InterVarsity leader: ‘I know what it’s like to live in a culture not my own’

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Tom Lin, 43, a Chicago native, Harvard grad, one-time missionary to Mongolia, was recently named the first nonwhite president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the national ministry to 40,200 university students, based in Madison, Wis.

Most recently, he served as head of Urbana 15, the missions conference that occurs once every three years.

InterVarsity recently achieved a milestone of 1,000 chapters on 649 campuses, yet its chart-busting growth has also been accompanied by intense resistance, most recently when it pledged support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Another challenge is the denial of recognition by several universities and colleges, because InterVarsity wants to select campus leaders on the basis of religion, which many schools view as discriminatory.

After months of discussion, the California State University system allowed InterVarsity back on campuses in June 2015, but others have not.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Q: Why do you think you got the job?

A: Who I am reflects the leadership characteristic that seems crucial in today’s world –­­ the ability to cross cultures. I’ve lived cross-culturally practically every moment of my life, from my Taiwanese household to my very white school. I grew up with a sense of second-class status economically and racially, but I engaged with Harvard friends who were from elite boarding schools. With my experience in Mongolia, I know what it is like to live in a culture not my own. I feel a particular aspiration to reach out to the whole church, people of every ethnicity and culture.

Q: How are you going to address racial, cultural, and ethnic barriers?

A: We engage with those barriers and overcome them. In the Asian community, you have family expectations that sometime go against a call to ministry or leadership. Family expectations emphasize safety, comfort, and security. Following Jesus and a call to leadership requires discomfort, giving up of security, and great risk. Sometimes this means suffering. Suffering isn’t the goal of God’s call, but it is often the consequence. God’s call is to love a world that is broken and needing the light of the gospel. There is a huge opportunity right now for people of color in leadership in the North American church. Many of us have a bicultural or multicultural upbringing, speak multiple languages. We are well equipped to engage a global context.


Q: Millennials are digital natives. What is InterVarsity doing to reach them?

A: Our core purpose is still to establish witnessing communities on campus. At the last Urbana conference, we had Hack4Missions, a hackathon. We invited students to work together on technology solutions that would tackle great challenges that missions organizations face. The point of the hackathon was to say to this generation: “You have a place in God’s mission.” One student said, “I came for the hack, but I met Jesus.” We engage digital natives for the sake of the kingdom as well as minister to them.

Q: How will InterVarsity address attempts to block access on campus because it won’t agree to anti-discrimination policies?

A: InterVarsity is becoming more creative. When we were kicked off a particular campus and not allowed to put up displays about InterVarsity, students created these displays that were integrated into their backpacks. They wore these huge backpacks that displayed InterVarsity and information about being a Christ follower. During these access challenges, we have seen more people come to Christ than at any time in our history.


Q: What is InterVarsity’s response to disputes over human sexuality?

A: We welcome all students and faculty, without regard to sexual orientation, to come to our chapters and be open to being transformed by the gospel by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Brokenness is not limited to one orientation of people. It’s an area of life where we all find challenges.


Q: InterVarsity seems to be “embattled but thriving” as an organization. How would you describe it?

A: We are in a tremendous season of growth. First-time professions of faith in the past decade are more than any other decade of our history. At Urbana 15, we had over 9,000 students commit to sharing the gospel. There were another 9,000 commitments to mission. InterVarsity has always been reinventing itself to meet the needs of changing generations. There is another season of innovation ahead for us. Change is not a scary thing. But we need to be mindful of commitments that will not change. Our commitment to the gospel will not change. If you stay doing what you are doing, eventually you will go into decline. We believe that we can continue to thrive if we adapt and innovate our ministry practices to the next generation.

— by Timothy C. Morgan | RNS

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