360 in 180 Global Campus Reports

Athenian Christians’ Top Advice for Christian Students and their Spiritual Supporters

I’ve never seen this in a grocery aisle in Canada, I mused, glancing at the butcher stall to my left. There, suspended above a table stacked with assorted blocks of fresh-cut flesh, a rabbit hung skinless save for a fluff of white at the hindquarters. An honour guard of other ready-to-roast creatures or portions thereof—many with hoofs still in tact—lined either wall reaching deep into the Athenian meat market.

I wandered further along the wet concrete, passed a trio of pig faces which seemed to smile at me, masklike, and rounded a corner. Beyond a stack of sheep heads, I could see table upon table piled high with seafood, dead and alive. A scaly riot featuring fish in every size sprawled across the table tops and overflowed onto floor vats, creating a collective, um, fragrance which flooded the lungs of every vendor.

I could tell the vendors had lungs because they were yelling. Calling might be more accurate. Either way, I tried not to make eye contact. Instead, I gazed at a nearby squid table, barely registering the sight of those tangled tentacles before I realized something important:

I was falling.

Not in love, but down.

This is awkward, I concluded, fish-tanged air rushing past me amidst a chorus of oh’s from the blurred pedestrians whirling overhead. I skidded to the floor—did I mention it was wet? —and landed in graceful repose.

“I’m fine,” I immediately announced in English, leaping upright. A wet swatch spiraled along my jeans, mingled with white particles which reminded me of crushed ice. I didn’t want to perform a klutzy brush-off dance right there, so I scuttled out of the market and continued walking. Twenty minutes later, I paused at an intersection to inspect how the spiraled swatch was drying.

Those white bits are still there.

Bending, I picked one off my shin.

It was a fish scale.

I’ve literally been walking around Athens for 20 minutes with my shins covered in fish scales.

That would happen.

The main road in Ancient Corinth

Fortunately, my interviews at the local Bible school went much more smoothly than my excursion to the market. But you might say, they were just as meaty.

“Greece’s population is only 0.2% evangelical Christian,” a young woman who ministers to international students began, sitting across a table from me in the quiet campus café, “but most people identify themselves as Orthodox.” (See also, Return to Mars Hill: Understanding Culture and Christianity in Greece.)

“How do you think churches can support Christian students here?” I asked, pulling a chunk of grilled pork off the skewer I’d been presented.

“Mentorship, honestly,” she stated. “That’s one reason why I’m here—to help people in Greece realize how to be a mentor, and a mentee, because I don’t necessarily see that happening now. But students are the next generation of our church. And in reality, the church here is dying. Part of that is because students are leaving the faith or leaving the country. So, churches need to mentor students to answer, ‘What does it look like to live as a Christian in this culture? What does it look like to be a Christian where you’re the minority?’”

The next Bible school student I spoke with echoed these ideas.

“Like in most western countries,” he began, addressing the challenges which Christians may encounter on Grecian campuses, “atheistic ideas have a great influence in Greece. Most scientists who study physics and biology are atheists, and in the theoretical sciences, many are more communist or Marxist. Most students, meanwhile, are afraid to share the gospel. They haven’t prepared themselves and studied apologetics. So, they stay silent and don’t speak up within the academic communities.”

Arch of Hadrian, Athens

“How can churches support these students better?”

“I think the church needs more discipleship,” he answered. “Many people go to church and have youth group, but they don’t have good discipleship to know what they believe—to be stable, and rooted.”

Just like campus Christians in so many cultures have emphasized. But what does this kind of discipleship look like?

I needed specifics.

“What do you think they should teach?” I asked.

“Unfortunately,” he replied, “the more I study, the more I realize that there’s such a big ocean of knowledge, we can’t know everything. We can’t teach everything just in a couple hours a week, but we still need to try to prepare students to be rooted. We should make sure students know the whole gospel, and understand what the gospel exactly means. They need to know who God is and how He acts in history. Theological differences between denominations, I think, are also important for students to understand.”

He paused, meditatively.

“Something else that matters,” he continued, “is we need to teach students to spend time with God personally, and pray often. Through prayer, we get filled with the Holy Spirit so that God gives us the wisdom, grace and courage to speak more openly and reminds us of Bible verses to help us.  And that’s very important. Remember, Ephesians 6 says that we aren’t struggling against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers. Students need to spend time with God, praying, worshiping, and being filled with His Spirit. In the university, they could have the perfect apologetics and win the argument, but if they aren’t showing the fruits of the Spirit—love—then it’s pointless. Without the Holy Spirit working in their hearts, there is no success.”

Ruins in Ancient Corinth

One of those students, a Bible school attendee who formerly studied city planning at a secular campus, explained her story.

“I grew up in a Christian family,” she began, “and became more serious when I was 16. In my first year of university I attended a discipleship group, but I also experienced a heartbreak. I tried to keep my faith, but I also started to think more naturalistically. I had to question whether everything I believed was because I believed it, or because my parents believed it. It was really difficult. A lot of times, I doubted all the things I learned from when I was a child.”

She went on to confide that when she left home to study abroad, these questions became even more complex.

“I went to church and a Bible study abroad, but something in me was still so curious about the world, now that I’d moved away from my parents. I felt like it became too hard for me to stay focused in my faith. I had all these questions and doubts that I didn’t feel like I could express safely in my church. For the years after my exchange semester, I felt like I was trying to find God. But my heart had became so hard—and my church didn’t help me much. That’s why I came here, to Bible school.”

“What advice would you tell another student in your situation?” I asked.

“I would tell them to find really good Christian friends that can stand for them even at the most difficult times when they’re in doubt. And I’d recommend that students find a mentor in church who is older: someone more mature; someone who can give advice; someone who students can speak openly to without having taboos or feeling really bad about discussing or confessing sins. Students need to talk about the things that matter to them, without keeping those questions inside and overanalyzing them alone.”

Recalling how this student hadn’t felt supported in seeking answers to her own questions, I asked what her church could have done differently to help her.

“Churches should set a level higher for young people,” she

A typical street in Athenian suburbia

responded, “to teach us about things we can talk about with our friends, rather than just repeating what we’ve heard in youth groups since high school. They should also talk about what others believe, so that we can be aware about the ideas we’ll encounter in university. For example, I remember one time a Christian biology professor from America came to my youth group and talked about scientific problems with Darwinism. Presentations like that remind us that people can be smart and follow Christ, and help us speak to non-Christians using their own language and philosophy.”

Evolution again.

This same point, same example, had also appeared during interviews in cultures as diverse as Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and now, Greece. All over the world, students emphasized similar strategic areas of focus—discipleship, mentorship, apologetics training and other foundation builders—for equipping students to successfully navigate different cultures’ diverse challenges with Christ.

While students had been sharing these insights in the context of how churches can proactively equip students, the reality remains that churches’ access to young people is usually restricted to an hour or two a week. Individual families, however, are positioned, called and responsible to disciple their young people every day. But what if churches reached students both directly and indirectly, through equipping families to disciple their students daily, at depth? What if churches, families and students proactively worked together to influence culture, instead of passively letting culture influence students, families and churches?

Imagine how discipleship like that would guard students against slipping on the slick film of lies all around them—not just to help youth brush off the consequential ‘fish scales’ when their faith skids, but to prevent them from falling in the first place.

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