By Gary Tiffin
Christian church colleges and universities could be in trouble in ways we have not considered. Books about similar institutions in the last few years raise quite a few questions.
Here is how the story often plays out: a Christian group founds a college, but over decades the relationship weakens and eventually the college frees itself from any obligation or actual alignment with its founding group. Then the college becomes independent and more secular than religious, with few if any remaining traces of its religious roots*.
This scenario is not ours! We are not in danger of “losing our light,” as some have pictured the loss of religious identity and affiliation among American colleges and universities founded by Christian groups and denominations. Our Christian colleges continue to focus upon the study of the Bible, require chapel attendance, and provide clear and stipulated expectations for student behavior in handbooks. We certainly expect faculty and students to participate in and support the spread of the gospel at home and abroad.
Yet there remains a feeling of unease that our colleges and universities may not be “tending the light” as originally envisioned by those who founded our schools. Mission statements have been updated and reworded. Majors not directly related to church work have been added. Fewer students come from supporting churches. Not all faculty members have roots in the Restoration Movement. Faculty, administration, and staff have become professionalized in their training, education, and professional memberships. Accreditation appears to drive many institutional decisions and programs. Fewer undergraduates plan on entering the pulpit. Women often outnumber men. Many students depend upon federal financial aid, leading to heavy debt upon graduation. Our schools appear less dependent upon congregational support as major capital campaigns raise funds for buildings and endowments.
These factors contribute to the sense that our colleges and universities may be losing their distinct and essential connection to our congregations as they comfortably merge into the larger mainstream of American higher education. So what do we make of all this?
Staying Current and Relevant
The founding and original purpose and mission of any college must be updated and adapted to changing times, needs, and concerns. While our colleges certainly have not abandoned their commitment to advancing the mission of Christ, how the colleges organize to accomplish that mission must change because congregational and societal needs change. Our world is not static! Any thriving and improving organization must continuously evaluate and assess effectiveness, but always in terms of its mission and purpose. This is very challenging and deserves the involvement of congregational and area leaders who support our colleges and universities.
Colleges that do not adapt and innovate are likely to become increasingly irrelevant, marginalized, and outmoded. New technology (online learning for example), the emergence of the megachurch, rapidly changing work roles, and the very nature of how information is created, processed, and used demands new approaches. Changing career pathways provide opportunities for new means of communicating the gospel. The addition of majors in the helping professions, communication, information technology, and management can enhance the collegiate context in which ministers and missionaries prepare to serve and lead.
Practicing Our Heritage
As for church affiliation, we of all Christian groups should rejoice that we are increasingly involved with the larger Christian world, which sometimes has adopted and even outperformed us in implementing our own mottoes and calls for unity and restoration. Denominational affiliation and membership no longer guarantee Christian belief and commitment, as they did in earlier decades. We must guard against the sectarianism and denominationalism about which we have complained for so long.
Nevertheless, it is important that every campus maintain, nourish, and celebrate its ties to its founding and supporting constituency in the hiring of faculty and administrators, recruitment of students, and curricular emphases. Strong and intentional links with traditional supporters leaves room to include significant fellowship and interaction with the larger Christian world.
Resetting Our Approach
No longer can colleges easily protect students from the realities and temptations of our secularized world. Campuses should accurately, directly, and sensitively deal with current hot-button issues such as homosexuality, abortion, gender roles, and creation care. Thoughtful, biblical, and well-reasoned processing of these issues serves our students much better than one-issue crusading or a “straw man” approach.
At the same time, curfews, invasive scrutiny of behavior, and attempts to serve as substitute parents must at least be coupled with the very challenging and more difficult approach of educating students to make their own decisions, evaluate alternatives, and survive bad choices. In the long run, our schools will graduate more effective and enduring Christian leaders and servants if their mistakes, poor choices, and even scary positions on controversial issues can be addressed while in our care and on our campuses, rather than postponing their maturing process until after they graduate. Our biblical concern for “worldliness” can no longer be defined primarily in geographical terms (where students spend time off campus). That concern should extend to attitude, concept, and course content.
Funding models are changing rapidly. The mainlining of our colleges has resulted in increased expenses as students expect better facilities, modernization of technology, and contemporary approaches to teaching and learning. All this costs more money than ever.
Dependence upon federal loans for students threatens to work against the ability of graduates to pursue their ministry goals when loaded down with thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Supporting congregations and individuals must see obvious reasons to support our schools, or the schools will not succeed (and should not).
Given the costs of higher education today, it is no longer realistic to think that students can pay for it all, without significant help. Those costs now average $20,000 to $30,000 per year at most of our colleges and universities. Multiple sources of funding (parents, student employment, institutional aid, congregations, federal aid, and extended family) are usually necessary to pay for a college education today.
Ministry Expanded, Not Diluted
Most of the colleges and universities listed in this annual higher education issue were begun for the primary purpose of preparing ministers for congregations. This purpose remains vital, essential, and key to the future of our movement. The current Just One Challenge campaign should be supported and promoted not only by colleges, but also by congregations in alliance with the college(s) they support.
With very few exceptions, most of our institutions (particularly the largest and oldest) now prepare students for careers beyond church ministry, as well as careers in ministry. While some continue to be concerned about this expansion in career preparation, it should be lauded as we deploy a greater variety of both volunteer and career witnesses to the gospel in our ever-changing world. The witness is far more important than the career through which it is proclaimed.
We will always need preaching ministers, but that essential role must be supported and extended to all walks of life and a variety of careers, including business, teaching, social work, and others that hold high probability for influence, credibility, and support for the gospel message. These additional majors must be explicitly linked to the ministry of Christ to justify their cost.
What Is Needed
Concerns over the “watering down” of Christian higher education over time generally have centered upon the usual checkpoints of denominational affiliation on campus, chapel attendance, required Bible courses, specificity of behavior codes, and strictness of required statements of faith by faculty and administrators. While these areas can reflect the mission and vision of those who founded our colleges, they are not sufficient. Strictness in these areas does not necessarily guarantee the “light” of founding mission statements will remain bright and clear. On the other hand, strong presidential leadership, committed and vigilant governing boards, and faculty who are doggedly committed to the mission and purpose of the college are most essential. These persons hold the power to redirect the resources and curriculum, and even reword the mission of the college, in order to solidify and continue the central founding vision of the college.
I am less concerned that our schools will abandon or dilute their mission than I am with how they carry out that mission in our increasingly changing world. This is the greatest challenge, and it surely deserves our full attention. We have not lost our way, but that way must be prayerfully and carefully traveled if the light of Christian higher education is to continue to shine brightly and effectively as we move through the next decades.
* Key books on this topic include The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches by James Tunstead Burtchaell (1998); Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions by Robert Benne (2001); God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America by Naomi Schaefer Riley (2005); and Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in Twenty-First-Century America by Samuel Schuman (2009). The Schuman volume is a culminating study of three Catholic and 10 Protestant institutions that have kept faith with their founding mission and sponsors.
Gary Tiffin is retired after 38 years of teaching and serving in administration at William Jessup University (of which he is a graduate), Hope International University (where he spent 26 years), and Northwest Christian University. He currently directs the Doctor of Education program at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, where he has taught graduate courses on the history of American education since 2006. He holds a PhD in history of education from Stanford University (1968).