After listening to Professor Ken Elzinga of the University of Virginia on ways to evangelize on and off campus “without turning people off,” I came away both excited and with questions. I am a first year professor at Loyola College in Maryland, a Jesuit institution where Christian faith (and probably other faiths as well) can be much more easily discussed, in contrast to UVa, a secular institution whose heritage is shaped by Thomas Jefferson’s strict church-state separation.
Elzinga’s announcement at the start of each semester to “serve students” and his request that they hold him accountable strike me as a courageous promise and offer. That he prays before office hours that the Lord would reveal at least one student with whom he can share the gospel or help in some tangible way is a challenge to me to transform office hours from a “necessary evil” to an opportunity to serve. That he had few expectations or strong desires to get tenure and so was freed to be faithful to Christ was a surprising (and enviable) perspective.
My questions arose from his practice of offering prayers for every student that walked in his door, something he hoped new professors would do right away, rather than wait 20 years as he had. Clearly, over the years his approach and dedication to love others as himself has won over department chairs and big names who were offended by his Christian faith; his care for students – who may suspect he is Christian during the term but only learn definitively so at the term’s end – has also won many of them over, if not to conversion, at least to respect.
In fact, many students return to ask for prayer again. Others, he reported, seemed puzzled or pleased by his prayers for them. None has refused his offer. And even Muslims and Jews have appreciated his prayers.
Yet Ken dismissed secular colleagues’ suggestions that students may be intimidated by his stature as a full professor and so be too afraid to say no. I am not so sure those concerns should be easily dismissed.
After all, as professors, we do carry a substantial measure of power. We hold the power over students to give them grades; perhaps as important, we are accorded authority for having trained and studied for years to master the subjects we teach. Might that power and authority not intimidate undergraduates from expressing discomfort? Jesus seemed to rarely wield authority over others, unless attacking the hypocritical Pharisees.
Perhaps I am being overly sensitive, and perhaps such worries compared with the results of students returning for prayer (and even making up econ problems to have excuses to visit Ken and ask for prayers!). Is it enough that the gospel is preached, no matter the way, as St. Paul wrote in Philippians in response to complaints of preaching out of envy?
I’d like to hear comments from students and professors, new and old, of their experiences.