In a world full of people living in a "Christian bubble" asking "What would Jesus do," Brandon Straub and Peter Howell are actually doing it, and their actions define what striking the tension between "cold-shouldering" and "compromise" actually looks like.
TIME's Religion article in their May 9 issue focused on those like Straub and Howell, who are struggling with how to live out their faith on the secular college campus. The article asks the pertinent question of collegiate-aged Christians: "Can they be, like Straub, both a brother in Christ and a brother in a frat?"
What makes this question all the more important is the "casualty rate" of faith. Many Christian young people enter college with a fath that is strong and vibrant, only to leave academia four years later with a greater degree of uncertainty about the relationship between life and faith. As the article states, "Faith matters to students as they head off to college, but then it begins to lapse." Even in the face of a growing number of evangelical fellowships on campuses, only 40% of UCLA students considered their faith important enough to discipline themselves for its daily practice.
Could the problem be that student's faith is weaker than it appears? How about the overwhelming pressure coming from culture? My suggestion is a bit more "scandalous," but I honestly wonder if this collegiate "backsliding" epidemic isn't systemic of our entire approach to moral development inside the church. From "cradle to diploma," we are efficient guardians of chastity and temperence, warning our young people against the "evils" of alcohol, drugs, and pre-martial sex. Yet rarely have I heard of Christian young people having a Biblical worldview instilled in them that allows them to think for themselves. Instead, they are encouraged to avoid sin, as well as sinners. (i.e. we are always exhorting them to stay away from the "wrong crowd.") By and large, we preach "separation" as if it were a literal, rather than moral concept, so that by the time our teenagers are granted the freedom that comes with dorm living, they are ready and curious to try things out on the "dark side." The result is the loss of testimony, the loss of purity, and the loss of Kingdom effectiveness.
For example, the son of a minister observed by the writer of this article, "was more interested in having a good time than in setting a Christian example." Why is this? He answers with "Christianity wasn't a choice, and I wanted to do what I wanted to do. The culture of the college is 'if it feels good, do it.'" Missiologists call this "syncretism," or capitulating to the sinful aspects of the culture you should be trying to reach. And let's face it, many of not most "Christian" college students have effectively "neutered" their witness for Christ before the end of their first semester on campus. However, this is not the only bad result of our "us-them" approach to moral development in the church.
Another is "sectarianism," or cutting onesself off from culture to the extent that one no longer encounters the lost in any meaningful way. Two examples of this kind of behavior are illustrated in TIME's article. The first is the "Christian" Frat-House. "Christian students share rooms with one or two other like-minded students, eat their meals in a communal dining room and get together for one-on-one spiritual mentoring and small-group Bible study." Although Christian community is important for further spiritual development, it is essential to challenge those in this environment with the question of when they have time to engage the lost?
Another, more extreme example of the sectarian lifestyle is seen in Old Paths Baptist Church, who sends a group to the Bloomington campus of Indiana University weekly, "touting posters of aborted fetuses and shouting anti-gay slogans." These groups practice "tertiary separation." That is, not only are they separated from sin (Biblical separation), but also sinners (secondary separation), as well as those who have company with sinners. Those who seek to influence college students for Christ by living among them are criticized for "living in a house of sin."
Bridging the gap between the "syncretistic" and "sectarian" are students like Straub and Howell, who, according to the article "are making their mark in ways that will never draw much public attention." They live among the non-Christian student population, and seek to influence them daily. After spending some time in the Christian fraternity, Straub recalls being challenged with this question: "Try to think of another time when you'll live with 100 other guys, most of whom don't want to be bothered with God right now." In other words, Straub was challenged to "look at the harvest." Sounds strangely like John 4 doesn't it?
There, Jesus breaks all the social rules of a "good Jew." He "lolli-gags" in the bad part of town, he approaches a woman of questionable reputation (actually, there was no question about her reputation, it was terrible), he drinks from her water container, and He offers her eternal life. And after all of this, the disciples still don't get it, and their ignorance becomes the impetus for a missionary calling that still echoes in our ears today: "Behold I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest [Jn 4:35b]." As we ponder how to train up our young people so that they will remain pure while influencing their world for Christ, some principles emerge from this story:
I. Train our young people to face the realities of a sinful world. The old adage "garbage in=garbage out" may in fact be a myth. By that I mean that keeping young people in a "Christian bubble" will not help them develop morally. If it did, we would most certainly see that result today. Mark Driscoll rightfully observes that "there is no such thing as a pure culture untainted by sin and sinners, including Christian entertainment, which has had its share of scandalous behavior." In addition, "sin looks good only from a distance; the closer you get to it, the more clearly you see it, the more sickening it becomes." Maybe we should be less concerned about young people being "exposed" to sin, since exposure is inevitable, and instead show them the reality of where sin leads. Regardless, sin is real, even in the church, and we do young people no service when we delude them into thinking they can totally escape it.
II. Teach Separation as the Bible Teaches Separation: When we trump Biblical teaching on separation to include separation from sinners, we give young people a perverted view of holiness, and in the process, we add to God's Word! For morally strong young people to overcome sin, they must be brought to understand that separation will not be acheived by focusing on their distance from the world, but rather, focusing on their closeness to Jesus. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit, not artificially-imposed rules, that develop genuine Biblical morality.
III. Teach Students the concept of being "Salt and Light." And remember, Matthew 5:13-16 isn't about the world hearing our voices, but seeing our good works! Influence which is most potent is personal influence. Peter Howell knows this, and it shows in his weekly "door to door" ministry at Sigma Nu. Trevor Loe, an unchurched member of that fraternity, notices. "In the biggest meathead frat" reports Loe," he's 100%. And no matter what day I say no, he'll always come back. One day, when I'm ready, I'll remember Peter."
IV. Teach Students to Love the Lost: Jesus didn't go to Samaria because it was the popular thing to do. He didn't go to impress His disciples, and He didn't go to make a good name for Himself. None of those things happened. He went because prior to the beginning of time, He had set his unconditional love upon a slut who didn't deserve His time and attention, much less His salvation. And like that woman, all of us are simply undeserving sinners who are who we are by the grace of God alone. When students really digest the deepest meanings of grace, the foundation for their moral development, as well as their missional calling, will have been laid.
Sectarians quote 1 Peter 1:16 out of context, forgetting that true holiness is extrinsically tied to the concepts taught in 1 Peter 2:21-25.
Those who fall to syncretism fail to see the truth of Philippians 3:7-11, that Christ is a treasure greater than any earthly pleasure.
Young men like Brandon Straub and Peter Howell however, embody the function of that most honorable of titles: "Missionary." They understand that one's moral compass cannot be divorced from one's missional calling, and their lifestyle and witness are undergirded by how they look at their place on the college campus; as workers in a field that is white unto harvest!