A few years ago, the departmental dean at the institution where I teach asked if we could discuss a dilemma. After a few pleasantries, my dean explained that a colleague had visited her earlier that day. A student reported to this colleague that a faculty member in our department had discussed her personal beliefs during a recent class meeting.
The faculty member who had discussed her personal beliefs was me. And the beliefs I’d discussed in class were Christian. Now, my dean needed to let me know my actions had been inappropriate.
Eventually, she made that point. But not right away. Instead, after telling me what my colleague had reported, she invited me to describe what I had said to my students. So, I shared the short talk that, for many semesters, I had often given just before concluding each last regular class session.
Although I’ve made changes over the years, it typically went something like this. First, I acknowledged the existence of many faith perspectives within our class, emphasizing my intention to never denigrate anyone's convictions. Next, I expressed my belief that each student is created by God, that they each possess a unique set of gifts, and that those gifts exist to benefit our world. The best way to discern their purpose in life, I suggested, is to know this God who had created them. And the best way to know God is by knowing Christ. I reiterated that my intention is not to disrespect anyone else’s view, but to share — from one human being to another — a belief I understand as life-giving and, for me, even essential. Then, I closed by saying I looked forward to seeing them continue their academic journeys and encouraged them to reach out if I could ever be of help to them.
I don’t recall whether my dean asked me about the reason for my end-of-the-semester talk, though she may have. She has always shown friendly curiosity towards diverse perspectives. And, because she is a friend and mentor as well as my supervisor, we have enjoyed discussions about wide-ranging topics including not just literature and teaching practices, but politics and worldviews. So, it wouldn’t have been out of character for her to ask.
But I likely would have struggled to answer such a question, since my motivation was, well, complicated. It was largely rooted in what I’d been taught while growing up in a faith community that often emphasized the absolute necessity for believers to share our faith with non-believers. This view was espoused in countless Sunday messages by my church’s pastors as well as revival preachers who’d spoken over the years. And it was reinforced through evangelism training workshops. In these events, we learned specific methods for approaching people for the purpose of telling them how they could become a Christian. I remember event leaders telling stories of people who had used these methods to successfully lead others to Christ. Many of these stories celebrated not only how the "witnessee” had gained heaven but also the “witnesser’s” relief at having not been an accessory to another soul’s experience of an eternity separated from God.
Serious about my faith, and eager to please my community, I participated in these training events. I didn't have trouble memorizing the series of statements we were taught. However, when I imagined using those statements in a real-life conversation, all I felt was anxious. Sure, I was comfortable enough talking about my faith with other Christians, praying out loud, or singing about God in my church choir. But when I pictured myself attempting to share my faith with a stranger, I felt distinctly uncomfortable.
Examining that discomfort, though, wasn’t part of these workshops. Instead, at least as far as I recall, we were exhorted to be mindful of Christ’s words: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my message, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person” (Luke 9:26, NLT). If I had any hesitation about sharing the gospel, I’d better set it aside. After all, I certainly didn’t want Jesus hesitating in his assessment of whether I was one of his true followers.
I attended these workshops and learned some of the evangelism methods, but the discomfort I felt has continued to override what increasingly seemed like a compulsion to prove myself. So, I have never attempted, for example, to initiate a conversation about the gospel with the stranger sitting next to me on a plane.
Still, though, I have found it impossible to shirk off what I learned about evangelism during my growing-up years. I’m certain this led — at least in part — to my end-of-the-semester talk. The talk also stemmed, however, from a genuine care for my students, and a desire to share the essential and life-giving hope I have experienced — a hope that alternately flickers and flames, but continues to shed its light in my own life.
Even if my dean did ask why I made this statement to my students, the impromptu nature of our conversation likely kept me from articulating my complicated reasoning with any clarity. I don’t remember whether we discussed it that day.
What I do remember, though, is how intently my dean listened to me. When I finished explaining what I had said to my students, there was a long pause. Then, she quietly advised me that being a state employee meant I would need to refrain from discussing my personal faith convictions with my students.
If she been another person — someone who, for example, denigrated Christians (or anyone, for that matter) — I suspect I would have received my dean’s words differently. I could have been tempted to view this institutional limit as an extension of a secular culture dead-set against blocking my religious freedoms because I happen to be a Christian. This might have led me to push back, either in my thoughts (“I am being treated unjustly”) or in my actions (“I refuse to change my last-day-of-class routine and will continue to exercise my rights, come what may”).
But my reaction wasn’t to fight. This is partly because I am a rule-follower — perhaps to a fault. Plus, despite all the training I received, I have never felt well-equipped to participate in argumentative discourse about religion. In fact, debating about faith matters is something I am inclined to avoid whenever possible.
These aren’t the biggest reasons I acquiesce to my College’s expectations. Instead, what it initially came down to was how my dean delivered this news.
She didn’t give me an ultimatum. She was the antithesis of confrontational or authoritarian. Even as she made the limitation clear to me, her facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice not only conveyed that she understood how difficult it was for me to hear this news, but also her sadness at having to deliver it. In fact, I’m fairly certain she held back tears while saying I could no longer give voice to my convictions. We discussed the matter for a few minutes more. Then, though grieved, I agreed to no longer share this statement with my students at the end of each semester.
I still question whether this was the right decision. What I didn't consider at the time is that, when I professed my Christian faith — or, more accurately, encouraged my students to consider it — I may have been misusing my platform as a professor of an academic discipline. Yes, I had tried to discuss the topic in a way that respected my students’ convictions. But my students had not asked me to share this information with them. Further, though I attempted to establish a level playing field by saving the statement until the last few minutes of our regular class meeting, exam week was still to come. Grades were yet to be assigned. The professor/student power differential was still in place. Though I was trying to invite dialogue, I did so by way of a semester-ending monologue.
Despite these realizations, a few misgivings linger.
One is this: What if, in my end-of-the-semester talk, I had encouraged my students to explore the validity of a different ideology? What if it wasn’t Christianity I’d referenced, but communism, capitalism, or the teachings of Confucius? Would those suggestions be interpreted as proselytizing? Would someone have complained to my dean? Would I have been told to refrain from such a statement in my future classes? I suspect the answer to that question is “no.” And this troubles me.
But another misgiving — far weightier — is this: By remaining within institutional expectations and refraining from commending my faith, am I stepping outside God’s expectations and somehow refraining from obedience to the one I claim to follow?
In pondering this question, I am reminded of another scripture often quoted in many evangelism-focused workshops and sermons: “. . . honor the Messiah as Lord in Your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15, HCSB). The application of this verse seems to have been that we should measure the degree of Christ’s Lordship over our lives by how willingly, frequently, fearlessly, vehemently, and effectively we witnessed. And we were to approach the task of evangelism from a defensive stance, almost as if preparing to ward off an attacker who was to be viewed not just as "the offense,” but also as one whose perspective is offensive, meriting nothing other than disparagement. Maintaining this frame of mind allowed us to "keep [our] conscience clear;” and eventually, all who disagreed would be “put to shame” (v. 16).
Even as a young person, I felt vaguely uncomfortable with this characterization of those who might not be Christ-followers. Although I couldn’t have pinpointed it at the time, such a posture — not to mention the impulse to put someone else to shame — felt presumptuous and incomplete, if not ungenerous, arrogant, and distinctly un-Christ-like. It still does today.
Decades later, when I revisit this passage, I see a few other things. My attention is drawn to the importance of bearing witness as a response to someone who expresses curiosity specifically about my faith: “. . . if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it” (NLT, emphasis added). I also notice Peter’s encouragement to offer this response “with gentleness and respect.” It is this stance — not aggressive or accusatory, but generous and honoring of our audience—that evidences and supports our conscience remaining clear.
For now, I hope God will view my efforts to live at peace with my employer as an effort to honor him. I am also trusting that God can accomplish his kingdom purposes despite — or maybe even through — what still feel like less-than-desirable circumstances.
Most importantly, I sense a nudge to relinquish the tendency to rely so much on my own abilities, words, or complicated motives, and an invitation to rely more fully — and more quietly — on an all-powerful, all-knowing, God who offers unconditional love and unmerited, hope-sustaining, audacious forgiveness to each of my students — and to me.