This post is in response to a post by Laura Nile, who says that Seattle Pacific University is hiding its faith. It is a thoughtful post by a wonderful woman who is genuinely concerned with the affairs of her university. The following are musings on themes raised in her post.
That SPU doesn’t talk about Jesus enough wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind until this summer, when, after a panel discussion for people previewing the school, a family shuffled over to me. The mother, who seemed flustered, introduced herself and said, “Thank you. We have been touring the school all day—going to presentations, talking with advisors—and you were the only person who has said anything about Jesus. When we visited [another Christian school in the state], they spoke about Jesus a lot. Does SPU even care about him?”
I was a bit flabbergasted. In response I reassured her that Jesus is very much at the core of what SPU does, even if we don’t say his name a lot at all events for prospective students. I think part of her disappointment as a previewing parent (which is, granted, different than a student) comes from trouble differentiating between the role of evangelism and preaching in the church and the role of recruitment in the university. Talking about your love for Jesus when discussing your faith with believers and nonbelievers alike is a good and necessary thing that we as Christians must do. It is different to talk about your love for Jesus in the context of an admissions event designed to convince prospective students that this school is the school you should attend (and send your money to) over that school. I think it is possible to do so tastefully, but you run the risk of muddling the goals of the two institutions. The goal, or function, of the church is to be the body of Christ—worshiping God and showing God’s love to the world. The primary goal of a university is to educate. A Christian university does this differently than other universities because it sees an individual’s education and vocation as parts of the larger mission of the Church.
In her post, Laura shares pictures of banners from SPU’s new “FROM THIS PLACE” campaign that tell of alumni who have gone on to end river blindness in Ecuador, launch Washington state’s first Asian giving circle, and engage the culture and change the world (the final of these being the school’s motto). Laura writes,
These are wonderful achievements from some talented and gifted alumni, but not one of them mentions a single thing about Christ. Not one of them even hints at our Christian identity. We will boast about non-profits, development work, social justice, and professional athletics, but Heaven forbid we boast about Jesus Christ.
Advertising and branding campaigns are intended to pique curiosity. As a university, SPU wants to showcase its graduates, hence the “FROM THIS PLACE” campaign. It is true that the banners from this campaign do not mention Christ, but the variety and nature of the jobs they describe (treating “veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or playing pro soccer) suggest the sundry ways that someone motivated by a their Christian education would go forth into the world to serve their God. Not everyone is the same; people serve in different ways. The body has many parts. If the banners were to “boast about Jesus Christ,” I worry that the line between evangelism and recruitment would be too blurred, given that the purpose of the banners is indeed to advertise. What would such banners say? “We believe in Jesus Christ” or “Our students lead lives of Christian integrity” or “Christ has risen!”? There is something I don’t like about putting credal truths and other things about Christian living onto advertising banners. Let them know we are Christians by our mission statement, our magazines, our non-mandatory chapel services, the Bible verses engraved onto the stone of our buildings, and yes, our love.
Laura also raises the concern that our advertising runs the risk of being dishonest to non-Christians about what is most important to us—our Christian identity. She writes,
Sadly, the false advertisement is hurting the non-Christian students who we attracted, who feel tricked into coming to a Christian school.
Another mother approached me after that panel last summer, along with her daughter. During the panel earlier she had asked questions pertaining to SPU’s faith. When she spoke to me afterwards I learned that she was curious because she and her daughter are liberal Jews, wary of SPU’s Christian class requirements. They didn’t need a banner to tell them SPU cares about Jesus. The mother was concerned that because her daughter had a different faith that she would feel alienated here. “She’s bright and she doesn’t let other people say things that they believe without questioning them to see if they’ve actually thought things over.” I told her that SPU’s faculty does not let their students’ beliefs go unchallenged. Many students struggle with ideas like creation or the possibility that some of their beliefs were formed through careless eisegesis. I told her about how the community supported me so amazingly—students and faculty alike—when I came out a year ago. I also told her that being different is both hard, when you feel like no one understands you, and good, when you are able to engage in tough conversations about those differences. By the end of our twenty minute talk the mother and I pretty much agreed that we’d be best friends if things were different, and in retrospect, I don’t think I had to ignore Jesus at all.
Putting the banner issue aside, I really appreciate Laura’s post. While my experience has been a bit different than hers, I think, (or perhaps we just have different expectations), I admire the courage she has to critique something that she loves. Many people are quite willing and eager to point out the flaws in things they dislike (ex: “NASCAR—it’s just driving in circles, amirite?”), but it is more difficult to give a thoughtful critique of something dear to you. Compassionate criticism is necessary in the Church. It calls us to ask ourselves questions like “Why are we here?” and “Why do we do what we do?”—questions whose answers reveal what lies at our core. And, like Laura, it is my prayer that SPU continues to remain firmly lodged in Jesus. I also pray that SPU does this without forgetting that to be in Christ is to “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, emphasis mine).