Reaching Secular Universities
A Campus Atheist Finds What He Wants
Editor’s note: Chi Alpha Campus Ministries is a vital component of Assemblies of God efforts to reach the world for Christ. Today’s university students are tomorrow’s leaders. Enrichment journal is pleased to introduce this new column written especially for Chi Alpha campus pastors and anyone interested in reaching secular universities. We asked Rusty Wright, an international lecturer, author, journalist, and university ministry veteran, to share insights on “scratching where non-Christians itch,” that is, finding their areas of interest and building bridges for the gospel. This issue’s column tells the intriguing story of a campus atheist who enjoyed mocking believers and how his Christian friends influenced him. Wright’s future columns will use colorful stories of encounters involving faculty, a wild secular fraternity, discussing sex with secular students, and more, to illustrate practical principles to help campus pastors and others connect with the hearts and minds of contemporary students and professors and help nudge them toward Jesus.
Even as a freshman, Steve had earned a reputation as a Duke University campus atheist. He enjoyed arguing with Christians and mocking their faith.
When believers advertised a Christian film in his dormitory, Steve defaced the publicity with vulgarities. In another prank, Steve, brandishing a lighted torch made from a broomstick and flaming underwear, chased a Jewish student named Jace through his dorm. When Jace locked himself in a room, Steve pounded on the door shouting, “Jace, you’d better receive Christ. You’d better receive Christ.”
When Steve’s roommate, Jerry, trusted Christ as Savior, Steve wondered if this faith stuff was getting too close. But Jerry, Gordon, and other believers befriended Steve, demonstrating Christian love and including him in their activities.
Pickle Juice And Flickering Lights
Steve liked to study lying on his bed with a book propped on his chest. For refreshment, he would drink pickle juice from a jar. Have you ever tried to drink while lying on your back? Sometimes part of the liquid dribbled down his cheek. Steve never changed his sheets. By December Gordon and Jerry remade the bed with clean sheets.
Steve liked attending Christian meetings and became familiar with evangelistic literature. Once, a traveling music group distributed a widely used gospel booklet at their concert and asked those familiar with it to show it to their friends in the crowd. Steve turned to Jerry and began to present the message of Christ to his roommate — the atheist sharing his faith with the believer.
After a moment, Steve said, “Hey, this booklet is different.” He had received a revised version and noticed slight differences in wording and Bible versions. The atheist was so familiar with the presentation that he could detect minor edits.
At the end of another outreach meeting Steve publicly fell to his knees, raised his hands, and cried out — loudly and in mockery — “O, Lord Jesus, come into my life.”
In April Josh McDowell, the popular campus speaker, addressed a packed house. A persistent lighting problem — flickering overhead fluorescent lights — plagued the event. Leaders tried many solutions, but to no avail. The emcee introduced McDowell. About two sentences into his presentation, Josh looked up at the lights and shouted, “Aw, c’mon.”
The lights stopped flickering.
McDowell had an attentive audience. Later, he told the leaders privately that he had trusted God to bind the real enemy, Satan.
As the emcee closed the meeting, the lights began flickering again. As the crowd dispersed, Steve asked his friends, “Did you see those lights?” A short while later, McDowell spoke with Steve personally about the eternal consequences of rejecting Christ.
Math, John’s Gospel, And The Order Of The Chair
The next 4 weeks brought some interesting developments. Week one: Steve told Jerry he believed there was a God and that God loved him. Week two: Steve said he believed he was sinful and needed a Savior. Week three: Steve explained that he was not sure that Jesus was the way for everyone, but he believed Jesus was the only way for him. Week four: Steve was in his dorm room one afternoon trying to study math, but he kept being distracted by a desire to read the Gospel of John.
About 1 a.m., Gordon and Jerry awakened their discipleship group leader saying, “Steve received Christ! Steve received Christ!”
Steve’s cynicism and bitterness was replaced with kindness, peace, and deep joy. His smile and words reflected Jesus’ love. He communicated his new faith.
On the last day of classes that spring, the Order of the Chair held its annual rally on the steps of the Duke chapel in the center of campus. Late each spring a toilet would appear on the chapel steps, signaling the noontime rally. ooc members would arrive drunk with a garbage can filled with green grits. They would induct members by detailing — over a public address system — the inductees’ sexual activities. Each initiate then sat on the commode (fully clothed) and was plastered with green grits.
That year Christians made placards and printed evangelistic literature, taking care to keep content positive and pro-Jesus rather than directly condemning the ooc. As the mostly male — and mostly lusty — crowd moved toward the ooc venue, Christians distributed their handouts. Placards bobbed as believers filtered throughout the crowd. Local television crews filmed the event.
As the inebriated emcee began the ceremony, he paused momentarily when one brave soul pointedly, but politely, walked across the front displaying his sign. The emcee read it aloud: “Jesus is real, man.
“Hey, that’s all right,” he editorialized with a cheerful tone.
Steve was carrying that sign. Even as a young believer, the former campus athiest helped to spread the message of Christ.
Principles God Uses
What factors did God use to nudge Steve to faith in Christ? Earl Creps, professor at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, says that central to the missionary task is “personal involvement in relationships with postmodern pagans.” He asks, “Is it possible that we could find the meaning of our ministries in the aspirations of the lost? I wonder if we have the humility to listen to them.”
The principles believers used to reach Steve may influence your own outreach to secular students:
Jerry, Gordon, and others became Steve’s close friends, learned how he felt, and discovered what was important to him. They had good-natured banter and fun. He enjoyed hanging out with them. Many students today are thirsty for genuine friendship.
Develop Christian community.
As Steve hung with the believers, he saw how they lived and related to one another, how they handled student concerns like academics, dating, and finances. The Christians, though imperfect, loved each other and loved him. A loving, authentic group of believers can model an answer to one of Jesus’ prayers: “My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father — that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me” (John 17:21, nlt).
Treat unbelievers not as enemies, but as those needing God’s grace.
In today’s culture wars, it can be tempting for Christians to consider their philosophical and political adversaries as enemies to be conquered rather than the lost to be won. Steve’s friends prayed for him and considered how to best communicate God’s grace and truth.
Present the truth in love.
Unbelievers need to understand God’s provision in Christ’s death and resurrection. Steve’s friends helped him understand the good news so well he could explain it to others.
Speak their psychological and emotional languages.
We all use intellectual language. We also have psychological and emotional languages, words, and concepts that influence us in ways that transcend intellect.
Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”
Josh McDowell is adept at intellectually defending the faith. He is equally skilled at telling stories — notably his own faith journey involving hatred of his alcoholic father — to connect emotionally.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, is an excellent secular resource on understanding emotions in communication.
Trust the Holy Spirit and God’s power.
Flickering lights were not in the human script for that campus meeting. God used an observable demonstration of His power to get Steve’s attention. He may act similarly through your ministry.
Work hard to communicate effectively with secular students and professors.
Do not allow sloth or ego to hamper excellence. Do Christians applaud wildly when you address them? Do not be fooled into thinking you will automatically connect with non-Christians.
Be willing to break Christian communication stereotypes. Perhaps as He did for Jabez, God will “enlarge (your) territory” (1 Chronicles 4:10). I pray He does.