Oh yeah. Drive on the left in Australia.
Living on the planet’s underside would apparently take some getting used to, but at least I’d have three weeks to adjust. In those three weeks, however, I’d be covering a lot of ground—over 1,700 km, to be exact. That’s how far I’d arranged to travel overland across Eastern Australia as part of my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ experiences at secular universities. So, with little time to waste, I headed to the nearest campus before the sun set on my first day ‘Downunder’.
The first thing I noticed about campus were the trees—a eucalyptus forest complete with signs alerting dog-walkers to beware of koalas. Then, I noticed the sounds: squeaky grey birds and multicoloured parrots chortling from the canopies, together with the magpies which dive-bomb humans often enough that Australian cyclists fight back with spiked helmets. Continuing through campus, I also sidestepped a fearsomely long lizard, passed a koala crossing sign, and stopped short at the sight of a kookaburra stealing a student’s lunch.
Toto, I concluded, we’re not in Canada anymore.
Investigating the spiritual climate on campus:
As completely un-Canadian as I found Australian universities (or should I say, “uni’s”) to be, however, I soon realized that campuses in Australia and Canada do bear some striking similarities. Take, for instance, the bulletin boards. From the multitudinous messages selling secular sexuality, to the posters promoting everything from Bible studies to pub crawls to yoga classes, the ideas posted in Australia and Canada couldn’t have been more alike. While I didn’t see any Wiccan chaplains advertised in Australia, I did pass a palm reading sign on one campus, and an invitation to weekly classes about discovering the “divine nature within” on another.
If advertisements around campus are any indication then, Australian and Canadian cultures both base their thinking on the same fatal foundation: man’s word, instead of God’s. I’d learned about the consequences of that in the first seminar by Ken Ham I’d heard as a teenager. I’d seen the effects of those consequences at Canadian universities, and I was seeing them again here.
In fact, like the cartoons I found mocking Christianity in Canadian campuses, drawings I observed in Australian campus revealed how Australia too, not only dismisses God’s word—but also actively rejects it. One illustration in an art display, for instance, depicted a human figure hanging from a cross-shaped gallows. Surrounding the gallows were the words, “Love? No thanks.”
A floor below, I also spotted a banner for a play about Christian evangelization being ‘white man’s’ agenda. I didn’t know it yet, but this connection between Christianity and negative political programs would continue reappearing at universities I visited in country after country. As a student myself in Canada, I too had heard more than one professor link Christianity to “terrible right-wing politics.” One way Christian students must learn how to defend their faith, then, is to understand which political conclusions don’t flow from a biblical worldview, and which do flow from a secular worldview. But more on that another time.
Looking for Christian contacts:
As I continued sojourning around Australian university towns, three things really leapt out at me. Number one: the kangaroos. The first time I sighted those bouncy beasts on a campus, my brain registered them as the deer I’d so often encounter at my university in Canada. But then, I noticed their long tails!
The second thing which leapt out at me was God’s unbelievable creativity in connecting me with the right Christian contacts. Sometimes I met students at churches; other times, I found Christians by showing up to Bible studies advertised around campuses. But the most memorable connection happened at a university where I’d been futilely wandering around a dead-end corridor, praying to find a Christian. Usually, I’d explore campuses while cleverly disguised as a normal young person. But this time, the massive green backpack (MGB) I wore containing six months’ worth of travel gear lent me a conspicuousness comparable to having a live pig strapped to my back.
“Are you looking for something?” called a voice behind me as I stood there, obviously an outsider.
I turned to see a woman with dark hair and light overalls. “I’m looking for information, mostly. Do you know if there’s a chaplain here? Or Christian students, or anyone who could comment on spirituality here on campus?”
“I’m a Christian student,” she said. “I can give you the contact info of the campus ministry leader here.”
Yes! Isn’t God amazing?
Insights from Australian campus Christians:
While talking with ministry leaders, chaplains and students around Australia, I brought up four questions which I’d continue asking campus Christians around the world:
- What are the challenges of being a Christian student here?
- What are the opportunities?
- What advice would you give a first-year Christian student?
- How do you think the church can support Christian students better?
Often, Australians answered the first question by describing how Australia, like Canada, embraces a relativistic pluralism. In other words, the consensus is that there is no absolute truth, no exclusively correct religion, and no one way to be “right.” The attitude Christian students are likely to encounter when sharing something from God’s word is, “You be you, but don’t try to tell me how to be me.”
Ultimately, this is further evidence that Australia has staked its culture on the wrong foundation: subjective human opinion, instead of the infallible word of our Creator. This illustrates the enormous need for students to build intellectual foundations through learning apologetics—the intellectual defense of the Christian worldview. If students are prepared to defend the foundation of Scripture, their faith will be far more resistant to attacks arising from a culture which founds its thinking on man’s word instead of God’s.
Consistently, when I asked Questions #3 and #4 to find out how local Christian students keep their faith in such a secular culture, Australians would point to students’ need for strong Christian support networks (interpersonal foundations). Specifically, most answers revolved around Christian students needs for three types of community. First, students extolled the benefits of plugging into a Christian peer group on campus. Remembering my own Christian peer community at university, I could attest to the importance of having Christian friends for prayer, mutual encouragement, and an ongoing reminder that I was never alone in my beliefs. Second, Australian Christians expressed students’ need for connections with godly adult mentors, confirming what I’d heard from my interviews in Canada. Third, I repeatedly heard the importance of students plugging themselves into a local church. A retired Christian professor, in fact, told me that not attending church is the biggest mistake students make.
Importantly, some Australians also emphasized the urgency for students to spend time with God not only through church or campus ministries, but also through vibrant personal times of prayer and Scripture study (spiritual foundations).
The moral of the story:
Despite our shared ‘Commonwealth’ background, from the moment I hopped off the plane and strode to the wrong side of the car, I’d pegged Australia and my home country as—well—literally polar opposites. But three weeks and 1,700km later, I realized that despite being a world apart, Australia and Canada culturally share much in common. For instance both Australian and Canadian universities revealed how these nations have abandoned their Christian roots and base their mainstream thinking on man’s word, rather than God’s. This results in Australia, like Canada, being a relativistic nation which opposes biblical teaching. So, Australian students increasingly need apologetics training (intellectual foundations) to defend their biblical worldview as much as I did as a student in Canada. Like Canadians, Australians also confirmed students’ need connections to godly peers, mentors and a local church (interpersonal foundations), as well as consistent time spent with God (spiritual foundations). Altogether, then, while Australia and Canada might differ on details like koalas, kangaroos and kookaburras, the big pictures of culture, spirituality, and Christian students’ experiences in both nations look uncannily alike.
(Stay tuned for Part 6!)