As a Christian student movement, InterVarsity traces its roots back to Britain in the year 1877, when students at Cambridge University formed the first Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. Today we continue the legacy of those Cambridge students by establishing witnessing communities on American campuses. “The first of our Core Commitments is to the college and university,” says InterVarsity President Alec Hill. “We are called to be a redeeming influence among its people, ideas, and structures.”
Today’s universities originated in the cathedral schools of twelfth century Europe. For centuries thereafter, students from Bologna to Cambridge learned natural sciences, classic literature, languages, arts, philosophy, and the queen of sciences-theology-all in a unified curricula intended to develop a whole person. By the late nineteenth century in the public universities of Europe and the United States, theology had been deposed and the sciences that now reigned would not allow a Christian worldview.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, however, Christian students on secular American campuses heeded God’s urgings to call their fellow students to follow Christ. Christian students initiated Bible studies and prayer groups. And by 1938, when the first InterVarsity chapter in the United States was formed at the University of Michigan, students were prepared to establish InterVarsity chapters on several campuses.
In the 1950s, InterVarsity grew as a national Christian student movement, with approximately 200 chapters across the country, and InterVarsity Press began to publish pamphlets, Bible studies, and eventually scholarly Christian books. As the decade progressed, American society was optimistic, consumer-oriented, and confident that our nation’s universities would advance the discoveries of medical science, the benefits of business, and the visions of space exploration. But counterpoint to this optimism was the rising howl of a counter-cultural movement.
Soon popular music modulated to more strident rhythms, and the percussive voices of student protesters in the 1960s and early 1970s brought explosive changes to the university. Parades of students demanded that their liberal arts education demolish their parents’ cultural values. Free speech and sexual freedom ridiculed religious virtues; recreational drugs and mystical experience satirized Christian liturgy. Yet through those tremulous years, InterVarsity staff, students, and faculty stood together on the solid ground of the Gospel and reached out to the entire university in the name of Jesus Christ.
In the 1980s and 1990s, while successive classes of students maneuvered around the ideals of their older siblings, InterVarsity continued to establish witnessing communities on campus. And while our methods of communicating the Gospel continued to change during those years, our values, our message, our hearts’ longing for students and the university did not change.
The University: A Matrix of Social Change
The university is still a matrix of profound social change. Today’s universities are being transformed through astonishing scientific and technological achievements that challenge conventional notions about human nature and personal relationships. Scientists, both natural and social, are contemplating the implications of genetic medicine; professors and students are meeting in virtual classrooms on the Internet; and universities are researching clean, renewable fuels to power cars, new pharmaceuticals to cure diseases, and genetically robust plant seeds to feed nations. But each new discovery bears an ethical conundrum, so our moral knowledge remains inadequate.
Dallas Willard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, asserts that knowledge unsupported by a belief in God is inadequate knowledge, which, when held aloft as dogma, displays an idol instead of a truth. “In the system of the academic world,” observes Willard, “knowledge is tied to the sense perceptible and quantifiable. But faith means a cognitive grasp of the invisible world.” For a Christian student, then, “reasonable faith” is possible on a secular university.
Today’s Christian students want a passionate, yet reasonable faith, and a university education that allows a Christian worldview. InterVarsity encourages students to love God and trains them to express God’s love for people of every ethnicity. InterVarsity’s sole purpose is to fulfill God’s mission on the mission field of the university.
The University: A Mission Field
Many of today’s college students are unprepared for the disorienting moral pluralism, the spiritual emptiness, and the boundless, hedonistic possibilities of today’s university culture. An increasing number of students on campus evidence emotional woundedness. Memories of broken families, sexual abuse, and abandonment are not uncommon.
Recently the American Federation for the Prevention of Suicide reported that, after traffic accidents, the second-leading cause of death among college students is suicide. Among many college students in this nation, extreme and risky behavior is a fashionable: binge drinking is a popular, weekend pastime -a pastime that last year contributed to 1,400 deaths among college students.
InterVarsity staff are passionate about helping students and faculty grow in their God-given abilities. Through our campus chapters’ Bible studies, fellowship activities, camps, and conferences, InterVarsity is introducing students to Jesus Christ and nurturing in them the ethical values of God’s Kingdom. We are grateful to the many churches who partner with us in this ministry, and we encourage our students to be active, lifelong members in local congregations. As we expand our ministries on campuses, we will continue to nurture every student’s whole person-heart, mind, and spirit.