What Is Happening to Our Christian Colleges

I have been a faculty member of three Christian universities (one was called a “college” when I taught there) in succession over the past almost forty years. I have held tenured positions at two of them and now have held a named chair at one for several years. I have spoken at numerous American Christian colleges and universities and have a wide circles of acquaintances who taught or teach at them. For five years in the 1990s I served as chief editor of a scholarly journal supported by fifty Christian colleges and universities. Here I am talking out of that broad and deep experience. I am not talking about Bible colleges or institutes or merely “church related” colleges or universities.

Anecdote: In about 1998 I was asked to be the guest presenter at a meeting of the presidents of the (then) thirteen member schools of the Christian College Consortium—all very well known and highly respected evangelical Christian liberal arts colleges. After my presentation, the presidents fell into disagreement with each other about the nature and future and vision of their colleges. These are colleges that are very similar; their differences are regional and denominational. (Some have no specific denominational affiliation but “lean” toward some evangelical Protestant tradition. All require students, faculty, and staff to be evangelical Protestant Christians—as each defines that for itself.)

So what is the purpose of a Christian college or university? There are several informal purposes—purposes that have evolved on a very informal level such as providing a space where Christian students can find Christian spouses. None of the Christian colleges or universities I know actually say that, but they all know that is one reason some parents send their late adolescent sons and daughters to them.

Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.

More formally, the stated purpose of most Christian colleges and universities is to provide an academic environment where the Christian worldview and Christians ethics are supported and integrated with the various disciplines and areas of study. The term used was “integration of faith and learning.” I don’t hear that particular phrase used as much as during the 1980s and 1990s, but I believe that still is the main purpose of a Christian college or university.

What dose that mean—“integration of faith and learning?” I wrote an essay about that in my book Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story (Zondervan). And, in fact, that whole book is my attempt to provide administrators and faculty members of Christian colleges and universities with an account of the “faith” side of integration of faith and learning. The “faith” side is the basic biblical and Christian “story” of reality that is theocentric rather than anthropocentric. It is an alternative to secular humanism, naturalism, atheism, New Age paganism, esoteric occultism, non-Christian religions and philosophies—all of which are studied at good Christian colleges and universities but from the perspective of belief in the biblical-Christian “story” of reality (metanarrative).

A problem I have observed is this: The larger a Christian college or university becomes, the harder it is to maintain and pursue its main purpose. The problem is not the students; the problem is among the faculty. Faculty members sneak in who are not devoted to integration of faith and learning, who are only vaguely Christian—cognitively. That is, they may be very nice people, academically qualified, products of evangelical Christian homes and churches, but they have left the biblical-Christian life and worldview behind and no longer really believe in it. Or they do believe in it with half of their mind but have adopted absolutely contrary elements of life and worldviews absolutely contrary to the biblical-Christian one. Then they get tenure and there’s no stopping them from teaching things that are false—from a biblical-Christian perspective.

A problem “higher” than that one is that many regents or trustees of truly Christian colleges and universities are not themselves educated in basic Christian philosophy or theology. So they hire administrators who are not deeply familiar with basic Christian philosophy or theology. Then begins the “slip sliding away” of the Christian college or university from its original purpose into becoming only a vaguely church-related school where all kinds of things are taught that are not consistent with a fundamentally biblical-Christian life and world perspective.

In case you wonder what a fundamentally biblical-Christian life and world perspective is I suggest you read John Stott, Harry Blamires, C. S. Lewis or Arthur Holmes or my Essentials of Christian Thought.

The only protection from this slip sliding away is vigilance on the part of Christian college/university administrators. A Christian college or university must provide new faculty members and even adjunct instructors with strong orientation that informs them of what the biblical-Christian life and world perspective includes. That is why I wrote Essentials of Christian Thought—with the hope that Christian college and university administrators would use it to orientate faculty into the basic Christian life and world perspective. But there are other books that do the same.

When I joined the faculties of “my” three Christian universities (one of which was called a college then), I was required to participate in two-to-three day orientations for new faculty that included workshops on the meaning and implications of the biblical-Christian life and world perspective and about faith-learning integration. I have taught some of those workshops to new faculty members at some Christian colleges and universities.

However, what I have noticed during the last two decades is a very noticeable slippage in this area of orientation and vigilance. Many faculty members at Christian (not merely church-related) colleges and universities earned their graduate degrees at secular universities (some of which used to be Christian but are no longer). Many of them bring their theories, contrary to the biblical-Christian life and world perspective, into their classrooms. Many of them see it as part of their “job” to distance students from their Christian faith—cognitively if not spiritually. I could give numerous examples, but I am not interested in pointing an accusing finger at anyone in particular.

So where do I lay the blame for this slippage, this slip sliding away? Solidly at the feet of some Christian college and university administrators who are either ignorant of the biblical-Christian life and world perspective or who don’t really care about faith-learning integration or who are too cowardly to confront faculty members who are teaching theories (often under the guise of “facts”) that are absolutely contrary to the biblical-Christian life and world perspective.

And I blame Christian college and university regents and trustees who fail to install administrators who will promote integration of faith and learning.

Without integration of faith and learning throughout the college or university, across all disciplines, a Christian college or university really has no purpose other than to allegedly provide a space where Christian students can meet and marry other Christian students, but even that will not last very long. Once the main purpose slip slides away, the college or university becomes a pale reflection of a secular college or university, merely “church related” or “vaguely Christian.”

When I say things like this, many critics point to “revivals” among students to prove that a particular Christian college or university is still holding fast to its original purpose and spiritual moorings. I’m not convinced by that. I look at the faculty and administration and what is being taught about, for example, the purpose of human life on earth. Is it to glorify God and enjoy him forever or is it something else? Often it is something else—such as getting a good job and becoming a good, productive citizen of the USA or just being a good person with lots of knowledge. Any college or university can do that. A Christian college or university’s main purpose is to graduate students who will see all of reality as created by God for his glory and for humanity’s good.

R. Olson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

3 thoughts on “What Is Happening to Our Christian Colleges

  1. My husband and I both went back to college after we were married and had kids. We went to a Christian college. It had a large Biblical Worldview emphasis which really taught me a lot even though I had been raised in a Christian home. It was encouraging to be in a Christian environment as we were in a difficult situation where my husband worked full time while going to school full time plus had a family. It was a good environment to be in under these circumstances. I am very grateful!

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