As part of a research project I’m conducting, I have just completed listening to 40 college students who say they have become Christians within the past two years. I have interviewed each student for 45 minutes or more to probe, gain insight, and learn what “worked” in their journey from unbelief to salvation. I hope, as a result of analyzing the transcripts of these interviews (and writing a little thing they call a “dissertation” towards a PhD in missions), to offer insights about how the church can be more effective and fruitful in evangelism.
Here are ten initial thoughts by way of observation and concerns:
– Nothing can thwart God. I know that sounds like a cliché but the stories highlighted just how powerfully God can break through to those who seem the least likely to respond. There were many moments when I marveled at how relentlessly God pursues the lost.
– So many of these students come from terribly messed up backgrounds. Their parents’ divorces, alcoholism, and irresponsible lifestyles have had devastating effects on them. And they connect the dots from their parents’ divorce or other problems to their own self-destructive behaviors. At times, it was difficult to listen.
– The social experiments of the 1960s (so-called “free love,” “easy divorce,” “gay pride” and more) have proven to yield disastrous results. This generation has not benefited from the self-expression their parents thought would be so healthy, freeing, or better than the “repression” they rebelled against. During the interviews, I often reflected on which social experiments we’re launching today that may yield even worse consequences.
– The hookup and porn cultures are not as much fun as they’re portrayed to be by irresponsible television shows or other culture-shaping outlets. The women feel abused by a system that insists upon conformity to sexual pressures. And some men are near suicidal in their loneliness.
– This generation has imbibed mammoth quantities of alcohol and drugs. It was deeply disturbing to hear of blackouts and forgotten weekends (behaviors often associated with people much older and with longer dramas of addiction) from people only 19 or 20 years old.
– Most of them don’t read. Personal relationships and conversations with friends clarified the issues for them and helped them find answers to their questions. Happily, many of them became serious and diligent readers after conversion. But for those of us who write or want to write evangelistic books, this was a sobering finding.
– The so-called “new atheism” is real and growing among this age group. But most of the converts out of this background admit that, for them, it was more of a persona than a deep intellectual conviction. Compassion from Christians and friendship during crises pointed them to God more often than philosophical arguments.
– The questions have changed. Christians used to feel the need to defend the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the historicity of the resurrection, and the uniqueness of Jesus to unsaved inquirers. Today the questions are:
“Why are Christians so homophobic?” (iterated in a variety of ways as the biggest objection to responding to the gospel!)
“If I believe what you believe, do I have to become judgmental too?”
“Why are Christians so weird?”
“Do I have to be against science, evolution, abortion, and gay marriage to become a Christian? If so, I’m not interested.”
– A loving community of Christians who seemed to “have a purpose,” “be accepting of others,” “express love,” and “not be cynical” was a common thread through most of the stories. For some, coming from unloving, dangerous, or blatantly harmful home situations, the church provided a refuge beyond their wildest imaginations.
– We, the church and all our outreach ministries, need to do a better job with clearly articulating the gospel message. Many students had moving emotional experiences or made firm commitments to stop certain behaviors or felt loved by a community of believers in ways that healed painful wounds of their dysfunctional families’ messes. But I’m not totally sure they were regenerated by the power of God made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. The need for deep, thoughtful, penetrating Biblical teaching is no less urgent than ever.