How God is Moving on Secular Campuses

by Owen Strachan November 3, 2016

It is not uncommon for evangelicals today to lament that the college campus is secularizing. This is not a silly conclusion, considering the drift of modern elite culture. There is much to be troubled by.

But I have been reminded of late that God is on the move at the American university. Some folks will recall that two years ago, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group at Bowdoin, Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, was officially removed as a campus group (I was involved with BCF for all four of my years at Bowdoin, 1999-2003). The reason? BCF required student leaders to hold and practice biblical sexual ethics. This is not a strange position in American culture; your average monotheist has historically held such a view, and there are literally billions of people in a range of religions who hold a form of this position today. In fact, it is quite likely that there are far more people who hold to the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic in the world than hold to the Secularist-Pagan sexual ethic (such as it is).

But that is no matter; biblical sexual ethics must go. So BCF went. It was all sad and troubling. The New York Times covered the whole affair, and covered it with considerable fairness and insight. For some, the story ended there. But the story went on. Just recently, the Bowdoin Orient featured one of the most surprising pieces you’ll read in a 21-first century campus newspaper. “Coming Out Christian” tells the story of one Bowdoin student, a young woman named Adira Polite (class of ’18). Adira was formerly involved in LGBT advocacy at Bowdoin (her LinkedIn page lists affiliation with the Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance as “Co-Chair & Advocacy Outreach Liaison”), but she encountered the Christian film War Room and was transfixed by it: “[A]bout halfway through the film, I was overcome with unexplainable awe,” she writes. “Within days, I had repressed the movie’s message; fortunately, the film had already planted a seed of faith within me.”

God was at work. I’m reminded of the Latin phrase lux in tenebris–“light in darkness.” Here is what happened not long after, just a few months ago:

On August 14th, I dedicated my life to Christ at a Brooklyn church.

Since that day, life has taken on a new meaning. Frankly, the insignificance of the physical world is now glaring. I have begun to understand the Spirit. Moreover, I now understand the true meaning of good and evil. I know it sounds crazy, and that’s because it is. Our world is obsessed with explaining life through logic and reason; as a result, our world is broken. That was my old world, and broken it was. 

I did not understand the term “born-again” until this ineffable transformation happened to me. I say “happened to me” because this transformation occurred by no action of my own. I had immense doubts and could not see past the facades of religious constructs. I was not searching for God when he found me; it is solely by His grace that I am found. Because of this transformation, I am able to truly see clearly for the first time in twenty years. I now know Life. And I am whole. 

Adira Polite now professes faith in Christ. She has taken the tremendous step of declaring this faith to the Bowdoin community. She has not done so in hostility or pride. She has no broader agenda that her narrative betrays. She has experienced God’s grace, and on a campus that draws students from many diverse backgrounds, and promises to welcome them all, she has shared her story.

I read Adira’s testimony with lightning running down my back. At my alma mater, a college I warmly remember, God is at work. Through diverse means, including the heroic efforts of Rob Gregory and the McKeen Study Center, he’s moving. I can scarcely say how encouraging this is. We sometimes approach secular schools as if they are fortresses, but they are not. They are filled with people–flesh-and-blood people made in God’s image. The university is filled with humanity, teeming with purpose, loaded with promise. No person on campus is without worth. No resident is without value. And it must be said: no one is beyond the reach of God.

No one.

I was reminded of this truth this past weekend. In the heartland, I saw what is happening concurrently in Maine. Cornerstone Church, a Southern Baptist church led by my friends Jeff Dodge and Troy Nesbitt, has for decades conducted ministry to students at Iowa State University (in Ames). The work has grown over the years and now Salt Company–the student ministry–draws around 1,400 young men and women per week. This is a stunning total. Salt Company is, quite straightforwardly, one of the nation’s largest college ministries.

This weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to the Salt students about politics, teaching in the church’s terrific Cornerstone School of Theology, and preaching to around 3,000 people on Sunday morning (here’s my sermon on Joshua–all of it!). It was a good deal of ministry activity, but the duties on me felt light, because there was such tremendous evidence of God’s work in this church. On Sunday morning, I sat beside my friend Jeff as we watched person after person enter the baptismal waters. Conversion after conversion. Testimony after testimony. Many of those baptized were college students.

Cornerstone and Salt are working in partnership with the North American Mission Board. NAMB has just designated the university campus as its 33rd “send city,” meaning it is seeking to send planters to countless college campuses. I could not be more excited about this initiative. It made me grateful for the visionary ministry of Kevin Ezell and Brian Frye, leader of NAMB’s Collegiate Collective. While in Ames, I also spent time with a terrific pastor named Dean Inserra. The church he shepherds, City Church, is reaching many young men and women in Tallahassee, Florida, where Florida State University is located. If you’re a young ministry worker, guy or girl, you should think hard–very, very hard–about working with NAMB to reach the university campus. What an incredible opportunity you have.

In sum, this was a tremendously heartening weekend. It can feel to the church today like the darkness is closing in. If you close your eyes, all can seem lost. But if you open your eyes, you see points of light. You see gospel advancement. You see strategic initiative. You see local churches leading ministries to students while also calling them to meaningful membership in the local church. This is the model I believe we need moving ahead. Parachurch ministries can do great good, but I believe they will do most good when partnering closely with local churches. This is especially true as campus access grows dicey in places.

Friends, God is moving on secular campuses. In some cases, the odds seem impossible. But God loves facing seemingly impossible odds. He loves to use small things, foolish things, to shame the world. We do not know where we are headed. But we know this: we are not alone. God has gone ahead of us.

Now is not a time for retreat; now is a time to go big, trust God, and reach out to sinners like us in truth and in love.


Editor's note: this article originally published at Dr. Strachan's blog, Patheos