Will the Christian liberal arts college survive? This question, popular with secular experts, causes Christian educators great concern. Its basis is found in the fact that the crisis in American higher education has been reduced to the common denominator of shortages in faculties, funds, and facilities. When these resources are accepted as the criteria for survival and status in American higher education, many small, evangelical Christian liberal arts colleges are expected to test out the high cost of dying in the academic world.

But have we been asking the right question? Without glossing over the need for teachers, money, and space in all our institutions, perhaps it is time to suggest that the fundamental problem facing the evangelical Christian college is not existence but obsolescence. “Are we in a race for survival when we should be in a race for relevance?”

Lewis Mayhew, a man who is known for asking the right questions, presents this problem in his book The Smaller Liberal Arts College when he states that the Christian college is “in conflict with some of the major values held by contemporary American society” (p. 11). These conflicts, he says, are between the values of the Christian religion and American secularism, between a liberal arts education and the vocational orientation in American life, and between the small, independent college and the trend to large, centralized organizations in American institutional structure. Within the framework of these basic value conflicts, Mayhew identifies the small, Christian liberal arts college as a minority institution in higher education that is out of step with the prevailing social values of our time. Although he does not specifically make the statement, both the import and the implication of his analysis suggest this nagging question, “Is the small, evangelical Christian liberal arts college obsolete?” This hard-nosed question demands an equally hard-nosed answer.

The evangelical Christian college is exclusively an American product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As such, it reflected the temper of its times and became known as the “gem and genius” of American higher education. In response to the prevailing philosophical, social, and educational climate of the times, the evangelical Christian college met a unique need and produced distinguished products. Today, however, both the nature of the need and the demands for the product have changed.

The Shifting Climate

In the nineteenth century the philosophical climate in which the evangelical Christian college flourished was essentially idealistic, humane, and Christian. This climate was particularly conducive to the liberal arts emphasis upon the humanities with a strong social service sense and a widely accepted pietism in personal values. Fundamentalism in theology, conservatism in politics, and essentialism in education were the supporting value systems for what could be called the evangelical Christian college. Richard Hofstader, in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, notes the transition, however, that marked the decline of the evangelical spirit. The shock troops of Darwin, Freud, Marx, and Dewey led the way with a succession of attacks supported by such social phenomena as the American enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the scientific renaissance, the urban migration, and the rising national state. It was only a matter of time until the philosophical climate had changed to such an extent that a new liberalism won the day in theology, politics, and education. The momentum of continuing change now appears to have taken us to the point where Sorokin’s sensate culture overbalances our ideational past, secular values have priority over Christian principles, and the pragmatic mind dominates the pietistic spirit.

Article continues below

The long-term result of this radical change in the conscious or subconscious American philosophy is that the evangelical Christian college has lost its position as the “college of the culture.” Today, it is idealized as an institution that preserves the values of our past but does not speak with full meaning to the present.

Sociologically, the cultural environment of which the evangelical Christian college is a part has been transformed as radically as the philosophical climate. By location, size, and number, the evangelical Christian colleges represent the rural, personalistic Protestantism of the nineteenth century. With the motives for the founding of the church colleges centered in denominational preservation and aggressive evangelism, these institutions performed a meaningful function as followers of the frontier. They were rural institutions in a village-and-town society. They were Protestant institutions in a ruggedly evangelistic religious atmosphere. They were autonomous institutions in a society where centralized government did not extend beyond the township hall or the county seat. The match was perfect. Evangelical Christian colleges were the institutional embodiments of independence, stability, and integrity.

Article continues below

In contrast, twentieth-century America is an urbanized polyglot of religious species where the most effective action is taken by the centralized organization and the collective group. This means that the sociological currents have moved past the evangelical Christian college to the extent that the point of social impact is no longer rural, the revered voice is no longer Protestant, and the agency for forceful action is no longer the individual. The conclusion would seem to be that the evangelical Christian college was well founded according to the needs of the social climate of its time, but that while the point of need has changed locations, the colleges have not.

As a part of the revolution in philosophical positions and sociological patterns during the past century, education itself has undergone drastic changes. The evangelical Christian college developed in an educational climate that placed a premium upon the highly selective liberal arts programs of the private college. Higher education served to prepare selected persons for the prestige professions through a background in the liberal arts. Hence, the private college could play this role without serious competition from the public domain. The corollary shifts in the philosophical outlook and the cultural milieu, however, were not without their educational counterpart. Whether the change took place from so ideal a motive as “The Great American Dream” or from so practical a stance as the “New Technology,” the base for higher education began to spread. With creeping certainty the demand for higher education increased among the masses and outstripped both the purposes and the programs of the church-related liberal arts college.

Caught In A Squeeze

With this rising tide of demand, the nature of higher education has undergone profound changes. The focus has shifted from the selective purposes of the private, liberal arts college to the mass-oriented, professional purposes of the public college and university octopus. Caught in the squeeze of this shift of emphasis in American higher education, the evangelical Christian college represents a vestige of an era when private higher education was king.

A review of these philosophical, social, and educational changes brings us back to the basic question, “Is the evangelical Christian liberal arts college obsolete?” A partial answer now seems clear. It is obsolete if its purpose demands support from a compatible climate of thought that is unified in its espousal of Christian idealism and its humane concerns. It is obsolete if its social impact is limited to a rural world with a Protestant ethic and a single, stubborn frontier voice. It is obsolete it its role and scope are dependent upon a favorable educational environment that defines the evangelical Christian college as the majority institution and the “Who’s Who” leader in purposes, programs, and products.

Article continues below

If, on the other hand, the changing climate of higher education is recognized, the answer to the question resolves itself into the problem of defining the contemporary purpose of the evangelical Christian college without depending upon the nineteenth-century assumptions that were supported by a nineteenth-century world.

Change Without Neurosis

In response to the change in the philosophical climate from Christian idealism to the current pragmatism, the evangelical Christian college must first determine how it can be Christian without being defensive. Having enjoyed the status of being the majority institution in American higher education, it must now adjust to the position of the minority. The test will be whether or not the adjustment can be made without developing the neurotic responses of the minority mentality. When a college and its leadership get caught in the vicious circle of suspicion and self-pity, the results are self-destructive. Purposes are rationalized in unrealistic claims in the college catalogue, failures are projected on the home or the church, weaknesses are compensated by the recitation of “quality” shibboleths in advertising, and a ready-made scapegoat is found in the “liberalism” of the state university.

If the evangelical Christian college is to avoid the masochistic implications of the minority mentality, it must accept its change of status and become the center for seeking those points of impact where Christian perspective and Christian values can still affect the thought life of America. Where can the superiority of the Christian ethic over secular values best be demonstrated? What is the relevance of the Christian commitment in a post-Christian world? Can Christian idealism bridge the gap of the “two worlds” of humanities and sciences? How does the truth of Christian revelation meaningfully relate to the content and the method of the liberal arts?

Second, the change from a rural Protestant society with its individual ethos to an urbanized religious pluralism with a collective ethos puts the evangelical Christian college into a race for relevance. The challenge is to determine how the evangelical Christian college can be contemporary without being submerged. In the past, the accusation leveled at evangelical colleges was that they tended to an attitude of being “holier than thou.” The tendency now is to succumb to the pressures of a cultural complex or a “worldlier than thou” attitude. In the desire to be acceptable (sometimes considered synonymous with accredited), the college moves full swing from a radical cultural conservatism to a level of cultural competition. Students bring their urban values with them and manufacture major social issues on dress, entertainment, and privilege. Faculty members bring their status values from the graduate school and demand comparable cultural symbols. Alumni bring their secular values from the business world and insist that the college give priority to marketable products. The end result is that the evangelical Christian college becomes almost indistinguishable from the secular institution when it comes to social issues, cultural expectations, and contemporary values. While having the overlay of a “believing mode” for the students and a “pious sanctity” for the faculty, the attitudes of status-seeking, pyramid-climbing, and security-consciousness are entertained without a sense of contradiction.

Article continues below

The evangelical Christian college must avoid the cultural complex by again seeking out its areas of impact in a revolutionary society. What is the responsibility of the Christian college to the teeming metropolis? to the factory? the secular college? the depressed area? the “haves” and the “have nots”? What is the role of evangelical Christianity when it is only one among religions and religious commitments? What is the relation of the small evangelical college to the complex, centralized, and collective action groups in education, politics, and religion? The changing social scene means that the evangelical Christian college cannot be a college of a “location”—it must seek out its locale for action by keeping a finger on the pulse of contemporary need.

The Survival Syndrome

Third, the changing educational scene in America during the middle 1900s may well be the most significant social change of the century. With the shift in higher education from the selective, privately controlled liberal arts college to the public institution with a broadened base for admissions and an emphasis upon professional programs, the small evangelical Christian college seems to be thrust into competition with the giants. By its location, its cost, and the extent of its programs, the Christian college will always run last. Therefore, it must determine how to be creative without being compromised. At times, the evangelical Christian college seems to be caught in the whirl of the survival syndrome. This is a view that sees the future of the Christian college either in competition or in compromise with public higher education. Existence becomes more important than the reason for existing. To paraphrase a current slogan, “We would rather be led than dead.” As imitators rather than creators, Christian college educators who accept this view relax because the tidal wave will take care of the problem of enrollments, the federal programs will solve building needs, and the evidence of increasing size and new facilities will attract a top-ranked faculty. This is the survival syndrome that can plague the Christian college as its leaders compromise their programs by lowering the level at which they will compete and pretending to keep pace with excellence by imitation.

Article continues below

If imitation of the majority in higher education is taken as the frame of reference for the future of the evangelical college, it will neither survive nor deserve to survive. Rather, an existence with meaning will result from the development of creative thrusts in the colleges toward the gaps that secular education cannot fill. What are the particular qualities of the learning experience that only the Christian liberal arts college can fulfill? What should be the basis for the selection of students in the evangelical college so that there can be a concentration upon a quality product? How can the continuity represented by the liberal arts curriculum in the Christian college be used to create a program of common education that retains its classical roots but gains its contemporary wings? How can the purpose of the evangelical Christian college be so defined that the totality of campus life takes on the earmarks of integrity?

Secular higher education has little to say about most of these questions because it is assumed that they are either passé or irrelevant. Yet the fact remains that the secular institution is in serious trouble because of the changes that have taken place in the philosophical, social, and educational climate for higher education. In the philosophical sphere, the evangelical Christian college has the opportunity to make its idealistic stance relevant to the changing thought climate, but the secular institution appears to be operating in a “value vacuum.” Therefore, the non-committed college is faced with the burden of maintaining the meaning, the hope, and the morality of Christian idealism in a materialistic, secular, and scientific age without making a Christian commitment. The dilemma is best described by the baby and the bath water.

Article continues below

Problems for the secular college continue to mount when the changing social context is considered. While the secular institutions usually have the advantage of urban locations, diverse student cultures, and organizational alignments that give strength to their voice, they have the difficulty of trying to maintain the individuality, the freedom, and the identity of the Protestant rural culture in a pluralistic and yet centralized urban situation. This problem is evident in the similarity that exists among the institutions at various levels of public higher education, in the directions that their expansion must take by public pressure, and in their frantic search for a distinguished profile. If these problems are compared with the need for an updated viewpoint in the evangelical Christian college, the balance of opportunity again swings in favor of private higher education. Rather than having to respond to the culture in its broadest scope, the evangelical Christian college can pick and choose those areas of critical need that are most closely aligned with its purpose.

Then again, the changing educational scene is not solely favorable to the cause of secular and public higher education even though they represent the majority culture. As a result of changes in educational expectations, the secular institution must try to maintain the quality, the continuity, and the integrity of the curriculum in the Christian liberal arts college while being forced into a mass-oriented, professionally directed, and fragmented curriculum.

At a recent meeting of educators, the featured speaker discussed the implications of automation and leisure for higher education. The pertinent point was that the colleges must provide a general education for the new “leisure masses” that will be directed to the creative use of additional leisure time automation will give. In the small group discussion that followed the address, the basic question was whether or not higher education could come to accept a common set of liberal and humane values that could be used to organize and integrate the educational experience for the forthcoming “leisure man.” As usual, there was more heat than light generated by the discussion. Finally, the time for discussion expired with the conclusion that we had the means for training the masses, but little hope for educating them.

Article continues below

This experience added weight to the conviction that the evangelical Christian college has a continuing role to play in American higher education if it can build its case for existence at the creative rather that the imitative level.

Change is with us and will continue at accelerating speeds. The climate for higher education no longer favors the evangelical Christian college. As a response to the prevailing values of secular thought, we may develop the self-defeating defenses of the minority mentality. In the clamor to be contemporary, we may accept the conforming attitudes of the cultural complex. Because the wish to live is legitimate, we may succumb to the compromising imitations of the survival syndrome. To choose any of these options will probably guarantee existence, but it will also make the explanation for our existence difficult.

The only genuine option for the evangelical Christian college is to move into the city in order to test the contemporary meaning of our Christian purpose and the contemporary relevance of our Christian liberal arts curricula. With this pattern of action, the question of survival for the evangelical Christian college will become secondary and the charge of obsolescence will be dropped—unclaimed.

God’S Sword Thrusts

As a high-schooler many years ago I happened to meet my Sunday school teacher on the street and walked along with him for a while. He was a lawyer by profession and a gifted teacher. In the course of our conversation he asked, “John, if I were to preach a sermon, what text do you think I should use?” I replied that I had no idea. He said, “I would like to preach on the words of Nehemiah, ‘I am doing a great work so that I cannot come down.’ ” These words led me then to reread the story of Nehemiah, and they became a living part of the Bible for me. Again and again through the years they have inspired within me the faith, courage, and determination with which to confront the temptations and problems of life.—The Rev. JOHN L. GREGORY, general secretary, Vermont Church Council, Burlington.

David L. McKenna is president of Spring Arbor College, Spring Arbor, Michigan. He holds the A.B. degree from Western Michigan University, the B.D. from Asbury College, and the M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Before becoming president of Spring Arbor College, Dr. McKenna was director of The Center for Higher Education at Ohio State University.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.