Part of my job as the Dean of Student Life is to keep a finger on the pulse of our students. How are they doing? Who is having a hard time? Do they seem to be growing personally? Spiritually? Academically?
Over the last two years one theme I have picked up on is that our staff team has to be on the lookout for an overemphasis on truth.
Don’t get me wrong – we should seek truth in everything, and should constantly be examining our worldview and way of living to make sure that they match up with reality. What I am concerned with is perhaps not so much an overemphasis on truth as much as a forgetting of grace.
The trend I have noticed in modern evangelical and protestant circles is to fall off the fence in one way or the other – towards grace or towards truth. Self-proclaimed theologians, most Lutherans and Reformed Baptists, and a large number of John Piper fans (aka 5-7 point Calvinists) that I have experienced tend to lean toward the truth side of the scale. For good reason – one’s beliefs about God will inform the acting out of those beliefs in everyday life, so one should definitely be sure to think through their beliefs.
The issue comes when we fall in love with logic more than people. Numerous times I have seen people turned off to any spiritual conversation because the truth-at-all-cost mentality is argued by the Christian, and rather than understanding the humanity of the person engaged, the Christian destroys fellowship by writing off any experiences or feelings that inform the opposing position taken.
But isn’t our God personal? Didn’t he give us feelings and emotions? That is the rub – not everyone is persuaded by logic, and people – all people – have biases, feelings, dreams, hopes, preconceptions, and misconceptions about faith. And an act of grace in the moment of conversation is to seek first to understand the person rather than to blindly diagnose and condemn.
When this is done, the most effective evangelism can happen because it is built on an attempt to understand by building relationship.
At the Abbey, this is a unique problem because it would be very easy for our students to be on our campus, only interact with their books, assignments, and their classmates, and that is it. And they could still learn much of what they are here to learn: how to refute arguments, how to defend the faith, and how to theoretically apply a Christian worldview to their lives.
But as good as the ability to win the argument sounds, their education would be lacking; because if our students mastered the ability to refute every atheist argument in the book, those arguments would never have faces. The arguments would never feel pain, be having a hard day at work, or need a friend to call when tragedy struck. And so our students’ ability to learn to speak to a person where they are would be warped. Instead of understanding how to comfort and empathize, our students would reflect an education of facts, whose hugs tend to be cold and heartless.
For this reason, students in our program are required to be in three hours of community involvement per week – not necessarily service; just time outside of our bubble in a consistent community – be it a job, local sports league, or ministry. They also participate in weekly bible study and worship, one corporate community service project per semester, and various evangelism days through their Apologetics and World Religions Class.
The emphasis of this is that they would be around people who aren’t going through the same things they are and probably don’t believe the same things they do so that students will practice building relationship, explaining what they are doing to people who have never heard, and being involved with people in whom they can see progress and go along side life with. In short, to give opportunity for the applications of humanity and grace to their theology.
We can never (and should never) argue someone into the kingdom of Christ, nor should we look at people as projects to be manipulated. But empathy, listening, conversation, and serving are all skills that can be developed.
The other day our students went witnessing at a local high school, and two of our girls returned in tears because of the brokenness they saw in the students they interacted with. I was sad to hear those high school students didn’t come to know Christ through our students, but in the same moment I was very glad to hear about the reaction.
A student body that experiences despair because of an interaction with the depravity of the lost is one that is in a good place with their understanding of humanity, and I hope as much or more that students who graduate from our program, beyond only having the answers to tough theological and apologetics questions, will have the heart to weep for the lost.