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.