After graduating from high school, I wanted to rip into college, defend my faith, and give anyone willing to listen a nice “reason for the hope that is in me.”
Unfortunately, I struggled to remember, or even hear, the conditions of “gentleness and respect” that qualify Peter’s positive proselytizing push in 1 Peter 3:15.
As a college student, I found it hard to hear something that’s just plain wrong and not jump to a place of critique or judgment. Being gentle and respectful can feel like you’re sacrificing power and influence. But, as God’s people, it’s fitting that these virtues would lace our engagement and evangelism, especially on a college campus.
After teaching in the K-12 space for several years, I now find myself back on a college campus as a PhD student. My days are split between teaching undergraduates and then being a student myself. So, I am likewise learning to bring the same charity to my peers and professors who work with different, and even divergent presuppositions.
An Ethic of Love
One of my pastors in college put it simply: “Truth is not to be wielded around like a baseball bat; love governs truth.” It seems like inside or outside of the classroom, students are encountering some pretty zany ideas (to say the least). In the face of these ideas, it’s important that we teach teenagers, as children of our Father, to carry an evangelical ethic of love, not of force.
As we turn to God’s word, we learn what an ethic of love looks and sounds like. I’m struck by the confidence the Psalmist places in Jesus’ reign: “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Ps. 2:6).
Because Jesus is judging the nations–– and college campuses–– neither you, nor I, nor your students, need to. The seat of judgment on Zion’s holy hill is for Jesus, not us. We hurt others, and ourselves, when we try to sit in that seat. When we rest in God’s judgment, we are freed up to love other people–– and places–– without fear. This is the ethic of love.
Loving Your Place
Because I used to live in Washington, D.C., I love it, and therefore I refuse to call it a “swamp.” Sure, it can be hot and muggy there in the summertime, but it’s no “swamp,” metaphorical or otherwise. God made D.C. He is there, and despite any chaos, plenty of his people are there serving him.
In a similar manner, I hear folks talk about American college and universities as though they were swamps. While we need to name what’s true about a place, there’s no need to hold fearful cynicism that eclipses testimonies of God’s continued presence in a particular institution or town.
You’re probably heard how Christians started the Ivy League schools in order to train evangelical pastors. Yet, in the 1950’s, William Buckley noted institutional drift and secularization at Yale (God and Man at Yale), incidentally representative of a nationwide trend. Long before Yale, St. Augustine noted the same at his institute of higher learning. While in school at Carthage, this African bishop-to-be wanted to transfer to a new school (up in Rome) because he said his Carthage classmates were “disgraceful and out of control,” even “commit[ing] a number of disorderly acts which show an incredible stupidity and which ought to be punished by law” (Confessions,Book V, Ch. VIII).
If your student is rightfully aghast by what she hears in the classroom, sees in the dorm rooms, or witnesses at parties, that is okay. College campuses can be weird. And impious. A college campus is the real world. There is lots of sin on college campuses–– just as there is in affluent suburbs, the countryside, and poor urban areas. It’s true that some places may embrace sin more than others. Yet, folly started in neither New Haven nor Carthage, but in Genesis 3.
Hold your students accountable. Don’t let them judge their campus or their classmates. Affirm where your youth rightfully identify sin. Equip them with the necessary tools to grieve the various patterns and even celebrations of folly that they may witness each day, yet cannot control.
Nevertheless, push your youth to see the legacy of holiness that God has already created on their campuses. Where is there light? Goodness? Truth? Beauty? It’s there. Jesus is a real King, reigning over a real Kingdom.
Learning from Daniel
In college, my campus minister preached through Daniel 1–6. This helped us enter into the university in a posture of love and truth. The life and narrative of Daniel gives a great paradigm for how to have hope in a strange land.
For instance, Daniel and his buddies learned the “language and literature of the Chaldeans” (Dan. 1:4) in Babylon, which was about as rowdy as a college campus. There, these Jewish teens demonstrated both gentleness and respect, leaning into, not away from, the life of their pagan locale.
Compelled by the words of the prophet Jeremiah, these Hebrew outcasts even forsook their comfy encampments on the city’s outskirts to move toward the urban epicenter. Daniel’s life shows the possibility of remaining holy while living in a place where those who fear God seem to be a minority. Daniel’s story offers a helpful paradigm for how to love a college campus for God.
Charity Isn’t Compromise
We can be charitable without compromising truth. Your students’ peers and professors just might be dead wrong, or even dead in their trespasses… but we dare not mock, hate, or deride them for not yet having the Spirit of life.
I’d wager that Daniel and his buddies probably felt like they were stuck in a “swamp” from time to time–– especially when they were in a pit with lions, or in the furnace. Hadn’t they treated others with gentleness and respect? Maybe your student’s campus feels like a swamp, or maybe not. Maybe your students will be well- received because of their gentleness and respect, or maybe not.
We can’t control how we are received, but we can control how we treat peers and professors. Because of the great love God has shown us on the cross of Christ, we Christians ought to be notorious on the campus for our compassion, especially in the classroom. Jesus is on his holy hill, judging the nations, and so it’s not our job to judge. Yet, he holds the iron rod of judgment in meek hands which were willingly pierced with nails. Our King is known by his mercy.
Teach this. It saves your students, and subsequently frees them up to enter the campus with compassion for the sickness of this secular age.
If you’d like to hear more about college students engaging their campuses with faith in Jesus, join us at the 2023 Rooted Conference to hear RUF pastor Kevin Twit’s workshop, “Helping Prepare Your Students For College.”