“Sure!” I replied, surveying the slender vehicle. I’d ridden plenty of bikes in Canada. How much harder could cycling be in Holland, the latest stop on my journey to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ university experiences?
The student ministry leader I’d arranged to meet lived just fifteen minutes away. So, calculating for my remarkable (non) sense of direction, I left forty-five minutes early.
Act natural, I coached myself, clutching the bike’s handlebars. You’re just another local, one of thousands of young women commuters who cruise around with long braids flying behind their helmetless heads. You’ve done this a million times.
Hand signaling as if I knew the local traffic laws, I ventured down the cobblestone lane, my otherwise intrepid voyage punctuated with awkward halts to check my GPS. The blue arrow marking my location looked nowhere near my prescribed path, but the more I fought to correct my course, the further I drifted in the opposite direction! I decided to try peddling 180° away from where I thought I should go, which worked wonderfully until I realized that I’d been cycling the wrong direction down a one-way bike lane.
The Netherlands: A Little Historical Background
The Netherlands, like many European nations, once founded its thinking mainly on God’s Word.
Ironically, over the last couple centuries, the Netherlands’ culture itself has largely turned 180° in a misguided direction too. The Netherlands, like many European nations, once founded its thinking mainly on God’s Word—especially after the 1500s. Before then, Roman Catholicism dominated religious practice in the Netherlands, following the nation’s Christianization from paganism. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch Protestant Reformation sparked a massive cultural return to the authority of God’s Word alone, rather than extra-biblical church traditions or other doctrines of human invention.
Then in 1860, something happened that would impact Dutch society forever. A surgeon and naturalist known as Tiberius Cornelis Winkler (which is a seriously amazing name) translated Darwin’s recently released book, On the Origin of the Species, into Dutch. Darwin’s ideas didn’t take the Netherlands by storm, however, until eight years later, when an atheistic German scientist named Carl Vogt visited Rotterdam.1
Vogt, who spoke highly of Darwin for displacing so many peoples’ “Christian belief in miracles,”1 presented a lecture series on the “history of man.” The resulting stir brought evolutionary human origins to the forefront of public discussion. Eventually, despite the initial pushback against Darwinism from multiple Christian denominations in the Netherlands, many scientists, materialists, and liberal theologians made Darwin’s ideas their authority for understanding human history.
Having rejected the Biblical God as humanity’s Creator—and therefore, our Moral Lawgiver, many consistent evolutionists in the Netherlands turned to human reasoning alone as the basis for their moral frameworks. A Dutch “freethinker” society known as De Dageraad (“The Dawn,” founded in 1856) promoted just such an evolution-based humanistic morality, which began to heavily influence leftist politics in the Netherlands.1
Throughout the following century, the Netherlands continued secularizing to the point that in 2017, for the first time in history, more of the Dutch population identified as non-religious than religious.2
How can churches support Christian students being discipled by the secular universities of such a humanistic society? That’s what I wanted to ask the student minister—if I could ever bike to her house!
The Campus Minister’s Insights
Backtracking from the one-way street, I took only one more wrong turn before seeing the smiling campus ministry leader greet me outside her house. Yes! She ushered me into a dining room where, after we’d swapped our life stories over tea, she began sharing some of the best insights I’d heard about what it takes to be a mentor.
“It’s crucial for churches to acknowledge that students are planted in their university city for a season,” she began, “and that we, as a church community, all play a part in helping them blossom there and bear fruit. Of course, that’s God’s job too. A lot of churches, however, just let students pass through, leaving their discipleship to parachurch organizations. But students need local churches.”
Just like what a former professor in Australia emphasized, I remembered. Not attending church, he’d told me, is the biggest mistake students make.
While campus ministries are fantastic too, the student leader added, students cannot thrive on Christian peer groups alone without being part of the wider, intergenerational body of Christ.
“I want older people to be invested in the lives of the churches’ teens,” she continued. “Teens should be mentored by people who are wiser than them, while themselves mentoring someone else. I think it’s really important that local churches should not overlook that.”
“How does that work in your church?” I asked.
In response, she explained that the student outreach she leads is a church-run initiative which partners with a local campus ministry. The campus ministry runs student-led social events, which feed into a church-affiliated student Bible study.
“This year we’re doing Corinthians,” she continued. “We meet for dinner, worship, and monthly social nights. Sometimes, we also have guest speakers present about different topics. We appreciate having a lot of grownups talk to students from their own professions, specialties or journeys; they’re our guest speakers. But I also love to pair these adults up with students, one-on-one. They are the mentors. We have a little mentorship course too, once a year.”
The importance of mentorship, part of the interpersonal foundations or Christian support network that students need to thrive as Christ-followers in secular university, had ranked as one of the top themes I’d been hearing all over the world.
“Essentially, a mentor is someone who will pray with, pray for, and journey with the students,” she defined. “If a student is particularly occupied with a future career, for example, I’d try to pair them up with someone who would have advice on that.”
The best thing that can happen to a Christian student is being mentored by someone who is proof that God is faithful.
“I’ve heard the argument that mentorship can be difficult because students don’t have enough time for it, or don’t want to connect with older adults,” I said. “Has that been a problem, in your experience?”
“Not at all,” she answered. “It has been the opposite for us. Students are craving mentorship. But we have the opposite problem: the adults don’t feel qualified to be mentors. So, we reassure the adults that mentorship isn’t about being great or experienced at something; it’s just sharing their journey. Whether they’re a homemaker or a CEO, everyone has a perspective that students don’t have. And that’s the main thing students crave. The best thing that can happen to a Christian student is being mentored by someone who is proof that God is faithful.”
Now THERE’S a great definition of mentorship, I decided. A person doesn’t need to have a master’s degree in theology or know every answer for students’ difficult questions to be a mentor. (Though it is essential for mentors to know where to help students find the answers, through biblically and scientifically-sound resources like AnswersinGenesis.org.) Rather, a mentor can simply be anyone with a story of God’s faithfulness to share.
The Moral of the Story
Christian students need intentional counter-discipleship to help them stay constantly grounded in God’s Word.
In a society as secular as the Netherlands, which has left the foundation of Scripture through a long history of compromise with man’s word, Christian students can face constant pressure to adopt the evolutionary beliefs and humanist values of their surrounding culture. Students absorbing secular messages in public education every day are essentially being discipled by their humanistic society. So, Christian students need intentional counter-discipleship to help them stay constantly grounded in God’s Word.
Such discipleship involves not only ongoing connection with a solid local church, but also deliberate mentorship from godly older adults. And who counts as a mentor? Any Christian willing to turn whatever life situation God has given them into an opportunity to invest in someone else, whether by listening to them, praying with them, helping them find answers to their questions, or modeling God’s faithfulness in everyday life.
What if more young people navigating the one-way streets of secular education had mentors like that alongside for the journey? Imagine how such mentorship could help keep Christian students from becoming turned around by culture’s lies.
And speaking of turning around, I glanced at my watch.
It was time to hop back aboard my borrowed bike to see what some of those Christian students being mentored had to say.
Stay tuned for Part 25!