The Uniqueness of University Evangelism

Tim Keller & Michael Keller  |  June 23, 2017

Why is evangelism among university students so crucial?

One reason is because of the unique openness the university experience creates in students’ lives. During undergraduate years, young adults usually experience a new level of independence from family and other childhood connections. For many, it’s the first time out of the house and being fully responsible for their daily decisions and actions. Most students go to college not to stay the same but to set their own course in life, so there’s an openness to big questions and different ideas, even radically new ones.

Young adults at this stage of life have always been asking at least four such big questions:

1. Who am I? (looking inward)
2. What’s the point or meaning of things? (looking outward)
3. Whom should I be with and love? (looking sideways)
4. And, in the light of the first three answers, what should I do with my life? (looking forward)

Those who don’t go to college often accept the answers their families and home communities assign to them. University students certainly have social pressure on them from their background, but they’re given much more space and opportunity to make significant changes.

Unprecedented Questions

While students have always wrestled with some form of these basic questions, our late-modern secular culture has intensified the dynamics. Consider Amherst College in Massachusetts, which explains its mission like this: “Since 1821, we’ve been helping our students find their own voices, discover their own truths, and forge their own paths in the world.” It would be hard to find a more blatant expression of what has been called “expressive individualism.” (And we strongly doubt the college founders in 1821 thought they were helping students “discover their own truths”!)

Nevertheless, this mission shows that, more than ever, universities create environments that encourage students to rethink the beliefs of their upbringing, including their meaning in life, values, and identity. That, of course, is a challenge to students who come into undergraduate courses with a Christian faith. But it also means students from other backgrounds and communities are dislodged from them and are freer to consider the claims of Christianity than they would’ve been at home.

Also, while it may be considered impolite in much of society to try to convert people to your belief system, on university campuses this is essentially what everyone’s trying to do to everyone else, with vigor. The free market of ideas and the discussions that ensue inside and outside the lecture room aren’t value-neutral exchanges, but rather places of persuasion where individuals debate and accept differing explanations of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Evangelism fits right in.

Ample Time

Another reason evangelism is crucial during university years shouldn’t be overlooked. It concerns time. College students’ life patterns give them ample time for discussion, questioning, study, and inquiry, a luxury most people don’t have. Today’s students will insist they’re overwhelmingly busy, but every man or woman who graduates from college and enters the marketplace looks back and realizes their schedule was actually more flexible than it would ever be again.

The university is uniquely suited for evangelism. There’s no other place in our culture that affords listeners the space and freedom, time and posture, to talk about the Meaning of It All.

So we must strike while the iron is hot. University undergraduates have both the freedom and the bandwidth required to consider abandoning one comprehensive set of beliefs about life and adopting a whole new one. Later in life their worldview “settles in” through vocational choices and longer-term friendships and new family ties. This makes it far harder to get anything like the focused attention and energy necessary to examine the foundations of one’s entire life.

The university, then, is in many ways uniquely suited for evangelism. There’s no other place in our culture that affords listeners the space and freedom, time and posture, to talk about the Meaning of It All.

Access to the World

There’s one last reason why we should make university evangelism a high priority. Today there are enormous numbers of international students flocking to receive Western educations. One reason we should reach out to them has already been noted. Away from their home cultures and communities, they’re far more accessible and open to considering the claims of Christianity than they’ve ever been before or, possibly, will be again. Indeed, many students who opt for a Western education have every intention of weighing worldview options and other religions.

And there’s another thing to bear in mind. A significant percentage of international students return to their countries and assume positions of influence. Colleges always talk about “training future leaders” but in this case it’s largely true. Student evangelists can engage in international missions to dozens of countries without the need for a single passport. There’s no better way to “make disciples of all nations” than to reach international students in our universities.

Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Tim Keller and Michael Keller’s chapter, “University Missions and Evangelism Today,” in the new book Serving the Church, Reaching the World: Essays in Honour of Don Carson (IVP UK, 2017). Previously published on thegospelcoalition.org.