In introducing Billy Graham to a gathering of 1,800 students at the University of Chicago last April, Dean Warner A. Wick remarked, “Dr. Graham brings something to this university which it may not or cannot give to you.”
The founders of American colleges and universities would have considered such a tribute most unusual; to exclude any area of life—the religious especially—from the university would have seemed strange to them. Today, however, either by general consent or neglect, the Saviour is considered out of place on campus. Experiential Christianity is often regarded as out of bounds for the university mind. It is this barricaded territory that evangelical student groups are attempting to open up once more on the American campus.
Statistics that purport to register growing religious interest and engagement among students are misleading. The average student is quite indifferent to the thought currents, religious or otherwise, that ebb and flow in his academic environment. And by and large he tends to ignore those individuals who either seek change or protest it. The liberals who refuse to accept present status symbols pursue their ideals with determination. The new conservatives show equal zeal for their particular goals. It is these students of one extreme or the other, rather than the 95 per cent uncommitted or mildly committed, who have the power to determine the future. The four American students responsible for the now famous Haystack Meeting of 1806 influenced the spread of Christianity far more significantly than did all their remaining fellows.
Last February students at Northwestern University held a three-day conference on “Personal Commitment in an Age of Anxiety.” While it was not what one would call a religious conference, it seemed to augur a new vitality for the American scene. These students were trying to discover how they as students could participate effectively in this world. The silent generation seems to have roused from its passivity.
The usual subjects such as Communism versus capitalism and individualism versus conformity that characterized discussions of the 1950s were absent at this and similar conferences. Student concerns have changed radically. Attention now centers on problems of race, hunger, injustice, ignorance, poverty, the struggle for freedom, and so on.
The present generation of students is the first to have been born and to live solely under the threat of total nuclear destruction. No other factors have made so great an impact on their conscious lives as the Supreme Court decision on integration and the launching of Sputnik. For older generations this time of ferment may seem incomprehensible, dangerous, and chaotic; for those who have known nothing else it may represent a fertile current of life. These young people, with their potential for creative achievement, are the ones we must strive to reach for God.
Where do students of the space age stand spiritually? In general, although they know little about either Jesus Christ or the Bible, they hold both in fairly high regard. This admiration they fail to transfer to Christ’s followers or his Church, however. For most students Christianity is an irrelevant heritage from the past rather than a valid way of life for today. One professor recommended quite matter-of-factly that his history students become acquainted with a local Inter-Varsity group; its members, he said, were the only persons he knew who indulged in the medieval practice of an all-pervading God-consciousness.
Ten years ago a fraternity bull session on Christianity involved questions on evolution and Genesis, the reliability of the manuscripts, theories of inspiration, the place of reason, and so on. Today this is not the case. Now students concern themselves with the relationship of science to religion, the validity of Scripture for life, God’s judgment of the heathen, and the psychology of conversion. For the most part, the religious solution to personal and international problems is not an acceptable option. While students do not equate Christians with medicine men, they consider Christianity inadequate for our troubles. After a three-hour discussion on the Gospel and the reality of the Saviour, one international student told me: “You think Christianity is big enough for the problems of my country. It will take more than Christ.” Like many others, he stumbled at the evangel’s fundamental insistence on personal and individual reconciliation to God. Because, unfortunately, they have seen so little demonstration of the Lord’s power to meet people’s needs, these students look elsewhere for help and hope.
Indifference to Christianity and assumption of its irrelevancy to man’s actual problems in modern society are only part of the story. Beneath the surface of campus life, affecting the left, right, and vast middle groups alike, and both Christian and non-Christian, is an emptiness which is difficult to define to those who have never experienced it. What is the meaning of life? is the major though perhaps unvoiced question. Many students simply assume life has no meaning. This meaninglessness, moreover, is something quite normal for young people; they have come to terms with it, and the absence of ultimate significance does not distress them at all. The frightening predominance of this concept and attitude is a definite barrier to communicating the Gospel.
There are not a few, however, who never seem to adjust to this sense of meaninglessness. They suffer from what Christians call the “hungry heart” and others call “angst” or anxiety. Tillich refers to the horror of nonbeing. Psychoanalyst Victor E. Frankl describes it as “existential vacuum” against which conventional psychoanalysis is helpless. Many people experience this absence of purpose, responsibility, and meaning as a misery to be endured, perhaps, but scarcely to be accepted as normal. Youth reacts in a mass move toward cynicism.
This inner dissatisfaction, which for some is the “quiet desperation” of daily life and for others a vague uneasiness, may erupt under the stresses of modern academic pressures. The strain of qualifying examinations and of competition for which high school has left them unprepared takes its toll. Lack of certainty as to life’s meaning, coupled with fear of failure, suggests the short way out. One eastern university had more than 60 attempted suicides last semester. Suicide seems logical and unusually attractive when life has no purpose.
Christian students are not immune to this mood of anxiety. In fact, especially on secular campuses, they must fight against the whole tenor of undergraduate life to maintain faith in God’s goodness and design. Often Christian friends fail to support each other at this point. There may be an insinuating suspicion of one who departs temporarily from “the Christian line,” or the doubt that Christ can or will meet a problem of any real magnitude—particularly in moral or emotional areas. Often their spiritual background is such that students do not know that Saviour whose greatness is sufficient for every problem. They judge the adequacy of Christ by their own limited experience.
One Christian student asked an Inter-Varsity staff member, “Can Jesus Christ help me from wanting to commit suicide?” To the answer, “Yes,” he replied, “How?” In the conversation that followed he showed neither unbelief nor doubt. But he simply could not see how Christ was sufficient for his present crisis. At first it did not help to point him to the Lord of the New Testament, because he thought he held the biblical image of Christ. The fact is that his sense of spiritual reality lagged behind the reality of his own developing maturity, a gap that required several months to bridge.
It is difficult for campus Christian organizations to cope with students’ fears and anxieties. This spirit of disillusionment handicaps the organized Church as well. Church leaders, say the students, have “let us down. They never have anything to say.” While this report is not necessarily valid, it does point the finger at student pastors, chaplains, and other professional student workers, Inter-Varsity staff not excepted. Yet it is just here, at the place of personal contact between Christians and non-Christians, that God is working. For convinced believers, be they students, faculty, or Christian workers, the campus offers opportunities for evangelism unknown for 45 years.
The wistful longing for commitment combined with the sense of lostness is what gives this new openness to the Gospel—provided, however, that students are convinced of its pertinence for their own lives. Usually it is the life of a Christian student or faculty member that provides the opening wedge to communication.
Whatever the current “student mind” may be, the content of the Gospel and the way into fellowship with God remain unchanged. Four major thrusts characterize the present campus approach to students:
1. The message which we proclaim is the message of the Bible. As a consequence, it carries unmistakable authority.
2. The person we preach is Jesus Christ, very God of very God.
3. The core of the Gospel is Christ’s sacrificial and atoning death for us. It expresses God’s love in response to human need by his free provision of his Son, the Redeemer.
4. The demand of Christ is commitment to total personal relationship with the triune God through the abiding presence and reality of the Holy Spirit.
The danger of college and university Christian witness is either to ignore academic-intellectual issues or to allow them to dominate. Although the final issue is moral and spiritual, the Christian student or faculty member who bypasses the intellectual issues of his campus not only abdicates a great part of his personal responsibility but also misses a most fruitful source of pre-evangelism. On the other hand, one who succumbs to the temptation to place all the issues within intellectual bounds frequently misses a seeker’s deepest needs. An evangelical Christian has responsibilities not only as a believer, but also as a scholar and friend.
Hundreds of students each year accept the Gospel, not just to “make a decision,” but to commit themselves to life in Jesus Christ and to the fellowship of his Church. Staff members of several student organizations, chaplains, student pastors, and Christian faculty who proclaim this message and who demonstrate its power are seeing what God can do. In recent months 5,000 students gave up their Christmas holidays for a conference to face God’s call to world evangelism. At a Colorado college last fall, half the entire student body heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even the beaches of Fort Lauderdale were the scene of Christian witness and response. While this response may be relatively small in view of the extensive opportunities, in God’s goodness it could become a floodtide of spiritual power. If the Gospel is to penetrate the campus significantly, all students, student workers, and faculty members committed to Jesus Christ and his Word must dedicate their love and talent and lives as never before.
Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship
A Student’s Prayer
Written by Professor Moeller of Concordia Theological Seminary, Springfield, Illinois, at the close of the first session of summer school on July 13, 1962.
O God of book and printer’s ink,
Of pen and paper, scholar’s toil,
Of clause and phrase and substantive,
Of term paper and midnight oil,
Thou who alone canst give to learn,
Help me to learn!
O God of Truth, O God of Grace,
O Word Made Flesh, O Holy Dove,
Thou Wisdom, Glory, Righteousness,
Peace, Mercy, Patience, Hope, and Love,
Thou who alone canst give to know,
Help me to know!
O God of Moses, Samuel,
Of Jeremiah, Daniel,
Of Peter, James, and John, and Paul,
Of Michael and of Gabriel,
Thou dost for Thy work servants choose;
Do Thou me choose!
For sloth and petty prejudice,
For pride and willful ignorance,
For lack of zeal and will, and prayer,
For self-imposed incompetence,
For shirking at Thy work, O Lord,
Thy mercy, Lord!
My brain and hands dare bring to Thee,
Because Thy blood pays all my guilt,
This votive offering of my work,
Small thanks for precious ransom spilt.
Accept my thoughts and words, O Lord,
Accept, O Lord!
ELMER J. MOELLER
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.