Many Christians entering secular universities today are exposed to a large variety of cultures, philosophies, opinions and worldviews, which can often leave us confused or even disillusioned. Often these classes and classmates treat the Christian worldview with disrespect and dismissal, and Gordon Carkner was no exception.
Today Dr. Carkner is happily married to Ute, his partner in ministry, life and prayer; he’s the father of two charming daughters; and for the past 30 years has served university students and faculty by facilitating open discussions about faith, providing resources for thinking Christians and skeptics, mentoring future leaders, and building bridges between churches and campuses.
“In your deepest trials, God can be trying to shape something in your life or vocation.”
As a first-year biology student at Queen’s University, Gordon found himself surrounded by fellow science majors who had no respect for God and challenged his faith at every opportunity with an almost anti-theistic sentiment. It was then that he was provoked to start thinking and reading, so that he could be “prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks” (1 Pt 3:15). He desired to honour Christ by understanding his faith more honestly and deeply. God provided him with a robust group of committed Christian friends and colleagues to support him in the trenches of the university debates. He took his questions, doubts, concerns, and curiosities to these friends, and together they diligently sought answers to the most critical and common objections to Christianity—e.g., the problem of suffering, the historicity of the N.T. manuscripts, Jesus’ uniqueness among so many religions, and secular scientists’ conflict with Genesis.
Gordon was eventually very encouraged by overhearing this comment from a conversation between some of his intellectual sparring partners: “You know, we’re really giving Carkner a hard time; but actually, if he’s right... we’re screwed!” This was a result of compassionate yet convicted debate, undergirded by reliance on God’s gracious promise to give us wisdom and truth. Gord confidently answered the challenges of his classmates and even began to enjoy the banter; and through it learned how to raise tough questions for atheism.
This challenging experience turned out to be his first field study in apologetics—a gift for which he is now very grateful—and his first hint at the Lord’s calling for his life.
“For the average Christian to learn how to answer skeptical questions and understand how people think will be very helpful spiritually, and they can be more effective and relevant today.”
The most pivotal event in setting Dr. Carkner’s missionary life-course was the IVCF Urbana Missions Conference. It was one of the largest of its kind with 20,000 enthusiastic, Spirit-filled attendees seeking God’s will. The articulate, visionary speakers confronted Gordon with the most life-changing question he has ever had to answer: “Will I continue to follow my own path of safety, comfort and certainty, or wholly submit myself to the will of God, to Jesus’ Lordship?”
This changed everything. Gordon began to sense God leading him into ministry, and grew more and more certain of this as he witnessed three major phases of confirmation.
The first was a profound interaction with his rebellious younger brother, Dennis. Dennis had returned to the family after a season of prodigal wandering, and was open to discussing religion and truth. Gordon resisted the temptation to flood Dennis with Bible verses, and instead shared his testimony: how the fusion of evidence, logic, and reason had refined his own trust in Christ.
“Dennis,” Gordon told him, “I’ve wrestled with all these issues that you raise, I’ve looked at other religions and have dealt with so many tough questions. I’ve been doing this for four years! If there were something better out there, I would tell you. I really believe the gospel is true, that God is truly making his love known to us.”
The conversation continued, and Gordon saw God bring salvation to his brother. The experience sharply increased his sense of awe of the greatness and sovereignty of God, and His willingness to use and work through a mere student.
The second confirmation came as he began to pray that God would open more doors. God answered his prayers by providing many opportunities to dialogue with unbelieving peers, who suddenly seemed open to talk about spiritual things.
Third, he took steps to consider a possible change in his vocational direction— from medicine to ministry—and left academia for a year. Gordon grew immensely as he saw God speak in profound ways to anyone who would engage him in spiritual discourse. He witnessed to many, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ along with his personal life transformation; clearing the debris of skepticism with apologetics when necessary.
“My goal is to help people have a richer experience of life.”
The Holy Spirit takes us seriously when we bravely step into His calling. He uses willing servants to plant and model the Word of God with competence and love, that “God may grant them repentance, leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25).
Qualifications are crucial to enhance one's giftedness and calling. After much prayer, reflection and counselling with trusted pastoral mentors, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School seemed to be the natural next step. Gordon was regularly in touch with peers and mentors who were also longing to take God and their lives more seriously, because he knew the importance of association. Leaders journey with leaders, and the mutual encouragement kindled a greater sense of adventure. His apologetics, teaching and pastoral skills were sharpened in this world-class training centre: it was a steep but powerful learning curve.
After graduation from TEDS, Dr. Carkner worked with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and more recently Outreach Canada, first at the Universities of Guelph, Waterloo, and Laurier, and now at the UBC. He oversaw evangelism and apologetics training on multiple campuses, providing compelling literature, top Christian speakers, in-depth Bible study and a growth-oriented spiritual community. “The mission was to show students the deeper substance of their faith—to keep them from abandoning their faith before thinking about the life source they were giving up,” he says.
“God takes our humble offerings and greatly expands the horizon of our imagination.”
One project that came out of the efforts of Gordon and his colleagues was a poster display and booklet called Ten Myths About Christianity. This public display was combined with a variety of events (speakers, panels, music, and graffiti board) during a Christian Awareness Week. It displayed the most popular objections to the Christian faith and turned those arguments inside-out. Both the skeptic and the curious were amazed that they could have a calm and collected discussion about faith, especially in a public venue.
Later, Dr. Carkner and Michael Green authored a small book of the same name, which was translated into more than 20 languages just as the Cold War was ending in Europe and ministry exploded on Eastern-European campuses. The book has reached over 200,000 people to date.
“If you stimulate their thinking... if you bring faith and reason, science and theology together, you are adding value to their faith; you are giving them confidence. If they see Christianity at its depth, they will be far less likely abandon it.”
Currently Gordon works with Outreach Canada and sponsors many book and Bible studies, lectures, discussions, panels, and debates; with a goal of keeping Christian and secular people thinking and strengthening our highly relevant faith.
He continues to invest in building discipleship and witness capacity as he and his team mentor postgraduate students and nurture them for leadership, while also assisting pastors with key research and resources to energize the church with fresh, thought-provoking ideas and strategies. For the Church at large, leadership development in the upcoming generation is extremely important. As the world grows more secular—postmodern and even anti-Christian—we need to develop fresh language and strategy to strengthen our passion and our witness for Christ, offering what we cherish to everyone who will listen. We need Christians to make an impact in their spheres of influences, to be an incarnation of Christ here and now, to seek God’s face in prayer and in His Word, to dig deep into agape love and live it robustly. Dr. Carkner discusses this overall vision of Christian witness in the secular university in his most recent book: The Great Escape from Nihilism: Rediscovering Our Passion in Late Modernity.
“Professor Ono, the new president of UBC, is an evangelical Christian and a person of real faith.” Gordon is happy to share this recent encouragement. “He’s very relaxed about being identified as a Christian. He’ll encourage people to fully be open about their faith on campus and to praise God at UBC!”
Dr. Carkner thinks that we are living in the most exciting times in the freest country on the planet, full of challenges but also progress and change. We have immense opportunities every day to explore what God will do with our lives as we surrender to him.
Gordon keeps a weekly blog on faith and culture for students, faculty and pastors: https://ubcgcu.org/
You can buy his latest book, The Great Escape from Nihilism, on Amazon.
To learn more about Dr. Gordon Carkner and his ministry and how you can support, visit Outreach Canada for details and contact information.
Ali Razvi is an avid reader, evangelist and soon-to-be Bible college student. He loves studying theology and seeks to always match his intake with an output of love for others through debate and witnessing and serving in ministries like the Melting Pot and Dinner of Love. His favorite pastimes are exercise and playing with his cat.