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The first sentence of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life got it right: “It’s not about you.” Our reason for being should begin not with our happiness, our ambition, or our giftedness, but with God. We are not the hope of the world. God is.

Which is why I’m often puzzled by the advertisements put out by Christian colleges and seminaries. I understand that an advertisement for higher education is going to emphasize what the school can do for you and what the school will equip you to do in the world. That’s fine. The school wants students to enroll; that’s why the advertise. So they are bound to make an appeal to the “you” reading the ad. But a little restraint would be nice.

Recently I saw a full page advertisement for a conservative Christian college. The top half includes a picture of the school with the banner: “What the world needs now is…” and the in the middle of the page with a box around it is the word, “You.” The text continues:

The world can sometimes appear to pretty empty.

Perhaps it’s because the world desperately needs what only you have to offer. Perhaps the world simply needs an irreplaceable, indispensable you.

The you who looks at the world and asks: why is it like this? What’s in me that can make it better — rather than just “what’s in it for me?”

We’re _______. We have a reputation as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country — and yet we’re one of the most affordable. Our graduates succeed not just in their careers, but in life.

God gave you a mind for higher things. We’ll help you learn to use it well.

And that is the first step to changing the world.

A lot of this is pretty standard fare: we’ll help you succeed in life; we’ll develop your mind; God made you for a purpose. All that is good. But even given the genre of advertisements, doesn’t an page like this reinforce a host of unhelpful notions?

Put yourself in these statements and see how it sounds. “Kevin is what the world needs now. The world desperately needs what only Kevin has to offer. Kevin is irreplaceable and indispensable.” Doesn’t sound right, does it? This language may strike a chord with the self-help culture we inhabit, but is it the message we want to promote to young Christians? Most students already believe they’re special, incredible, unique, amazing world-changers. Most upper middle class students at Christian schools don’t need help seeing that. They need help embracing the ordinary, admitting their limitations, and setting realistic expectations. I don’t expect an advertisement like this to sell these virtues, but it doesn’t have to undermine them.

I didn’t mention the school because this little rant isn’t really about the school. From all I’ve seen and heard, it’s a very good school. And this institution is not alone in advertising like this. Many schools make a similar pitch. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of discernment or a disconnect between the school leadership and the marketing department. Maybe the fault lies with parents and churches. Have we trained our children to assume this sort of self-importance. Or maybe these advertisements just plain work: students respond when made the the source of their own inspiration. Whatever the cause, Christian schools could do their part to stop perpetuating the notion that what the world needs now is you sweet you. True, this ad is urging students to think of the world before themselves. But it’s hard to stop thinking of myself when I’m told that am unbelievably awesome.

I love Christians schools. I went to one for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I love students. We have lots of them in our church. But I know what I was like (and am like) and  they are like too. We need help with self-forgetfulness not self-aggrandizement. Let’s be proud of our Christian schools because they foster learning, show us more of God, and equip us to serve. That’s more than enough to advertise.

We might not change the world, but a good school can help us change our minds, change our character, and maybe even change the way we look at the universe so God is at the center instead of us.

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20 thoughts on “It’s Not About You (Even If You’re a Student)”

  1. Shepherd says:

    Good reminder. Christian students need to have confidence, but not a confidence placed in themselves.

  2. John Murphy says:

    An interesting point, Kevin. I assume that they have that sort of advertising because it “works” or someone tells them it works (not sure how you would quantify whether or not a print ad “works”). I think you strike the right note here. It would benefit us (both as individuals and institutions) to constantly be asking ourselves, “Where am I blind to the influence of the world, because somewhere, somehow, I am?”

    One wonders if an advertising campaign focused on sacrifice and service and a true challenge to reject a focus on oneself might be BOTH more biblically-focused AND “work.”

  3. David Bannach says:

    Thanks, Kevin, for your post.

    What is unfortunate, at least to a certain extent, is that these colleges are not only succeeding in getting students to come, but they are producing graduates who think that they are God’s answer to the problems in the world and in the church – that they are the ones that God has called to make sure things are done right.

    I appreciate greatly the confidence these institutions are building in our students, and their willingness to provide them resources that I could only have dreamed about in college (my alma mater does a fantastic job). But as I’ve interviewed & worked with graduating seniors for positions in the church, I don’t hear a whole lot about how excited they are to join God in His work, wherever He wants and however He wants, even if it means NOT ever being a “Super Star.” Instead I hear how THEY will used by God to change the world and how THEY will be used by God to reach the lost.

    Jesus Christ, not ME, is the only answer this world needs. And while God will indeed use each of us to accomplish His desire of reconciling this world to Himself, “I” am just one voice working in conjunction with centuries of other voices, seeking to join God at every step.

  4. Hayden says:

    Unfortunately, Schueller’s “New Reformation” is pervasive in evangelical Christianity.

  5. Rose says:

    Yes, and Solomon really ought to have toned it down a bit in the “Song,” clearly the Shulamite and her beloved were each thinking only of how unbelievably awesome they were themselves.

    Perhaps you and the students you speak to have a good sense of calling and where you fit in the world. I’m surprised you haven’t run into a few who are very insecure about this and need to be told that they are valuable and worth more than many sparrows.

  6. Doc B says:

    Yes, Grove City College is an excellent school. Maybe their marketing folks need to touch base with their theology folks?

  7. Kevin, I largely agree with your post. That advertisement is over-the-top & misguided.

    However, this post does bring up something I find challenging in the YRR camp, namely, an understanding of one’s identity in Christ. There is so much talk about what I am not and an appropriately strong emphasis on who HE is. However, it seems like the redeemed person is scarcely mentioned. For example, a believer in Jesus is a co-heir with Christ, has the mind of Christ, is a reconciler and ambassador, is a temple of the Most High God, will do the works that Jesus does (“and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”), has access to God’s presence, is Holy, and so much more. But I don’t see the YRR keeping this in view. Now again, this has little correlation with the ad mentioned above, but it does make me think that there may be a large under-emphasis on identity and the power involved in being a disciple of Jesus.

  8. Paul says:

    Fascinating and an excellent post. Thanks for writing this Kevin.

    The problem is Grove City College (assuming this is them) have taken on board way too much of modern American culture and just don’t see (or their marketing dept don’t see) how this contradicts Christianity.

    Grove CC have a reputation for being extremely right wing economically and politically. It strikes me that they adopt an ultra capitalist free market view that is completely different from the Bible just like they adopt an ultra self-important “the world needs me” mentality that’s equally different from the Bible. Perhaps they are related.

  9. Paula says:

    My son was in the throes of his college search this time last year and was so turned off by the “marketing” materials he received from some of the Christian schools. For the most part, there was a lack of seriousness and lack of focus on Christ. He daily received flyers with pictures of students partying, having shaving cream fights, body surfing on the quad… I recall seeing “It’s all about you” flyers from several schools, so maybe they’re using the same marketing company?

    It seemed these schools go out of their way to feed the students’ pride and self-centered attitudes.

    We also went to an interview at a “solid conservative Christian” school and were turned off when the admissions counselor made sure we knew the school went to great effort to make the required chapel services fun and entertaining so the students wouldn’t be bored. Again, a lack of seriousness.

    Ultimately, my son chose a school that tells students they probably weren’t challenged very much in high school, so they would be in for a rude awakening at their school – check your self-esteem at the door.

  10. Oh my goodness. It’s a barely Christianized version of the Time cover of a few years ago where the Person of the Year was YOU. Ick.

    This post reminded me of another one (here? I searched but couldn’t find it) about the reality that most of us are called to so-called “ordinariness”. The whole “God wants you to do big things for Jesus” meme is often more about tapping into sinful pride, than it is about dying to self. And I say that as one who has had to grow tremendously in my understanding of what it means to find my identity in Christ, when my “outer” identity is the invisible one of wife and mother.

  11. I actually have looked at that exact or incredibly similar ad. The reason I didn’t give a second thought to most of the 50+ Christian Colleges that sent me advertisements was exactly because of this issue. Too true, so sad.

  12. Scott C says:

    What may be sadder is that if someone like Kevin had not pointed this out, a lot of us may not even have noticed it when reading the ad.

  13. Marshall says:

    Great insight to point out the flawed message of this ad, Kevin. I heartily agree it feeds an unhealthy and unbiblical self-confidence.

    Even more insightful that you don’t simply blame this particular marketing department and institution. Not to detract from the ultimate responsibility in this case of the marketing team, but there are lessons here for all of us, especially since this is such a widespread problem (confirmed after a 10 second internet search of christian college ads).

  14. ross says:

    A little off topic, congrats on making having quotes on Wretched (Todd Friel)… he had nice things to say about you.

  15. Bob says:

    you have a unique gift in smelling out the naughty from the “nice”. When many others are being lulled to sleep, especially from mesages about “US!”, you kindly put the plate of grace back directly in front of us on our table of gifts feom Him. This reminds us that we need to be better at “receiving” what Christ has offered us than focusing on the meager offerings that we may think that we express (perhaps to our own “glory”)in our offerings to Christ.

  16. Paul says:

    It sounds like some of these colleges could do with a dose of Pauline theology. A careful study of 2 Corinthians wouldn’t go amiss!

  17. Dave says:

    Kevin, I found this post amusing (with a very valid point as well). I attended the same college as you did but I would not have described it as a Christian college in those days. My daughter applied there as well and was accepted but since she wanted to study in the religion department, she chose another college… one that will prepare her better for the sort of ministry she is heading into. She did not need or want to study feminist theology and all sorts of revisionist ideas. The funny thing is that her college is the one you have highlighted. It is a solid place… conservative in all sorts of ways… and while I agree with the point you are making, I read the ad differently than you did. It just needed to shift the focus to Jesus and then build on the idea of preparing minds for serving God so that the world will be a different place.

  18. Meghan says:

    Hey folks!

    This actually is marketing reflecting the Christian market. If you want to be really freaked out about the state of affairs of Christian high schoolers and the college search, check out the CCCU research- Christian kids are not looking for Christian schools anymore- they are looking for academic criteria almost exclusively.( Read the executive summary (see page 12). In 2000 4/5 top reasons for students choosing Christian schools were, well Christian. By 2009 NOT A SINGLE one of the top 5 reasons had anything to do with the Christian nature of the school, and answers between matriculants and nonmatriculants are nearly identical.

    So- what would you do? Advertise to snag the good Christian students whose theology is bad and fix it when they get to the school OR sign your own death certificate by fighting a good fight with a ridiculously watered “Christian” population that could care less about the value, importance, and distinctiveness of a Christian education.

    It is not the job or mission of Christian Higher Education to educate secondary school students- Christian Higher Education must work with what it is given.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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