By Matt Proctor
A few years ago, Christian college presidents were invited to our movement’s annual megachurch ministers’ get-together. We gathered in San Antonio, Texas, to talk about greater partnership, and one preacher stood to share his view.
“To be honest, do we really need these colleges?” he asked. “So many are small and struggling, and I hire most of my people from within. Maybe it’s time to let them die.”
That kinda hurt my feelings.
Actually it didn’t. He asked a great question—one I’ve asked myself. After 14 years as president of Ozark Christian College, I understand why management guru Peter Drucker said “college president” is one of the four hardest jobs in America. Fundraising, federal regulations, accrediting associations, helicopter parents, changing student demographics, increasing cultural pressures, juggling multiple constituencies, and the occasional pandemic make the job a challenge. (An academic dean from a sister school once smiled and said, “You know what an academic dean is? Someone who’s too dumb to teach but too smart to be president.”)
I’m a preacher who misses standing in the same pulpit each week, so if we don’t actually need Christian colleges, I’d like to be done with this president gig.
Why do it?
In just the last few months, two sister schools—one 75 years old, the other 95—closed their doors. Is there a workable future for our colleges, and more importantly, is there even a need?
I believe the answer is yes to both questions.
We still need our colleges for three reasons.
Because the Workers Are Still Few
“Everything rises and falls on leadership,” says John Maxwell. When leadership is strong, an organization flourishes. When it’s lacking, an organization falters. Maxwell calls it the Law of the Lid: “Leadership ability is always the lid on organizational effectiveness.”
Which means the church needs godly, gifted, equipped leaders. Nothing matters more than the church’s redemptive mission in the world, and that mission needs leaders who are “full of the Spirit and wisdom,” “above reproach,” keeping “hold of the deep truths of the faith,” and “able to teach” (Acts 6:3; 1 Timothy 3:2, 9).
Jesus spent most of his three-year ministry training such leaders in his little Bible college of twelve, and he knew more would be needed. He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37, 38). Here’s a quick quiz:
- Indiana has one Christian church for every 10,000 people. To reach that ratio in the New York City metro area, how many churches need to be planted? (Answer: 1,800)
- There are about 7,300 languages in the world. How many languages have no Scripture translated? (Answer: almost 4,000)
- Of the roughly 16,000 people groups in the world, how many are unreached with the gospel? (Answer: about 7,100)
- How many people around the world die without Christ every minute? (Answer: 72)
Who will plant those churches, translate those Scriptures, reach those people groups, and save those souls? We don’t have enough vocational Christian leaders to replace the ones retiring, let alone increase their tribe.
The harvest is still plentiful, and the workers are still few.
In the U.S., churches and campus ministries have certainly raised up full-time kingdom leaders, but not nearly enough. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School missions professor Herb Kane said, “Bible colleges have accounted for the lion’s share of missionaries during the last one hundred years.”
An important note: Our movement has both Bible colleges and Christian liberal arts colleges. A Christian liberal arts college includes ministry as one major among others like chemistry and journalism (and we need chemists and journalists with a biblical worldview). A Bible college makes ministry its singular focus (90 percent of Ozark’s graduates go into some kind of ministry.)
We need both. The Army needs both West Point (a singular-focus school) and university ROTC (one program among many) to train vocational military leaders. We need both Bible colleges and Christian colleges with ministry majors to train vocational spiritual leaders. Everything rises and falls on leadership, and the mission of God needs more equipped leaders, not fewer.
We still need our colleges because the workers are still few.
Because Biblical Training Still Matters
My father-in-law, an old farmer, once helped me replace a piece of siding on my house. We fastened it securely, but we didn’t get it perfectly straight. He stood back, looked at it and said, “Well, a man riding by on a fast horse will never know the difference.” I laughed and understood.
Sometimes close enough is good enough. But if 99.9 percent were good enough for maternity nurses, every day 12 babies in the U.S. would go home from the hospital with the wrong parents! Some things you must get 100 percent right, and one of those is the Word of God. Paul told Timothy he must be “a worker . . . who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Does it matter for a minister to have a formal biblical education? Some would say: “No. It’s nice but not necessary. We hire people who love Jesus and understand our church culture.” To be clear: A Bible college education isn’t necessary for ministry. The apostle Paul had formal biblical training (Acts 22:3), but Peter and John were “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). I have known leaders used mightily by God who never attended Bible college, and I’ve known biblical eggheads who couldn’t preach their way out of a paper bag.
A Bible college degree isn’t the key to ministry success . . . but understanding the Bible better is never the cause of ministry failure. It’s always a good thing. And sometimes the inability to “correctly handle the word of truth” does lead to kingdom failure. I could cite egregious examples like the health and wealth preachers who promise physical healing because they mishandle Isaiah 53:5.
But I’m thinking of less obvious examples, like the preacher who quoted approvingly of a Facebook post: “We are not human beings having a temporary spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience.” That sounds biblical, but it runs counter to Scripture’s teaching (we’ll be fully human for eternity—totally spiritual and totally physical).
That preacher couldn’t discern between Bible and almost Bible. If a plane flying from San Francisco to New York City is off course just one degree, it’ll land in Connecticut, and even 99 percent-right teaching can lead people away from “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) and full obedience to him (Matthew 28:20).
Does formal biblical education matter? Yes. I want my doctor to know the technical names of diseases, the intricacies of human anatomy, and the side effects of each medicine—no “close-enough” prescriptions! How much more important is thorough preparation for the physician of souls. A congregation’s faith is formed by his teaching, and they need a teacher who handles the Word correctly. Read James 3:1. God is not a man riding by on a fast horse, and close enough is not good enough.
We still need our colleges because biblical training still matters.
Because the College Model Still Works
Throughout church history, Christian colleges have been just one method God has used to raise up kingdom leaders. We serve the church, but we are not the church—we’re the bridesmaid, not the bride. The church is what Jesus came to build, and the day may come when he is done using our schools to do so.
But at the moment, it seems we’re still a useful tool. Of the 114 megachurches/emerging megachurches in the May issue of Christian Standard, 90 percent were led by an alumnus of our schools. My strong hunch: that percentage is even higher among our thousands of midsized and smaller churches.
While Christian higher education faces challenges, “the reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.” The 10,000-plus students at our colleges still find qualified and Christ-honoring faculty, caring community, spiritual discipleship opportunities, and a vision for lifetime Christian service, and the college model still works because:
- Students are a strategic age. God shapes midcareer people too, but 18- to 24-year-olds are in a highly impressionable season (which brain science confirms) when they can be uniquely shaped spiritually.
- College is a strategic setting. God often prepares leaders by moving them out of life routines for a concentrated season. (Consider the disciples’ three years with Jesus or Paul’s three years in Arabia before beginning ministry.)
- Faculty are strategic mentors. Young ministers can be discipled by a single leader. (Think of Martin Luther training students at his table.) But students may get only one perspective and take on their mentor’s deficiencies. (Think of Luther’s anti-Semitism and potty mouth.) College faculty aren’t perfect, but the diversity can help prepare students more fully.
Our colleges have a strong track record of producing effective, biblically grounded kingdom leaders, and I believe there’s a workable—and bright—future for these institutions. In my opinion, these four cornerstones provide a strong foundation for a sustainable, flourishing Christian college:
- Clear mission. Colleges can weather a financial crisis or enrollment crisis, but not an identity crisis. I recommend every trustee, administrator, and faculty member read Mission Drift by Chris Horst and Peter Greer. Guard doctrine and mission like a junkyard dog.
- Accredited education. As Christians, our highest call is to remain “approved unto God” (2 Timothy 2:15, King James Version). As colleges, we should be as “shrewd” as “the people of this world” (Luke 16:8), pursuing excellence (critically) through accreditation.
- Debt free. In my years as president, we spent the first five years in debt and the last nine out of debt. I’m biased, but I’m sold on this: a constantly shifting economic environment requires the financial margin a debt-free campus provides.
- Church partnerships. The “ivory tower” isn’t always bad. Luther called his rediscovery of the gospel (that launched the Reformation) his “tower experience,” because it literally happened as he studied in a tower. Theological scholarship matters. But the ivory tower and the school of hard knocks need each other, and so do Christian colleges and the church. When we at Ozark take the students in our seminar classes to learn from partner congregations, both the students and the churches win. This is kingdom leadership training at its best.
With these cornerstones in place, we still need our colleges because this model still works.
The Real Reason Why
Last October, I worshipped with Plainfield (Indiana) Christian Church on their Baptism Sunday. Four OCC alumni led the service (my son preached the message), and when 23 people were baptized, I sat with tears in my eyes. My greatest joy in ministry used to be baptizing others into Christ, but my greatest joy now is watching those I’ve taught baptize others. As someone said, “My fruit grows on other people’s trees.”
That’s why I serve as a Bible college president.
By the way, when I got home that weekend, I looked at the previous year’s Christian Standard statistics report. Of the megachurches/emerging megachurches listed, 75 had OCC alumni on staff, and those 75 churches baptized more than 20,000 people. In just one year. (That doesn’t even count those baptized by our grads in smaller churches and on mission fields.)
That’s why I hope you’ll keep sending students and dollars to our schools and why (Lord willing) I’ll keep serving as president.
Our colleges—and their many faithful alumni—remain fruitful.
Matt Proctor serves as president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.