Dr. Joseph McRae Mellichamp is Emeritus Professor of Management Science in the Manderson Graduate School of Business at the University of Alabama and National Faculty Representative for Christian Leadership Ministries. For 25 years, Dr. Mellichamp combined successful academic pursuits with effective Christian ministry activities.
This is one of those things that ought to be required. You see, we have a huge problem in the university: students come to the university and spend from one semester to four or more (sometimes 10 or more) years and never have a professor who identifies himself or herself as a Christian. Not in class, not in advising situations, not in informal settings, never! In fact, many Christian professors are so afraid they will do or say something "religious" that might offend someone else or, worse still, get them in trouble, they bend over backwards not to let their Christian beliefs or opinions be seen or heard on the campus. The message being communicated more by what is not said than by what is said is "it is not possible to be educated and also be a Christian."
You might not think this is so. I assure you it is. I have asked many students whether they have ever had a professor identify himself or herself in class as a Christian. The vast majority say no. You might conduct your own experiment if you truly doubt the assertion. Interestingly, when I ask college graduates the same question, recent graduates uniformly respond in the negative whereas those who graduated 20 to 30 or more years ago are more likely to respond affirmatively. The university has changed remarkably in this respect during the last few decades.
Unfortunately, the opposition is not quite as silent on this score as we Christians are. I have had many Christian students tell me of being ridiculed for their Christian faith in class by atheistic professors. Many professors have causes they push in their classes -- feminism, homosexuality, drugs, sex, abortion -- the list is endless. Often the cause has nothing whatever to do with the subject matter of the course, but no matter, the professor has a platform and uses it. The bottom line is that daily, students are being exposed to ideas, philosophies, schemes diametrically opposed to Christianity. They are seeing Christian ideas and ideals questioned, belittled, and ridiculed. It is not at all surprising how effectively the message is being communicated. "There is something fundamentally incompatible with being educated and being a Christian."
So what is the solution? For one thing, Christian professors and staff need to identify themselves to their students as Christians. How?
Certainly it would be inappropriate to devote significant amounts of class time for a presentation of one’s Christian beliefs. However, if you are a committed Christian, your mindset and your approach to your discipline will be influenced to a great extent by your commitment to Christ. In fact, one might argue that you would be doing your students a disservice by not making them aware of your particular perspective. The attitude of the courts generally supports the view that one brings into the classroom one’s entire personality, and that in communicating course content to students, a professor will also be communicating other information, including values, beliefs, prejudices, etc.
There are several ways to identify yourself as a Christian in the classroom that, if followed with discretion and good judgment, pass the test of appropriateness and legality.
The First Day of Class. The first class meeting of a course during the semester or quarter is a natural time to communicate to your students that you are a Christian. At least two different approaches have been used successfully in this context:
1. Qualifications. Professors often describe their qualifications as part of the course introduction. Consider adding a few personal touches, such as, "I’m Professor Smith. I’ll be your instructor in BUS 204 this semester. I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. I’ve taught at the university for 20 years. I’m married and my wife and I have two grown children and two grandchildren. You need to know that sometimes in the course I will be presenting my personal perspective of various issues, and my perspective is basically a Christian one."
2. Introductions. Sometimes professors begin courses by having each student introduce himself and share some personal information. Consider sharing a brief personal comment of your own along these lines. "I’m Professor Jones. I’ve taught physics here at the university for 10 years. I want to get to know each of you this semester personally, and I’d like for you to get to know me personally as well. To help you get to know me, let me tell you a few significant things about myself: I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Texas and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois, I’m married and my wife and I have three grown children and five grandchildren, and I’m a Christian."
During the Term. In all but the most technical of courses, there will be a number of natural opportunities during the school term to include a brief Christian testimony. Again, at least two approaches are possible:
1. In-Class Comments. Whenever a natural opportunity arises, interject a brief comment as appropriate and continue with the course content. "You’re absolutely right, Jon. Profit maximization is not the only acceptable objective for a corporation. There are a number of objectives that firms ought to consider in business operations. In fact, as a Christian, I believe there are a number of very important personnel, environmental, social, and other objectives that firms routinely ignore."
2. After-Class Discussions. Students often pose questions not appropriate for class discussions, but tailor-made for after-class consideration. For example, "That raises some very interesting ethical considerations, Jennifer. As a Christian, I have some strong personal views on this issue. If any of you are interested, I’ll be happy to stay after class and discuss them with you."
For a classroom situation, brief comments like those indicated above are all that is needed and all that is appropriate. To say much more or to spend much more time than that, would run the risk of imposing on the teacher-student relationship. Your objective in classroom situations is not to share the Gospel or to defend the faith: it is simply to send a message to your students that you are a Christian. Opportunities for in-depth discussions outside of class will come as you are faithful to let students know of your commitment to Christ. It’s like Henrietta Mears said, "A Christian should be like the lifeguard at the beach. Everyone on the beach knows who the lifeguard is, but by and large, they go about their activities paying little attention to the lifeguard -- until someone gets in trouble. Then everyone knows where to go for help." Your students need to know of your relationship to Christ. Some of them will get in trouble during their time at the university. They will need to talk to an adult. They will need encouragement. They will need answers to tough questions. How will they know where to turn if you haven’t made yourself available?
Some people have objected to the word "Christian," saying that it is not specific enough; it’s ambiguous; it’s a "loaded" word. "You need to tell them what you mean by Christian. Are you a ‘Higher Lifer’ or a ‘Deeper Lifer’ or a ‘Fuller Lifer’ or what?" they say. My reaction to this objection is (1) when we have been doing nothing along these lines -- which is precisely what Christians have been doing for 50 years -- anything at all is infinitely better than nothing and (2) the objective is to send a signal; those students genuinely interested in pursuing the point will do so outside of class, which is the appropriate place for such discussions.
Optional Sessions. Another way to communicate your faith to your students is during an optional session. There are a number of ways to structure such a presentation.
1. Life After College. One effective way to use the optional session is with the "Life After College" talk. I have had undergraduate and graduate students ask me to give them pointers on how to succeed in the business world or in the academic world. It is quite easy to work in just a word of personal testimony along with some other suggestions on success after college. The personal testimony advice can be offered in the context of success being more than just making money or becoming top dog in a company. If the students ask for this, simply be prepared to schedule an optional meeting. If you are initiating the talk yourself, the invitation will be key. You need to let students know in a way that will challenge them to come, but will also communicate that their grade will not be affected in any way by whether or not they come. "We do a good job at the university teaching you how to make a living, but we often neglect to offer you information on how to live. I’d like to share with you some principles I’ve learned in relating to life. If you’re interested, we’ll meet in Room 31 Friday at 2 p.m." At the conclusion of the talk, invite anyone who is interested in further discussion to talk privately. Outlines for my "How to Be a Success In Business" and "A Strategy for Academia" talks are included in the following chapter in Exhibit 3-1.
2. Apologetic. Another approach for the optional session is an apologetic lecture. Dr. Walter Bradley invites his students each term to a seminar titled "Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God." The seminar is held on an optional basis during the last class period of the semester. It is followed by an invitation to join Walter for a free lunch during which he shares how and why he became a Christian. In inviting the students, Walter tells them this subject matter is so important he is using the lunch as a "bribe" to get them to come. It is surprising how effective a little tongue-in-cheek honesty can be and how it communicates interest and concern.
3. Course Related. With a little thought, interesting course-related optional sessions that have a Christian orientation can be organized. For example, one history professor has developed several optional sessions that explore the Christian beliefs of famous American leaders -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and others. These sessions have been well-attended and provide an excellent vehicle for the group to discuss Christianity in-depth in a non-threatening format.
As professors and staff members, we have many opportunities in advising situations to communicate our Christian position to students. Unfortunately, many of us don’t take advantage of the opportunities. In my own case, for many years, I thought of academic advising as a necessary, once a semester interruption of time I had blocked out for my research. One day, the Lord convicted me that I was missing out on a ready-made opportunity. As I thought about how to turn academic advising sessions into sharing opportunities, it occurred to me that practically all of our students in the business school are interested in success. Unfortunately, many of them have a very narrow view of success that focuses primarily on making money. I found some attractive Christian literature on "success" that included testimonies of successful businessmen presenting a larger view of success -- one that includes having a personal relationship with God, which ultimately gives life meaning and purpose.
Whenever students came for academic counseling, I would answer their questions and help them map out their academic program. When we had finished and they were satisfied, I would then ask, "Are you interested in success?" Invariably, they would respond with something like, "Well, sure. That’s why I’m majoring in business. I want to make a lot of money." I would then give them a copy of the literature and say, "Here is some material on success I think you would enjoy reading in your spare time. It presents a different perspective on success than most people have. It has been helpful to me as I have thought about success. If you have any questions after you’ve read some of the articles, I’d be happy to talk further with you." For the last several years of my teaching career, most of the undergraduate students I advised received a copy of the literature and an invitation to read about success. What a difference this approach made in my own attitude about advising. Some of my students found an entirely different definition of success as a result.
Of course, students will come to you for various other types of advising. Some advising situations call for spiritual input; some call for wise adult counsel; some should be referred to a professional counselor. As professors and staff, we should be prepared to offer spiritual solutions when the occasion calls for it, even to the extent of sharing the Gospel and offering the student an opportunity to respond to the Lord’s invitation. I once had a student who, as a result of my mentioning in class that I was a Christian, came barreling into my office and practically demanded to know how he could also become a Christian. It was pretty easy to lead him through a Gospel tract and see him trust Christ with his life. If you’ve never thought through the various types of counseling opportunities you have as you interact with students -- which of those could be appropriately turned to a discussion of spiritual issues, and how to do so -- I would challenge you to take the time to prepare yourself now. You will be in for some rich experiences. And be willing to learn from blown opportunities. If a student leaves a counseling session and you are left muttering to yourself, "Wow! I wish I had said this or that." Write down "this or that" and the specific situation and be prepared to capitalize on the next similar opportunity you have.
Many of us miss out on one of the simplest ways we have of making a Christian statement to students and colleagues -- through our office decorations. An attractive, attention-getting Christian poster; a strategically placed Bible or Christian book; a well-placed Bible verse can be used effectively to communicate your commitment to Christ to all who enter your office.
For many years, I kept a copy of either the Bible or C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity on my desk. I recall one specific occasion when I was interviewing a young man for a position as assistant professor in the department. As we started the interview, he asked me if I had read Lewis’s book. I said that I had and asked him if he had read it, also. He said that he had become a believer by reading it as a graduate student. Well, our interview took an entirely different turn! It turned out that Chuck Schmidt was our top choice for the position, and he accepted the offer we made partly, I’m sure, because of our conversation during his interview and the knowledge that there were other Christians in the department with whom he could fellowship.
One year for my birthday, my wife had my life verse done in calligraphy and nicely framed. I had the verse on the office wall directly beside my desk where it stayed for the remainder of my tenure at the university. I always got a kick out of watching students come into the office, sit down, and survey the pictures on the wall as they waited for me to finish a task so that we could talk. They would look at the old stock certificates that I had had framed and all of my diplomas and other certificates, then the family photos, and finally my life verse. I could see them lean forward to read the verse, then they would sneak a look at me, then look back to the verse. I could imagine them saying to themselves, "Interesting. This guy has a Bible verse on his office wall. Wonder what that means. He must be religious. I’ll file this away for future reference."
As you can see, there are many ways of identifying yourself as a Christian to students and colleagues. The issue is not how much you communicate but that you communicate at all. If every Christian professor and staff member in your university or college would follow through on this one issue, we could almost overnight reverse the impression that one can’t be educated and also be a Christian.
One final note on this point. I like to think of identifying oneself as a Christian in the context of an event that happened in old pirate movies we used to watch when we were kids (maybe some of us still watch them). You remember the scenario. The good guys would be sailing away on the ocean when all of a sudden, far off on the horizon, a small dot that was obviously a ship would appear. Simultaneously, you would begin to hear bad-guy music -- you know, the sinister kind. But you weren’t officially entitled to know these were bad guys -- pirates -- until a very specific event occurred. When the bad guys got almost within cannon range, they would ceremoniously hoist the Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones, and then immediately start pulverizing the good guys. Then and only then were you, the good guys, and everyone else in the world entitled to know that the bad guys were really bad. This is what we as Christians in the university need to be doing -- in a good sense, of course. We are simply hoisting our colors to let everyone know where we stand. We don’t make a big deal of it; if it is in a class situation, we don’t take a lot of time with it; it is just a simple declaration of fact for all the world to know. If students or colleagues want to know more about what our position is or how they could also join our side, that is wonderful. If they don’t, that’s great too. The time might come when they recall our declaration and reconsider.
A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from a businessman in Buffalo, New York. When I answered the phone, he asked, "Is this Dr. Mellichamp?" "Yes it is," I replied. "Dr. Mellichamp, I graduated from the University of Alabama in 1971 and I had you for a course in 1970. You shared briefly in that class that you were a Christian. God used those comments to draw me to Himself and I committed my life to Him shortly after graduation. Every two or three years, I think back over my life and identify the five individuals who have had the greatest impact on my life. You have been in that group for many years and I recently became impressed to get in touch with you to let you know how God used you in my life and how grateful I am for your sharing with us." We chatted for awhile reliving old times and agreed to get together for lunch the next time he is in Atlanta. That call from Bill Crawford was a highlight of my career!
© Copyright 1997, Joseph McRae Mellichamp
Copies of Ministering in the Secular University are available for $12.50 for U.S. addresses and $25.00 for international destinations. Include the appropriate payment and request Ministering in the Secular University from