Opposition for Christians heading back to school: why it matters for you too

Photo by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Photo by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

USA (MNN) — Imagine this scenario: You’re a part of an animal rights club on a college campus. One of the requirements you have for the leader of the club is that they have to believe in the pursuit of animal rights.

All of the sudden, the college catches wind of your leadership requirements, and they decide to stop recognizing you as a campus group for reasons of discrimination. They tell you if you would only require the leader to know animal treatment statistics rather than make them believe in animal rights, they would let you stay on campus. Would you think that was crazy?

Well, in a way, that’s what’s happening for religious groups on campuses around the United States. Yes, religious beliefs are different than humanitarian and animal rights beliefs, but perhaps the analogy makes the point.

Greg Jao of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship explains, “A large number of universities are now using their non-discrimination policies to prohibit groups like InterVarsity from using religious criteria in choosing our leaders. Our membership is open, we welcome everyone to be a member of our groups. But we do require our leaders to be Christian because we think Christian groups should be led by Christians.”

It kind of makes sense. Hindus wouldn’t want a Christian to lead a Hindu club, atheists wouldn’t want a Muslim to lead their club.

Ignoring the question why any individual would want to lead a faith-based club of a different faith than their own in the first place, do you think it’s wrong for faith-based and focused groups to require their leaders to believe what they’re leading the group in?

InterVarsity thinks not. But this is the challenge they’ve faced for over a year in California schools where they are being de-recognized. That includes 23 campuses and about 450,000 students. InterVarsity has to figure out what they’re going to do upon returning this fall.

Not being recognized by the university means they don’t have the ability to reserve rooms to meet on campus. It means they can’t join in student activities fairs which is their main way of getting the word out about InterVarsity opportunities. They lose the access and benefits of a recognized organization.

The California schools have given InterVarsity a year to change their requirements. Jao says, “We took the intervening year and we looked at alternative ways to try to meet the universities non-discrimination requirements around leadership while still remaining true to what we think Scripture teaches. And we’ve been unable to find a way forward.”

InterVarsity has proposed that the schools amend their policy and model it after non-discrimination policies used by Ohio State, the University of Wisconsin, Texas, Houston, and Minnesota. These policies make exemptions for religious groups and allow them to require leaders be believers.

The ministry has also talked about alternative ways the universities could recognize them given the unique needs of religious groups.

Jao says, “The non-discrimination policy was supposed to be protective of religious groups, but the current interpretation makes their religion a problem, and so it’s a little self-defeating.”

Now InterVarsity is asking themselves this question: If they can’t be a recognized student group, how do they continue to reach and serve the students, faculty, campus, and administration?

Jao says that for the last 10 years, God has called InterVarsity to expand the ministry to new chapters on new campuses. The technique to do this will come in handy as a possible way to work on campuses where they are not recognized as a student group.

They’re taking those skills and using them at schools where they already work.

“Chapter planting doesn’t require the traditional structures; it gives you new opportunities to look at the mission field in new ways. So we’re using many of those tactics about how to gather students informally, disciple them, mentor them, and then deploy them in mission quickly to reach campuses today,” Jao explains.

Jao says that nearly 25% of participants in InterVarsity groups are not Christian. But as more people join, that percentage isn’t growing. As new non-believers join the group, some of the old ones are accepting Christ.

“We’ve seen the number of new Christians in our groups double over the last eight years or so,” Jao says.

And what has happened is that this challenge is actually working to refine their goals:

“What we’ve found is actually the campus access question presses InterVarsity chapters to consider, ‘How important are our core beliefs to us?'”

While many participants of InterVarsity are new Christians, Jao says, “Both veteran and very new Christians have walked through those situations saying, ‘Actually it’s even clearer to me now why it’s important that we have a clear doctrinal basis, why the doctrinal basis matters, and why good theology actually propels us in the mission.'”

InverVarsity is as committed as ever to teaching students how to study and learn through Scripture and to think more deeply about how to communicate the essentials of the Christian faith to the next generation.

“Even though the campus access challenge has been a problem for us, it’s actually been part of God’s invitation to renew our commitment to great discipleship, teaching students about the basic theological statements of the faith, and to engage in mission more thoroughly,” Jao says.

And in this story is a lesson for all of us. When we decide to follow Christ, we need to be aware that we’re taking a stand in all areas of our life and not be shocked when people don’t like our stand.

Jao says, “We should expect opposition because the world is a mission field. In fact, the reason people oppose what the Christian fellowships are doing is they don’t know the Gospel, and don’t know who Jesus is.

“And so rather than being distressed or discouraged by opposition, this is actually, for at least for InterVarsity, a constant reminder– we need to be praying for our mission field, we need more missionaries on our mission field, and opposition is our opportunity to explain graciously, winsomely, intelligibly why we believe what we believe, and invite people to follow Jesus as well.”

The Church has faced opposition its entire existence, and it hasn’t snuffed out our hope yet. Jao thinks just the opposite.

“Opposition actually shouldn’t discourage us, it’s part of God’s invitation to us, I think, to trust him more deeply, to engage in mission a little bit more carefully, and then to be encouraged.

“I’ve had a number of younger students tell me, ‘I’m understanding– in just a small way– what our brothers and sisters around the world face every day. And it’s a privilege and honor to stand and experience just a little bit of that now.'”

He says that this is a key time for students to learn how to deal with opposition because, like it or not, it will be a part of their life forever. They need to know how to say no to compromising beliefs to make their life easier.

Jao leaves us with this thought: “The beginning of the school year is an incredible opportunity for High School students and for college students. And I hope churches and parents will not only prepare them academically and materially […], but will begin to prepare their students spiritually.”

It’s important for them to go in with the mindset not only to be educated, but to impact. They should be excited for the privilege to minister to their peers. These are the people who will be leading the government, churches, and businesses for the next several decades.

“They’re walking into a mission field, a mission field that God’s prepared them for and prepared for them.”

If you want to stay updated on campus access issues to know how to pray, follow this link here.