The situation I experienced in an Asian restricted-access nation caught me totally off guard. Initially, nothing seemed unusual about the living room where I sat writing; only the clatter of my keyboard sounded as I chronicled my ongoing mission to backpack 360° around the world documenting Christian students’ university experiences. Soon, when a masters graduate strolled in for an impromptu interview, I became too engrossed in notetaking to detect anything sinister afoot.
“When I was doing my master’s degree,” said the graduate, who stood backlit in the doorway to the yard—
I didn’t catch the rest of his sentence. All my attention, instead, locked onto the dark shadow, which had suddenly materialized on top of his head. A strange expression—some hybrid between wonder and confusion—transformed the graduate’s face. Moving only his eyes, he looked up towards the shadow now fused to his forehead.
“Bwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaak,” said the shadow.
The shadow morphed like an extradimensional shapeshifter. Its sides were extending and contracting in a frenzy of motion that propelled the strange being into the living room. There in the light, I could discern the creature’s true nature.
“Bwaaak-bwaaaaaak” the chicken repeated, alighting placidly on the floor. Then, as though recalling something urgent, it burst into flight, fluttered towards the graduate’s face, swerved, flung itself passionately into the curtains, and flopped back to the ground.
I wanted to ask the graduate what he’d been about to say, but I was laughing too hard to try.
The Earthly Risks of Following Christ Instead of Culture
In further conversations, which weren’t disrupted by invading chickens, I asked other Christian students how they navigate living for Christ in this nation, where the mainstream worldviews include Hinduism, Buddhism, and other forms of Eastern mysticism. By standing on God’s Word instead of their culture’s doctrines, Christians in many regions of this nation risk facing severe relational strain, social exclusion, and even active persecution. What lessons could Christians here teach Westerners about following Christ in settings like secular universities, where God’s Word is countercultural?
As I talked with local Christians, four lessons came to light:
Lesson 1: Know Your Boundaries
“You cannot separate religion and culture here,” one woman said, explaining that Christians must set strong personal boundaries for interacting with their surrounding society. “If you don’t make your stand clear and say that as a Christian, you choose not to do this or that, you are lost.”
Christian students heading to secular campuses, I realized, face the same reality. They must know their convictions beforehand, understand their reasons for those convictions, and draw clear lines
Christian students heading to secular campuses, I realized, face the same reality. They must know their convictions beforehand, understand their reasons for those convictions, and draw clear lines regarding what they are willing to do, believe, and do as Daniel did in Babylon. Captive in a culture founded on man’s word, Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food”1—and God gave him grace to carry out that resolution.
Still, maintaining boundaries from your culture is not always easy. Social standing and family relations mean everything in collectivist cultures like this one, so failure to conform can mean facing intense social and familial pressures. Socially, Christians rank lower than the lowest tier of society in some regions, being prohibited even to drink water from the same tap as others. Meanwhile, Christians may also encounter daily familial expectations to worship household gods.
“Half of my family is Hindu,” a senior high school girl told me as we sat at a coffee shop, discussing some of those challenges, “so when we go for gatherings, I’m the only Christian, and the others do all their other religious ceremonies. I’ve seen this in a lot of families. I know that there is only one God, but others in our family accept many other gods in addition to him. So, they come to church with us and eat our foods, but we cannot join them to worship and eat at their temples, in return. They don’t like that.”
“So how do you deal with that?” I asked.
“We need to be strong willed,” she replied, “and really understand why we, as Christians, should not eat those things. We might lose some friends, but we have to be careful to choose our friends.”
Lesson 2: Know Your God (Spiritual Foundations)
To keep from compromising, Christians need to not only set boundaries but also base those boundaries on something stronger than personal preferences, family opinions, or church traditions. Instead, believers need to stake their boundaries on the Word and love and fear of God. This requires a personal relationship with God, maintained through the spiritual foundations that students need before coming to university. As an engineering student stated when I asked about her advice for another Christian student: “Know the God you are serving by reading the Word and prayer.”
Lesson 3: Know Your Answers (Intellectual Foundations)
The importance of not only knowing God but also being able to articulate the reasons for that relationship arose in conversation with a local campus ministry leader. He indicated that at some universities, trendy postmodernism has increased religious tolerance (but also indifference) with the “you believe what’s right for you and I’ll believe what’s right for me” thrust familiar to Westerners. As in any culture, responding to these ideas causes trouble for Christian students who can’t articulate exactly what they believe or why they believe it when asked.
“They’re not rooted,” summarized the campus minister. “They believe in Jesus or have Christian parents, but don’t know how to answer the questions that come up.”
Providing answers to intellectually defend the Christian faith is the essence of apologetics, which Scripture mandates in 1 Peter 3:15. Apologetics knowledge, together with critical-thinking skills, helps provide Christians with intellectual foundations for defending, maintaining, and proclaiming a biblical worldview in secular classrooms and culture. And as the campus minister’s words illustrate, these foundations are essential for Christian students all around the world.
Lesson 4: Know Your Allies (Interpersonal Foundations)
While knowing God personally and being able to defend that knowledge help equip students with spiritual and intellectual foundations for secular university, there’s a third type of foundation students need: interpersonal foundations, or a Christian support network including family, peers, church, and mentors. Such networks’ importance had surfaced in every country I’d visited, and this nation proved to be no exception. As my engineering student friend described,
“If you’re at home in a nice and warm fellowship, you can stay strong. But after you move away, that will be a test of faith.”
“Do most students move away from home?” I asked.
“Yes, to [another region] where schools are much better—but where it’s much harder to be a Christian.”
“How can the church support students who move away from home?” I wanted to know.
In answer, she emphasized the importance of churches providing constant counseling, fellowship, and training to equip youth before they leave home and then helping students connect with other Christians to meet after they leave home.
a Canadian study found that students are three times more likely to attend church during university if someone from their hometown helps them connect to a new church
That’s just like what I heard from sources in three different Western nations, I remembered. A former professor in Australia warned that not attending church is the biggest mistake that students make. However, Christians I met in New Zealand pointed out that students often won’t attend church unless they find one soon after moving away. These Christians urge churches in smaller towns, therefore, to connect youth group graduates with churches in university towns. To that point, a Canadian study found that students are three times more likely to attend church during university if someone from their hometown helps them connect to a new church.2
Now, far removed from any of these Western nations, I was hearing the first-hand story of a student who personally found a connection like that to be so valuable. When she moved to study in a region particularly hostile against Christians, a Christian leader from her original college town connected her with an underground church in her new city.
The Moral of the Story
Whether fellowshipping underground or worshiping freely, Christians in any culture founded on man’s word may feel as out of place as a chicken in a living room. And being out of place is bound to entail challenges. Yet no matter where I visited, Christian students staying strong in their faith responded to these challenges by building the same types of personal foundations.
Would these lessons hold true as I continued into further closed countries that embrace still other worldviews—like Islam?
Stay tuned for Part 16!