campus athiest
Inspiring your readers to share Christ
Exciting stories can encourage your readers to communicate faith effectively to nonbelievers.  This MTI blog series features examples that you can use as models, or even republish yourself.  Drawn from Enrichment Journal, a pastors magazine that ran Rusty Wright’s series on Reaching Secular Universities.

Even as a first-year student, Steve had earned a reputation as a Duke University campus atheist.  He enjoyed arguing with Christians and mocking their faith.

When believers advertised a Christian film in his dormitory, Steve defaced the publicity with vulgarities.  In another prank, Steve chased “Jace,” a Jewish student, through his residence hall while brandishing a lighted torch made from a broomstick and flaming underwear.  When Jace locked himself in a room, Steve pounded on the door shouting, “Jace, you’d better receive Christ!  You’d better receive Christ!”

When Steve’s roommate, Jerry, trusted Christ as Savior, Steve wasn’t quite sure how to respond. He wondered if this faith stuff was getting too close.  But Jerry, Gordon, and other believers befriended Steve, demonstrated Christian love, and included him in their activities.  Steve enjoyed their companionship and hung out with them a lot.

Watch our workshop on “Finding common ground with skeptics.”

Pickle juice and flickering lights

Steve had some unusual habits.  He liked to study lying on his bed with a book propped on his chest.  For refreshment, he would drink pickle juice from a jar.  Have you ever tried to drink while lying on your back?  Sometimes part of the liquid misses your mouth, dribbles down your cheek and gets on the bed.  Steve never changed his sheets.  Around December, Gordon and Jerry removed his sheets, stood them in the corner, and remade the bed with clean sheets.

Steve liked attending Christian outreach meetings and became very familiar with evangelistic literature.  Once, a traveling music group distributed a widely used Gospel booklet at their concert and asked those familiar with it to show it to their friends in the crowd.  Steve turned to Jerry and began to present the message of Christ to his roommate, the atheist “sharing his faith” with the believer.  After a moment, Steve said, “Hey, this booklet is different!”

He had received a revised version of the presentation and noticed slight differences in wording, Bible versions, etc.  The atheist was so familiar with the Gospel presentation that he could detect minor edits.

At the end of another outreach meeting, Steve very publicly fell to his knees, raised his hands and cried out – loudly and in mockery – “Oh, Lord Jesus, come into my life!”

In April, Josh McDowell came to town.  The popular campus speaker addressed a packed house and anticipation ran high.

A persistent lighting problem – flickering overhead fluorescent lights – plagued that evening’s event.  Leaders had tried many solutions, to no avail.  The emcee introduced Josh as the lights continued to distract and annoy.  About two sentences into his presentation, Josh looked up at the lights and shouted, “Aw, c’mon!”

The lights stopped flickering.

McDowell had an attentive audience.  Leaders feared he was upset with them for sloppy physical arrangements.  Later, he told them privately that he had claimed the authority of the believer and trusted God to bind the real enemy, Satan.

After the speech, as the emcee rose to close the meeting, the lights began flickering again.  As the crowd dispersed, Steve asked his friends, “Did you see those lights!?”  Josh spoke with him personally about the eternal consequences of rejecting Christ.

Math, John’s Gospel and the Order of the Chair

The next four weeks brought some curious developments.  Week one: Steve told Jerry he believed there was a God and that God loved him.  Week two: Steve said he believed he was sinful and needed a savior.  Week three: Steve explained that he wasn’t sure that Jesus was the only way for everyone, but he believed Jesus was the only way for him.  Week four: Steve was in his dormitory room one afternoon trying to study mathematics but he kept being distracted by the Gospel of John.  He would study math, then feel compelled to read John.

That night, about 1:00 a.m., Gordon and Jerry awakened their discipleship group leader saying, “Steve received Christ!  Steve received Christ!”  They could have floated across the campus in their excitement.

Steve’s change was dramatic.  A demeanor of cynicism and bitterness became one of kindness, peace and deep joy.  His smile and words reflected Jesus’ love.  He communicated his new faith.  Classmates were stunned.

On the last day of classes that spring, the “Order of the Chair” held its infamous annual rally from the steps of the majestic Duke Chapel in the center of campus.  The “OOC” comprised the university’s grossest students.  Late each spring, a toilet would appear on the chapel steps, signaling the noontime rally.  OOC members would arrive roaring drunk with a garbage can filled with green grits.  They would induct new members by detailing – over a public address system – the inductees’ sexual activities.  Each initiate then sat on the commode (fully clothed) and was plastered with green grits.

That year, Christians demonstrated for Jesus at the OOC rally.  They made placards and printed evangelistic literature, taking care to keep content positive and pro-Jesus rather than directly condemning the OOC.  As the mostly male – and mostly lusty – crowd moved toward the OOC venue, Christians distributed their handouts.  Placards bobbed as believers filtered throughout the crowd.  Local television crews filmed the event for the evening news.

As the obviously tipsy emcee began his ceremony, he paused momentarily when one brave soul pointedly but politely walked across the front of the crowd displaying his sign, which the emcee read aloud.  “Jesus is Real, Man!” read the emcee.  “Hey, that’s all right!” he editorialized with a cheerful tone.

Steve was carrying that sign.  Even as a young believer, he helped to spread the message of Christ to people who needed it.  Many students were influenced for Christ because of the changes in one of the campus atheists, Steve.

Principles God Uses

What factors did God use to nudge Steve toward faith?  Assemblies of God Theological Seminary professor Earl Creps has said that central to the missionary task is “personal involvement in relationships with postmodern pagans.” He asks, “Is it possible that we could find the meaning of our ministries in the aspirations of the lost? I wonder if we have the humility to listen to them.”

Consider some of the principles believers followed to reach Steve and how these might influence your own outreach to secular students:

  • Befriend unbelievers.  Jerry, Gordon and others became Steve’s close friends, learned how he felt and discovered what was important to him.  They had good-natured banter and fun.  He enjoyed hanging out with them.  Many students today are thirsty for genuine friendship.
  • Develop Christian community.  As Steve hung with the believers, he saw how they lived and related to one another, how they handled common student concerns like academics, dating and finances.  The Christians, though imperfect, loved each other and loved him.  A loving, authentic bunch of believers can be extremely attractive and can model an answer to one of Jesus’ prayers: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me” (John 17:21 NLT).
  • Treat unbelievers not as enemies but as those needing God’s grace.  Amidst today’s culture wars, it can be tempting for Christians to consider their philosophical and political adversaries as enemies to be conquered rather than the lost to be won.  Steve’s friends prayed for him and considered how to best communicate God’s grace and truth.
  • Present the truth in love.  Unbelievers need to understand God’s provision in Christ’s death and resurrection.  Steve’s friends helped him understand the Good News so well that he could explain it to others.
  • Speak their psychological and emotional languages.  We all use intellectual language.  Similarly, we have psychological and emotional languages, words and concepts that influence us in ways that transcend intellect.  French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”  Josh McDowell is highly adept at intellectually defending the faith.  He is equally skilled at telling stories – notably his own faith journey involving hatred of his alcoholic father – to connect emotionally.  Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, is an excellent secular resource on understanding emotions in communication.
  • Trust the Holy Spirit and God’s power.  Flickering lights were not in the human script for that campus meeting.  God used an observable demonstration of His power to get Steve’s attention.  He may act similarly through your ministry.
  • Work hard to communicate effectively with secular students and professors.  Don’t allow sloth or ego to hamper excellence. Do Christians applaud wildly when you address them? Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll automatically connect with non-Christians. Let your model be the one who is effective in reaching non-Christians, not the one who is only effective in reaching Christians.

Be willing to break stereotypes of what Christian communication should be like. Perhaps as He did for Jabez, God will “enlarge (your) border” (1 Chronicles 4:10). I hope He does.

by Rusty Wright. Rusty Wright is an author, syndicated columnist and lecturer who has spoken on six continents to university students, professors, executives, diplomats, military leaders and professional athletes.  Over 2,000 websites, newspapers and magazines have used his outreach resources in any of 14 languages.  Holding Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively, he’s appeared on secular television and radio talk shows worldwide and trains professionals in effective communication.

Copyright © 2022 Rusty Wright

This article first appeared in Enrichment Journal.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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