Spiritual Battle on the College Campus

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This article comes from the September 6th, 2023 edition of the Exploration Society Journal. Seth and Lauren Orr are campus ministers at the University of South Carolina. For more information on their ministry, click here.

Long ago a snake spoke in a garden.

The serpent was the embodiment of Satan, and the Garden was Eden. Here in this garden, the Author of Life, God himself, had written life as it should be. He had already spoken. He had already established truth. And yet, God saw fit to allow another voice, shaped by a forked tongue, to speak into the ears of his image-bearers the subtle and insidious words, “Did God really say…”

The words of the enemy spoken so many years ago have echoed through the corridors of history. The truth that God has lovingly and wisely established has been questioned, ignored, and mocked. Now the doubt-sowing voice whispers not through a reptile but through social media, professors, politicians, and even clergy. The war of ideas spreads vastly across the earth, but one of the fiercest modern-day battlefields of truth is not a garden but our college campuses. The reality is that the college campus is one of the most strategic ideological territories to conquer. If you shape the college campus you shape the future. You shape the future drivers of society, future families, future law-writers, social justice, and culture warriors. Ideas are polished and strategically presented to young minds in a barrage of truth claims. The question we must ask, as those who are advocating for the one true voice of God to be heeded in a world that so desperately needs him, is how to be heard among the many voices.

As a college minister, this question often occupies my thoughts. We are in a war, no doubt. But as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, “though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Let your attention linger on 2 Corinthians for a moment longer. Notice that the power Paul is drawing attention to is not fleshly but divine. It is tempting to rely on tactics and strategy to “get” people to believe what we want them to believe. If there is anything I’ve learned over my years in college ministry, it is that I can’t change anyone’s heart. In fact, I can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5). With this in mind, let our first and best effort in gaining ground for the kingdom always be given to prayer. There is no stronghold, argument, or lofty opinion our God cannot utterly destroy. This should lift us to a place of confidence and dependence. There is no victory too far out of reach, and only God can do the reaching.

The first thing to consider in regard to reaching those we hope to reach with truth is how they receive truth and what kind of barriers are in the way. If we don’t understand how truth is received, we will bang our heads in frustration as we watch our words clank against and fall beneath the walls surrounding the hearts we hope to reach. This is similar to the frustration one might feel when trying to communicate with another person who speaks a different language. We could structure our sentences perfectly, present them beautifully, and be met all the same by a blank stare.

When speaking about current issues with young people we often resort to pure logic, stating our sound case point by point, and rendering an obvious conclusion. When the lights don’t go on immediately, we step back bewildered and flabbergasted that our airtight presentation didn’t land. The problem is that younger generations are not usually convinced by PowerPoint presentations. What they find compelling is not presentability but livability. In other words, they are not as much concerned with points as they are people. What someone wants and what seems to make him or her happy has become the paramount standard of truth.

To understand this, we need not look any further than the social issues that are currently taking our culture by storm. This includes issues such as the LGBTQ+ movement and abortion rights. If you have ever ventured into these dangerous waters with anyone, particularly a young adult, you might find the primary points used by abortion proponents are built around how a given circumstance affects a person. For instance, in the heat of the recent abortion discussions in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a common “argument” given by abortion sympathizers was to say something along the lines of “I’m not pro-murdering babies, I'm pro-Susan who was sexually assaulted on her way home from work, only to come to the horrific realization that her assailant planted his seed in her when she got a positive pregnancy test result a month later.” This type of messaging resonates deeply with the younger generation. Say all you want about why abortion is technically murder, and you’ll find your linear logic will rarely be received. But when someone brings up Susan, a real human being with a real story, with wants, desires, and a right to happiness, you’ll find a much more receptive audience. This is not because this generation doesn’t care about truth, it’s just that truth is arrived at and defined differently.

Sam Chan in his book Evangelism in a Skeptical World, speaks at length on this point. He summarizes it by pointing out that those in the age of modernity (those in older generations) wanted proof that something was true. Once they had proof, they believed and once they believed they lived out that belief. “It’s true, so I believe it and I will live it out.” In the age of postmodernism (younger generations), that formula has been switched on its head. The logic now works like this: “I see something lived out, so I believe it and it must be true.” The proof is simply seeing something look happy and fulfilling. “It feels right so it must be right.” If you want to convince someone to embrace the view that a homosexual lifestyle is normal and harmless, don’t throw a lecture together. Rather, make a TV show depicting a happy, lovable homosexual couple. This is being done in popular culture and it’s working. We should take note.

The reason for this shift in thinking is the growing skepticism of institutions and general truth claims that have been leveraged and abused in the pursuit of power. Oppression is a current buzzword associated with anything or anyone trying to propagate ideals on anyone or anything outside of themselves. This skepticism is not without merit. We don’t have to look far to find the latest scandal, often by faith-leaders, or systemic abuse. Our interest here is not in diagnosing the full cause of how young adults view and embrace truth and why they do so. Rather, we want to acknowledge that now, more than ever, our actions do speak louder than our words. The walls surrounding young hearts are not breached by logic but by love. This does not mean that truth and logic are unimportant, it means that the soil of hearts might need to be tilled a little longer before it is ready to receive God’s glorious truth.

Have you ever thought about why today’s social issues are as big as they are? It might be because these issues strike at the heart of human ambition. Who we are and what we can or can’t do. This is exactly the human hardwiring that Satan used to nudge Adam and Eve towards their demise. If you listen, you can hear the language of that fateful day in the garden so long ago in today’s social issue verbiage: Does the Bible really say homosexuality is wrong (“Did God really say…”)? I decide who I am and what I can do with my body (“You will be like God…”). I lived a lie, now this is my true self (“your eyes will be opened…”). These issues stem from a desire for freedom (autonomy) and happiness. The access to and pursuit of these things is seen as fundamentally tied to what it means to be human. In the eyes of our culture, to infringe upon one’s pursuit of autonomy and happiness is to infringe on their basic personhood. This is seen as a great evil, whereas promoting one’s autonomy and cheering them toward what they think will make them happy is seen as a great good.

The moment you are perceived as infringing on one’s autonomy and happiness is the moment you are seen as an enemy. This disconnect here is not that those that hold to God’s truth are anti-freedom and anti-happiness and the popular culture is pro-freedom and pro-happiness, but in the ideas of where true freedom and happiness is found. This being the case, If we are ever going to get to a place where we can present Christ and his way as the only place where true freedom and happiness are found, then we must do the hard work of showing a lost person that we are for them, that we want to help and not to harm, and that God’s truth works. Trust and authenticity are critical. Truth is best received through the vehicles of love and liveability.

If truth is received through love and livability, then hospitality becomes one of the most important contexts in which we can engage an unbelieving world. I say this as someone who loves to cut to the chase. I’ll jump quickly to theology and apologetics oftentimes to a fault. Despite all this, I have seen nothing work better in moving someone towards truth than spending time with them specifically in our home. I have spent the last year spinning my wheels on the campus of the University of South Carolina as I sought to meet as many students as I could and share my faith quickly with them. It was the first year that we were on this particular campus and I thought this was the key to building a movement. I’ve come to learn since then that USC has a student population over 50% out-of-state, predominantly from the northeast where postmodernism has settled in at a much higher degree than in the south. It wasn’t until I started inviting students over to dinner in my home, where they tasted my wife’s home cooking, and sat on our living room couch, that I finally began to see hearts open to the truth I wanted so deeply to convey. We currently have close to 15 club baseball players coming over to our home weekly for dinner followed by a gospel-centered bible study. Of these 15, 12 of them are not Christians. Many of them have expressed a first-time interest in Christianity and are hungry to learn more. It wasn’t my eloquence, but my wife’s homemade lasagna that opened the door for this.

A simple question I would like you to begin asking yourself, “What do the people around me need, and how can I help meet that need?” In my case, college students need a couch and a home-cooked meal as they are away from home. Meeting needs communicates love. It’s truth lived out, and this makes room for truth spoken. We don’t need to overcomplicate it. Simply look for ways to serve the lost in your life and whether you are sharing the gospel, talking politics, or discussing social issues, I guarantee it will go better over a meal than over media. I’ve heard it said many times that change happens in the context of a relationship, I couldn’t agree more. In a world that craves authenticity, let's love authentically. The enemy is still breathing the same lies he breathed in the garden, but authority in heaven and on earth still belongs to Christ who has crushed the serpent's head. Let’s live Jesus’ truth before we speak it, and may his voice be heard through it.

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