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.

 

 

A Missiology for the Academy (2): Five Reasons the Universities Matter

1. The Universal Nature of Christ’s Lordship

Jesus Christ is Lord over the academy, just as he is Lord over everything else, and this Lordship is best understood in relation to three great truths. First, God created us as the type of beings who teach and learn. He endowed us with the spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical capacities necessary for education. Repeatedly Scripture emphasizes teaching and learning (e.g., Deut. 6:4-6; Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:11-12).

Second, academic activity is marked by a great antithesis. After the fall, humans have lived in the midst of a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. These invisible realities, represented by certain principalities and powers, are manifested in visible, tangible cultural realities such as relativism in ethics, Darwinism in biology, or Marxism in economics. This great struggle between light and darkness cuts across the entire creation and every human culture. Christians should resist this comprehensive assault on our shared cultural life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but also from the lectern.

Third, academic activity takes place within ordered realms which have their own creational design. Human cultures can be divided into a variety of realms—such as art, science, business, politics, and education—which have their own creational design and God-given integrity. These realms correspond to the various disciplines within the university. Because we live in a fallen world comprised of sinners, these academic disciplines (and their corresponding cultural counterparts) will be to some extent corrupted and directed toward wrong ends. In each academic discipline, we should ask three questions: What is God’s creational design for this realm? In what ways has this realm been corrupted and misdirected toward wrong ends? How can I bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward God’s creational design in Christ? To the extent we engage our academic disciplines with those questions in mind, we glorify God and provide our neighbors a preview of God’s future rule over a renewed and restored creation.

In other words, academic activity should take place under the absolute Lordship of Christ. Christ is the creator and King over all things, and one day will restore all things. He is not merely the Lord over my quiet times; he is Lord over my work, my leisure, and my civil life. He is not merely sovereign over local church gatherings; he is the Lord over artistic, scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and scholarly endeavors. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. Missional Christians not only proclaim the gospel with words, they promote it in their academic and cultural lives.

2. The Powerful Influence of the University

In the United States and in many other countries, the university serves as the environment in which many or most of the country’s leaders are shaped. These future scientists, filmmakers, Supreme Court justices, journalists, and billionaire entrepreneurs often receive their most formative “worldview moments” as they are students on a college campus. In many countries, including our own, these 18-year-olds are taught by faculty members who seek consciously, carefully, and consistently to undermine everything that Christians hold true and dear.

3. The Readily Receptive Mind-Set of University Students

The third point overlaps with the second. Universities are full of students in their late teens and early twenties who are waiting to be instructed and inspired. Very likely, the path they choose in college is the path they’ll remain upon for the rest of their lives. Osama bin Laden embraced jihadism largely because he found himself mesmerized by Professor Abdullah Azzam when bin Laden was a young student at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. Friedrich Nietzsche forsook Christ during studies at the University of Bonn. Hundreds of thousands of students continue to reject Christianity, or never encounter the Christian faith, precisely because the professors who capture their imaginations and who shape their worldviews are unbelievers.

4. The Breadth of Christ’s Atonement

Evangelicals sometimes embrace a sort of reverse snobbery directed towards the cultural elite, especially against professors and students in Ivy League schools and top-tier major state institutions. Because we’re not included in their “club,” we say in effect “to hell with ‘em.” But Christ died on behalf of the cultural elite, just as he died for the middle and lower classes. In fact, when we take an anti-elitist mentality—and Baptists often have adopted this mentality—we’re being quintessentially American, but not quintessentially Christian.

5. The Danger of Split-Level Christianity

At the university, young impressionable students study under opinionated and brilliant professors. These professors shape their students’ worldviews in ways the students don’t even notice. Even if these students are believers, or if they later become believers, they may unconsciously hold a non-Christian worldview while at the same time professing Christ as Savior. When talking about “spiritual” matters, they will sound like Christians, but when talking about anything “cultural” they’ll likely sound like their professors. This sort of split-level Christianity is exactly what we must avoid. If Christ is Lord, then he is Lord over everything; he is not just Lord over our prayer time and church attendance, but also our university studies and future vocations.

A Missiology for the Academy (1): The University as an Unreached People Group

Located in the heart of modern Germany is a small town called Fritzlar, which was called Geismar during the middle ages. In the middle of Fritzlar stands an ancient stone cathedral, and at the front of the cathedral is a statue of a monk standing upon a tree stump, wielding a large axe. The statue depicts a Christian missionary monk Boniface, and the stump depicts the remains of the “Oak of Thor” which served as the spiritual power-center of the pagan religion of that day.

When Boniface arrived in Geismar in the early 8th century, he found that most Germans were pagans, and the few German Christians retained their involvement in spirit worship and magical arts even after they professed Christianity. He was convinced that if he were to “fell the tree of paganism” he would need to cut out its roots.

One day he traveled to the Oak of Thor with his axe in tow, surrounded by a crowd of pagans who mocked him, cursed him, and prayed for the pagan gods to intervene and destroy him as he sought to fell the tree. As the crowd looked on in horror, Boniface began chopping down the tree. According to some commentators, a strong wind helped Boniface finish the job. After he felled the oak, many local pagans converted to Christ. The word spread and soon thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of Germans turned to Christ.

As I’ve reflected on this story over the years, I’ve come to see an analogy between Boniface’s task in his day and our task in the 21st century. Just as Boniface “took the battle to the front lines” by striking a blow to the Oak of Thor, so we must take the battle to the front lines by striking blows to the most deeply ingrained idols in our current contexts.

Boniface served as a missionary to an unreached people group—the Hessian Germans—and had the nerve to chop down their central idol as a way of showing that Christ is Lord. In like manner, we have an opportunity to reach an unreached people group—the Academy—and chop down many of the idols that flourish in its environment.[1] The University is a teeming ecosystem of idolatry, providing a lush environment in which students may cultivate an inordinate love for sex, money, power, success, and the approval of man. These types of idols exist in a co-dependent relationship and foster the “isms” that dishonor God and disable human flourishing—isms such as consumerism, relativism, eroticism, naturalism, and scientism.

During the 20th century, the evangelical world at large abdicated its responsibility to the Academy. Although we started some fine Christian institutions, we mostly ignored the need to shape the professorate and the curriculum at major state universities and private colleges. As a result, we have little hand in shaping what is perhaps the most influential sector of American society and of many global societies. While state universities and influential private universities are busy shaping the minds and hearts of young people across the globe, evangelicals have been largely absent.

If evangelicals wish to be faithful to our Lord in the 21st century, we must find ways to proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives in university contexts, both here in the West and around the globe. Why do the universities matter for the Christian mission? Over the course of the next two installments, I will argue that they should matter because of (1) the universality of Christ’s Lordship; (2) the powerful influence of the university; (3) the readily receptive mindset of university students; (4) the breadth of Christ’s atonement; and (5) the danger of “split-level Christianity.” Finally, (6) I will provide three suggestions for action.


[1] The university is not a “people group” in the social scientific sense of the world, or in the normal missiological sense of the word. For this present blogpost, I use the phrase as a simile and a metaphor, taking the phrase out of its normal context and applying it in a new context (the university) in order to draw attention to our need to build a missiology for the academy.