© 2014 Robert Osburn

Since the turn of the century about 14 years ago, it’s become commonplace for campus ministers in the USA to describe a radically new phenomenon that no one would have predicted a century earlier: Anglo (white) students are joining and taking over Buddhist groups, while Asian students (both those who are American and those here as international students) are taking over Christian groups.

No, this is not a story about power.  This is a story about culture, marketing, and the appeal of the Christian Gospel.

Before dealing with the explanation for this remarkable shift in the campus religious landscape, a word about evidence for the phenomenon.  To my knowledge, there are no empirical studies with which to measure this.  What we have, instead, are anecdotes from campus ministers like me.  For example, at the University of Minnesota, Asian Americans lead one of the most dynamic, remarkable, and fast-growing evangelical Christian campus ministry groups on campus. While Asians dominate, the group has Anglo and African-American students who are active in it.  

It’s possible that the anecdotal evidence is a mirage, but I doubt it.  Having given you the benefit of my 29 years in campus ministry, I will be the first to acknowledge that even if the phenomenon is real, there is no doubt that Anglo students still greatly outweigh Asian students in our campus ministries.  And there is no doubt that, taken as a whole, Asians are still the least religious segment of the American population. All that said, we need empirical studies to clarify this purported phenomenon: growing percentages of Asian Christian college students on the one hand, and growing percentages of Anglo Buddhist college students on the other.  Any graduate students looking for a great research topic?

Now, to the “Why?” question: Why are Asian students flocking to become followers of Jesus Christ, while apparently significant numbers of Anglo students are embracing some form of Buddhism?   The central explanation revolves around a fundamental question: Is the purpose of life, and the education that comes with it, to become happy or human? 

For many decades, the evangelical Gospel message carried around our campuses has been distilled to a simple question that reflects marketing genius: “How does one find a happy and meaningful life?”  The vapors of post-World War II existentialism saturated American campuses, and so Christianity seemed to have the perfect answer: Following Jesus will give your life meaning.  And for an educational system that quickly embraced, in the early to mid 20th century, the pragmatism of John Dewey, finding happiness and life satisfaction (rather than the timeless and ancient pursuit of truth) was a major quest for educated Americans.  The Gospel had the answer: Follow Jesus, and you will experience genuine happiness and satisfaction.

Bill Bright, founder of what today we call “Cru”, was right.  He marketed the Gospel well, and millions of Anglo college students responded and found that, yes, Jesus does give meaning and happiness.

However, while Bright and friends asked the right question in light of the American cultural context, framing the Gospel in light of the search for happiness missed the mark in terms of the biblical narrative.  In reality, the biblical narrative is more concerned with the question “How does one become a human being?”   That latter question, as it turns out, is the question that Confucian-based educational systems are ostensibly designed to answer.  (I owe this insight to a visiting professor of education from China.)  Thus, Asians, with their residual Confucianism, are finding that the Gospel of Christ better answers that question than Confucianism. 

What I am saying is that Asians, thanks to their Confucian cultural background, are asking (often at a subconscious level) the question that the Bible asks and answers, while Americans, influenced as they are by 20th century pragmatism and existentialism, are asking a different question.  And as Asians encounter the Gospel (and Gospel-shaped campus and church communities), they find that the Bible contains a brilliantly plausible answer to the question that their Confucian ancestors have drilled into them about the purpose of education: “How do we become human?”  Buddhism, with its understanding of humans being caught in an illusion created by desire, offers a far less satisfying answer than Christ.

By contrast, Anglo students, sullied about the pursuit of truth because of postmodern suspicion of metanarratives, and made increasingly cynical by the well-publicized failures of Christian leaders, have been seeking out Buddhism because it, of all the world religions, offers the least rigorous way to answer the question: “How do I find happiness and meaning in life?”  Meditative practices, emphases on centering and stress reduction, and a vague spirituality comport with the felt needs of many Anglo college students.  The discipline of following Christ seems a bit too much for what Professor Jean Twenge calls  “Generation Me.”

A truly biblical understanding of reality will not value happiness over humanness, or vice versa.  But, it will remember the proper relationship: Becoming human through faith in Christ is the prerequisite to happiness, and not the other way around.  Rethinking how we present the Gospel message (as a call to discover our humanity) may make Anglo students rethink their abandonment of Christianity in favor of Buddhism.  And, meanwhile, celebrate the flood of Asians flocking into the community of Christ.