Leaving the tram, I walked several blocks to what I hoped was the right door—and knocked.
I watched the door open, first a crack and then all the way, revealing a woman’s face I’d never seen before.
There she is–the campus ministry leader whoinvited me over on short notice just yesterday! (See the story of that email in When God Works After the Last Minute: A Lesson in Trust.)
“Hello!” she greeted, “Come inside!”
I followed her up several flights of stairs, deposited my massive green backpack in one of the rooms, and joined her in the dining room for an amazing spaghetti dinner. The longer we swapped stories of God’s leading, the more amazed we grew at how He had orchestrated our meeting—two strangers with a shared heart for student ministry, connecting over pasta in Belgium, of all places.
This is totally where I’m supposed to be tonight, I marveled.
Of course, as the conversation turned to the challenges which Christian students face in Belgium, I just had to flip open my laptop and start taking notes.
What the campus ministry leader shared:
“In general,” my host was saying, “many Christians grow up with a double life—a ‘Christian life’ and a ‘public life.’ The two are not integrated. So, when they find themselves on campus, many students do not know how to stand as a Christian. Evangelism is seen as an activity and not a lifestyle. Often, students don’t know how to share their faith and relationship with God with non-Christians, or don’t know how to answer the questions that non-Christians have. Some are normal ‘curiosity questions,’ but some others are ‘state your case’ questions about why students are Christians, what they believe about sexuality, or how they can believe in God when there’s so much misery in the world.”
Back to the importance of building spiritual and intellectual foundations, I noted. Strong spiritual foundations enable students to own their own faith, understand how the gospel transforms their whole lives, and therefore lead integrated lives. Meanwhile, intellectual foundations, including access to apologetics knowledge, equip students to deal with specific questions gracefully. (See also How Christian Students Can Prepare for Secular Higher Education.)
“I remember one day a student came to me,” the ministry leader continued, “and she was so shaken because someone had told her that the trinity was not in the Bible. She asked me, ‘Is it true?’ I said, ‘Yes; you won’t find the term trinity in the Bible, but you don’t need to be shaken by that. It’s just the word for the concept that we see all over the Bible—for example in the great commission.’ This might seem like a little thing, but for that student, it was huge. She wondered, ‘What have I believed?’ So, it was important for her to have someone who could guide her, reassure her, and help her know how to understand the situation.”
In other words, I realized, students need available mentors for discussing tough questions–which shows the importance of interpersonal foundations!
“One thing that is lacking,” mused the campus ministry leader, “–you know how in Acts, Paul commended the Bereans for searching the scriptures to see if what he was saying was true? I think that’s something we don’t do enough in the church: challenging people to think Biblically. Many Christians have do’s and don’ts in their minds from the Bible, but they don’t really connect those to who God is and to His character. They don’t know why we do or don’t do those things. I think that most of the students, even those who grow up in the church, don’t have these kinds of tools and Biblical thinking principles. That’s what we want to do in our ministry: equip students to understand their worldview as Christians, as well as the worldview in which they are living.”
Christian students’ main tool, she explained, is the word of God. Students trying to navigate life without truly knowing who God is and what He says, as revealed through Scripture, may as well be sailors trying to navigate a starless sea without a compass.
“The basis of discernment,” she summarized, “is to ask, ‘Is this in agreement with what God’s word says?’ Knowledge of the character of God, together with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is also what enables us to understand what we should do in specific situations. So, the emphasis is on knowing the word of God. –But not just knowing it like the Pharisees did. They knew the word but didn’t know God. We need to know Him, personally. Like Job said to God, ‘It’s one thing to have knowledge of You, but now I’ve experienced You for myself.’ It’s only to the extent that we really know God that we’ll be able to communicate our relationships with Him to others.”
This communication includes not only evangelism—helping non-believers to know God for the first time, but also discipleship—helping believers to know God even better. One of the ways my host did this is to mentor students both in person and over video chat. In fact, she already had a chat scheduled with one of these students for the next morning. So, after breakfast, I had the chance to interview that student over video myself.
What the Christian student shared:
“What do most people believe here?” I asked her.
“There are two kinds of people,” she replied, “the atheists, obviously, and those who are Catholic because their family is Catholic. But they don’t go to church or anything. Here, most people think Christianity is buried. They see being a Christian as having to respect a lot of rules. For them, to be a young Christian is not really cool; they see us like we’re not able to have fun.”
“So, what are some of the challenges of being a Christian student in that sort of environment?”
“People’s perceptions of Christians. They think, ‘you’re not like us; you’re too perfect for us.’ So, we have to break the first image they have about Christians. Another thing that’s difficult for us is feeling like we have to do things we don’t agree with—things that, as Christians, we are not okay with—to be accepted. There is a battle inside. When we don’t have friends who are Christian, it’s really difficult. We can feel alone, and it’s more easy for us to not fight against the things that are not good for us.” (See also Three Lessons from Christian Students in a Restricted Access Nation, “Genovia.”)
“On the positive side,” I switched the conversation’s tone, “what encourages you about being a Christian student here?”
“I talk to people to bring them to our student ministry,” she answered, “and I see that they want to know more about God. In a bigger group, they show that they’re against God. But when we’re just face to face, I see that they want me to speak about God—to explain why I’m a Christian, or why I’m happy. They also allow me to pray for them. They are not Christian, but they are curious about the Christian things. I see that they are all searching for spiritual things; for example, many do meditation. I also find it encouraging to talk to Christians living away from home, since it’s difficult for them to keep praying, to be alone, and to go to church. It’s positive to be a community together with them and to encourage them.”
“So, what advice would you give to one of those other Christian students?”
“Don’t think that you are alone,” she stated. “You’ll have to search for someone, pray for God to show you someone, but there is another Christian in the university. You’re not alone.”
The moral of the story:
Ultimately, the campus ministry leader and student summarized three things that Christian students (and any Christians) need to know for following Christ in post-Christian environments–not just in Belgium, but around the world. First, Christians need to know God’s word, as the reference point for discernment and decision-making. Second, they need to know who God is, not just academically, like the Pharisees, but personally, like Job. Finally, they need to know that they’re not alone.
This last point applies not only to Christians in secular classrooms and cultures across time, but it also applied to me that day in Belgium, a solo stranger with a massive green backpack and no plan. I didn’t even know where I’d sleep that night (much less the next five), or what country I’d head to the following morning. England? Luxembourg? France?
I’d have to find out soon. But like the Christian student reminded me, with God and His people surrounding me, I wouldn’t be finding out alone.