CARBONDALE, Ill. (BP)–As college students strolled the sidewalks after their last morning class at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, they heard a deep voice bellow from a nearby patch of grass. For many who didn’t have the time to stop and listen, they were familiar with this scenario. Another preacher was on campus, ready to tell them what was wrong with their lives and why they were going to hell.
Drawing closer, they could see their peers clustered around a middle-aged man wearing a light-blue button-down and navy slacks. OK, some of them thought, this one hasn’t donned a sandwich board and he wasn’t dressed in burlap, but they had heard the message of condemnation before. Or so they believed.
The ones that paused to listen found Phil Nelson, a campus minister for the Illinois Baptist State Association based out of the University of Illinois in Champaign, beginning the first of three days of what he refers to as “open-air forums” at SIU-C. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in mid-April, he called out an invitation to passing students “to join us and discuss the claims of Jesus Christ.”
Nelson’s goal is to connect with students and honestly answer their questions about Christianity. He’s well aware that he is easily mistaken as one of the religious fringe elements who often descend on public campuses, quick to preach at students and slow to respect them.
“Many of these students are used to seeing the wild street preachers on campus, who spend most of their time calling them ‘queers and whores,'” Nelson said. “Students see them as more of a sideshow. I try to get to know them, ask them their names and listen to their questions.”
Students who talked to Nelson had different reactions to his discussions. Some were supportive. “I enjoy it when these ministers come out here and talk,” said senior Amy Bligh, an agri-business major. “I just really like it because it gets people thinking. I have many questions about this whole Jesus-God relationship.”
Others were tolerant. “Man, he has the right to say whatever he wants to say,” sophomore Sarah Blustein said. “As long as he’s not preaching hate, that’s fine with me.”
Some strongly opposed his presence. “People like him, preaching the word of the Christian God, came here and did the same thing to the Indians,” senior Alan Sommer said. “The Indians have the Bible; the Christians have all the land.”
Nelson has held about two dozen dialogue sessions at colleges this year, including a forum at U of I that meets every Thursday afternoon, and has found “a hunger for truth on college campuses.” He came to SIU-C at the invitation of eight campus ministries.
At the first dialogue, students asked questions, challenged the claims of Christianity and held spirited debates with Nelson. Once the discussion started rolling, up to 40 or 50 students, along with a few professors and staff, were standing near the shade of a tree, discussing their views about life and God with Nelson. Some would stay for a few moments before they had to go to classes or other responsibilities. One common theme revolved around the belief that absolute truth did not exist.
“I try to help them see the inconsistency of relativism,” Nelson said. “If someone says everything is relative, they are saying they are absolutely sure there are no absolutes.”
An exchange between Nelson and Doug Bigham, a junior linguistics major, illustrated the different viewpoints between relativism and the existence of absolute truth. Bigham asked Nelson what color his pants were, and Nelson told him they were blue.
“I’d say they were navy. A color-blind person would say they were gray,” Bigham said, emphasizing that each individual perceived a different color depending on his perspective.
“That still doesn’t change the color of the pants,” Nelson responded.
Another student, sophomore Melissa Freeman, told Nelson that “your perception of the truth is not everyone’s perception of the truth. Truth is completely dependent on the individual and your definition.”
Many students asked how can they know the Bible is true. Some said it was unnecessary. “God is out there for everyone to experience, regardless of the Bible,” senior Jody Powell said. “I’m saying I can’t trust the Scriptures. I can only rely on my own information that’s within me.”
“So everything in your life is up for grabs?” Nelson asked.
“Yeah, and that’s fine with me,” Powell said. “It’s wonderful.”
Some said a relationship with Jesus Christ was not necessary to know God. “I’ve got a personal relationship with God,” said Bigham, who wore a medallion of Jesus on the cross around his neck. “I don’t need a mediator like Jesus.”
“Then you don’t have a relationship with God,” Nelson said.
Most American students have a closed mind about the claims of Jesus Christ, Nelson said, although many international students who come to America for higher education are open to Christianity. Many young people advancing through the educational system do not approach issues logically, he observed. “They can be swayed by a charismatic leader who makes them feel good emotionally.”
Many students are critical of the inconsistencies they perceive in Christianity but do not recognize discrepancies in their own worldviews. Some students who are animal-rights advocates, for example, view killing animals for food as a violent act but are comfortable with a pro-abortion mind-set, Nelson said.
“These open-air forums are not going to see a lot of conversions,” he said. “I’ve learned I can’t convince people with historical evidence. I just respond with Scriptures.”
The academic environment is challenging for Christian students, who face ridicule for their beliefs. Sometimes that criticism comes from professors; sometimes it’s from peers who assume they are like some of the fringe religious fanatics who pop up on campus, Nelson said. They conclude their faith can’t be defended, and it’s better to stay silent. That’s why the open-air forums are exciting for Nelson.
The sessions “build confidence in Christian students and give them an arena to share Christ with their friends,” Nelson said. He and about 150 Christians, mostly students, met the night before the open-air forums to pray. Many of these college Christians, including sophomore Caleb Varns and junior Greg Bartlett, started one-on-one conversations with their peers at the dialogues.
Freeman, the sophomore who challenged Nelson about truth and perception, talked to Varns after asking Nelson some questions, including wanting to know “what supposedly gets you into heaven.”
“Quite honestly, I’m shaken up,” she said after her talk with Nelson. “I’ve had this shoved down my throat all my life.” She said she was “trying to live my life the best way I can. I don’t see how accepting the existence of a higher God is the only thing that should determine if you get into heaven. Doing good and living a good life, that’s what’s important.”
As Nelson told the students at the end of his first two-hour dialogue, all their questions about God and Christianity will never be answered to their satisfaction, even when they open their hearts to the truth. “There’s only one way you’ll ever understand it. You have to commit your life to Christ without knowing all the answers.”
Additional (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo titles: ABSOLUTE TRUTH and PHIL NELSON.