It’s a story far longer than I have time to tell entirely, but one day when I was in my late 20s and trying to make sense of the world, my father quoted to me the words of Christ in Matthew 10:40. There, Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
Since then, I often find myself asking that inward question, “How do I live a life that is more receivable?” But I have also been asking that question about Biola University. How can we be a receivable university so that the wider world is attracted by us and begins to listen to what we have to say as we likewise listen more to others?
As our vision statement says, this is who we are as we continue our posture to be identified among the world’s foremost Christ-centered universities — a community abiding in truth, abounding with grace, and compelled by Christ’s love to be a relevant and redemptive voice in a changing world.
The truth is, it’s often easier to talk among those like us than it is to engage warmly by reaching out to those who aren’t. How can we be less inward looking and more externally winsome? And how do we do this without forsaking our convictions? As the culture seems to be accelerating in a direction that is not consistent with our deeply held beliefs, we have some options.
1. We can take on a more “not of the world” posture toward isolationism, circling the wagons and in essence being sidelined.
2. We can take on a more “in the world” posture toward conformity, rolling over and compromising our convictions to fit in.
3. Or, rather than a middle ground between the two, we can find a higher ground as we become a receivable university.
Let me clarify what I’m saying. Our objective is not to be received, but to be receivable. There’s a big difference. Living to be received focuses on how others respond to us. This is beyond our control. Living to be receivable focuses on how we open ourselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways for others to receive us, whether they choose to or not. Paul the Apostle talks about this in olfactory imagery (2 Cor. 2:15–16) when he says we are the aroma of Christ. To some we’ll be the smell of life and to others the smell of death. We cannot control how people perceive our Jesus scent. But we do need to smell like him.
The aroma of Christians is a mixed bag today. Some are giving off the fragrance of Christ, and others are giving off no fragrance at all, or actually smell like something other than Jesus and the God of the Scriptures.
Something’s changing in our culture. And I say this not as a fighter or a fearmonger. So when I say something’s changing, I believe I’m saying this from a measured perspective. What has happened in the seven years since I took on this role is staggering.
There has been a shift in the conscience of America’s religious consensus, despite the fact that the percentage of churchgoers has not changed over the past 50 years. Some progressives in the United States who pride themselves on tolerance are increasingly intolerant of Christians. I think our story is often made up of caricatures and misinformation more than it is truth. I believe part of the antagonism is the work of the enemy. And I believe we are standing for biblical virtues that many in our culture simply cannot stand.
But a part of the reason why Christians are increasingly less tolerated is that our conversations are intramural, and we’re not making the connections to the wider world as intentionally as we could. We need new and more conversations that build bridges and not walls.
It’s easier to be receivable when we are in the dominant position, but this position is no longer ours. To be heard, we need to have civil voices and thoughtful ideas. This will take more work from our minority position.
Not long ago I was reading about the University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty who wrote in one of his books: “People today who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. And people who have strong convictions are not often very civil.” We need both civility and conviction. Firm center, soft edges.
When we are this way, we will be less defensive and better positioned to be heard and understood, though not necessarily agreed with. And though at times we need to fight to hold our ground, I believe the risks of opening ourselves to civil conversations outweigh the alternative of closing out other voices or solo saber rattling.