Campus Evangelicals: their mission, motivation, and why it’s cool to be saved
from The Michigan Independent
Nate Ardle looks more like a normal guy working on his laptop in the Union than a spiritual leader. He enjoys the hit series “24,” the occasional computer game, and time with the family. And he’s really into Jesus. As Pastor for Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), Ardle leads a ministry aimed at the common college student. “We feel like every person needs to have a relationship with Christ,” he says. At the University of Michigan, Cru works alongside evangelical churches like New Life to infuse the good news with mass appeal. Less reliant on fear-mongering, campus evangelism is guided by ‘Christian rock’ strategies of planting the faith into the mainstream. It seems to be working. New Life’s community has outgrown its worship space in the Modern Language Building and is finishing construction of a new chapel for its 900 congregants. Until then, Sunday services get fired up fashionably late at 10:01 and 12:01 and hundreds pack into MLB Auditorium 3 seeking the promised “relevant, guilt-free, rockin’ good time.” This ain’t your grandma’s church. It’s an interactive concert, God’s Woodstock, and for evangelicals, it’s cool to be “saved.”
But these groups don’t thrive on the campaign of cool alone. The church community attracts students seeking personal guidance or a way to put their faith into action. Members of both New Life and Cru sign up for service trips aimed at quelling AIDS in Africa, hunger in Haiti, and hurricane destruction in New Orleans. These voyages don’t escape the complex history of missionary work and usually retain some strain of self-righteous zeal. Even with positive by-products, missions are part of the proselytization work for believers who see sin and depravity in the ‘underdeveloped’ world.
Pastor Ardle’s Campus Crusade for Christ is equally committed to spreading the word locally. The community is 300 strong and members can be seen armed with the Bible and pocket-sized pamphlets that read, “Would you like to know God personally?” Unlike traveling preachers who bring their one-man show to campuses to decry the sins of secularism, groups like New Life and Cru are taking a more delicate approach. The campus is a place where evangelicals have come not to scold so much as to tap into campus life and construct believers from the grassroots level. Ardle is a prime example. Not too many years ago, the pastor and his wife got involved as students in the evangelical community at Ohio State University. Now, his ministry in Ann Arbor cultivates the next generation of church leadership.
Gaia Stenson grew up in Michigan in an agnostic household. She pinpoints the moment in high school, at age 17, when she became interested in God. At a time when many high school kids are embracing Atheism as a response to school uniforms or Sunday morning mass, Stenson sought small group Bible study and found a community that really cared for each other. “I didn’t feel cornered, or judged, or pressured in any way,” she says. Stenson’s thoughtfulness is surprising. She’s a far cry from wild-eyed evangelists who trumpet rehearsed Bible verses laced with scorn. After graduating from U-M last year, Stenson decided to work for New Life as a campus organizer. “There have been a lot of bad things done in Jesus’ name,” she says. “Church positions have been used for power or oppression. I am ashamed at times, and deeply saddened that things have occurred.” Even so, she remains compelled by Jesus’ message, despite those who distort it: “I am not ashamed of the core of what Christ is about. That, in its most pure form, is the most beautiful thing.”
But is there an objective message? Faith is interpretative and interpretation involves selectivity. Some Christians see Jesus as a resolute pacifist, the ultimate peacemaker. For others, like Ardle, “Jesus doesn’t really address the issue of war very directly.” Both views depend on the emphasis of certain passages and the avoidance of others, and strain the logic of those who view the Bible as divine in its entirety. The good book has been a vessel through which people have sanctified their pre-existing political agendas for centuries. Its evolution is continually at the whim of power, illustrated by the multitude of successive translations and editions, each with their own adaptation of the text. This distortion has left a distinctly human imprint on the supposed word of God.
Believers all infuse their power into the Bible, but some have more power than others. There is a hierarchical relationship between national organizations and individual congregants. Groups like the Greater Commission Ministries fund church planting projects and have created a network of satellite churches, like New Life Ann Arbor. President Bush has helped to empower these umbrella groups by issuing executive orders for the establishment of “Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,” within government, which allow religious groups access to federal funds. The National Association of Evangelicals has received not only monetary support for its agenda but an amplified voice within Bush’s born-again boardroom.
Ardle’s ministry is also one chapter within an enormous international organization that bears the same name. The predominant interpretations on modern evangelism are forged at the top, where decision making power resides. It’s a pervasive traditionalism among conservative elites that facilitates a certain dissemination of God’s view on gay marriage. It’s the perceived clash with Islamic fundamentalists that compels evangelical leaders to pull out verses from “Romans” to justify war against the wrongdoers. And then there are the millions who relate to this brand of evangelism; those who fill the pews (or stadium style seating) of mega-churches every Sunday to have their worldview sanctified.
Pastor Ardle maintains that evangelism is not political. Though not overtly partisan, his carefully crafted statements of the faith do contain something fundamentally political, and at times paradoxical. Acceptance and judgment exist in tension alongside each other. New Life’s website embraces this tension too, speaking of eternal love and eternal damnation: “God declares righteous all who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation.” For those who don’t honor the Bible, a less upbeat promise. “At physical death the unbeliever enters immediately into eternal, conscious separation from the Lord and awaits…everlasting suffering, judgment and condemnation,” the site reads.
This tension is reflected in specific issues like the dominant evangelical view on homosexuality. Ardle adds a disclaimer to his comments, emphasizing that it is not the goal of his ministry to condemn gay people. But as he elaborates, the judgment comes forth, less shrouded in niceties. “It would be just as sinful for me to commit adultery against my wife, as for someone to be in a homosexual relationship,” he says. “Both would be repugnant in the eyes of God.” Given the battle raging over gay marriage on state ballots, Ardle’s ministry finds itself intimately entangled in struggles of earthly power.
Though Stenson and Ardle represent a diversity within evangelism, there are central ideas that unify their community. To give your life to Jesus involves making, as Stenson asserts, “an exclusive claim on truth.” Choosing not to embrace Jesus is not simply a matter of preference, but a matter of eternal life or eternal death. Even the more tolerant amongst evangelicals seem steadfast in their conviction that theirs is the only way to “salvation.” This is hard for Stenson. “In terms of scripture, and what I believe, there is one way, and I’m fully aware that that is offensive, and hard to deal with, but it becomes an issue of standing on truth,” she says. But presuming to know truth on such questions has often had bloody consequences.
The problem of fundamentalism is not exclusive to Christianity, but the American brand presents a stunning case study. Evangelists in America are not only a mobilized demographic force or a community emboldened by sympathetic elements in government. The new technology of evangelism operates with a subtlety that is particularly insidious. Recognizing that no one wants to be screamed at about eternal damnation, evangelical groups on campus react to difference first with an invitation. Ardle insists that sin is the great equalizing force, but with a catch: “Everybody will be judged for their sin. But the only way I escape judgment is because of Jesus Christ, because I have placed my life in his hands.” The invitation is for everybody, but the promise of salvation quickly turns into judgment if a homosexual refuses to “become” straight, or a Muslim refuses the “enlightenment” of Jesus. Campus evangelical groups are a comforting presence for some students, but they remain part of a well-oiled fundamentalist machine that operates internationally on the premises of self-righteousness, intolerance and exclusion.