Engaging The Whole University

Union of Evangelical Students of India, stands witness to our nation; as God’s concern to engage and impact the whole of our university and the nation. Hence our vision; “Transformed students, impacting the campuses and the nation as disciples of Lord Jesus Christ.” University is indeed a response of the wilful command of our Lord to love him with all our mind. Hence in the universities we study “the splendour of God’s creation in the hope of grasping part of the ingenuity and grace that form it.” Ultimately the result of all this learning is not only to serve and make an impact to whole world, but also be part of the restorative process of all things back to the creator and His creation purposes. Dutch theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper had a large view of the Lordship of Christ and thus his saying: “There is not a square inch on the whole plain of human existence over which Christ who is Lord over all, does not proclaim: ‘This is Mine” The implication being that we, as an University movement, are called to bring all things, both people and programs of the university world under the Lordship of Christ. A vision fulfilled unless, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we limit him to a personalised and localised deity.

Realising this greater calling, IFES made ‘Engaging the University’ a strategic priority for university movements. The vision document ‘IFES Living Stones 2020’ states that “every christian is called to engage the world in which they live. For IFES, the university is our prime sphere of engagement. All christian students and faculty are called to witness to the truth and the relevance of the gospel in all areas of university life and policy. By engaging in the university, students are prepared to engage with the culture and society that they will live in after graduation” Remarkably, even before IFES could formulate this strategy, the founding fathers of UESI clearly stated this concern in our third aim as follows: “To raise a testimony in the colleges to the truths of the historic Christian faith, and to present its message for the whole of life and problems of mankind.” But seriously enough, it warrants us as a movement to reconsider if we have lost the understanding of what it entails to engage ‘for the whole of life’, than a very spiritualised historic christian faith.

How is UESI involved in ‘University Engagement’ today ?

As a university mission, our immediate world comprises colleges and universities and so we need to engage with it closely. At present, our pattern of reaching out to students usually takes the form of inviting them to Bible studies, evangelistic meetings, retreats, picnics and camps – usually in a Christian setting or where we are in a majority and therefore in control. Some of these students respond in faith to the claims and teachings of Jesus; more so when they are befriended and mentored by Christian friends. But this constitutes just a few students on the fringes; even in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh which has the highest number of UESI students, we impact less than 1% of the student population through such forms of engagement.

Hence, an analysis of our ministry approach in UESI, it becomes obvious that the way we function has been either pietistic, evangelistic or even apologetic in nature. Such approaches important in itself though, we need to understand that these efforts do not take the university world or even the student world seriously.

‘In the pietistic model the principal orientation is towards the inner Christian life. Activities focus on Bible study, prayer, and possibly evangelism and outreach. The thematic emphasis is on living the Christian life. It might be characterized as the life of the Christian student, where “Christian” is prioritized over “student.” As a social phenomenon, this ministry stays away from the center of the university and exists at its margins. Christians live in a “quiet place,” even a kind of spiritual ghetto.

The evangelistic model, on the other hand involves proclamation of the gospel of Jesus to the campus. It may be quiet, in personal sharing of faith, or vocal, in large meetings and public events. It is a fulfilment of the Great Commission – go into all the world and preach the gospel – and that includes the university. Yet this powerful presence on the campus may not touch the heart of what the university does—what it thinks about it, what are its agendas, what it teaches—because the christians make no connections between following Jesus and the teaching curriculum or the research agendas or the contributions of the university to public debate.

The apologetic model is another model practise in our ministry. This model recognizes that big issue universities debate can be corrosive, threatening and subversive of christians and their faith. The apologetic ministry engages the university where the university seems to threaten the faith. It tends to see the university as “other,” as an institution likely to erode rather than fortify faith. The apologetic approach does take ideas seriously, but only from a defensive posture. We are very familiar with these ideas: relativism in the social sciences; secularism and modernism in the humanities; a rigid scientism from the hard sciences; psychological and sociological reductionism in the social sciences, and so on’.

Yes! these models of ministry are important in itself and has a place in UESI ministry. But if we are to label ourselves as a University Movement, we have the universities in view; they no more give us a picture of youths but of intellectuals. This demands that we need to strive and move beyond “basic devotionals to more substantial intellectual fare”. Our Christian discipleship would no more be limited to quiet time or personal bible studies; rather we would need to rethink Christian discipleship also in the spheres of Art and Culture, Humanities, Social Sciences, Commerce, Economics, Law, Pure and Applied Sciences, Medicine and so on. Student engagement in the different cell/ clubs be it on gender, sports, literature, theatre, politics etc., also provides room for conversation and worldview exchanges. Such spaces are real and cannot be shied away.

A possible reason why we have shied away from such an engagement, scholars say, comes out of the danger of anti-intellectualism. Mark Knoll in his book ‘The Scandal of the Christian Mind’ quotes Charles Malik, the Lebanese diplomat, scholar, and Eastern Orthodox Christian, on the Christian analysis of the intellectual situation for evangelicals. He says, “The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed, it may turn out that you have actually lost the world. The greatest danger besetting …evangelical christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind as to its greatest and deepest riches is not cared for enough. This cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the Gospel. They have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is abdicated and vacated to the enemy”. How true but very tragic ! Any serious engagement of the university world would then call us to make a paradigm shift in our approach to the university mission; an approach where we can encourage our students to join in the conversation that already exists on the campus; yes engage the whole university!

What Then Is Engaging The University?
UESI should join the vision of IFES University movements to work with students, research scholars, lecturers, administrators and demonstrate the practical relevance of the Gospel to all that goes on in a university (not only the academic conversations but issues of justice, corruption, etc). Dr.Vinoth Ramachandra rightly points out that “for many IFES movements this is a radical mind-shift: from thinking of ourselves as a ‘ministry to students’ to being a ministry ‘by Christian students, postgraduate as well as undergraduate, and university staff to the university world’. For this shift to occur there first has to be a profound theological shift in many of our movements. Re-thinking the ‘Gospel’ and understandings of ‘salvation’ that we have inherited from others is always painful and there will always be opposition by those who fear change and risk. So much easier to stick to the traditional ways of ‘evangelism’ —inviting non-Christians to come to our meetings and Bible studies and getting evangelists who don’t know the world of the university at all to come and preach at students — than to explore creatively the questions and issues that the university is about. Our Christian integrity and credibility is at stake here. Living the Gospel in our daily lives, whether as students or professors, must always precede its verbalising. IFES ministry should be about breaking down the profoundly unbiblical compartments that many evangelical churches have erected (e.g. ‘worship’ and ‘justice’, ‘faith’ and ‘action’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’, ‘prayer’ and ‘research’). A difficult mould to break though, we need to trust our younger generation to catch up this vision. They would not take much time to bring about this paradigm shift, rather they would enable our students to move beyond the closed walls of bible studies and into the campus to dialogue with the university environment.

This Dialogical Model is what students and faculty are encouraged in engaging the university. “Dialogue is the central defining activity of any respectable university. It is what academic freedom is all about: the freedom to think and broadcast even the most outlandish views, provided one is willing to subject those views to rigorous scrutiny and debate by one’s peers. Educational institutions that seek to stifle marginal or subversive voices, whether religious or secularist, forfeit their right to be called universities. Christians should be in the forefront of promoting such dialogue all over the university- starting as well as joining ongoing conversations on every topic that is of public interest.
. . . The opposite of rigorous dialogue is a monologue. And, sadly, much of what passes for ‘evangelism’ in traditional circles are actually monologues. To be dialogical is to be in two-way conversation: allowing the academic disciplines of the university to speak into our faith and, at the same time, articulating our faith intelligently, humbly, relevantly and boldly into those academic disciplines. In dialogue, unlike a monologue, we take risks. We expose ourselves, in all our vulnerability, to the full weight of ‘alien’ or anti-Christian thought, as well as receiving new truths that enrich our understanding of God and God’s world . . .

This shift of approach will challenge students, graduates and staff in UESI. ‘The challenge is to enter more actively into the formal and informal conversations that constitute a university. This would mean that our undergraduate students enter into active, visible discussions with their friends and teachers with the objective of bringing the Biblical/ Christian voice or world view into their academic disciplines and as well as in the discussions on the various issues and challenges of our time. The debates could range from discussions on the physical theories of origins in a biology class, corruption in a philosophy class, implications of thermodynamics in a mechanical engineering class, justice and human rights in a law programme, caste in a sociology class and so on. Of course, students would not only need to be well versed with their chosen fields of study, but should be able to critically evaluate their academic disciplines and their implications through the lens of Scripture and their faith.

Obviously this would not be a monologue or one-sided preaching to their friends of other faiths, but dialogical. It would actually make them vulnerable. Their views would be critically reviewed, analysed, challenged and sometimes even ridiculed by their classmates and professors; but this should only stimulate them to study Scripture even more thoroughly, re-examine their faith, re-evaluate their positions on these issues, discuss the issues with other Christian students, staff workers and graduates in their Bible studies and learn to access global resources in the form of books, films and lectures to help them in their journey. Some of the discussions would be about the problems of the university itself – injustice, plagiarism, corruption, mindless migration, brain drain, archaic pedagogy and so on, and then the answers that the gospel brings to each of these situations.
Research students, university administrators and professors could carry this agenda even further. Through inter-disciplinary discussions and research, they could collectively articulate the truths of the gospel in a more cogent and coherent manner. They would have opportunities at a higher level to present the gospel in their own academic settings and reflect the transforming presence of Christ to their colleagues and in the life of the university. They could, for instance, influence research agenda in their academic disciplines so that God’s concerns are reflected and addressed through this pursuit. They should become mentors to the younger students, bringing the findings of their research and study to the Bible studies, identifying and developing suitable resource material and more importantly, in encouraging some of the bright young students to pursue research and teaching as a vocation. This would enable a continuous Christian voice on campuses.

For this we also need to have suitably qualified and trained staff workers who are not only capable of teaching and mentoring younger students, but also confident to deal with researchers and professors – discussing issues across various academic disciplines, current research findings and pointing out resources that would help articulate a Christian stand on various subjects. All this would mean that our existing paradigm of engagement would be raised to Jesus’ incarnational standard – where all those involved in UESI would seek to be salt and light on the campuses, living out the gospel in the world of the university and in striving for the university itself to be a just and humane institution. To see our vision of “transforming students to transform the nation” become a reality, we need to see such a paradigm shift in the way we conduct the UESI ministry in future’.

As university students, it is indeed easy to float along with the existing systems; ‘sometimes aware of dissonances between their faith and their learning and between their faith and the campus life. But also many times unaware that they are absorbing views of the world and of life that flatly contradicts the gospel. Content with personal prayer, personal witnessing and a small group bible study as ways of being Christian on campus.’ As we envisage that the christian mind and the university world should be celebrated together, it calls nothing short of engaging the whole of our campuses with the whole of our life. We are thus called to move from the fringes of the campus into its heartland. In doing so we shall love the Lord with all our mind!

Sathish Joseph Simon
State Secretary UESI Delhi

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