How would you like this kind of introduction for your speaking engagement?
The terrazzo floor is glazed with stale, dry beer from the weekend’s wild party. As students stream into the dining room, it is obvious that no self-respecting cockroach would have wanted to live in the adjoining kitchen. A few composite portraits of members hang – somewhat askew – on the paneled walls.
The room buzzes as the sixty men swap stories and engage in friendly banter. Then their leader gavels them to order. Welcome to the fraternity chapter meeting.
First up is a profanity-laced tirade by the president condemning two rival University of Miami fraternities (men’s social groups) and a UM campus administrator. Next an officer blasts some members for lagging participation. A sharp crack of the gavel awakens a sleeping brother, who responds with a middle-fingered salute.
The president declares that he himself is “stressed out and can’t wait to get away for Spring Break so I can get drunk and [have sexual intercourse with] some chicks I don’t know.” A few minutes later, he announces a “speaker who has come to talk to us about brotherhood.”
As you step up to speak, you might be thinking, “So, I break my back raising support to get to do this?”
Some friends, Christian campus workers at the University of Miami, lined me up to speak at this fraternity. Ken and Robert were especially eager to reach the campus “Greek” community (fraternities and sororities – women’s social groups – with Greek-letter names).
Of course, fraternity and sorority members have no special standing in God’s eyes. But Greeks are leaders on many North American campuses, with significant potential influence for Christ. That they often live together can help facilitate small groups and discipleship. Ken was a member of this fraternity on another campus, as was I, and his relationships in the Miami chapter helped open doors. We prayed that God would work through this meeting.
My opening joke “bombed” (fell flat) and it took a short while for the audience to loosen up. Stories and illustrations about communication skills, conflict resolution and brotherly love seemed to connect; they laughed and appeared more relaxed.
The chapter advisor had told me that internal feuds were eating away at his men. As I spoke, I couldn’t help but think that the Holy Spirit had arranged this presentation on this topic for this audience at this moment. So that you might catch a glimpse of what went on that evening, here’s a bit of what the men heard.
Backfired road trip and brotherly love quotient
We discussed communication, conflict resolution and unconditional acceptance. My first year in university, two other pledges (aspiring members) and I took my fraternity “big brother” (an older student mentor) on a “road trip.” We borrowed his car (he was quite generous), took him to dinner, then drove to a remote location with plans to strand him there. All went according to plan until we got to the remote location. Somehow he overpowered us, grabbed the keys and drove off, leaving us to find our way home!
Of course, we were red-faced. Eventually, his forgiveness soothed our embarrassment. In the same way, these men to whom I spoke could forgive when wronged but care enough to confront when appropriate. Balancing truth and grace can be challenging.
Some questions helped them analyze their own attitudes and “brotherly-love quotient:”
- How often do I use biting sarcasm?
- How do I act toward members whose participation lags?
- Do I participate in chapter activities as I should? How is my attitude?
- How do I feel about the brother who casts a vote against my favorite “rushee” (prospective invitee for membership)?
- How do I relate to rushees to whom we did not extend bids (official offers) to join the fraternity? When I see them later on campus, do I give a friendly smile and greeting? Or was all that “just for rush” (the membership recruitment process)?
- I’m madly in love with the beautiful blonde in Chemistry 101. So is another member of my chapter … and they are going out tonight. How do I feel toward that brother?
Number six may be the ultimate test of brotherly love!
How do you get the internal power to love and accept others unconditionally? I related to these men that as I struggled with this question, some friends suggested I consider the spiritual dimension. I learned in coming to faith as a first-year student that God can provide inner power to enhance life and relationships. As I spoke, I prayed God’s truth would sink in.
The men seemed fairly attentive and gracious in their applause. Had the Holy Spirit penetrated hearts? The men’s written comments gave us some clues. Some samples:
- On target.
- Very good but a bit idealistic to me.
- If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought that you had lived here for months. You clearly know the ins and outs of fraternity life and you hit the nail right on the head. I especially like what you said about the situation where two brothers like the same girl [sic]; it happens more than we’d like to admit. Thank you.
- Very sincere. I’m not the most spiritual person. But you made sense.
- You read my mind.
- I’d be interested in receiving your articles and more about brotherhood.
Outward arrogance, wrath and lasciviousness sometimes mask empty hurting hearts. Ken continued his ministry in that house. Two years later, the chapter gathered at 11:00 pm to hear a Christian perspective on sex. When my host and I departed after midnight, several men followed us out the door with heartfelt questions. Animal house was not a sanctuary, but God was at work.
Lessons for Communicating in Secular Universities
Consider some lessons from this story that relate to one-on-one, small group and public speaking situations.
- Pray. Ken, Robert, other friends and I prayed before the outreach. The warm response was God’s answer. Wisdom and skill often help but ultimately it is God who works in hearts.
- Meet on their turf. It might seem scary presenting Christ to hardened nonbelievers in their own home, but they may feel much more comfortable there among friends than in a church or even at a “neutral” campus location. Use various outreach venues as appropriate, but also go where people are. Jesus and Paul went to homes, the marketplace, synagogues and schools.
- Transcend differences. In a Greek house or dormitory, you may encounter uncomfortable scenarios: pinups, porn, drunkenness, foul language and more. At a campus-wide outreach meeting in my fraternity house, one member welcomed guests while tied to a cross. Other members heckled the speaker. The speaker responded with poise, engaging them in friendly dialogue about Jesus. We are seeking to rescue lost people who don’t always feel lost. Pick your battles and learn to overlook some natural flaws of natural people so you can relate spiritual truth.
- Establish personal relationships. Ken’s friendships with fraternity leaders helped open doors for the meeting and continued ministry there. That we were both members of their fraternity did not hurt. Play the cards you have, but warm, personal relationships can open many, many doors for the Gospel.
- Use humor and stories. Those men could relate to the story about our backfired road trip, laughing with – and at – me. Humor can involve risk. I have studied, written about, taught and used humor a lot. I also have had hilarious stories fall flat. Learn from these situations what you can, develop recovery techniques, but realize that often circumstances and specific audiences generate different reactions. Don’t be discouraged when your best zingers or illustrations bomb. Ask others’ critique, but keep telling stories to connect with today’s campus culture.
- Connect with their situation. Learn your listeners’ intellectual and emotional languages. This applies to any subculture you seek to reach, whether in remote forested jungles or nearby academic ones. In this case, stories about fraternity life and recognizable social situations – using terms familiar to them – helped gain and hold attention.
- Connect their interests with spiritual matters. The “brotherly-love quotient” questions helped listeners consider their need for inner strength to love unconditionally. From that point, discussing spiritual matters, God’s inner power and my own journey to faith followed naturally. Don’t simply tack the Gospel onto your secular material. Show a clear connection.
- Trust the Holy Spirit for long-term fruit and open doors. After Paul presented Christ to the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill, “some laughed in contempt, but others said, ‘We want to hear more about this later.’ … some joined him and became believers” (Acts 17:32, 34 NLT). Similarly, in our attempts to reach secular students and professors, some will scorn, some will want to know more and some will believe. As we are faithful to trust the Holy Spirit to open hearts and doors of opportunity, God will work. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” (Proverbs 21:1 NASB).
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. www.RustyWright.com
Copyright © 2022 Rusty Wright
This article first appeared in Enrichment Journal.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash