Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Brown, Columbia, Cornell. Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania.
These eight colleges, all in the “blue states” of the Northeast, are the heart of the Ivy League. Founded long ago by Christians, they have become a hotbed of secularism. For most observers of the culture war, it would be hard to name a less promising field for Christian missionaries.
But it’s the field the Christian Union has chosen.
Founded almost four years ago by Texan Matt Bennett, the Christian Union has established a full-time office on the Princeton University campus and maintains a presence at the other seven.
“Certainly this is a culture that sees Christianity as incompatible,” Bennett told Chalcedon. “But we have to be here. We can’t just surrender the campus to Peter Singer and his outrageous ethics.”
Singer — animal rights extremist, advocate of infanticide and euthanasia — chairs the ethics department at Princeton.
“We definitely want to promote changes in the academic culture,” Bennett said. “We are here to advance the kingdom of Christ. We want more openness to Christianity, more discussion of religious issues. We believe that once Jesus Christ is put before the university, it’ll become evident that He is superior to any worldview, any other value system, that they can imagine.”
Overcoming the Academic Culture
Although the headlines often zero in on incidents of active hostility to Christians in the academic world, Bennett has found that the most difficult aspect of his new mission field is subtler than that and harder to overcome.
“Our greatest obstacle is the assumption that religion in general just doesn’t have a place,” he said. “It’s just assumed, in the academic culture, that Christianity simply isn’t true and that the Christian faith wouldn’t have much to bring to this environment. It amounts to a removal of Christianity and Christ from human life.”
The gospel itself never changes, Bennett said, “but we have to adapt our presentation of the gospel to the campus culture. The people in that culture need to see that believing in Jesus Christ is not incompatible with being a thinking person.
“Many of the people on campus are activists: they always want to make a difference. We have to show them that Christians can make a big difference. When we talk about social action, we stress that we want to change the world for Jesus Christ, to please Him and to honor Him.”
College campuses have for long been places where young people discover and experiment with sex, alcohol, “and the rest of the college environment — which can be overwhelming to a young person away from home and off on his own for the first time,” Bennett said. “I grew up in Texas, and when I went to college at Cornell in the 1980s, it was a major culture shock.”
The Christian Union missionaries also have to cope with ignorance and false impressions about Christianity.
“There’s so much ignorance about the Christian faith,” Bennett said. “They pick up a lot of false ideas from the media. We have to teach them who Christ is and what He stands for.”
There is some active hostility, he said. At Princeton, the Union had to enlist the aid of a legal foundation, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), before college authorities would grant recognition to a Christian students’ group, Princeton Faith and Action. Princeton’s dean of religious life had denied recognition to the PFA because it was associated with the Christian Union, but a strong letter from FIRE persuaded the university to end discrimination against student religious organizations (for the full story see http://thefire.org/index.php/article/5637.html).
Doing Their Bit
“We’re just trying to do our part of carrying out the Great Commission [Matt. 28:19–20],” Bennett said. “We have people from many denominations, and some from none … We’re united by our common vision for impacting the world with Jesus Christ at the center of everything we do.
“We believe in learning and applying the Scriptures and in helping other ministries on the various Ivy League campuses. We have five full-time people here at Princeton, and we all travel to the other schools and partner with the ministries there.”
How many college students and faculty members have been converted as a result of the Christian Union’s missionary efforts?
“We don’t count noses, so that’s very hard for us to measure,” Bennett said. “We concentrate on impacting the campus as a whole — passing out educational literature, assisting Christian newspapers and newsletters on campus, organizing Bible studies. Now that the schools are on their summer breaks, we focus on fundraising and preparing for conferences, which we’ll hold during the academic year.”
Bennett began his ministry with Campus Crusade for Christ, but left to found the Christian Union.
“We tried to stay with the Campus Crusade, but we needed to go our own way,” he said. “The Crusade’s priorities are worldwide, but we’re focused strictly on the Ivy League.”
The Christian Union was featured in a May 22 New York Times article, which attracted much attention and can be read on the Union’s website, http://involve.christian-union.org. The Times article concentrated on the Union’s finances rather than its mission.
“Any time you talk about reclaiming the culture for Christ, some people think you’re trying to start a theocracy,” Bennett said.
“But there is a hunger for Christ on these campuses. People are more open-minded than you might think. They want to know why they’re here; they want to know their purpose in life. Jesus Christ answers those questions, and we see people on these campuses come to faith in Christ.
“We want them to at least know who He is. That’s why we’re here.”
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.