Credible Christianity for International Students

Credible Christianity for the Cultural Atheist

In his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, Alister McGrath discusses the relationship of church architecture and the modernistic sense of the absence of God. In reference to the “whitewashing” of churches following the lead of Geneva, McGrath writes.

“As the English rationalist critic Thomas Hobbes pointed out, this Protestant God might as well not exist, since his supposed existence seems to make very little difference to anything. A permanently absent God is about as much use as a dead God. If the existence of God makes little or no impact upon the experiences of everyday life, the business of living might as well be conducted without reference to him. Hugo Grotius, the great Dutch Protestant lawyer, noted that the end result of all this was a world in which people lived etsi Deus non daretur- “as if God did not exist.”

No one wants to hear that their version of Christianity may leave its followers already fronted loaded to be won over by the “new atheism,” but what about those students who come from many decades of atheistic teaching?

In my own ministry as a campus minister and Bible teacher, I work with many international students. The past two years I’ve been privileged to work with a dozen students from mainland China. Because I teach our school’s required high school Bible course and preach frequently in chapel, I am on the front line of the encounter between their atheistic mindset and our presentation of Christianity.

At first, I was very concerned about the presentation I made of the content of the faith, especially explaining Christian claims for the inspiration of scripture. Now, several months later, I’ve reoriented my approach. Without lessening my interest in content or basic apologetics, I’ve become particularly aware of how closely these atheistic students are watching my life. They are far more interested in whether there is evidence that my God makes an experiential difference in how I live than they are in a presentation of Christian doctrine.

These students come from a culture that has now seen multiple generations of atheism. For them, the “ceiling” ends at the claims of their culture to be superior. Their purpose in life is defined by the state and their duty to their families. Despite western attention to the growth of Christianity in China, most of my Chinese students have never met a Christian, but they are certainly aware that America is a land of Christians and the practice of Christianity.

What do these observant atheistic students seem to most take note of?

Prayer and Personal Devotion- These students assume that Christians will be seriously and intensely prayerful. I’ve noticed that, unlike my western students, these students are reverent during public prayer and participate in the external aspects of prayer. I believe this is because they assume that the basic evidence that God is real begins with frequent and genuine prayer. They respect genuine spirituality, even if they are not believers in the spirit. It is not appropriate to parade a devotional life, but these students are looking to see if God is real enough to bring me to my knees, to the memorization of scripture and to a living and vital faith experience.

The Questions of Origin, Purpose and Significance- It seems that some of these atheistic students are aware of the emptiness and vacuity of their own culture’s answers to ultimate questions. When I speak about the imago dei and the Christian answer to the meaning of life, there is genuine interest and curiosity. These are students who are often pushed to excel and contribute, and many pay the price to do so, but it is evident that they are already experiencing the distress of “Is this all there is?” The Christian answers to such questions fascinate and challenge these students. As Christians demonstrate that we understand what it means to be made and to live in the image and purposes of God, a powerful witness is presented.

The Biblical Teaching on Materialism- My atheistic students are living through a revolution in individual prosperity. Wealth and materialism are norms and ambitions within their atheistic culture. Their families are investing in materialistic achievement. Many of them have strained family relationships because of a desire for materialistic security and achievement. In our particular community, we live in relative poverty and simplicity. As I share Jesus’ words and example regarding money and prosperity, these students see a value system radically different than their own. (I am sure I don’t have to mention the embarrassment of the prosperity Gospel at this point.)

The Witness of Marriage and Family- Though my students are atheists, they are deeply devoted to the ideals of marriage and family. Presenting the Biblical teachings on sexuality, relationships and family will almost certainly meet with a respectful and interested hearing. These students want to find the joy and significance that comes only in family and marriage relationships. I am always eager to point out that Christians come to all of these relationships through an understanding of the Gospel and the love of Christ.

The Centrality and Power of Forgiveness- Shame and guilt are concepts my atheistic Chinese students still understand in their culture, so the story of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world echoes with meaning and application for them. No amount of official or cultural atheism eradicates the longing of those made in God’s image to know that they have been restored, made right and made whole in the eyes of righteous love. The cross is a scandal, but it remains the power of God in presenting the Gospel. Nothing more powerfully speaks of the God who is there than what his Son did while here.

These atheistic students have experienced the influence of a culture that has totally abandoned all ideas of God, but they are surprisingly open to seeing the implications of the true God in the lives and ministry of Christians who publicly and privately live their faith.

Essay written by Michael Spencer. Original copy available at

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