On the last Friday of November, we practiced a very old tradition at Anderson University. We call it Christmas First Night. The practice started years ago under president Annie Dove Denmark with the idea of celebrating the first night of December through a Christmas concert and the lighting of a yule log.
The event was great, as always. Our offering netted nearly $4,000 for a local student ministry. The program included phenomenal music and dance numbers by the faculty and students at the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University, a telling of the Christmas story with Scripture reading, a focus on the real meaning of Christmas, and a presentation of the gospel.
When we concluded the concert and went outside in front of the Rainey Fine Arts Center for the yule log lighting, the cold air gave us the perfect setting for lighting a fire that symbolized Christ as the light of the world as well as God’s separation of darkness from light from the foundation of time.
Approximately 1,000 students and guests from the community, huddled in the cold, celebrated by placing a sprig of holly on the fire and singing Christmas carols. This symbolic act brought Christmas First Night to a close.
Early the next morning, Anderson University senior vice president for development and presidential affairs Wayne Landrith took his son, James, to the local YMCA’s Reindeer Run, a family event in Anderson. While there, a participant in the run encountered Wayne and told him that he and his family were at Christmas First Night the prior evening. He said they had invited a man who lives in Anderson and has been struggling with depression to attend the event with them. The man had made it known to a few people that he had been considering suicide.
According to the person telling Wayne the story, after the service the man he invited called him on the phone and talked to him for at least an hour, all to tell him that the witness of Anderson University through Christmas First Night had changed his life, given him a new perspective on why his life matters and given him renewed hope. For privacy reasons, that’s all we know. That may be all we will ever know about this man, but it’s enough.
There’s not an ounce of pride on AU’s part in my sharing this story. But there are multiple tons of happiness, thanksgiving and honor in it.
Wayne told our senior leadership team and spouses this story as we were all gathered in the president’s home to share a holiday dinner together. It was one of those mountaintop moments for us as a team, and it reminded me of Acts 1:8, which says, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
As we know, the risen Jesus said that to the disciples right before He ascended into heaven. It was the Lord’s commission to share the gospel anywhere and everywhere.
And this was a great reminder of why South Carolina Baptists are at Anderson University. God uses South Carolina Baptists every day as much as He used Anderson University to offer a fellow human being on the brink of self-destruction new hope through Jesus.
The next time someone asks you why we South Carolina Baptists put so much support into our Baptist universities, you can tell them this story, among many others. You can tell them more than 1,000 students and guests come to know Christ on our campus each and every year.
Since the Cooperative Program was founded in 1845, Christian higher education has been a central part of the ministry and mission of Southern Baptists. Why? Because we have unique contextual opportunities to share the gospel that are often not replicated through other missions and ministries, and because these universities play an indispensable role in the life and perpetuation of Southern Baptist doctrine and denominational life.
Through our Christ-centered universities, we do two main things to communicate and advance the gospel. First, we give our students the opportunity to learn how to see all of life through the lens of Christ, which we call a Christian worldview, and to share that perspective with others. Second, we share the gospel anywhere and everywhere we can.
We do this because of the untold number of folks just like this man who came to Christmas First Night. Sometimes they’re our students, and sometimes they’re just people who are touched by our larger witness to the world. We do it also because our Lord commissioned us, including our South Carolina Baptist universities, to take the gospel to the world.
The Cooperative Program is not about money. It never has been and never should be. It’s about sharing the greatest story, the most hopeful story, and the most important story that has ever been told. While everything else fades away, the gospel and heaven remain; the Lord remains, and we remain in Him.
Anderson University is thankful to South Carolina Baptists for loving us, encouraging us, and for supporting us — so that, under the Lord’s blessing and direction, we can perpetually do these two things in the name of Jesus!
— Evans Whitaker has served as president of Anderson University since December 2001.