Who Pays Tuition to Have Students Killed?

I’m sorry to hear about the death of American missionary John Allen Chau. I don’t want to argue over it—whether he died a hero, a “terrorist,” or a “self-important, arrogant, deluded, foolish . . . pest.” Instead, I want to point out that Chau’s life and death demonstrate the one way that “Fundamentalist U” is now and has always been radically different from mainstream higher ed.

north seintinel island

“Fields white unto harvest…?”

If you haven’t heard the story yet, here it is in a nutshell: Chau was a missionary working with an organization called All Nations. He had made several efforts to contact an isolated group of islanders in the Indian Ocean. The hundred people who live on North Sentinel Island are protected by the Indian government. They have had very limited contact with outsiders.

Chau hired some locals to take him near the island. Islanders paddled out to meet their boat and fired a volley of arrows at Chau, one lodging in his Bible. Chau took a solo kayak and paddled to the island. Later, locals saw islanders burying a body that looked like Chau’s.

missions cartoon guy

The mission: From Liberty University student newsletter, c. 1982

Clearly, the missionary impulse is alive and well. Chau wrote in his diary that he didn’t want to die, but he accepted the risks in his effort to spread the Gospel to the world.

But that missionary impulse hasn’t survived on its own. It has been nurtured and supported by organizations such as All Nations. It has also been taught and encouraged by evangelical colleges and universities. And this missionary focus, I argued in Fundamentalist U, is the thing that most sharply defines evangelical higher education from mainstream schools.

Mission centered

From Biola’s student paper, 1939.

In Chau’s case, it was Oral Roberts University. ORU celebrated the fact that its teaching had led directly to the death of a former student. As ORU put it,

Oral Roberts University alumni have gone to the uttermost bounds of the earth for the last 50 years bringing hope and healing to millions. We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.

In most ways, evangelical colleges and universities look and feel a lot like mainstream schools. They promise to prepare students for careers. They promise to help shape students’ values. They promise to keep students safe.

When it comes to missionary work, however, evangelical colleges throw the higher-ed playbook out the window.

missionary cartoon ad

From the Moody Student, 1969.

For generations, evangelical colleges have maintained their focus on guiding students toward missionary careers. Especially among schools with roots in the Bible-institute tradition, the pressure on students to think about self-sacrificing missionary work was often intense.

One student who attended Moody Bible Institute in the 1920s was a case in point. His father was an atheist. His mother was Catholic. Neither of them wanted him to attend MBI. But he went anyway. And the central lesson he learned there was that he had to give his life to Jesus as a missionary. As he later remembered,

It dawned on me that I had a responsibility toward the Lord’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  You see, you can’t be in the Moody Bible Institute very long before you’ll have to face that.

The dedication to sending young missionaries out into the world remained central to evangelical higher education throughout the twentieth century. To offer just one small example of the scope of these schools’ missionary efforts, consider a poll from Biola University in 1962. In that year, according to the student paper, 47% of its graduating class was heading out to full-time missionary work.

IMG_1919

Classroom notes, MBI, c. 1940s

This focus on missionary work—today and in the past—has been the thing that has made evangelical higher education most radically different from the mainstream. In addition to all the ways it has mimicked mainstream schools—with sports, careers, social life, and academics—“Fundamentalist U” also trained students to give it all up, to sacrifice themselves in missionary labor.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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