JACKSON, Tenn. – Aug. 31, 2007 – In a time when Christianity is growing rapidly in the non-Western world, Christian universities must remain anchored to Jesus Christ while being geared to the times, Union University President David S. Dockery said Aug. 31.
“One of the roles that Christian higher education can play is to help the church understand the need to live always between gospel and culture,” Dockery said. “We must recognize on the one hand the cultural dynamics that shape us, and on the other hand we must listen to the gospel that calls us to know and value everything in a very different way.”
Dockery addressed the university community during the annual fall convocation and pointed to ways that Christian educational institutions can serve the church in the 21st century, in a time when nations and priorities are drastically being realigned.
In addition to Dockery’s address, the university installed eight faculty and staff members in various leadership positions: Gene Fant as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Jerry Tidwell as senior vice president for church relations and director of campus projects; Michael Chute as director of the Center for Media, Faith and Culture; Micah Watson as director of the Center for Religion and Politics; David Olford as the Stephen Olford Professor of Preaching; Sheila Mitchell as dean of the School of Pharmacy; Justin Barnard as director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership; and Robert B. Wharton as director of the Center for Business and Economic Development.
Entitled “The Gospel and Globalization: The Next Steps in a Future-Directed Vision for Union University,” Dockery’s address examined the world’s changing dynamics and how Christian institutions like Union can help prepare students to witness and operate most effectively in a global context.
Dockery cited the examples of famed Baptist missionary William Carey and lesser-known Baptist pastor George Leile, both of whom God used to unite Baptists in the 18th century. In his passion to take the gospel to India, Carey argued that God will fulfill the Great Commission through means, including human instruments.
“Christian higher education can be a unifying and cooperative agent for the church at-large in the 21st century,” Dockery said. “Christian higher education shares in the missional task by participating with others in the church of Jesus Christ to take the gospel around the world, but also by recognizing that our unique role as educators is to use education as a means to accomplish that end.”
Dockery said Christians need to be aware of the immense changes that are taking place in the world around them. For example, he pointed to statistics indicating that by 2025, the Christian population in Africa is will reach 630 million, with the Christian population hitting 640 million in Latin America and 460 million in Asia. These figures indicate, Dockery observed, that barring a great revival in Western culture, Christianity will likely be a non-Western religion in the 21st century.
He noted that communication technology has made the world smaller, and that a global labor pool means people around the world are competing for the same jobs. Political situations are also in flux, as few people could have predicted the sudden fall of communism in Europe and the doors now open for Christians to minister in those places.
“Learning to adapt to a changing world is more than a good idea,” Dockery said. “It is mandatory. We now live in a multi-racial, multi-colored, multi-ethnic context. We have the pleasure of seeing God’s creation in all of its variety, which is a great gift from God.”
These developments all provide important opportunities for Christians to seize in taking the gospel across the world, the Union president said. Christians must not resign themselves to remaining isolated and insulated from the world around them.
“Every person created by the hand of God now lives within reach of the gospel, be it through business, medicine, government or, most importantly for us, education,” Dockery said. “The road is uncharted. Our opportunities are unmatched. We are called to be members of this global family as we step into the 21st century.”
But despite the opportunities, Dockery said Christians also face challenges. He argued that the Christian voice no longer enjoys the privileged role it once had in Western society, as religious pluralism has quickly become the predominant ideology of the day. He also suggested that Christians are increasingly accommodating to the culture around them – becoming, in fact, more and more like the culture they inhabit.
“We must maintain a commitment to particularism, by which we mean that personal faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to God, while at the same time addressing the legitimate concerns for religious tolerance,” Dockery said. “Christians around the world are unfortunately often described as intolerant or demeaning toward others. We can lead the way in simultaneously modeling a spirit of understanding along with an unapologetic commitment to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the gospel message.”
Dockery said that one of the roles of Christian institutions like Union is to help people understand the difference between matters of preference and matters of truth. Each world religion makes statements about the nature of reality, and the truth or falsity of those statements is important.
By helping people around the world recognize that all religions cannot be true at the same time, Dockery said Christians can contribute to their openness to consider evidence for one particular faith.
“In this sense, the role of Christ-centered higher education is not necessarily to do evangelistic church planting, but first to carry out the role of pre-evangelism, maintaining a credible Christian presence in the world,” he said.
Acknowledging the changing nature of the world, Dockery said U.S. Christians must be willing to defer to non-Western opinions and ideas when their most basic convictions are not at stake. He added that Christian educational institutions must prepare students for this reality by providing them with more international and intercultural learning opportunities.
“The missional and educational task of Christian higher education, then, is to develop global Christians on this campus,” Dockery said. “We must recognize that what brings us together is not our homogenous characteristics, but our deep love for Jesus Christ, who has given us new life.”