When I speak at churches around the country, the conversation after my talks often turns to the state of Christian higher education. I’m a professor at a Christian institution, and Christian parents and grandparents want to know where high school graduates can go to have their faith deepened rather than undermined. These concerns have only become more pressing given the ongoing rise in young people wandering away from the church and describing their religious convictions as “nothing in particular.”

The question many Christians have for me is which colleges are “safe” or “real” Christian schools, which usually means those that have a truly conservative theological ethos. For those who aren’t familiar with the world of Christian higher ed, it can be difficult to identify these schools from outside the campus community, and parents often (reasonably) conclude an institution’s stance on human sexuality is the simplest indicator of a college’s commitment to Christian orthodoxy.

LGBTQ questions are indeed important, and they can serve as a proxy for an institution’s broader theology. But by itself, this isn’t a reliable formula for finding a good Christian college. A school may stake out a bold position on sexuality and yet capitulate to what I’d suggest is the most overlooked and therefore most insidious threat to Christian education in America right now.

It’s not progressive theology. It’s a pervasive consumerist anthropology.

Theological anthropology concerns our assumptions about the nature and purpose of humanity. And by “consumerist anthropology” I mean the belief—often subconsciously held—that people are essentially consumers who should maximize their earning potential so they can consume as many entertaining experiences and products as possible.

When I speak with anxious parents and grandparents, I often try to explain this aspect of the college search by asking them to imagine a two-dimensional grid, a chart with an x-axis and a y-axis. The x-axis they already know: That’s the familiar range of progressive to conservative theological commitments. But I want them to begin to see the y-axis, which runs from that consumerist anthropology to a formational one.

A formational anthropology doesn’t imagine students as consumers who need to get a marketable degree leading to a high-paying job. It sees them as people bearing a tarnished imago Dei that, by the grace of Christ, can be burnished through disciplined, focused effort.

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As Paul’s analogies in 2 Timothy 2 suggest, a college with a formational anthropology will shape the student experience according to the belief that Christians ought to live like disciplined soldiers, committed athletes, and hard-working farmers, reaping the rich satisfactions of formative work under the guidance of wise mentors. This formation can develop the moral virtues and practical skills that enable us to rightly love God and our neighbors.

In his 1943 book on education, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis labels the opposing ends of this y-axis in terms of a distinction between career training or “applied science” on the one hand and virtue and wisdom formation on the other:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

The difference here is whether an educational institution should aim to give students the skills and techniques they need in order to satisfy their desires—or whether it should form students’ souls to know and desire what is true, good, and beautiful.

Formational education is often criticized as irrelevant or useless. In his introduction to The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs, Richard A. Detweiler summarizes the prevailing view that if a degree doesn’t have immediate career outcomes, it’s not valuable. In his essay “The Gift of Good Land,” however, author and farmer Wendell Berry gestures toward the very practical consequences that moral formation has on the shape and effects of our work. Career training, he explains, is a good and necessary thing, but it must be united with formational education, not isolated and treated as an end to itself:

The requirements of … charity cannot be fulfilled by smiling in abstract beneficence on our neighbors and on the scenery. It must come to acts, which must come from skills. […] How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply and your poison out of his air; or if you do not produce anything and so have nothing to offer, or do not take care of yourself and so become a burden? How can you be a neighbor without applying principle—without bringing virtue to a practical issue? How will you practice virtue without skill?

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If virtue without skill results in ineffectual warm fuzzies, skill without virtue results in careerist consumerism. Hence, Christian education ought to offer not merely a training in skills but also a criticism of those skills and the formation of the discipline and wisdom needed to use our skills in love. Without such charity, credentials and skills become means of satisfying consumer appetites.

Clearly, no Christian college brands itself as offering degrees in the service of consumerism. They make the decisions they think they must to keep their doors open. Yet the result is that far too many institutions give lip service to Christian moral formation while organizing themselves around a consumerist vision of education.

You can often get a sense of this reality in the marketing literature: It touts exciting new student amenities, career-oriented majors, a reduction in general education requirements, and an undue emphasis on college athletics and e-sports. One of my friends describes the Christian college where he used to teach as a “minor league sports franchise with a fundamentalist VBS attached to it.”

That pairing of very conservative theology with consumerist anthropology may seem surprising, but as far as I can tell, there’s no correlation between the x-axis and the y-axis: Theologically conservative colleges are no more likely to invite students into rigorous intellectual and moral formation than are theologically progressive colleges. (The two colleges where I’ve taught occupy very similar places theologically but dramatically different positions in their anthropology, which is why I’m very grateful to be working where I am now.)

Moral therapeutic deism can be coded left or right politically, but its adherents still imagine God as an enhancement to their preexisting desires and aspirations. And the real tragedy is that insofar as they simply cater to the superficial desires of 18-year-olds, colleges fail to invite young people into the deeper joys and satisfactions of Christian formation, intellectual rigor, and disciplined work.

So how, beyond the brochures, do you tell one kind of Christian school from another? As an outsider to an institution, it can be difficult to tell how committed it is to forming students into kingdom citizens. Every institution has different departments or enclaves that lean one way or another.

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And, of course, I know plenty of serious, committed Christians who never attended college or who earned a degree at a secular school. They pursued discipleship and intellectual formation through other means. Attending a Christian college is certainly not the only way to undergo the vital work of conforming your soul and mind to Christ, nor is such work completed when a student receives a diploma from even the best of schools.

Still, for those interested in locating where schools fall along the y-axis of theological anthropology, here are some things to check:

  • Is the required core curriculum small or mostly choose-your-own-adventure style? A formational school will hold on to a larger foundational curriculum that requires all students to think theologically about God, humanity, and our world. Some colleges now offer a two-tiered model, in which most students take a watered-down general education curriculum while a select group of honors students takes a more rigorous set of courses. This isn’t ideal—spiritual formation shouldn’t be reserved for the academically advanced—but I suppose it’s better than total capitulation.
  • How many courses are offered online or in large sections, particularly undergraduate and general education courses? Does the goal seem to be merely information delivery or skills acquisition, or is there a commitment to rigorous formation and in-person mentoring?
  • Does the chapel program consist of praise songs and a TED Talk once or twice a week, or are there opportunities for students to be mentored in small groups and attend chapel events that dig into the weighty matters of faith and life?
  • Does the college present itself as a Christian summer camp with nice dorms and cafeterias—plus graduates get jobs? Or are there indications that the school aims to form students in the wisdom, virtues, and habits of mind necessary to live their lives in service to the kingdom of God? Are students invited to rise to a challenge?

Comfortable dorms are good. College athletics are good. VBS is even good—for elementary students. But none of these are essential to the mission of a Christian college, which should be to invite students into a robust intellectual community rooted in sincere Christian commitments.

Even when you know what to look for, though, it’s harder to locate colleges along this y-axis than the x-axis. Perhaps, however, the rise of AI will come to serve as a proxy for colleges’ anthropology just as sexuality statements have become a proxy on theology. My new tip for parents and graduating seniors may be: If a Christian college promises to teach students how to leverage AI for maximal productivity and satisfaction, don’t bother to apply.

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Jeffrey Bilbro is associate professor of English at Grove City College and editor in chief at the Front Porch Republic. His most recent book is Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News.