Over the last three decades, evangelicals have been prolific, creating more than 40 new Christian liberal arts colleges, nearly a dozen new theological seminaries, and numerous Bible institutes and schools, many based in local churches. Prominent television preachers have put enormous effort into founding and marketing Christian colleges like CBN University, Liberty University, and Oral Roberts University—showing once again just how closely intertwined are the church’s dual tasks of evangelism and education.

With the matriculation of postwar “baby-boomers,” Christian college enrollments surged, in part because many parents saw these institutions as relatively safer than the turbulent public mega-universities awash in student protest, drugs, and sexual liberalism.

More noteworthy than this growth in the number, size, and diversity of institutions of Christian higher education has been the rapid improvement in the quality of academic programs and facilities during the last 15 to 20 years.

Most dramatic, however, have been the gains made in assembling a dedicated, well-prepared group of Christian scholar-teachers. The colleges have insisted on their right to appoint men and women to their faculties who are avowedly Christian—even when the teachers’ subject areas are not explicitly religious. This practice has sometimes been challenged by private plaintiffs and governmental agencies alleging discrimination on religious grounds. But Christian liberal arts colleges find their essential distinctives in the active integration of the Christian faith with each of the disciplines and across the entire curriculum.

Faculty members are now expected to lead and coach students in the development of a comprehensive Christian world view in which biblical perspectives are shown to be relevant to all fields of study. Since the early 1970s scholars in nearly every discipline have organized a professional society for those intent upon developing Christian perspectives in their specialties. These “guilds of believing scholars,” such as the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Conference on Faith and History, and the American Scientific Affiliation, constitute a powerful resource for Christian higher education.

The Christian colleges have also recognized the benefits of cooperation. The 13-member Christian College Consortium and the larger Christian College Coalition (with approximately 70 institutions) offer mutually helpful programs and shared resources. Similarly, the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents unites more than 40 theological schools in mutual support. Such close cooperation would have seemed impossible 30 years ago.

Evangelicals have also been attending seminary in record numbers. Some seminaries have experienced five-and even tenfold increases in their student bodies. Equally striking has been the increased diversity of the student bodies, including more minorities, women, and second-career people.

In the last 15 years, typical seminary course offerings have proliferated and new degrees have appeared. Instead of one basic divinity degree, most seminaries now offer a number of graduate degrees, including in-service continuing education leading to the Doctor of Ministry.

Of course, evangelical higher education still faces some serious challenges and questions. Will there be a top-flight Christian research university (now no closer to realization than when it was first discussed 30 years ago)? Will evangelical colleges and seminaries be able to sustain their enrollments as the traditional pool of students continues to shrink? Will students and their parents sufficiently value a distinctive Christian education or will they opt for more vocationally oriented, less costly training in state universities and community colleges? And will Christian colleges be able to maintain their identity as sectarian secularism, the courts, and governmental agencies challenge them at the point of their theological and moral distinctives?

By George K. Brushaber, president, Bethel College and Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Harold John Ockenga (1905–1985)

In the 1940s, most seminaries serving the mainline denominations were under liberal control. Thus when Charles E. Fuller of the “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour” talked to Harold Ockenga about founding an undergraduate school of evangelism and missions, the pastor of Boston’s renowned Park Street Church countered by suggesting they found a first-rate evangelical seminary.

Fuller provided money, property, and inspiration. Ockenga functioned as president in absentia, designed the curriculum, and recruited the faculty.

Christians who believed in utter separation from liberal elements accused Ockenga of compromise. But his work in the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Seminary, and a prominent New England church provided an influence for good in an era of denominational disintegration.

Frank E. Gaebelein (1899–1983)

At the end of his life, friends called Frank Gaebelein “a true Renaissance man.” To earn this accolade, he began his career by founding (at age 22) a Christian prep school on Long Island. During his 41 years as the Stony Brook School’s headmaster, Gaebelein developed an educational philosophy that deeply influenced both students and educators. “All truth is God’s truth,” was his motto; and he sought to integrate faith and learning in The Pattern of God’s Truth, widely considered a seminal book in educational philosophy. After retirement Gaebelein raised evangelical eyebrows by marching for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Article continues below

Vernon C. Grounds

Some believers urged the young Vernon Grounds not to be so concerned with social, political, and economic issues. But by the time he became dean of Denver’s Conservative Baptist Seminary in 1951, Grounds was convinced he could be committed to both evangelicalism and social change. That year he inaugurated a required course on the contemporary world and the Christian task. Since then this pioneer in evangelical social ethics has written Evangelicalism and Social Responsibility (1968), signed the landmark Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (1973), and served as president of Evangelicals for Social Action.

Grounds’s biggest contribution to education in conservative churches may be his ability to communicate with local congregations. In a context where scholarship is often viewed with fear, he exudes confidence about dialogue with non-Christian thinkers, turning suspicion into support for the academic community.

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.