Why I Believe in Christian Higher Education

By Gene Harker

These schools offer a unique value proposition, a both/and approach to education that makes them unique and invaluable.

In the influential book Value Proposition Design, the authors propose that a business’s success is ultimately determined by its capacity to create value for consumers by meeting their needs and helping them solve problems.1 From this perspective, one might infer that Google is wildly successful because its search engine satisfies a thirst for knowledge, offering answers to questions ranging from where to find the nearest ATM to the symptoms of the Zika virus. Google is reported to process 40,000 such queries per second; that’s 3.5 billion customer needs met each day, more than 1 trillion each year.

In the spring of 2016, about 3.3 million students graduated from high school, of which approximately 65.9 percent will enroll in college this fall.2 In addition, some 8.7 million learners over the age of 25 also study at American institutions of higher learning.3 All of these tuition payers, like their predecessors, chose their place of study based on perceptions of the value offered by each institution: Will my degree from this school help me get a job? Is my girlfriend attending the same university? Will I receive a scholarship? Is my degree available online?

An instructor lectures outside the Hugh and Hazel Darling Library at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. The campus’s main buildings were designed in the California-native Googie style, a futuristic form of modern architecture popular from the 1930s to 1960s.
An instructor lectures outside the Hugh and Hazel Darling Library at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. The campus’s main buildings were designed in the California-native Googie style, a futuristic form of modern architecture popular from the 1930s to 1960s.

The modern university, like Google, is increasingly consumer-oriented—structured to offer products and services (i.e., value) to meet an ever-widening array of student needs. Placement, affordability, and flexibility are a few of the many deliverables sought by today’s savvy consumer. To meet these customer requirements, universities offer free courses, online accessibility, reduced tuition, and, of course, an on-campus Starbucks or two.

Christian higher education institutions are identical in most all aspects to private universities that don’t wear the Christian moniker. Faith-based schools offer the same value—but that’s the beginning, not the end, of the story.

Christian universities are both/and schools, providing both the value of a high-quality learning experience and an intentional focus on preparing workers for the harvest. What they deliver is guided by more than good business practices; rather, every class and major is informed by a belief in the supremacy of biblical thinking and kingdom value.

Christ-centered universities educate psychologists steeped in the scientific method and comfortable leading a short-term mission trip, pastors educated for the pulpit and conversant in culture, and biochemists who genetically alter plants to resist insects while serving faithfully in their local church. As a result, regardless of a student’s vocational plans, discipleship and career development are seamlessly interwoven into a coherent whole—a merger of the arts, sciences, biblical studies, and ministry.

These both/and universities offer a theologically enlightened fusion of discovery and worship, work and mission, service and compassion, and science and revelation.

Discovery and Worship

On September 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. (EDT), a gravitational wave was, for the first time, sensed by a remarkably large and sophisticated antenna—an antenna that cost $1.1 billion and took more than 40 years to build.4 This remarkable event confirmed the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that a disturbance in the cosmos could cause space-time to stretch, collapse, and even jiggle.

When this finding was announced, ecstasy shot through the scientific community. Szabolcs Marka, a Columbia University professor and scientist, proclaimed: “I think this will be one of the major breakthroughs in physics for a long time.”5

Discovery, though not always as revolutionary and exciting as measuring ripples in space-time, is central to every university’s mission and narrative. For the Christian, this pursuit of knowledge is ultimately a sacred journey.

Every data point observed and insight gained provides a glimpse into the mind of the creator. By studying the vicissitudes and nuances of the human condition, the student may know a bit more about the one whose image humans bear. Peering into space to understand the cosmos inspires awe and worship. Learning, in the Christian context, is motivated by a desire to know the living God and results in a bending of one’s knee and a bowing of one’s head. The learner agrees with the psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).6

Work and Mission

Another fundamental role of higher education is to prepare students for the world of work. Universities often boast about the placement rates of their graduating classes. At a Christian university, work and employment take on added meaning, with emphasis placed on calling, ministry, and mission.

There is a fundamental a priori belief that everyone has a role to play in the kingdom, with each individual, like Esther, perfectly placed “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). All students prepare for ministry, regardless of their field of study. The social worker has a calling to fulfill, as does the chemist, mathematician, and student minister.

Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and internationally renowned psychiatrist, succinctly expresses this value, stating: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.”7

The primary mission of Christian education is to nurture and equip kingdom workers—a modern response to Jesus’ ancient plea: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37, 38). Schools centered in faith graduate physicists, pastors, sociologists, lawyers, and business leaders who are on mission to live out their calling and to fulfill the Great Commission. All will preach; some will be paid to do so.

Service and Compassion

There is an ethic of service that permeates higher education. Many university students give back to their communities on a regular basis.

This care for others takes center stage on campuses where Christ is honored. Jesus’ moral imperative to love one’s neighbor is integrated into every class, found on the athletic fields, and lived out in residence halls. Learning and vocation are leveraged for the purpose of expressing compassion for others, making the world a better place for Jesus’ sake.

Science and Revelation

Creating a rich learning environment to inspire academic achievement is a core value of higher education. Reason and the scientific method are plied to better understand the great riddles of the arts and sciences. Christians use all the tools of modern science and apply their intellect to academic and vocational pursuits, but they are called to do so with decided humility.

For people of faith, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The limits of human understanding are made plain by the stark contrast between an individual’s incomplete knowledge and the complete perspective of the omniscient narrator. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

Along with humility, there is a reliance and dependence on revealed truth. In fact, a biblical worldview and theological perspective are the unifying center of a Christian university. For the both/and school, the Bible core is the leaven of all scholarly and vocational pursuits. A fundamental presupposition of the Christian university is the belief that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

Just as a student peers deeply into space to understand the cosmos, she also digs deeply into God’s written revelation to understand her place in it. The anthropology major may immerse himself in a tribal culture to learn about complex social networks, but his view of the human condition is shaped by his understanding of the text. The Word breathes into all learning and ministry pursuits at Christian institutions of higher learning—the ultimate source of truth about people, God, and his creation.

At Don Green’s inauguration as president of Lincoln Christian University, I offered the following challenge:

Dr. Green, our charge for you is to create a student-centered, both/and university—both a place where one’s faith is strengthened and a place where one finds his or her vocational calling. Help us shape graduates who both love Christ and his Church and who are scholar/practitioners set on a path of professional preeminence. Make professional training and worldview training equal partners.

Speaking from the perspective of our parent stakeholders and adult learners, create an institution that offers an affordable education that trains disciples and provides a rigorous academic environment that makes our students competitive in the marketplace. (Speaking pragmatically, help our students form spiritually, get a job, and serve the church.)

Write a story in which LCU is a protagonist offering a flexible, consumer-responsive product while cultivating excellence and remaining faithful to the university’s mission.

The sentinel value proposition offered by Christian higher education is a pragmatic and organic integration of the physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and practical—a blending of mind and mission. Exploration and awe, classroom and service, Bible and biology coexist in harmony. The clarion call is come join a transformational community of global difference makers; find your God-ordained personal quest; and grow as a person, scholar, professional, leader, and follower.

Then as you go, make disciples.


1Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Greg Bernarda, and Alan Smith, Value Proposition Design (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

2The National Center for Education Statistics; accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372.

3The National Center for Education Statistics, Table 303.40; accessed at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_303.40.asp.

4Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory website; accessed at www.ligo.caltech.edu.

5Dennis Overbye, “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory,” The New York Times, February 11, 2016; accessed at www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html?_r=2.

6All Scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

7V.E.  Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

Gene Harker, MD and PhD, teaches at Indiana University School of Medicine and serves as a staff physician at Richard L. Roudebush V.A. Medical Center, Indianapolis, Indiana. The author of Leadership Insight: The New Psychology of Grit, Success, and Well-Being, he is a graduate of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University and a member of Lincoln’s board of trustees.

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