The Missional Professor in Universities Outside North America

How can Christian academics carry out mission while working at universities outside their home countries?

From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was co-written by Rebecca Carlson and Vivian Chen.

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Dr. Keith Campbell, today’s speaker, is vice president of Global Partnerships for Global Scholars and has spent four years teaching New Testament at Shanghai University in China. He’s also the author of Researching Abroad: Tips and Tools for the TradeDr. Liam Atchison, who helped answer questions from the audience, is vice president of US relations for Global Scholars. He has been a church-planting pastor, a university professor, and an academic dean at Western Seminary.

Keith, excited about his first Urbana conference, kicks off the session by taking a selfie with the audience. He then begins by saying that in this session we will discuss “some influential square footage on planet Earth”. There are many influential places on earth, he says, but Charles Malik, UN president, says that the three most influential square feet on earth are the three square feet behind a university podium. What is spoken from that podium affects everyone, from the peasant to the president. Professors are a part of shaping the minds of the 90% of world leaders who attend universities.

According to Malik, “To change a nation, teach its leaders; to teach its leaders, influence its universities; to influence its universities teach in its classrooms.” This is a clear-cut fulcrum through which to move the world. If you change the university, you change the world! The apostle Paul also used this strategy. In Acts 19:8-11, Paul instructs disciples in a “lecture hall” for two years so that all Jews and Greeks in Asia heard the word of the Lord.

Keith challenges us, saying that evangelicals should be commended for ministering well at the periphery of the University; however, now is the time to move to the heart of the university – the podium. There has been a clarion cry to do this in the United States and now there should be a cry to do this globally.

Consider Going

Keith emphasizes that there is a lot of preparation required to go; however, he has found that it is worth it. One reason is because, while it is incredibly difficult to obtain a job in the US in many disciplines, if we choose to teach globally, we will obtain immediate respect and step into an already existing infrastructure. With this position, we can have a great influence on others. Keith says that in STEM in particular, many countries will pay American professors well to come and teach in their universities. He challenges the audience, asking, “How might the world be different today if Osama Bin Laden had had a Christian professor in his engineering studies?”

What a Missional Professor Is Not

Keith says that he hopes to encourage many in the room who want to get an advanced degree but feel a conflict with the desire to do missions work. He argues that being a missional professor is not a cover for “real” or “important” missions, contrary to what some churches might imply by their attitudes. Teaching well is in itself good ministry. Sharing the gospel is important, but don’t short-change your academic work, Keith encourages the audience. Also, a missional professor is not simply a campus minister in disguise. God created you beautifully as a nerd and bookworm, and we are called to read and write and work to the glory of God. A Christian at the top of his or her field has an impact in and of itself.

What Is a Missional Professor?

Keith begins by saying that, of course, a missional professor is both Christian and missional. In addition, a missional professor is also academic – unashamedly so. Keith continues, emphasizing that for a missional professor many things are actually the same as for a non-Christian professor. Missional professors should know their discipline because we are called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). Keith also echoes Paul’s words in Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. In addition, missional professors should research and write to their full potential, whatever that is, and teach excellently. Just by doing these things, along with letting others know that you are a believer, will earn you great respect from your colleagues. And one day, a colleague may stop by and ask, for instance, “My wife’s leaving me. Do you have any advice?”, opening up a window of opportunity to speak truth into their lives.

In addition to academic excellence, Keith says that Christian professors should focus on living by the fruit of the Spirit and following Jesus’ humble attitude in Philippians 2:9, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Keith says, “If Jesus can become obedient unto death, then certainly on the streets of Latin America I cannot believe that I am better than my students or colleagues simply because I have been blessed with more educational opportunities.” Keith also highlights the importance of exercising a Christian love through our research and teaching, “1 Corinthians 13 style”.

Practically, missional professors are called to give up Western prestige and comfort, understanding that every discipline is a holy calling. Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which the Lord doesn’t cry out, ‘This is mine!”. This includes your discipline, says Keith.

Keith continues by illustrating an example of a missional professor in engineering. Faith should not be integrated in shallow or “hokey” ways. If God leads you to speak, do it boldly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to bring up your faith often in the classroom. In addition, you should challenge weak worldviews or presuppositions; for instance, by directing others to the big picture behind their disciplines and urging them to think about the philosophy behind what they do. Another way to live missionally is through public reflection on how our discipline fits into a larger framework of meaning. Finally, Keith says that as Christian professors we can have an exponential influence by encouraging students to use their academic degrees for Christ. Perhaps they may also consider becoming missional professors. However, no matter how smart we become or how many degrees hang on our walls, we should never be ashamed of the Gospel. As we live out our faith in the academy, we should remember to share the Gospel because of its incredible power.

Conclusion

Keith wraps up his talk by inviting us to consider going. He directs us to investigate Global Scholars for further resources and concludes with a call to action: if we can raise up an army of Christian researchers and scholars who will go out globally, the impact will be staggering. John Keith Falconer, a martyr serving in Yemen, said, “I have but one candle of life to burn and I would rather burn it out in a land of darkness than in one flooded with lights”. Do that as a professor – would you?

Keith offers a free e-book he wrote for further study – Researching Abroad, which can be found here (use coupon code GLScholars).

Other books Keith recommends include:

Questions From the Audience

How do you get the opportunity to challenge students when it doesn’t come up naturally?
Keith says that overseas the division between church and state is often much less than that perceived in the United States. As with any ministry, trusting in the Lord and persisting to build relationships with friends and colleagues is key to success. In many regions, you will simply look so different that others will naturally raise questions about your life.

What are some practical next steps for those interested in being missional professors?
Keith responds that the most important thing is to finish your education by obtaining a terminal degree in your field. Next, begin to find a locale overseas through organizations such as Global Scholars.

A biophysics Ph.D. student wonders, ”If I want to focus on teaching abroad, do I need to do a postdoc?”
Although this is different from Keith’s field, he comments that he definitely recommends doing a postdoc if the opportunity arises. Liam, a colleague of Keith’s, also recommends doing a postdoc. However, if you have the opportunity, try to get some practical teaching experience during your postdoc.

Most of my education has been through conservative Christian universities. How hostile are global universities toward this background?
Keith says that his educational background is very similar. There are challenges both in America and globally to find positions teaching philosophy, but if you are willing and flexible to work in seminaries and Bible colleges your chances of obtaining a position are higher. Keith says that his experience teaching in China with a Ph.D. in the New Testament is the exception rather than the rule; however, attitudes vary widely depending on where in the world you want to go. Recently, Keith applied for a visa to North Korea and he said that the template he was looking at was a graduate of an evangelical seminary.

Liam chimes in explaining that your school’s ranking is much ore important to universities overseas than its background or sectarian nature. It is very important to many of these schools that your school be in the top 250 universities worldwide.

How much support do you get in your teaching?
Be prepared for anything and expect everything, Keith says. Again, situations vary widely depending on the country where you are serving: some institutions support you really well and others simply don’t. You have to be ready for anything and do research on the locale you are going to, asking people on the ground there when the time comes.

How have you seen missional professors work out this unusual dynamic with their families?
Keith says that his wife is not an academic, although she did teach English classes while he served in China. He advises that the best approach is to communicate in advance with your family and agree on a common strategy for family life. “I can say no in China just as I can say no in the United States”, making time for my family.

Is the tenure system overseas different from the United States?
“Yes”, Liam says, repeating again that it depends on the country. In Europe there are systems similar to tenure, but in other locations tenure is simply not put into practice..

Keith closes by praying, “May you live out Jesus’ commission as someone who fully, confidently, and boldly integrate scholarship with faith as Christian missionary academic.

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Rebecca Carlson

Rebecca is a junior at Michigan State University studying Chemical Engineering and Chinese. She is a leader in Bridges International and is a research assistant in a biomolecular engineering lab on campus. She grew up in Italy and loves learning about other cultures and languages, as well as chatting about immunology, bioinformatics, and the intersection of science and faith.

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One Comment

  • Matt Boedy commented on February 17, 2016 Reply

    I didn’t read all the way through, nor obviously heard the speaker. But this recurring need to add a theological adjective to “professor” – in this case, missional – does not lessen the problem noted here: so many churches and Christians see professors as less than “missionary.” That is, you have to “add” missional to professor to make it honor God. Let me call that lie out. But also let’s not play that ‘game’ by adding the word. Let’s define professor as Christian, not unqualified Christian in need of an adjective.

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