I follow a lot of international news sites, and I found this article by Stan Abrams titled “American Religious Schools Are Brainwashing Chinese Exchange Students”. Sure, Abrams has a lot of loaded words in the title; sure, he frankly opposes religion. His main case here is that American private schools exploit vulnerable Chinese students in order to evangelize them. Having traveled myself and had to deal with severe emotional issues resulting from culture shock, I can understand why Abrams sees these Chinese students (far from home) as victims of American Christians (with home field advantage) with an evangelistic agenda. Whether or not these kids are easy marks for some corporate “Big Jesus”, Abrams raises an important issue for Christians to consider as they share the gospel.
Abrams links to and considers another article over at Bloomberg Businessweek titled “Chinese Atheists Lured to Find Jesus at U.S. Christian Schools.” The author Daniel Golden makes the case that Christian schools invite Chinese students both because they pay full tuition in an economic downturn and because they need Jesus. I understand the attractiveness of evangelizing international students: they are here, no one will persecute them for learning about Jesus, and distance from home makes them open to new ideas. Whether you want to spin that as opportunism or taking initiative, drawing non-Christian students to Christian institutions to evangelize them while tapping their parents for tuition money risks the gospel’s integrity. Evangelizing from a position of power is sometimes questionable; evangelizing while charging for services rendered is icky.
If true in their assertions, these articles indicate a practice that Christian schools need to seriously reconsider. Yes, being missional is important. Yes, America has the world coming to its door, such that cross-cultural outreach happens when you take a casserole to your new neighbors across the street. Evangelism is something for the whole church, not just missionaries on the field. Ordinary people have been involved in cross-cultural outreach in some form or another since the beginning of the Church, but when we use people we might minister to as financial fodder for Christian institutions at home, we minister offhandedly as profiteers and not on purpose as Christians.
Christian schools have an important mission to be sure, but the immediate question is whether the schools are for Christian students only or for anyone at all: you can found a religious institution to benefit the community as a whole, but religious institutions only for members of that religion should not pull double duty in their primary functions. Private education is private education and evangelism is evangelism, but how does private Christian education become a conveyor belt to conversion? Sometimes Christian parents send their children to Christian schools. This is easy to understand, but why does it feel wrong to have distinctly Christian schools filling their seats with non-Christian students and then passing this off as an outreach opportunity?
After a little searching, I found some guidelines on the Network of International Christian Schools website that parallel the Christian community today visited by non-Christians with the Israelite community in the Old Testament dealing with sojourners from other nations. The guidelines demonstrate concern for the rights of non-Christian participants in Christian community while also emphasizing that Christian administrators need to openly and actively discuss their schools’ rules and their mission. Here is one key paragraph:
Points of doctrinal differences must be discussed. Denominational distinctives
must be pointed out. The effects of a child receiving Christ and “sharing” at home should
be anticipated and discussed. Lifestyle expectations should also be highlighted. With
grace and a gentle spirit, the parent needs to feel welcomed while also understanding that
in essence, the Christian school administrator is saying, “This is my back yard. We’re
playing ‘baseball’ with my bat and ball. I’m declaring the rules. And I get to choose the
teams. If you’d still like to play, we’d love to have you.”
Discussing with parents what might happen if the child comes to Jesus would help them more practically understand one thing that school personnel would like, as Christians, to see happen in their students’ lives. Also demonstrating that Christians own the facilities and the programs in question might settle some questions about what they can and cannot do at school. Even so, the power and homefield advantage granted by owning an institution powerfully change the dynamics of evangelism in ways that Christians have to compensate for beyond the scope of institutional operations.
It is one thing to freely offer friendship to international students in public universities, and both individuals and organizations try to engage them in an open and non-threatening manner. It is another thing to pull students over land and sea to make them a captive audience for the gospel. If we have power on our side to set the conversation, we should not betray him who came in weakness to save those who were helpless and harassed and without a shepherd. While international students are uniquely open to the gospel, Jesus should do the captivating and gospel presentations should not be an ambush for parents and students alike. Of course there is at least one more question we have to ask: how far should Christians respond to the criticism of non-Christians?
The only thing that makes Christians different from non-Christians is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There are many benefits down the line from receiving the Holy Spirit, but Christians can build institutions as problematic as those run by non-Christians. One question is what makes a thing Christian, as opposed to an individual. Critics can make up as many “problems” as they need to cause trouble for anyone, but Christians have to always work in direct obedience to God, no matter what their strategies and paradigms might dictate. You don’t get to stand with divine authority unless you are truly acting under it, and even acting under it is no protection from persecution and martyrdom — or a little criticism in the press.
In the end, the whole thing is very complicated, and I did not even try to tackle issues such as the different ages at which students might come to study in America. Christians have to be aware of the issues that come up when they try to act in unison as a part of a human construct, because human constructs come with human rules that the Bible often does not exhaustively address. Who in the Bible ever started a university or a corporation by the command of God? If what we build hinders entry to the kingdom of God, then we need to question our institutions rather than our opponents. If we have something to sell, let’s sell it; otherwise, let the gospel be given without charge and at our expense.