Challenges to Higher Education in Independent Christian Churches
Challenges to Higher Education in Independent Christian Churches

By Bill Thompson

According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, there were approximately 900 accredited, religiously affiliated institutions of higher education in the United States as of 2010. Reports indicate many of these church-affiliated schools are financially stressed.

Unfortunately, many of the colleges and universities affiliated with the independent Christian churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement are financially stressed as well. In fact, in the article “Six Stepped Down” published in Christian Standard in August 2015, five of six former presidents of such schools mentioned finances as their greatest challenge. Another challenge is dealing with the tension between academia and supporting churches as a growing number of churches turn to training their own staff members. Finally, as American Christianity continues to trend away from denominationalism toward a more “generic Christianity,” Christian colleges and universities report experiencing difficulty enrolling students from their own religious heritage.

What are the primary market challenges facing the administrators of Bible colleges, liberal arts schools, and universities affiliated with the independent Christian churches? More importantly, how are these schools handling these challenges?

This article springs from a master’s thesis research project completed three years ago. As part of this study, the chief academic officers (CAOs) from six academic institutions affiliated with independent Christian churches—three Bible colleges, one liberal arts school, and two universities—were interviewed to determine their opinion of the greatest challenges facing their schools and some of the ways they are handling these challenges. Their thoughts are included here.

Market Challenges

The first research question focused on the primary market challenges facing the Bible colleges and Christian universities participating in the study. “Market challenges” refers to the financial, enrollment, student expectations, church relations, and other similar challenges that place stress on Christian colleges and universities.

The chief academic officers interviewed for this study described 21 challenges facing their schools. From their input, I identified the primary challenges facing the Bible colleges in this study to be (1) competition from other schools, (2) increasing student expectations concerning outdated facilities and the need to offer more majors, and (3) the impact of declining church relations on giving and recruiting.

All three Bible college CAOs named enrollment issues as their school’s greatest concern. Simply put, there is increasing competition from other schools for a limited pool of students. One CAO noted his school’s primary competition comes from regional state schools that can offer much lower tuition rates.

Also, all three Bible college CAOs said their schools were having difficulty meeting student expectations, with two of the three citing outdated facilities. One acknowledged, “Most of our students have never shared a bedroom or a bathroom. They go to schools that have climbing walls and spas . . . and honestly, it’s hard for a small school like us to keep up with those expectations.” Two CAOs also emphasized the need to expand the number and variety of student majors available.

Finally, two CAOs identified their third greatest challenge as declining giving from churches and the declining number of students recruited from those churches. All three Bible college CAOs indicated that changing trends in the American evangelical church are leading to less loyalty to denominations in general and to Stone-Campbell Movement schools in particular. One CAO indicated part of the challenge involves connecting more effectively with megachurches that do not seem to place much emphasis on sending their students to a Bible college for an education.

With the exception of increasing student expectations for a wider variety of majors, the challenges facing the Bible colleges and the universities in this study are nearly identical. Therefore, one possible implication is that the Christian university or liberal arts model may be the way forward for some of the Bible colleges affiliated with the independent Christian churches. Students appear to be “voting with their feet,” attending larger schools that offer more choices. For example, the average full-time equivalent (FTE) number of students attending a Bible college affiliated with the independent Christian churches in 2015 was 179, while the average FTE number of students attending universities and liberal arts schools affiliated with independent Christian churches that year was 928. If researchers James Martin and James E. Samels’s description of an at-risk school as “smaller than it should be and needs to be” is accurate, perhaps some Bible colleges affiliated with independent Christian churches should consider either offering more majors or transitioning to the university model.

Responses to These Challenges

In general, Bible college administrators seem to be taking three main approaches to improving recruiting: increasing their recruiting efforts, targeting SCM churches with additional scholarship money, and offering new majors.

For example, several CAOs mentioned that their recruiting officials had redoubled their efforts. Additionally, some Bible college CAOs expressed hope that expanding their number of majors will help with recruiting future classes.

Christian university CAOs, on the other hand, seem to be taking more unique approaches, such as recruiting along affinity groups and using benchmarked research for comparison purposes. Chief academic officers from both types of schools continue to emphasize the use of social media in recruiting.

Both Bible college and Christian university CAOs struggle to overcome the challenge of aging facilities. Administrators from both camps find themselves searching for major donors who will help refurbish buildings while simultaneously attempting to persuade students of the unique “community” aspects of their school. Neither type of school seems to have found a long-term solution to declining facilities.

Chief academic officers from both Bible colleges and Christian universities also admit to serious challenges connecting with churches in their regions, which has led to a decline in both giving and recruitment. Bible colleges and Christian universities both offer scholarships to students from supporting churches. Both types of schools also attempt to offer courses on large church campuses. For example, one of the more interesting initiatives that several schools have taken might be labeled the “Teaching Church” model. In this approach, ministry students are able to combine volunteer internships at regional megachurches while pursuing the bulk of their studies at a local Bible college or university.

The Way Forward

The findings of this study suggest that while most institutions of higher education affiliated with independent Christian churches are facing similar problems, responses to those challenges vary based partly on the ingenuity of the individual administrators and partly on the educational model of each school. Additionally, findings suggest the way forward may be seen in continued partnerships with local churches.

For nearly 200 years, pioneers and scholars from across the Stone-Campbell Movement have worked diligently to train ministers and other Christian workers with the highest academic excellence. Through the efforts of these men and women, tens of thousands of students have graduated to join their predecessors in serving Christ. These students have continued to sacrifice all to follow Jesus in ministry. While the challenges of higher education have changed greatly over the years, the need for hard work, ingenuity, and selfless service continue.

Bill Thompson is a writer and an adjunct professor of ministry leadership. He has earned a master of divinity degree, a master of theology degree in Christian higher education, and a doctor of ministry degree in preaching and leadership.

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2 Comments

  1. Robert Klemm
    August 14, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Two thoughts — 1) The non-instrumental brothers of our movement have larger thriving universities (Abilene, Harding, and Lipscomb) to name just three. Maybe we need to adjust our models. 2) We are a fiercely independent crowd. Maybe we need to combine school resources into fewer schools to gain the enrollment to better serve the students. This might help provide motivation to churches and parents to send their young people to our schools. (By the way, maybe megachurches think they can do a better job than the smaller colleges.)

  2. Al Edmonds
    September 10, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    So the answer is to join the crowd . . . give up your central focus on preaching ministry and become a generic, liberal arts, “Christian-affiliated” institution of higher education? WHY? If the purpose of a Bible college is to train preachers and continue to inspire doctrinal integrity, then becoming another Christian college will defeat that purpose. Just as churches have become institutionalized and lost their doctrinal integrity, the cycle of higher ed has also followed that pattern. Perhaps the answer for the “Bible” college is to downsize, re-imagine the mission, and reject the U.S. college/university model.

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