When I was a student at Wheaton College (1969-71) the idea of a student ecumenical society would have never crossed our collective minds. Times have changed and today's students have formed such a group. One of the leaders of this student group, senior Rick Morris, is also my personal intern this year. Rick has allowed me to learn a great deal about how this group contributes to the culture that is the Wheaton College student body.
For the past four years one of the primary events in the society has been to connect with a similar group at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Franciscan University has become a center for Catholic faith and life in the ministry and power of the Holy Spirit. Under the influence of its former president Father Michael Scanlan, an evangelist with a wide impact throughout North America, the school developed into one of the truly fine Catholic universities in America. It has a first-rate faculty with some well-known theologians and authors, including the highly regarded former Protestant, Dr. Scott Hahn. Students at Franciscan and at Wheaton have made contact with one another and some have become fellow travelers on the road to missional-ecumenism.
When Rick Morris told me about the planned visit of the Franciscan students to Wheaton College, which happened this past week, I inquired as to whether or not I could meet with the students from both groups and share my story and vision. I was invited to do that on Saturday, February 13. About 30 students were present for a time that I found enriching and profoundly encouraging. Good questions followed my story and several Franciscan students asked me if I would visit their campus. I agreed to come, if invited, without having to think twice. Nothing would please me more.
I shared with the students how Scott Hahn and I have become good friends. This relationship has grown through several things that have allowed us to talk including my meeting his oldest son, now engaged in a campus evangelism ministry called Focus, at an Acton Institute Faith and Values conference in New York about five years ago. Acton Institute, which marries Catholic social theory and Kuyperian Calvinism in a unique way, is one of the finest ecumenical ministries I know in North America. Next week I will actually go to Grand Rapids to interact with the leaders at Acton about how ACT 3 and Acton could better partner for our common goals. I hope I will say more about that possibility sometime later on.
I told the students on Saturday of my own anti-Catholic bias from my southern childhood but how my own mother and father sowed the seeds of love and openness into my life as a boy. I learned that prejudice was wrong and openness to all people was always a Christian virtue. I also learned to love Catholics in a community where there were few of them at all. One of my closest friends was a Catholic and we spent a lot of time talking about faith and life. I saw what Protestant anti-Catholicism did to a real person I loved as my friend. It would prove to be a seminal event as time moved on into the 1970s and 80s. In time I would build other friendships with Catholics even though I was surrounded with Reformed Christians who generally criticized all such dialogue and fellowship.
When Evangelical and Catholics Together (ECT) became a bombshell on the evangelical camp I initially reacted like some of my peers. Over the ensuing months I sought out friends who were involved in ECT to learn how and why this process had been pursued. A meeting with Timothy George, John Woodbridge, Chuck Colson and others helped to show me what this ECT process was really all about and why it should not be feared. (I write about this in Your Church Is Too Small as well.) I also conversed with the late Father Richard John Neuhaus as well. All of this led me to seek out friendships with Catholics who wanted to see how we could express the gospel in ways that we felt were appropriate to Christ's mission and out unity.
Saturday's meeting with the college students was a meeting that I hope and pray will become a common event for me and ACT 3 in the years ahead. If God is pleased to bless the vision I believe he has given to us then I expect this wonderful time with college students will lead to other events where I can sow the love of Christ into the lives of younger Christians who will be the leaders and influencers of the coming generation. I stand on tip-toe watching to see what the Lord will do as we seek first his kingdom and learn to not make our differences, which are real and which remain, primary to our experience of oneness in the body of Christ. There really is such a thing as "mere Christianity" and it can help us begin to repair a great deal of the damage that has been done to Christ's church.