Not Ashamed of the Gospel on Campus

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans. This verse has become the theme of InterVarsity’s next staff conference, scheduled for January 2-6, 2008 in St. Louis. In preparation, InterVarsity planners asked Don Everts, an Area Director and an InterVarsity Press author (Jesus with Dirty Feet, God in the Flesh, The Smell of Sin and others) for some of his thoughts. From his home in Boulder, Colorado, Don writes about presenting the Gospel in a way that is most accessible to post modern college students.

Shame always implies an audience. Paul is sent to preach the gospel and he is obligated to preach it to a specific audience – Greeks and non-Greeks, the wise and the foolish (1.14), and even to those who are in Rome (1.15). And as he boldly proclaims the gospel in that context (in front of that audience) he is not ashamed.

Today, we as staff are obligated to a different audience. We and our student leaders are preaching the gospel to college aged young adults living in the US in what has come to be called the postmodern epoch. So, what does it mean for us to do this preaching without shame in front of this audience?

There is much that goes into being able to preach the gospel on today’s campus without shame (inner confidence, the work of the spirit, confronting spiritual powers with authority, etc). But I want to focus on one specific reality that I believe greatly affects our (and our students’) ability to do so: having an answer (an apologetic) for those we are bringing the gospel to.

Our apologetic (answer) must always be governed by our audience. It’s their questions, concerns and hopes we’re answering, after all. Paul had a certain apologetic for those he was preaching to in Rome just as the “modern” church developed an apologetic for their post-enlightenment audience. I believe the more we develop a fully orbed postmodern apologetic, the easier it will be to stand on campus, unashamed, with the gospel in our hands offering it to a new generation. And the less fully orbed (and the less postmodern) our apologetic the more tempted towards shame we will be.

Our own postmodern audience is so new (and newly developed) that most staff and students don’t have a clear answer for them and are, consequently, tempted towards shame as they share the gospel on campus. Many of us only have an inherited modern apologetic, which usually turns out to be just as fruitless and irrelevant an answer on campus as we instinctively fear it might. And some of us have an incomplete postmodern apologetic that provides only a limited, usually oversimplified answer. To caricature: we either reason evidence to a crowd that could care less about evidence or classical reasoning; or we lob shallow stories at a crowd that can distinguish between an anecdote and a satisfying story from a mile away.

Since neither of these apologetics provide a decent answer to those we are supposed to be preaching the gospel to on campus, we drift into shame and, often, into inaction. We hold the gospel in our hands knowing deeply how amazing it is, but feeling embarrassed about it when in public. What we need, I believe, is a fully orbed postmodern answer. The more we formulate, apprehend, and articulate that – the more we and our students will be able to sit in a dorm room and say with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”

I am thinking of an apologetic that truly answers this generation, a generation that is post-Christian, nested in complexity, self-interested, and cynical (among other things).

For this post-Christian generation (a generation that has already, en toto, dismissed Christianity out of hand) we need an apologetic that is relentlessly christocentric. We have to jettison much of our Christian accoutrement that we’ve picked up over the years, ruthlessly discarding every phrase, argument, image, etc. that is not threaded into the Jesus story. If we can’t figure out how to be ruthlessly and comprehensively (not just devotionally) Jesus-centered, then we leave ourselves and our students in the embarrassing situation of trying to defend that which is indefensible.

For this generation that is nested in complexity (globally-minded, intimately familiar with broken relationships, confronted by ethical quagmires, surrounded by a politically charged environment, bombarded by images and stories and music from every corner of the world) we need an apologetic that includes a satisfying metanarrative. We have to be story tellers and tell a story that is large enough to encompass their world. If we can’t figure out how to offer the gospel as a satisfying metanarrative, then we leave ourselves and our students in the embarrassing situation of trying to encompass a complex world with forced, truncated, simplistic, cartoonish anecdotes.

For this generation that is self-interested (always wondering if “it works” in real life for them) we need an embodied apologetic. We need to live the gospel (and learn how to talk about what we’re living) rather than offering a theory or idea that may or may not work in real life. We must show the “truth” of the gospel in four dimensions (It is not only true in real life, but true over time ). If we can’t figure out how to model and encourage an articulate embodied apologetic, then we leave ourselves and our students in the embarrassing situation of trying to offer something to others that (in appearances, if not in reality) does not work.

For this cynical generation (suspect, always asking questions, starting from a posture of doubt) we need to offer an apologetic that is infused with mysterious faith. We must learn to be honest (and honestly descriptive) about the potential ironies, tensions, gaps, leaps of reasoning, and a priori assumptions that are a part of our faith.

In the end (as anyone in this postmodern age can assure you) nothing can be proven. Nothing. We have a rich heritage (and language) of faith and need to learn how to wield that beautiful, ancient fabric of faith, humbly acknowledging that we can’t unequivocally “prove Christianity” but that we choose to believe what has been received and passed down throughout the centuries by reasonable people of faith. If we can’t figure out how to embrace and articulate our mysterious faith then we leave ourselves and our students in the embarrassing situation of trying to pretend there are no gaps or need for credulity in our faith.

I’m sure there are other aspects of our postmodern audience on campus that we need to name and learn how to answer as well, developing a more and more fully orbed apologetic all the time. And the more fully we develop an answer for our audience, the more robust our own faith will be, and the more unashamed we will feel as we offer the gospel to those on campus.