Christian Church Colleges?
By Darrel Rowland
More students from non-Restoration Movement churches are attending colleges and universities associated with independent Christian churches and churches of Christ.
Is that good news or bad?
To find out, CHRISTIAN STANDARD contacted leaders of the movement’s institutions of higher learning. Those from 15 responded, together representing about 85 percent of total enrollment.
The “good news” camp points to the benefits of exposure to faithful biblical teaching, which in several cases has led to baptisms—sometimes in college swimming pools.
“We view having non-Restoration Movement students as a blessed opportunity to share our message with those who might never be in a position to hear it,” says Larry Carter, president of Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, Michigan.
“Imagine having the best and most committed students from other denominations in your area come to your church to receive biblical training. Would that be a positive or a negative? Obviously, it would be an incredible positive.”
Mike Sweeney, president of Emmanuel Christian Seminary in eastern Tennessee, says, “You can’t spend several years of your life exposed to the principles of the Restoration Movement without it having some kind of impact.”
Ron Oakes, president of Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri, says the college welcomes students who don’t have Christian church backgrounds and teaches them about the Bible and Restoration Movement heritage.
“Each semester there are baptisms that take place from among that group as a result of better understanding the Word of God and God’s plan for salvation by identifying with his Son,” Oakes relates.
“The more faith-based students from denominational backgrounds attend Restoration Movement colleges, the greater the opportunity to help them understand their own beliefs in contrast to the solid teaching of the Bible, Oakes added. “College is a time for students’ faith to become their own faith, not the faith of their congregation or their parents.”
But others worry about the possibility of diluting the gospel message, perhaps with an eye toward increasing enrollment in difficult financial times.
Although he generally applauds the growing presence of non-Restoration Movement students, J. Kevin Ingram, president of Manhattan (Kansas) Christian College, adds, “I also worry that we can potentially be watering down our movement’s key tenets and distinctive viewpoints on Scripture and doctrine. I love the fact that we are ‘not the only Christians’ and strive to be ‘Christians only,’ but we must make sure that as others join us we don’t let it change our firm beliefs on matters like baptism and Communion.”
“The potential benefits include the opportunity for students from other backgrounds to learn about the vibrant work and guiding principles of the Restoration Movement, as well as the opportunity for us in the Restoration Movement to learn from them as they come from different backgrounds.”
But he acknowledges that the trend holds risks as well.
“This presupposes that our Restoration Movement colleges are not simply offering students a general, vanilla ‘evangelical’ perspective. It assumes that we as colleges are truly teaching about our Restoration Movement heritage and principles, that we are speaking the faith language that has shaped who we are as the Restoration Movement (words like baptism, elder, Communion, etc.), and that we are connecting our students with the leaders, churches, and ministries of the Restoration Movement,” Proctor said.
“The potential drawback is that these Restoration Movement colleges, which are funded by Restoration Movement churches and donors, may not be preparing leaders for the Restoration Movement,” he added. “My concern would be the possibility of seeing a dwindling number of ministers and missionaries being prepared to carry forward the great work of the Restoration Movement deep into the 21st century.”
In some ways, the changing face of Christian colleges and universities reflects that of higher education as a whole. A sour economy spurs the twin effects of sending many back to school but also making college less affordable for others. Changing demographics and job demands have resulted in many older, nontraditional students returning to the classroom. And the explosion in technology, especially for distance learning, has opened a multitude of opportunities for off-campus studies.
But some Christian colleges are intentionally changing their mission (along with their names) as well.
The shifting ratio of traditional students and those from outside the Restoration Movement at least partly stems from the shifting mission of Johnson University (formerly Johnson Bible College) in Knoxville, Tennessee, said President Gary Weedman.
“We see our mission as both serving our churches and the kingdom of God at large. With the addition of more programs (other strategic programs framed by the Great Commission in order to extend the kingdom of God among all nations), we realize that we will enroll more from outside the Stone-Campbell tradition.
“I think it would be a mistake merely to ‘open the doors’ to anyone to fill seats. I think it equally a mistake to restrict our message only to ‘our own kind.’”
A little further south, Atlanta Christian College has become Point University and this year is relocating from East Point, just outside of Atlanta, to West Point, Georgia, about halfway between Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama. President Dean Collins and board chairman Tony Collins (no relation) say that in 1968, 98 percent of the institution’s students came from the Christian church. Today, less than a third do.
“Part of the reason for the 98 percent was that most of our colleges were exclusively doing church vocation training—training students to be pastors and other staff members of Christian churches. Today, Point University helps students redefine ‘ministry,’ taking it beyond the pews and into the world’s most influential institutions—business, entertainment and the arts, education, government, the church, and the nonprofit world.
“It would follow that as we have broadened our definition of minister, we would attract from a broader base of student leaders who are motivated to live out their faith in the marketplace.”
Like others, Dean Collins and Tony Collins maintain that marketing the university only to students from the Christian church “is not sustainable, nor appropriate.”
“We believe we have a good product that is equipping students to be points of influence in all spheres of life, so why would we want to make that available to only a narrow group of students?”
Joseph Womack, president of Northwest Christian University in Oregon, admitted, “We would find it quite difficult to remain solvent without students from other traditions.”
About two-thirds of those attending Northwest arrive from fellowships other than Christian churches, which—like most Christian groups—does not have a major presence in that region of the U.S.
Some college leaders almost bristle at the suggestion that they would change enrollment standards just for financial survival.
“Accepting students from non-Restoration Movement churches has always been the practice and is not a ‘survival’ tactic,” said John Derry, president of Hope International University in Southern California. “However, it would not be surprising that if a school were to limit admission to Christian church students only, it would not have sufficient funds to continue operation.”
Derry hit on a common theme: shaky support for Christian colleges and universities from Christian churches.
“I truly believe a reason for the growing percentage of non-Restoration Movement students at our Christian schools is the result of a minimal effort on behalf of many of our Christian churches/churches of Christ to inform students and their parents of the expanding educational opportunities at a Christian university,” remarked Jerry Sanders, chairman of the board at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson.
“How many of the students attending your local church are aware that they can attend a fully accredited college in a Christian environment and earn a pre-med degree, a nursing degree, a degree in education, or a degree in business? What are we doing in our local churches to promote the expanding educational and career opportunities at schools, such as Kentucky Christian University? In my opinion, too many of our local Christian church/church of Christ leaders have an outdated understanding that the only purpose of attending a Christian university is to become a minister or a missionary.”
KCU President Jeff Metcalf agreed.
“One of the most significant challenges I see as president of a Restoration Movement college is that of feeling increasing indifference on the part of Restoration Movement churches/congregants. It was not in the dim and distant past that our churches viewed getting young people into a Christian college (meaning a Restoration Movement college) as a culmination of their youth ministry. Today, that simply does not seem to be a prominent value in a growing number of churches.”
A key challenge for Christian colleges and universities is uniting to help supporting churches and alumni “understand that a large part of the church’s task in the 21st century will be to confront a secular culture with a Christian worldview—and we must help them understand that the persons best equipped for this challenge will be the graduates of authentic Christ-centered universities,” said Bill Greer, president of Milligan College in eastern Tennessee.
Sweeney, the leader at Emmanuel, cited another hurdle: More than a few Christian church students are going to Evangelical seminaries outside of the fellowship of their upbringing.
“The postmodern generation is less apt to feel any loyalty to a specific church tradition,” he said.
But Sweeney said that cuts both ways.
“Overall, I regard it as a very positive thing for us. The Restoration Movement is not supposed to be a ‘denomination’ or even a set of doctrines. It is supposed to be more of a worldview, an approach to Scripture and faith built upon the insights of such men as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others—who in turn, were building on the work of many great saints before them.
“I am more than happy to spread that worldview to people from any background. I believe the kingdom of God benefits when more children of the kingdom learn that our faith is in the person of Jesus, not in creedal statements. I believe we can have varying opinions without sacrificing the unity that belongs to the church.”
Derry, who spent 13 years at Milligan College and five at Dallas Christian before his nine years at Hope International, also sees the glass as more than half full.
“The proportion of students from Restoration Movement backgrounds is a reflection of the recognition our schools have gained in the broader Evangelical community. As the schools have become a valued option by churches in the region leading to enrollment growth, the percentage [of Christian church students] may have decreased, but many times the number has remained about the same.”
Keith Ray, president of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University, perceives an opportunity for Christian churches and churches of Christ.
“After all, our movement is one positioned to encounter the world based on the simple truths of Scripture and Christian truths,” he said. “The more our world is exposed to our vision and principles, the more apt they are to join our vision and enjoy the benefits. Engaging the world beyond our movement without losing our identity is the key.”
John Jackson, president of William Jessup University in San Jose, California, said, “I think it is great for the Restoration Movement to be influencing such a broad swath of modern Christendom here in North American and beyond. I think God may have positioned the Restoration Movement for such a time as this.”
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.