Embracing Racial Tensions During NSO

As we begin New Student Outreach to welcome the class of 2020, we must clearly understand the content of the gospel as well as the context where God is calling us to live it out.

In my freshman year, I did not get involved with any campus ministries. I tried. They tried. Many communicated the gospel well, but they never spoke to my context. They spoke to my head, but not to my heart. I didn’t see a leader who looked like me, or sing familiar worship songs, or hear speakers who gave applications that I could take immediately into my context.

My conclusion was, this isn’t the place for me. Content, but no context.

The Content of the Gospel

Students arriving on campus are swarmed with messages from every direction. In that ocean of messages will be our NSO tables, proxy stations, grocery store runs, church tours, and other events to attract students to Jesus and to our InterVarsity chapters.

We will challenge students to wrestle with Scripture and God’s call on their lives in college and beyond, surrendering to a full obedience to Him—to go wherever God calls them to go, and do whatever he calls them to do. At the heart of that invitation is a crucified and resurrected Savior who has bridged the gap between God and people and who is restoring our broken world even now. We offer the hope of Jesus through his gospel to any and everyone who is willing to receive him without exception.

The Context for the Gospel

However, the context in which we give that call cannot be glossed over or diminished as irrelevant. It is no secret racial tensions are incredibly high in our country and on our campuses. Social media has not only raised awareness, it has provided a megaphone for the unheard. Ongoing deadly encounters with law enforcement have reopened wounds and broken cross-cultural trust in Black and Latino communities. Assaults on police officers are increasing. Other ethnic groups are wondering how and where to engage these complex issues.

As a Black man, stories of racial tensions in this country are not new to me. I have been aware of them for most of my life. I am also aware that the temperature of those tensions may vary depending on where we live. This means our awareness and experiences with racial tensions, cross-cultural conflicts, and ethnic injustices can either be informed or minimal.

Many of our resources on history and theology are silent on issues of race and ethnicity. Their silence is not because our ethnicity is insignificant in the kingdom of God. We see ethnic and cultural relevance throughout Scripture up to Revelation 7:9. Historical knowledge and biblical understanding of race and ethnicity are often omitted primarily because generations of legal and systemic racism existed in our country and the narrative was controlled. For decades Christians have worked diligently to perfect our language and communication of the gospel of Jesus without acknowledging what has happened in the city, the streets, or on the campuses where we are sent. In other words, as Christian missionaries we focused greatly on our gospel-centered content—but we neglected context.

Today, many Christians are calling for reconciliation (content). For reconciliation to be true, authentic, and lasting, we must first ask what caused the division. For most ethnic communities, reconciliation means acknowledging both injustice and damage to the relationship (context). Our words are not enough. It is our words, accompanied by action—in the places where action is needed—that is what we are looking for.

South African Bishop Desmond Tutu once remarked, “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political, or social?” He said: “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you.”

As we start NSO, let’s not merely look at the hungry, the thirsty, the wounded, the marginalized, the unheard and tell them “We are one at the foot of the cross.” Let’s show them. Don’t just dictate Good News. Demonstrate it.

Making It Practical

To be clear, if we omit the context, millennials will reject our content. Students are discussing these issues whether we are willing to or not. An openness to our chapters and the brilliant light of Jesus will be determined by our willingness to face the Goliath of racism and injustice. I would even suggest a gospel that cannot speak to context is not the gospel. Omit the context and we compromise the content.

Let me offer three suggestions: Awareness. Action. Advocacy.

Awareness

Raise your awareness by listening to the unheard. 

  • Read, follow, or listen to students on social media without correcting them.
  • Do an inductive study of your campus to explore its previous history and present climate around race and ethnicity issues.
  • As a leadership team or small group, take a cultural studies class as an elective together, and discuss how you will apply what you’ve learned to your chapter. Or, read together one of the IVP books by Brenda Salter McNeil.
     

Action 

It is not enough to learn something new. It must be applied.

  • Use proxe stations. If you’re just starting the conversation, check out the Hope Campaign. If your chapter is largely aware of the issues and praying about the next level conversation on systemic issues, try the Better World Proxe.
  • Invite speakers of color or staff with tested cross-cultural experience to speak at large group to build bridges.
  • Consider having an open large-group meeting where you invite a student group of a particular ethnicity to share what their experiences have been like on campus.
     

Advocacy

Speak up for the unheard.

  • Don’t settle for not being racist. Become anti-racist.
  • As you’re learning, bring someone with you so growth and change can happen in community, not isolation.
  • Ask yourselves, “Who is not in the room? Who can we not keep in the room when they do come? Where do we need to make changes before they come that demonstrates we care about content and context?”
     

My friends, know the content of the gospel and know the context of your chapter, your campus, your country. When we know the content and the context and hold them in tension, then we will see students and faculty transformed, the campus will be renewed, and world changers will be genuinely developed.

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About the Author
Associate Director, Ministry in Digital Spaces

Sean is an InterVarsity alum and currently serves to produce discipleship and evangelistic materials to students through various social media platforms. He is pursuing his Masters of Divinity at Fuller Seminary. Sean is a big comic book and sci-fi fan and enjoys working out, cooking, movies, and practicing Tai Chi. Read more from Sean and follow him on Twitter: @seanisfearless.