By Wye Huxford
The realities of the present are something quite different from our memories of the past. Nowhere is this more true than what we think about Christian higher education.
In Brian MacLaren’s A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, Neo, the high school science teacher with a PhD, is having an exchange with Casey, a young lady who is considering attending seminary. Casey wants to know why Neo never advised her to go to seminary. Neo responds: “For someone as young as you, it would be so good if there was a seminary that was preparing you for ministry in 2040, not 1940” (p. 208).
Among Christian churches, preparation for ministry frequently doesn’t include seminary, but I think we could easily substitute “Christian college” for “seminary” in Neo’s statement. The survival of institutions preparing believers for ministry both vocationally and bivocationally must address the reality of the present, not our sometimes revisionist oriented memories of the past.
Higher education is in a state of turmoil today. From concerns about the costs of education, to the quality of education, to the question of job placement—at every turn there appear to be multiple answers to complex questions, and most of the answers we hear are mere guesses.
If we narrow the focus to Christian higher education, we discover those same concerns. Unfortunately I am old enough to remember tuition costs that were in the $500 to $600 per semester range, and I’m involved enough to know those figures today are more like $7,000 per semester. A student who actually buys the required textbooks may pay more for books than I paid for tuition.
When it comes to the quality of education, the recurring question among Christian church people revolves around how many preachers graduated from your school this year. The recent economic downturn has made the job placement question a priority at even the most elite institutions.
What is the purpose of an institution of higher education supported by local churches and Christian individuals?
For some, the answer is quite simple: to educate preachers and other ministry-
related people for kingdom service. Buried deep within our collective psyche is the idea that there was a time when every student—well, at least every male student—in our colleges would spend his lifetime either in the local church or some parachurch ministry.
But that idea is more apocryphal than true. The class I graduated with in 1973 was made up of some outstanding young Christians, but most of the males in my graduating class have not spent their adult working lives in ministry. I don’t think that experience was unique to me. I have many friends from other Christian church-related colleges who say much the same thing.
If the primary purpose of Christian church colleges has always been to produce preachers and other full-time ministry people, then we should see ourselves as failures. That fact alone should lead us to thoughtfully revisit the issue of Christian higher education in order to find ways to actually achieve that worthy goal.
At the institution I serve, Point University, we are graduating more students with career goals connected to full-time ministry than ever in our history, but that group comprises a smaller percentage of our student population than it has historically. Is that a good thing? Or should we strive, instead, for a much smaller student body and smaller number of students who will spend a lifetime in ministry?
Students graduating from Point today have a much broader education than I did 40-plus years ago, and they have been given much greater opportunity to understand the world in which they are called to serve. Is that a good thing? Or should we be content to educate students with a much narrower sense of what is going on in the world around them?
I wonder how issues like costs, quality, and job placement can be addressed in ways that make survival of our Christian institutions of higher education possible. I am no expert, and certainly no prophet, but I am convinced survival is possible and that there are crucial things we can do to make it more likely.
The Priesthood of All Believers
The idea that the only kind of education the church should support is preacher training seems to stand in stark contrast to our thinking as a movement about clergy. We are reluctant to use special terms for people who serve in ministry, and there have been more than a few social media arguments about the term pastor. Yet, in many ways, we have viewed colleges as “clergy training schools.”
The biblical idea of the priesthood of believers suggests we ought to be preparing people in every profession to be Jesus to the world in which they will spend the rest of their lives working. When I think of the impact of students who are given a solid grounding in biblical studies but primarily educated for a mainstream career, I can only marvel at the influence these students will have for the kingdom of God. Not everything important in kingdom terms happens inside a church building or in the presence of a preacher. The desire to survive beyond the present calls us back to our roots.
We must do more than learn Bible facts; we must think biblically. Obviously, the former is a prerequisite for the latter, but merely knowing Bible facts will not ensure we will think biblically—and thinking biblically is our only hope for transforming our culture for Christ. It isn’t so much, “What are the facts?” Instead it’s, “How do these facts inform the way I live?” At some level, this is simply learning to read Scripture holistically and canonically, rather than prooftexting our favorite Bible facts.
To access the power found in Scripture, we must learn to read it as God intended it to be read. Survival of our Christian colleges will require that we produce graduates who think biblically and use that kind of thinking to make a kingdom impact on those around them—whether as a pastor in a church or an accountant in a business.
The greatest challenge to following Christ in our culture may very well be our American individualism. I can find no example of a Lone Ranger believer in the New Testament. The Christians we find there were engaged in the community of God’s people. Paul did not become a believer and go off by himself to think and write. He engaged every aspect of his culture.
One of the best antidotes to that individualistic spirit is to realize a story of human achievement and human failure has preceded us. Where better to learn about that than through a journey of education in the liberal arts? The liberal arts are about connecting the student with the past to help him understand the present. Do we really need kingdom leaders who aren’t connected with the past and who don’t understand the world in which we live? A Bible-facts-oriented education with no liberal arts will serve only to isolate believers from our culture. Survival requires engagement, and institutions that survive will find meaningful ways to engage.
Awareness of Global Issues
Technology has changed everything, including higher education. This is sometimes called “the information age,” but a better moniker might be “the misinformation age.”
It’s true that technology has made our world and culture more connected than ever, but connection is not enough. Higher education must provide students with a grid for determining what is true and what isn’t, and what is and isn’t important, and for understanding how believers respond to global issues.
Strategies for preaching the gospel require global awareness—otherwise such strategies are doomed to failure.
Thom Rainer recently published a list titled “Ten Trends on the Employment of Pastors” (see thomrainer.com). Number 4 on his list is, “There will be an increased demand for bivocational pastors.” Rainer doesn’t discount the reality of megachurches, multisite congregations, and the presence of established churches. However, he notes that the economics of our day and time will mean more and more churches will be unable to pay living wages to pastors; thus the need for bivocational ministers will grow significantly.
Christian higher education must address this reality. One way to do that is through the broader approach to education some of our colleges are taking that produces graduates who may earn a living by serving as a teacher, counselor, policeman, coach, athletic trainer, or whatever—but who also have been educated to think biblically and can serve a church as well. Survival means our schools should continue to prepare young men and women for full-time ministry, but not at the neglect of the potential of bivocational ministers in multiple contexts of the kingdom.
When I was in college in the early 1970s, we were required to read a book by Elmer Towns about the 10 largest Sunday schools in the United States. As I remember, nearly every one of them had bus ministries. That would not be the case today. Churches that thrive and transform their communities usually understand we aren’t living in the 1960s anymore, Institutions of higher education can and must learn that too.
I’m hopeful and very optimistic that institutions of higher education committed to a Christlike view of the world will survive. But if we are content to prepare young men and women for “ministry in 1940,” we will become a part of history rather than making history as God has called us to do.
Wye Huxford serves as vice president for spiritual formation and dean of the Chapel with Point University, West Point, Georgia.