Evangelism and caution in the professor-student relationship?

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.

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  • andunning@gmail.com'
    Andrew commented on December 30, 2008 Reply

    I’ve never heard of anything like this, but then I go to a “secular” university. I would be quite surprised if a professor offered to pray for me, though I would probably appreciate it in the end. Were I not a Christian, I can imagine feeling too intimidated to refuse it, but I would definitely be uncomfortable.

    That said, students – including myself – too rarely participate in office hours (except perhaps towards the end of the term), and anything that professors can come up with to engage students within them is wonderful to hear about.

  • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
    Micheal Hickerson commented on January 3, 2009 Reply

    I could see it as being intimidating for a student, but if the professor were winsome and light about it, maybe not. In my experience, at least, asking for prayer requests tends to be a non-threatening way of opening doors to the Gospel.

    IV staff member Bob Trube has pointed out to me that this power relationship works the other way, too: grad students, because of their “powerless” position, can get away with saying much more to professors than vice versa.

    As Mary Poplin recounted, the influence of one of her grad students was a major factor in her conversion to Christ. His tactic might be a good model. She didn’t even know he was a Christian, but he continually let her know that if she ever wanted to work on her “spiritual life,” he was available to talk. He also took an interest in her academic specialties that most other students did not (she mentioned, for example, that he was the only man ever to take her course of radical feminism).

  • rcm06f@fsu.edu'
    Rachel commented on January 7, 2009 Reply

    What struck me the most about Ken Elzinga was the absolute sincerity of his dedication to showing Christ’s love to his students. Could what he does be considered an abuse of professorial power? I think the question says more about our view of prayer and witnessing than about the students’ experience. Prayer is personal, we think – it may feel like an intrusion. It involves a level of intimacy we do not expect in an academic setting. It may be uncomfortable. This is perhaps more true for us than for our students, who may just think it’s very odd.

    But even if prayer makes a student uncomfortable, aren’t we called to care more for their well-being overall than for their temporary comfort level? I’m not saying that the end justifies the means; just that our every action ought to be undertaken with the end in mind that our students would experience the love of Christ in us. If we are so afraid of causing offense that we cannot express God’s love for the world, then we really aren’t following Jesus’s model. Look at Jesus washing his disciples’ feet – certainly he did not hesitate to make *his* students uncomfortable!

    The real caution, I think, is that whatever we do must be done out of genuine love – not to prove something to ourselves, to God, or to others. Too often in my own life, witnessing has been a chance for me to show God – or at least myself – that I’m a good Christian, saying and doing all the right things. (It is still so hard to learn to live with grace!) I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 13 – all our efforts gain nothing when they are done without love… while on the other hand, love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). So I think it unlikely that using your position as a professor in a spirit of love and servanthood could be defined as an abuse of power… and I think that your students would be able to tell the difference, too.

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