Evangelism in the Academy

Much evangelism happens on campus — indeed, the college campus might be the central place where evangelism takes place in US culture — but I’d wager that very little evangelism happens within the academy, inside the formal and informal structures of scholarship, teaching, and academic service.

At my church, I’ve just started teaching an 8-week series on evangelism to my adult bible fellowship. I’m using the following working definition of evangelism:

Introducing nonChristians to the good news of Jesus Christ with an implied or explicit offer to respond

This definition is quite narrow on purpose — I want to focus on the act of sharing the gospel and inviting people to follow Jesus, rather than diffuse our discussion with other (important) forms of witness and service.

My definition, however, ignores the usually-necessary progress from being indifferent or even hostile to God to being ready to make a commitment to Jesus. Further, if we’re talking about evangelism in the academy, there are few opportunities where one can share the gospel and invite a response without violating academic integrity. As Daryl and Teri McCarthy of IICS are fond of saying, “If you’ve been hired to teach math, and you instead work as a missionary, you are stealing from the university.” How then do we share the gospel in the academy?

Doug Schaupp and Don Everts’ idea of thresholds of conversion (PDF) might offer some ideas. As outlined in their book I Was Once Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus, these thresholds try to describe a series of steps to entering the kingdom in a postmodern culture, where the Christian meta-narrative is neither assumed nor trusted.

Thresholds of Conversion

  1. From distrust to trust
  2. From complacent to curious
  3. From being closed to change in their life to being open to change
  4. From meandering to seeking
  5. From darkness to the kingdom of light

This series of thresholds — which might not be necessary for everyone, or even followed linearly — might open up some ideas for how evangelism might happen within the academy, rather than just on campus. For example, in his essay Being Open About Your Faith Without Turning People Off, University of Virginia professor Ken Elzinga shares several ways to build trust. I’ve heard other stories of faculty who earned an opportunity to share the gospel with a colleague because, after years of mutual trust, their friend came to a place of spiritual seeking and openness.

What do you think of these thresholds of conversion? Do you have any experience — or concerns — with evangelism within the structures of the academy?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

  • jmulholl@uchicago.edu'
    John Mulholland commented on July 19, 2010 Reply

    As an indirect response to this question, we might consider this not so little item.

    Peter Hitchens, brother of Christopher the atheist, has a new book out, Rage Against God. The subtitle given by the British publihser is: “… Why Faith is the Foundation of Civilisation”. By contrast, I would say big contrast, the U.S. publisher Zondervan has “… How Atheism Led Me to Faith”

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