Saturday, March 26, 2011

Varieties of Unbelieving College Students

Introduction:  Though I am continuing to do evangelism every Wednesday on campus, I haven't posted an outreach report in several weeks primarily because my experiences in witnessing to college students are pretty predictable.  Since I don't want to keep reporting the same thing over and over, I figured I would provide this post to talk about the general patterns that I see when witnessing to college students. 

I have literally witnessed to thousands of people over the last 17 years since becoming a Christian, and it can be interesting to think critically about how different types of people react differently to the gospel message.  The following are broad categories that I've observed in people on campuses.  

Types of Unbelieving College Students

1.  The Moralistic Therapeutic Deist:  Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTDs) usually have a religious background that is informed in some way by historic Christian teachings or even pseudo-Christian teachings.  Thus, it is necessarily a broad category that can have adherents ranging from Roman Catholicism to Mormonism.  They don't call themselves Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, nor would most of them even know what that term means.  MTDs generally believe that God wants them to be happy, healthy, comfortable, and moral.  MTDs differ from prosperity gospel adherents in that they do not generally teach or believe that God wants you to be wealthy nor do they necessarily try to justify their false beliefs with twisted interpretations of the Bible.  Instead, they start with a very vague notion that God is more interested in your personal peace, comfort, and that you're a nice person instead of understanding who God is what He requires of man in propositional form.  This means that talk about God's attributes and whether or not God has specifically revealed Himself in the Bible is usually considered irrelevant since they believe that being "good", "happy", and "fulfilled" is what's important to God.  Thus, MTDs usually think that as long as they follow the societal status quo and do what most other "normal" and "nice" American people do, then they'll go to a "better place" when they die.  The idea of a "Hell" is often met with apathy, agnosticism, and uncertainty with most MTDs I've spoken with; for they generally reserve eternal judgment for only really "bad" people like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.  They are generally pretty pleasant people to converse with even though I've found that some MTDs are easily offended with the idea of a righteous and holy God that sends "nice" unrepentant people to Hell.  I think this is because a high, Biblical view of God flatly contradicts and crushes their high view of mankind and thus it absolutely overwhelms how they've always viewed the divine.

2.  The Skeptic:  There are about just as much varieties of skeptics as there are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.  Some of them wear goth or death metal themed clothing, don bedhead hair, have an unshaven and unkempt appearance, have multiple body-piercings and tattoos whereas some are preppy looking, clean-cut, hipster atheists.  They can be nasty or nice when you try to casually approach them to talk about the things of God, and I've found that their outward appearance is usually no indicator of whether they're willing to engage in reasonable conversation or not.  Skeptics range from hard atheists to soft agnostics that are willing to listen and engage intellectual issues.  However, I've found that those who come from a fundamentalist Christian background can be the most difficult to talk to because they have loads of unbiblical, traditional, fundamentalist church "baggage" that you have to get around to have a productive conversation with them.  Also, when you couple that nonsense with the fact that somewhere along the way they were "burned" by professing Christians or sold a bill of goods that didn't cash out for them it makes a productive conversation even harder.  Thus, when you try to talk to them about the gospel, the first thing that comes to their mind almost in a knee-jerk reaction is the kooky fundamentalism that they ditched and their internal alarm system goes off and they automatically become defensive and difficult to interact with.  Some skeptics have been emotionally scarred by religion, others have been turned off by the blatant hypocrisy, and some just think that the whole thing is a kook-fest con job that preys on ignorant people to get their money and so they leave it all to search for greener, more "rational" pastures.  I remember a few weeks ago I tried to hand a young lady a ministry card and she said, "What's this?" and I responded, "It's a card about Jesus" and she replied, "Well, I don't want that!" and I said, "Why not?" and she retorted, "I spit in His face!" and I said, "Why would you say something like that?" and she said in a very snarky tone, "Just to annoy you!"  I told her to have a nice day and took my card back.  She obviously was angry at God for some reason or another.  Merely handing her a card and explaining to her that it was about Jesus made an otherwise reasonable person respond with immediate hatred because for her, anything having to do with the Christian religion functioned as a trigger that caused her guard to immediately go up.  I also had a conversation with a German exchange student last year that was almost at the same level of nastiness and I'm sad to say that I worked very hard to be patient, gentle, and kind while also exposing her logical fallacies and lack of Bible knowledge, yet it was almost like pouring fuel on a fire as she started verbally steamrolling me by continual interruptions and generally irrational behavior.  It was obvious that this was turning into a "pearls before swine" scenario and so I kindly exited my way out of the conversation by saying something like this:  "Ma'am, it's clear that you are not interested in discussing this right now, for you have interrupted me four times already when I've tried to answer a question you asked of me, therefore, I'm going to politely end our conversation here."   Of course, there are many more reasons why skeptics reject the Christian religion, but one thing's for sure, they all do so willingly and sometimes passionately.  I generally like to give them the chance to talk when witnessing to them one-on-one by asking, "Based on your understanding of Christianity, what is the gospel?" It is then that they reveal that the "Christianity" they have rejected is no true Christianity at all and that their reasons for rejecting it are emotional/moral and the purported intellectual arguments against it are just a smokescreen to hide their real reasons for rejecting it (Rom. 1:18-25).     

3.  The Hedonist:  This is the party-animal.  This is the "Animal House", John Belushi kind of person who is simply attending college for the next beer-swizzling gig or the place where naked girls can be found.  These guys are often the most difficult to get a serious conversation going because they are perpetual goof-offs and class clowns.  They take very few things seriously unless it has to do with to their boozing and partying.  These people are a disaster to try to speak to if they are in front of others since they are used to "performing".  Thus, its best to deal with them away from the immediate presence of others if possible.  They often are the most boisterous hecklers, and when they get backed into a corner in a public interaction during preaching, they sometimes start cursing and throwing out ad hominem bombs.  This is when knowing their name and asking them by their name to calm down in a lower tone of voice can be very helpful.  Then, when (if) they calm down, you can give them the floor to voice their concern without the profanity and name-calling.  Oftentimes, I've found that talking to them about sin, righteousness, and judgment and their accountability to God on Judgment Day sobers them up, especially when discussing these things in the context of their own impending death.   

4.  The Cynical:   The cynical person is negative, critical, and pessimistic.  They are usually very bright and oftentimes very well read.  They recognize that the world is a broken, messed up place and because they don't have a solution to the problems that they see, they express a jaded or scornful skepticism or negativity to most proposed solutions to the mess; especially religious solutions.  Those who are well-read are also often cynical about skepticism since they recognize that atheistic and/or post-modern philosophy really has nothing to offer to fix the problems inherent in the world, especially as those problems are related to their own personal lives.  Thus, they are world-weary and they drudge along, trying to make things personally better for themselves in the here and now since they figure that's about the best they can do.  I've found that talking to these folks about how Christ can give them "rest" if they are weary and heavy-laden can either be an encouragement for further discussion or a reason for them to roll their eyes and blow you off.  If they do the latter, I usually try to find out what their religious background is to see if they've been burned by Christianity in some way and then I attempt to explain to them what the Biblical gospel is and focus on grace, hope, and redemption, both personal redemption and the redemption of the creation that will occur when Christ returns.  Through these conversations I've found that most cynical people have only a very surface level experience with Biblical Christianity such that they "checked it out" a long time ago but because they "didn't see anything of any value" going on or they were emotionally burned by it and so they quickly ditched it.  The cynical person can be the most difficult type of unbeliever to talk to because they are the most skeptical out of all the various types of people I witness to. 

5.  The Pluralist:  The pluralist thinks that all religions ultimately lead to the same God.  Because of this, their thinking is usually very surface level and they sometimes get angry when you start to show them that all the major religions have competing and contradictory truth claims.  They are sometimes the worst listeners because they don't want to be confused with the facts.  I've found that asking them the following question helps lead the conversation in a positive direction or it gives me the opportunity to exit the conversation and move on to someone else who is willing to listen:  Do you believe that religions that have contradictory, competing, and mutually exclusive truth claims can all be true at the same time and in the same way? 

6.  The False Religionist:  The false religionist can also be difficult to talk to because they are confident that they are right and you are wrong, even to the point of spiritual pride.  This is most evident in adherents of sinless perfectionism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and aggressive Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel proponents.  These people are generally unwilling to listen to Scripture and oftentimes a discussion with them turns into what I call "Bible ping-pong".  In "Bible ping-pong", you quote a verse that undermines their doctrine and they respond with one that seems to support it.  Then you explain how the verse in question doesn't actually support their view and they either ignore your explanation or dismiss it as incorrect since it dies the death of their thousand qualifications.   Thus, the more aggressive false religionist almost always has an interpretive rescuing device for all of the verses that counter their view.  I once encountered an aggressive heretical open-air preacher on the campus of UNCG.  He held to sinless perfectionism and at the end of my preaching he started asking me pointed questions like "Do you still sin?"  I responded that I was a sinner saved by grace and that yes, sometimes I still sin though I hate it.  He then proceeded to call me a lost man, and I responded, "But the Bible says in 1st John 1:8, 'If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" and I then asked him if he believed in sinless perfectionism.  He said that he wasn't a sinner, denied that he had sinned for a long time, and I repeated the verse and explained to him that the Bible teaches that he's deceived because he holds this view.  It was then that he went ballistic, going crazy, making accusations and generally trying to defend himself before the 100 people that were listening to the preaching.  It was then that I stepped down from my step stool, gathered my belongings, and went home.  Usually, when I deal with an aggressive false religionist that insists upon distorting the Scriptures to their own destruction in spite of the contextual interpretations I have already offered that refutes their false doctrine, I politely leave the conversation since it is another example of casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6; 2 Peter 3:16).

7.  The False Convert:  This is a person who says they have repented and place their faith in Christ yet they live like an unbeliever.  They usually can't explain what the gospel is and they are strangers to the doctrine of repentance.  Sadly, many professing evangelical churches are producing scads of false converts with their easy-believism, non-Lordship, no repentance "gospel".  The false convert, along with the MTD adherent are the two most common types of unbelievers that I come into contact with on campus and oftentimes false converts are also MTDs.  I usually ask them about their church background and they almost always report that they responded to an altar call, were led in a "sinner's prayer" and made a "decision" for Jesus.  However, after the sappy music stopped, the lights were undimmed, and when the emotion and false fire wore off a few days later, they were back to their old, sinful tendencies and never went to a church meeting again.  Some of them still attend church services and are being further confirmed in their false conversion by the false messages that they are continually imbibing from the false teachers in their churches.  Usually when I start to explain the Biblical gospel to these folks, I get responses ranging from astonishment, to apathy, and to anger.  I'm sad to say that many false converts are apathetic, which is the fruit of a general cynicism towards religion in "Bible Belt" culture, but also because they too were promised a bill of goods that didn't cash out for them.     

8.  The Ready Listener:  This is the person that God has prepared to hear the gospel.  Surprisingly, this unbeliever comes from a variety of backgrounds, and I'm glad to report that the more you pray for God to put these types of people in your evangelistic path, the more you'll encounter them.  Out of the six or so people I witnessed to this past Wednesday, at least two of them were ready listeners.  The ready listener listens well, asks sincere questions, and is already convicted of their sin to a greater or lesser degree.  It is evident in some of these unbelievers that God is drawing them to Himself as they report to you that they have been witnessed to several times already by various believers and they often report that you just "showed up out of nowhere".  Its as if they intuitively sense that God has placed you in their path though they have yet to embrace Christ as Lord.  You will often have your most fruitful and lengthy conversations with these people and the positive experiences that you get from them will encourage you to pray for God to put more of them in your path.  If you come from an Arminian, fundamentalist Christian background with revivalistic tendencies, it will be tempting for you to "pray the sinner's prayer" with people like this, for many of them almost seem as if they are ready and willing to do it right there and then, regardless of their location.  But when that temptation arises, do as the apostles did and lovingly call them to repentance and faith in Christ and urge them to cry out to Him until either He saves them or they go to Hell.  Give them your contact information so that they can follow-up with you and then leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. Trust God to save them, not man-made mechanisms that are rooted in early 19th century revivalism.    

IN CONCLUSION, the above patterns can also be found in American society in general and several of the above patterns are sometimes found in the same unbeliever.  There may be more "patterns" that you have noticed in your interactions with unbelievers, but the above are some of the consistent ones I've noticed when evangelizing college students.  May God grant you the grace to depend upon the power of His Spirit working through His preached word as you seek to reach the lost with the glorious good news.


  1. Thanks, this was very helpful.

  2. I appreciate your reports on your witnessing on campuses to students. I find them very interesting and appreciate your dedication.

    This synopsis seems very insightful and helpful. Thanks for sharing and stay with it :-)

  3. As always, a great post.

  4. I'm sorry, please clarify something for me. You report that you urge those who are ready to listen to "cry out to Him until either He saves them or they go to Hell." Are you suggesting that there are some people who will cry out to God to save them but they'll still end up in hell (not including those who try to get in when it's already too late)?

  5. "Are you suggesting that there are some people who will cry out to God to save them but they'll still end up in hell (not including those who try to get in when it's already too late)?"


    I'm giving them an ultimatum. I'm commanding them to do something that they can't do apart from regeneration; namely, repent and believe on Christ alone (1 John 5:1). The "crying out to God" language is just another way of saying the same thing. If they truly repent and believe, they will be saved, thus giving evidence that they were drawn by the Father (John 6:44). If they try to approach God in their own flesh (as many do) and pull themselves up by their own spiritual bootstraps, they will ultimately give up on true repentance and perish forever should they continue in their unbelief.

  6. How do you usually go about preaching? Or, to put it another way, given such an eclectic group, what do you find is an effective starting point? Do you gather a crowd as you preach?

    Thanks. This is good stuff. Since you're a fairly seasoned evangelist any practical pointers would be helpful!

  7. Pastor Dusman,

    I really appreciate you being such a faithful instrument of God's Grace as you diligently carry out the Great Commission.

    God bless you. God bless you. God bless you and your family.

  8. "I'm commanding them to do something that they can't do apart from regeneration; namely, repent and believe on Christ alone (1 John 5:1)."

    To command them to repent is pretty non-specific. Repent of what? What if they're not fornicating, drinking to excess, stealing or killing? To repent doesn't mean to just experience regret because one fears being thrown into Hell. It means to change course and behave differently. How are you asking them to live, exactly?

  9. James,

    Those who are healthy, non-drinking, "nice", and abstinent yet unbelieving must repent and place their faith in Christ since apart from the grace of God they still are damned by virtue of the fact that they are in Adam (Rom. 5:19) and are unbelievers and idolaters (Rev. 21:8). Simply put, when compared to God, there are no good people, for all are worthy of death and eternal condemnation (Rom. 6:23).