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.