sciences. I attended an apologetics lecture by a prominent physicist a couple of years ago, but I had to go to the Catholic chapel on campus to hear a Catholic physicist discuss the nature between science and religion. As much as I enjoyed Dr. Barr’s lecture, the thought occurred to me: Why did I have to come to St. Francis to hear this? Why do we have so few Southern Baptists in the sciences? I have my theories, but I’ll save those for another discussion.

  4. Scott   •  

    Not to be missed in the encouraging professors to consider overseas teaching positions is the fact that universities around the world is how multicultural the student bodies are on campus’s. For example, the country in which I live and serve, is becoming an educational hub. Local private universities continue to open AND western universities are opening branch campuses here. Students from all over Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and East Asia are coming here to study. One of the most fruitful ministries the IMB has here is international student ministries. Reaching the unreached here while they are students and discipling/equipping them to return home is highly strategic. These students are the future business and political leaders in their home countries.

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Rob, thank you for your questions. Two thoughts: (1) This particular blog series is not about theological education and seminaries per se. It is more about the other disciplines such as the arts the sciences. (2) You are right that theological education happens primarily in homes and churches. But I think the right type of seminary can add something significant to the education of a minister-in-training.

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    John, you make a great point. I couldn’t agree more. And that is one of the main reasons I wrote this blog series. Thank you for joining the conversation, and for your contributions to your church, college, and university.

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Scott, yep. Want to reach the nations? One of the places to start is university campuses in the West.

  8. Scott   •  

    And the East

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