Sin, safety, candor and free speech

The landscape was buried in snow, but there wasn't a ski slope in sight.

The 19,000 students gathered on the University of Illinois campus last week were asking what to do with their lives, but they weren't networking with corporate recruiters. A multi-racial rock band was shaking the concrete clamshell called Assembly Hall, but the lyrics were not MTV-friendly.

"Oh God, break our hearts," sang the standing-room-only crowd at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's 19th Urbana Mission Convention. "For the sin in our lives ... for the sin in our land, break our hearts. We cry out. We need your help. Come back to our land."

This five-day conference drew college students from 100 lands and would have attracted CNN and USA Today if its emotional rallies and 1,200 hours of seminars had focused on sexuality, the environment or even world trade. But it isn't news when students spend Christmas break on a frozen prairie talking about world missions, racial reconciliation and poverty.

Then again, "sin" talk may soon be newsworthy. InterVarsity and other such groups are, in fact, becoming controversial. Missionaries are under attack around the world and, in America, even careful believers can get caught in crossfire from the culture wars.

Right-wing pro-lifers picketed many Urbana 2000 sessions, claiming that InterVarsity has softened its opposition to abortion. Meanwhile, InterVarsity leaders are ramping up to respond to attacks from the left by homosexual activists. These are tense times.

"We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined," said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. "It's not just us. ... This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech -- period."

Last spring, a confidential debate inside one campus chapter lurched into the news when a lesbian student told the Tufts University student judiciary that she had, under a campus nondiscrimination policy, been unfairly denied an InterVarsity leadership role. The Tufts Christian Fellowship was first banished, then placed on probation and finally allowed to re-draft its charter to state that its leaders "must seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives."

InterVarsity created a "Religious Liberties Crisis Team" in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts.

French and Chang noted: "In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays." For traditional Christians at private schools, the "sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome... and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision."

After all, if Christian colleges can create lifestyle codes that support their beliefs and reject others, then secular private colleges are free to create codes that support their beliefs and reject other beliefs -- such as the doctrine that sex outside of marriage is sin.

Nevertheless, believers can insist that colleges play fair when enforcing written rules, noted French and Cheng. The Tufts handbook clearly said it was university policy not to "discriminate on the basis of religion." InterVarsity could quote this early and often.

Campus ministry leaders are learning that good intentions are not enough. They must be proactive and stop trying to gloss over conflicts about doctrine, said Gregory Fung, a Harvard University graduate who currently leads the Tufts fellowship. Truth is, there's no non-controversial way to discuss subjects such as sin and repentance. It's better to state a ministry's beliefs clearly, rather than trying to play it safe.

Safety is hard to find, these days.

"We did what they asked us to do. We went to their tolerance classes," said Fung. "You think the institutions that teach tolerance won't turn around and bite you. But they do. We thought the people who taught all those classes would be tolerant. ... No way. They were determined to cure us of our intolerance."