How is the Christian student doing in the modern “secular” university? In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom’s recent analysis of higher education, students are said to be faced by the unusual pairing of nihilism and hedonism. Bloom and other commentators tell us most students simply do not care about the “big questions”: What is life for? What should I do with my life? Can I make a difference?

The church, then, faces a real challenge, since the big questions are the ones Christianity considers important, and the ones about which it can offer guidance.

What can the church do to help students not only survive the university, but engage it—with a maturing and thoughtful passion for God, their culture, and their world?

Recently 2,000 students met in Pittsburgh to “examine together the meaning of the coming of the kingdom of God in our daily lives, in our studies, and in our world.” Such was the purpose of Jubilee ’87, a conference sponsored annually by the Coalition for Christian Outreach.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY gathered five professionals in campus ministry, all at Jubilee ’87, and discussed with them what today’s secular university students are like and how they can be reached.

The panelists included Elward Ellis, the national director of black campus ministry for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; David Gill, president of New College, Berkeley, California; Jerry Herbert, associate director of the Christian College Coalition’s American Studies Program in Washington, D.C.; Dick Keyes, director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts; and Gene Thomas, now a businessman in Boulder, Colorado, but formerly a staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The Freshmen: A Twenty-Year Study, 1966–85, observed that in 1967, 83 percent of entering freshmen believed it was “essential or very important to develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” whereas in 1985 only 43 percent affirmed that proposition. In your experience, do students today care less about meaning in life?

Dick Keyes: The book When Dreams and Heroes Died, by Arthur Levine, examines the college student of the 1980s. Levine says students have a sense of impotence and fatalism on the large issues. When they are asked about the future of America or the future of the world, they say, “It’s going down the tubes and there’s nothing we can do about it.” With that attitude, students think they might as well enjoy themselves. Levine calls this hedonism “going first class on the Titanic.

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If you’re going on the Titanic first class, you don’t want a world view, an understanding of life as a whole. It would only get in the way of enjoying yourself and not thinking about tomorrow. That is very, very different from the sixties and early seventies.

David Gill: In some respects I’m more hopeful than ever, because there’s never been a time in which there have been so many books on developing a Christian view of work and a Christian way of thinking about one’s field of study. There are also a lot of conferences addressing these issues.

On the other hand, while the Christian campus groups seem to be growing, there’s growing interest in a sort of Christian hedonism: God exists to make me happy.

What obstacles stand in the way of students evaluating what is true and important?

Jerry Herbert: One of the most difficult things for our students is leaving a Christian environment where the big questions are asked, and going back on campus where few people care. The students say conversations back at school are all about, “What are we going to do on Saturday night?”

Keyes: People won’t think about larger issues unless they have to. For example, we have some friends living in China. They’ve ordered many of our L’Abri tapes. They play them for other Americans in China who land in Beijing, have utter culture shock, and start asking major world-view questions for the first time in their lives. They are absolutely open and hungry to know everything they can about where they stand, about what is true, and what really matters.

Another example is our experience with our L’Abri center in America. We are in Boston, the nation’s capital of higher education, yet we have almost no college undergraduates visiting. But we do have a lot of people out of college, some who are working out vocational crises, and some who are in graduate school. They are now asking the larger questions they weren’t forced to ask during their college experience.

Many of the Christian students we see are plagued with what I often call a “metaphysical affluence.” Our pluralistic culture offers so many answers, they can’t see the questions. Until something really pulls the carpet from under them, they don’t really engage the questions personally.

Elward Ellis: One of the reasons for that is that our educational process has not focused on critical thinking. I see a lot of students who are inarticulate when it comes to stating the questions they feel inside of them. They oftentimes back away from heavy issues. They don’t have the tools to go at it.

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If developing a Christian view of life is often not part of the Christian student’s agenda, what is?

Keyes: Evangelism and Christian growth—meaning privatized Christian growth—prayer life, Bible reading, and discipleship. World-view thinking is thought to distract from evangelism and privatized Christian growth.

Gill: I’m afraid that’s true. Many students think the Christian mind is a luxury. But I don’t buy that at all. You are always using your mind. There’s a complex, rich brew of mind and spirit, and of emotional and intellectual life. It’s that entire complex that needs to be nurtured under the lordship of Christ.

Shouldn’t the idea of the Christian faith penetrating the whole of reality—particularly in the university world—be an effective tool for evangelism? Do we really have to make a choice between evangelism and cultivating a Christian mind?

Keyes: It’s not an either/or option at all. J. Gresham Machen had this tremendous image. He talked about modern culture being like a vast river of ideas, practices, and institutions. The church is sitting on the bank, scratching its head, wondering, “How do we get into this? What do we do with it?” He said that unless we get engaged in the ideas, the Christian church is going to have to be content with doing all its work in the eddies and backwaters of modern culture.

I find in the Northeast that the colleges with the highest reputations are the places where the Christians tend to be the most anti-intellectual with regard to their faith. Not anti-intellectual in general: they’re excellent in their fields. But with regard to their faith, they are entirely privatized. And you can see what a battle it is to take these ideas into the public arena.

How can we show students that Christ’s lordship has something to do with their everyday lives? How do we make the connection between thinking Christianly and living Christianly?

Gill: Let me give a personal illustration. I never ride in an airplane or sit in a restaurant by myself for very long before I’m asked to talk about my faith. What happens is that I’ll be friendly to whomever I’m sitting by, and then they will ask me what I do. I explain that I work at a school where we work with people to relate their personal Christian convictions to their public life.

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And these people invariably say to me, “Can you tell me more? What is this?” I spend the next three hours, going back and forth with them. They find this fascinating; it is so different from what they have come to think of the Christian life.

Gene Thomas: Students have asked me how they could bring up the subject of God in discussions with other students. I’ve said, “Every novel and every movie is about good and evil. How can you discuss a movie or a novel without getting to God somehow?” They were fascinated by the fact that no matter what point we started at, we got to the gospel. That has to happen if God permeates every area of our life and our thinking.

Keyes: Another thing we can say to students is “How do you get a grip on vocation without first having a grip on what counts in life?” You’re bound to go off half-cocked on vocation if you don’t already have a sense of the lordship of Christ over all of life. You’re bound to think in a sacred-secular kind of a split, and think you’re a second-class Christian because you want to be a lawyer or a banker instead of a pastor.

How can those of us who know students use Scripture to help them make the connection between the everyday college concerns and the more transcendent, theological issues that put their lives into perspective?

Gill: My main principle in this regard is from Jacques Ellul. When we’re studying the Bible, it’s infinitely more important to know what God’s questions are for us than to ask what our questions are for God. It’s more important to read the Bible, pray, and ask God to question us than it is to take a list of ten issues in search of answers from the Bible. The important thing is to teach students to read the Bible, continually asking not just “What did this mean to the original authors and editors,” but “What is God trying to say to me and to us today? What is he calling into question?”

Keyes: I focus on the imitation of Christ, dealing with Christian heroic virtues: “Do it as Jesus did it, as Jesus did it to you.” We have the example of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit aiming at the development of Christian character.

Herbert: Even though our work deals primarily with analysis of public policy issues, we work hard to engage students in their personal walk with Christ. We look at four norms or images: idolatry, justice, stewardship, and peacemaking. We take them into the Scriptures every Wednesday in a Bible study. The most exciting thing is that people begin responding to questions being asked of them. And they begin seeing Christ. It changes from being a head trip—“How am I going to use this to analyze a public policy issue?”—and begins to grapple with their hearts.

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Thomas: My understanding is that the early church used the parables and the Sermon on the Mount with all new Christians, so we alternate every summer—one summer the parables, one summer the Sermon on the Mount. My conviction is that the parables and the sermon cover major issues in life, and we’re meant to know them so that they haunt our lives. They are meant to bother us. And the more we try to live by what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount and the parables, the more alive they become.

Ellis: What we have tried to do is to come to the Scriptures from the obvious experiences that we know people have: the male-female relationship in the black community, the black-on-black crime issue, and so on.

Much of our work is in looking at models: Esther, Nehemiah, and Daniel. We compare their situations with our own opportunities and predicaments today, and find out what they teach us.

Once we get students thinking about the big questions, how can we teach them to live out Christianity’s response to them?

Ellis: One of the things that would help is the revival of mentoring roles. In academia, the process is oriented to a kind of mass production. The university provides a large body of content that students need in order to be certified. The time to teach it is very short, and the numbers to teach it to are very large. The opportunity to see a great mind work, for most students, is just not there.

Thomas: Mentoring needs to be connected to some kind of action. I think it’s particularly crucial because students want to be taught but they also want to try it out, to do something with it.

Ellis: Students do respond to having a mentor, someone who puts time into them. They need social times as well as thought times with their mentors. Students need content, but content will never be received unless a person can see that “caring for me.”

You must see some students with a passion for God and his concerns who care deeply about their culture and their world. What makes them different?

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Herbert: There is something that has made a significant impact on some of our students, that has made them different even from others that are in the program. I’m not sure I can articulate it well, but it has to do with the kingdom, and a vision that they can be a part of that kingdom—and indeed are a part of that. Somehow it gives immediacy to life, and not just the idea that something’s going to happen after death or in heaven. “Without a vision the people perish”—that’s the reality at work.

Thomas: A girl recently said to me, “If I go and become a bookkeeper, I don’t know if that’s going to be satisfying or not.”

I said to her, “Would it be worth it if God sent you there and in the course of your lifetime just one person was brought into the kingdom by your being there?

She thought a bit, and said, “I think it might be worth it.” People who are willing to have a vision of the value of human life can be sent to some truly difficult place, invest their lives in something, and really know that it is worthwhile.

What they’re asking is, “Is it really worth the sacrifice, worth being a servant, with the cost of it all?” We live in a world in which life is very cheap. We have to join with Jesus in reevaluating what a human life is worth. That makes an incredible difference to students in terms of their willingness to invest themselves in a problem. Otherwise, if the significance has to be in terms of numbers, then I don’t think people are going to do it. We have to help kids reevaluate their world, and develop a completely different perspective about what we believe about the value of one human life.

Keyes: People who are going “first class on the Titanic” need to see their lives as part of the master story of the kingdom of God, a sort of master cable of which they are strands. Then we can build people who have a clear sense of their ability to affect the world under God.

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