February 2007 - Vol. 5
Evangelism on the Rebound:
“one simple, honest conversation guided by the Holy Spirit can have a ripple effect on a campus so desperately in need of the Gospel”
by Joshua Birk
What difference, if any, can religion make on campus? I recently gave a tour of campus to a friend thinking of attending the University of Michigan [located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA]. Walking around on a brisk January day, I again appreciated the architectural beauty of many of the buildings on campus. And as usual, one building reminded me why it holds a special place in my heart.
Angell Hall stands out along one of the main drags through central campus. The limestone building is an odd color, a mix of tan and light grey. Its impressive Ionic pillars are visually intimidating, supporting a tall frieze on which the following phrase is inscribed: “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.”
The cynical side of me mocked the statement. “We have the third necessity,” I thought, “but the first two have done a pretty good job of hiding from me for the past few years.” Some might concede my cynicism, and even venture to call it realism. But thinking about religion on campus a little more circumspectly, particularly in regard to evangelism, I realize there is reason to have great hope. Looking generally at the growth within the University Christian Outreach chapter here at the U of M has taught me this, but so have other, more personal experiences. One example in particular sticks out in my mind.
A little less than two years ago, Katie, a friend of mine, gave me a call and invited me to go to a Detroit Pistons basketball game. One of Katie’s friends had an extra ticket to the game, more precisely, a ticket in one of the best viewing suites.
Now, I am a big sports fan, but like anyone else, I weighed the options. Go to the game with a group of people I didn’t know at all, save one person, and run the likely risk of multiple socially awkward situations? Or, sit at home? I took the risk and went to the game.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single hand-wringing, sweaty-palm conversation with seemingly endless gaps of silence. In fact, it was quite the opposite. On the way up, I had a great time reminiscing with one girl, Barb, about the “glory days” of our high school basketball careers. It must have been a divinely inspired conversation because normally people stop listening to me after I tell them about my first “greatest game of all-time.” Yet quite to the contrary, Barb and I traded stories for what seemed to be every minute of that hour and a half car ride.
I enjoyed the high life at the game. Catered food, a well-stocked mini-fridge, half time stat sheets, and generally just feeling important from sitting in the select seats.
I don’t recall if the Pistons won the game, but one thing I do remember is the ride home. For some reason, Katie had to ride back to Ann Arbor with someone else, so Barb and I ended up riding home together. We talked about the game for the first part of the ride, and somewhere along the line, the conversation took a turn toward Christianity.
From what I gathered, she wasn’t all that involved with her faith. She had mentioned earlier that she had gone to a Catholic school growing up. Also, her friends seemed like good people. But from talking with her, I could see she had a God-shaped void. It definitely wasn’t the gaping void that the run-of-the-mill hedonist on campus has, but it was existent nonetheless. I told her a bit about UCO (University Christian Outreach) and invited her to drop by and see what we were all about. She was polite about the offer, but told me that she was fairly involved with the Economics Club. In fact, she said she would probably be president of the club the following school year. To me, her response seemed like a bit of a run around, but I detected a hint of interest.
To be honest, I usually give up after an initial excuse is offered, no matter how good or bad. However, I felt the Holy Spirit prodding. I wasn’t quite sure where to go from there, so I just decided to level with her.
“To be honest, Barb, I probably wouldn’t even be friends with most of the people in UCO if I weren’t a Christian,” I said bluntly. “But there is something different about friendships in UCO. Even if you don’t have a ton of things in common, you know you always have one thing in common: you love the Lord.”
I paused and looked out the window, past the endless rows of bright billboards and toward the sky. It was snowing the type of snow that is more like rain, leaving every car on the road a salty, dirty mess. I realized that I had even surprised myself with what I had said. Usually I try to come off as the reasonable Christian, one who doesn’t love God as much as he loves thinking about God. Campus wisdom teaches you to not be too zealous, lest you be labeled a fanatic.
The Holy Spirit again prompted me. I said to Barb, “You know, there are a lot of things that people spend their life doing, and a lot of them are good things. But sometimes you have to choose what you are going to give your life to.” It wasn’t a particularly climatic part of the conversation. In actuality, I said it rather factually. Yet it is the part I remember most clearly.
I would have to ask for Barb’s help to remember the next time we talked, but I do know I saw her at UCO not too long after that night. And I started seeing her around with more frequency. At some point I guess she became one of those unofficial members of UCO, whose attendance at activities you can count on and who can be roped into service. But even better, at some point I considered her a close friend and sister in Christ, another college kid trying to figure out what all this Christianity stuff means.
Over the past year and a half, she has talked to many of her friends about the Lord and is even in the UCO women’s household now. In fact, she was able to have a similarly powerful conversation with a friend of hers that she hadn’t seen in a while. Her friend is now also in the UCO women’s household, and that is another whole story altogether.
So as I walk by Angell Hall from now on, I’ll still probably allow myself a little bit of skepticism about the state of morality and religion at the university. But hopefully Barb’s story will come to mind. It will remind me that one simple, honest conversation guided by the Holy Spirit can have a ripple effect on a campus so desperately in need of the Gospel.
[Joshua Birk grew up in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He is a studying philosophy at the University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Josh has been actively involved in University Christian Outreach (UCO) at U of M since 2002.]