Yesterday at church, we had some visitors: an American missionary to a nearby country and his wife. This missionary didn’t preach the sermon, but he was invited to introduce himself and give a testimony. In his testimony, he emphasized how God is able to open doors that people can’t close, and close doors that people can’t open; God can do the impossible, and He can work in impossible situations.
After service, we had a social time as we said farewell to a couple who are going back to their native Norway. During this social time, the visiting missionary chatted with different members of the congregation. At one point, he approached Jeff and me.
As we engaged in the expected small talk, this missionary revealed that his daughter is in college, attending a Christian university that happens to be located in the same city as my own alma mater. I made him aware of this common ground, and then the conversation got interesting.
“It’s too bad when organizations fall away from their heritage of faith,” he said. You see, my alma mater used to be affiliated with a Christian denomination, but they disaffiliated not long before I began attending there. Although I’ve been a Christian since childhood and did consider attending a Christian college, it never bothered me that the school I had chosen was not a Christian school. I knew going in that the professors had a reputation of being liberal, and that there was a liberal element among the student population, but that most of the students were fairly religious and conservative. I pointed out to our visiting missionary that, at least when I attended the school, the students were pretty religious, although most of the faculty were not.
The visiting missionary sighed and stated, “You shouldn’t have to fight your professors for your faith.”
Now, I admit that my hackles were already raised. We’d been having a pleasant conversation when he decided that it was appropriate to start criticizing my alma mater, and by extension, those of us who had chosen to study there after the disaffiliation. But this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t explain it completely at the time—I understand it better now that I’ve had some time to think about it—but I felt a strong urge to contradict this missionary, and I chose not to fight the urge. So I shared with him one fact about my college experience: “Actually, the one professor who probably did the most to help me grow as a Christian was an atheist philosophy professor.”
“You mean a Christian professor who taught atheist philosophy?” (I expected him to be surprised, but I didn’t expect this—not only did he not believe me, but it was so far out of his realm of belief that he didn’t even understand me!)
“No, a philosophy professor who was an atheist. He helped me grow as a Christian because he treated every philosophy we discussed the same way: he challenged everything. He forced me to think about what I believed and why I believed it. It wasn’t enough that I’d been taught something; I had to think it through. He helped me make my faith my own instead of something that was just passed down to me. He did more for me than any of my Christian professors did.”
Then Jeff made a simple but profound statement: “It’s an example of God using someone who would never, by his own choice, be available to be used by God.” The disbelief on the missionary’s face gave way to chagrin—almost disgust—before he made his polite excuses and turned away. I’m sure he was just as upset with me as I was with him.
Throughout the afternoon, I replayed our encounter, trying to determine exactly what it was that had gotten me so angry with this man and why my respect for him had plummeted so fiercely. I finally realized what had happened. It was a combination of factors.
I became irritated when he felt free to ignore the rules of polite society and criticize choices that had nothing to do with him; I assume that he felt justified because we both were Christians and therefore of course I would lament the demise of Christian heritage just as he did—but he didn’t know me well enough to realize that I did not view the disaffiliation as a loss of Christian heritage so much as a recognition that the school had room for more than one perspective and a belief that it was beneficial for students to be exposed to more than one voice.
I became defensive when he acted as if young Christian adults in America are somehow less than believers elsewhere in the world. After all, he lives in a country where Christianity is banned and Christians risk everything, but we shouldn’t have to fight our professors for our beliefs? What exactly does that mean—that our professors shouldn’t challenge us, that we should be given a pass from critical thinking because we’re Christians, that we shouldn’t be willing to deal with the possibility of failing a class for our faith when believers in other parts of the world may be killed for theirs? Even more telling, exactly how is it that Christian students have to fight their professors, when the students are the ones who chose to go to that school and take those classes? Does the world owe us a safe, Christian environment, whether we choose such an environment or not? We are not entitled to an easy faith! Too many Americans choose an easy faith, when struggling results in a faith that is deeper and more real.
I lost respect for him when I realized that he does not believe that God is able to use an atheist professor to work in the life of a Christian student. This man stood before the congregation and stated that God can open doors no one can close, He can close doors no one can open, and He can work in impossible situations. Yet his reaction to my statements about my professor showed that he does not believe that God can work through an individual who does not honor Him. This lack of faith in God’s power is unbecoming in one who depends on that power so much in his own life and ministry.
I have no doubt that this man serves God to the best of his ability. I have no doubt that he is doing God’s work in his host country. I am, however, disappointed that he is so set on his own understanding of “The Truth” that he ignores the realities that Christians can have different viewpoints; that disaffiliation from a Christian denomination does not make a university less than it was; that non-Christians have something to offer to Christians. After all, American Christians are not exempt from Jesus’s statement that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) and from His command to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It is true that too many young Christians “lose” their faith while attending secular schools, but that isn’t because the schools didn’t do right by the students—it’s because the students were not prepared for the challenges that come with life outside of a Christian enclave. We are called to be in the world but not of it (implied by John 17:14-17, when Jesus specifically refrains from asking God to remove us); how can we function as Christians in the world if our faith is not strong enough to withstand the world’s challenges? The problem is not the universities; it is that the Christian young people who fall away never made their faith their own. Rather than behaving as if the world’s attacks on our faith are unfair trials that we shouldn’t be expected to face, we should expect them, prepare for them, even welcome them. Maybe then we’ll not only have fewer Christian students falling away—we’ll have unbelieving students becoming believers!
Please do not misconstrue anything in this post as a criticism of Christian schools. I do not question this man’s choice to send his daughter to a Christian school; nor do I question her choice to go. There are many good reasons to attend a Christian college. However, if your primary reason for choosing a Christian school is that you do not believe that you can withstand the challenging of your faith that you will experience in a secular school, please do yourself a favor—spend your time at your Christian school strengthening your faith so that it can withstand the challenges you will face in the real world. And if your reason for attending a Christian school is that you do not believe that God can work in your life in a secular environment, I suggest that you re-evaluate which God you serve: the impotent god of your imagination, or the omnipotent God of the Bible.