Jump directly to the Content
Image: Source image by Jimmy Tompkins / Unsplash

The Promise and Paradox of Christian Higher Education

These institutions are important. But they must change.

The Promise and Paradox of Christian Higher Education

These institutions are important. But they must change.

I am an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University, a small liberal arts college in St. Louis. Just before Christmas break last semester, I received an email from our registrar’s office telling me that I had a new advisee, a young woman who had declared a major in English with a writing concentration. She met with me over the break, and we put together a schedule for her.

A day after our meeting, the student emailed asking if it might be wiser for her to change her concentration from writing to secondary education. She also asked if I could tell her about some career options available to those with an English degree. When I told a colleague about the exchange, she nodded. “Someone’s parents are nervous,” she said. I later learned that another student in the English department had changed her major to business administration.

As an English professor, I have a clear bias in favor of encouraging students to get a degree (or at least a minor!) in the humanities. Most of my students—and, perhaps more importantly, their parents—have an entirely different bias, one that is as understandable as it is threatening to the entire enterprise of Christian higher education. More and more, they view college not as a place for learning critical thinking and writing skills but as a place for job training. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, calls this the vocation, vocation, vocation trend.

Perhaps career, career, career is a more fitting label for this current trend in student motivation.

The career, career, career trend is undoubtedly rooted in concern about the rising cost of college that leads to crippling student debt. This concern is very real; I see it in my students every day. Just a few weeks ago I watched one of my advisee’s eyes light up when we worked out that he could graduate a semester early (and thus avoid a semester’s worth of tuition and fees), and I’ve managed to convince students to remain in Missouri Baptist’s honors program by reminding them that the scholarship opportunities and résumé boost the program affords outweigh the cost of a handful of additional classes.

Worries about tuition and future earnings can distract parents, students, and even faculty and staff from the true identity and purpose of Christian colleges and universities: preparing graduates for lives not just of wage-earning but of service.

“This fall,” Kinnaman says in the Barna Group 2018 report What’s Next in Christian Higher Education, “around twenty million young people across the country will become college freshmen. For most of these students, their (roughly) four-year journeys will be laser-focused on professional development and preparing for a career and financial success.” There is not a lot of difference in this regard, his research finds, between Christian students and their peers. “Moral and spiritual development are seen as important, but not the best reason to pursue a college education.” And this trend holds true for parents who put pressure on their children to understand college as primarily having a transactional value.

Back to the Call

We, as educators, recognize that reducing Christian higher education to job training is inconsistent with our commitment to our students. Is there a path out of the career, career, career trap?

Yes. Vocation, vocation, vocation. Real vocation.

This word is derived from the Latin root vocare, meaning to call. Teaching and study must be viewed as a calling, which recognizes that there is One who is making that call. I have a calling, a vocation, and that calling is not at odds with my need to buy groceries, pay rent, or go on the occasional vacation. I don’t have to choose between making money or having a fulfilling job because my vocation includes my wage-earning job, along with my involvement with my church, my care for friends and family, even the way I keep and open my home; to all of these things, I am called by God.

Vocation, says Drew Moser in Reimagining the Student Experience: Formative Practices for Changing Times (Abilene Christian University Press, 2019), should be understood to be “faithfully living in response to God’s call for the whole of life…. First, vocation is a process, not a destination. Second, vocation is experienced most fully with God…. It cannot be diminished to mere work.”

The embrace of real vocation, by faculty and students alike, is fostered and encouraged at Christian colleges and universities more fully than it is just about anywhere else. “The church has a particular role by the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to bring the message of salvation,” says Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), “but it’s Christian higher education that teaches young men and women how to live that out in every single discipline. And that’s where society and culture is changed and enriched.”

Christian institutions of higher education make it a point to help students, faculty, and staff see the value of an education that exists not only for personal career advancement but for the common good and the good of the church. “For learning to have its full effect on the mind, body, and soul, it must not be narrowly directed to a particular career, but widely oriented to forming the whole person,” Wheaton College president Philip Ryken says in describing his school’s liberal arts program. “With the apostle Paul, we believe that all things were created through Christ and for Christ, in whom all things hold together (Colossians 1:15–17). Therefore, learning is a form of worship for us.”

The Club Convo program at Pepperdine University consists of small seminar classes focusing tight-knit groups of students on topics that overlap spirituality and scholarship. It is one of the many programs designed to work with students to actively intertwine their faith with their studies and their later lives. Dordt University’s Core Program is another. It aims to build “the foundation for the common parts of students’ lives and provides a context for their studies.” It complements their majors and helps them develop in ways that encourage them to become not just good professionals but also good parents, faithful church members, and responsible citizens. Union University, a school in Tennessee affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, has a Center for Faculty Development that helps faculty articulate a shared vision of how Christian faith shapes their teaching practices.

Strong liberal arts programs help this vision for Christian education reach students and parents. In a world where access to any information is a few keystrokes away, these institutions emphasize that education is about formation and transformation as much as it is about information. A Google search can be useful in the moment, but true transformation happens through shared experiences and growth over time.

The Basics and Building Blocks

Life challenges people of faith. Greg Boyd, co-author with Paul Rhodes Eddy of The Jesus Legend (Baker, 2007) and winner of Christianity Today’s 2008 Book Award in the category of Biblical Studies, notes that a key part of working through challenges to one’s faith is breaking down one’s belief system to the very basics. “It’s time to say, ‘What do I believe and why? Why do I believe in God? Why do I believe in Jesus?’ ” Boyd calls this process deconstructing faith, and he has turned to it himself in times of crisis when he felt a disconnect between his beliefs and the world. “I’ve had at least five of those,” he explains in episode 553 of his podcast, ReKnew. But his next advice is essential to understanding the value of deconstruction: “Build up from there.”

And when we rebuild, we must have something to build with.

To engage in the process of reconstructing one’s faith after such a deconstruction requires a familiarity with the traditions and institutions of Christianity. It depends on established traditions—preserved institutions. It requires that we uphold historic Christian traditions, the institutions that study them, and the vocational paths that further them. Christian institutions of higher education are worth fighting for because they preserve those building blocks, and thereby preserve other Christian institutions. Kinnaman puts it this way: “The future of the Church is highly dependent on Christian leaders being formed by Christian education, to think and understand a Christian worldview and have theological background, to be convinced of the plausibility of theological distinctives in the world. It’s crucial that we think about the future of Christian higher education so that these kinds of leaders can be trained.”

Rejecting the Either/Or

Pursuing an education that focuses on vocation rather than merely a career does not mean having to choose between financial stability and spiritual fulfillment. After all, though my students’ spiritual and ethical formation is incredibly important to me, it would be serving students poorly if they graduated as deeply thoughtful Christians with zero career prospects.

Choosing a Christian college or university is a wise investment even if we speak of its value only in financial terms. Shirley Hoogstra notes that the average cost of an education at a CCCU institution is almost $10,000 lower than the price of the average four-year, private, nonprofit college; the loan default rate for CCCU students is nearly half the national average, and they have the highest loan repayment rates.

Christian institutions of higher learning can even use the very language of career development to draw students and parents in. Describing the instrumental and intrinsic value of a liberal arts Christian education and connecting it to the development of soft skills desirable to employers can be a purely pragmatic recruitment tool. It can also be a recruitment tool that allows Christian schools to draw students into their greater, less purely marketable purpose: to graduate, in Hoogstra’s words, “committed, compassionate, convicted citizens who want to engage deeply in this world, not in spite of their faith, but because of their faith.”

Individual and Institutional Reconstruction

Envisioning higher education as primarily about information transmission and job training devalues the role of faculty. Faculty members are trained experts in their fields, a precarious position in the internet age when anyone can appear to be an expert. And ultimately, they build relationships with students as people rather than as tuition-payers to be formed into wage-earners, not just providing comfort or reassurance but challenging them to think critically and well.

Affirming the centrality of faculty also affirms the necessity of a diverse faculty, from adjuncts to provosts, which will inevitably change the very institutions Christian education helps preserve. Frankly, these changes are necessary and good. If Christian colleges and universities are to survive the coming decades and maintain their witness through them, they must acknowledge the discrimination and injustice they may have perpetuated, even unintentionally, and encourage faculty, staff, and students from historically oppressed groups to take and use power for the purity and peace of their institutions.

As a child, and later as an undergraduate, I was educated in schools affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. The theological underpinnings of this kind of Christian education were solid, rooted in covenant theology; children’s education was viewed as part of the church’s and the parents’ responsibility to raise them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord. The integration of my faith tradition with all areas of learning was always clear to me, and my education prepared me well for my work and my life. It certainly helped me understand my own tradition and my identity within it.

From kindergarten until college, almost every teacher and classmate I had was white. Most of them had Dutch surnames. It was not until I was a faculty member myself, teaching a far more diverse student population in St. Louis, Missouri, immediately after the death of Michael Brown in 2014, that I was forced to recognize that the institutions I thought had prepared me to live as a Christian in the world had actually prepared me to be a white Christian among other white Christians, with all of the accompanying privileges.

It has been challenging, and essential, to recognize that segregation in schools like those in which I grew up was not de facto but also by design.

There is a decades-long history of so-called “segregation academies” in the South. These religiously affiliated private primary and secondary schools were created, in name, to provide Christian education for students; in effect, they served to re-segregate school districts whose public schools had been desegregated by law in the mid-20th century, and to pursue that re-segregation in the name of the church. And though American Christian colleges and universities were not necessarily founded for the purposes of racial segregation, they have often had this effect. Schools most closely tied to particular denominations, especially denominations that are themselves closely tied to particular European ethnic groups, often end up being particularly white.

Here, then, is the paradox facing Christian higher educational institutions: Such schools are essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions, denominational distinctives, and religious thought. They are, in many ways, the academic arm of the church, and they help its members love the Lord with all their minds. However, preserving those institutions might, and often does, result in preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.

I firmly believe in the power of the humanities disciplines to, as their name suggests, humanize students: to help them understand the history of human thought and to ask big questions about truth and beauty. But I must ask myself, how much do my humanities courses help students explore what it means to be human, and how much do they help students explore what it means to be white?

The demographics of the student body at Christian colleges and universities has been shifting. In his introduction to Diversity Matters, a 2017 book about the state of diversity within the CCCU, Pete C. Menjares, CCCU senior fellow for diversity, says nonwhite students have been enrolling in CCCU institutions at an increased rate. In 2004, 19% of CCCU students were not white; in 2014, the number was 28%. Hoogstra notes that in 2015, this percentage had risen to 34.1%.

The institutions these students attend, however, have not changed nearly as rapidly, as indicated by the much smaller increase in nonwhite faculty. Menjares’s numbers indicate that 9.95% of CCCU faculty were not white as of 2014, an only slight increase from 2004’s 8.3%.

“Diversity is not enough,” Jason Cha and Alexander Jun point out in Reimagining the Student Experience. “Having a good compositional mix of students on any given campus does not automatically lead to more equitable treatment for students of color.”

White faculty members can engage in conversations about diversity, pursue racial justice, and address microaggressions their students experience. But, Menjares notes, students of color want professors who share their ethnic/racial characteristics and who understand and can identify with their sociocultural contexts. “We cannot minimize the contributions of diverse faculty,” Menjares says. Cha and Ju echo this, saying “one could argue that an institution is only as diverse as its leadership.” Remembering my haplessness as I tried to hold space for the rage and grief of my black students in the fall of 2014, I can only agree.

The task of Christian colleges and universities going forward, then, is to fight to preserve their distinctiveness and witness while resisting the pull, or the mere force of inertia, that leads to their perpetuating injustice. Like an individual Christian who comes to a point of faith deconstruction, these institutions must recognize and wrestle with the individual and systemic sins within themselves.

Referencing the parable of the vineyard owner in Matthew 20, Kim S. Phipps, president of Messiah College, a nationally ranked private Christian college in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, says, “This calls for growing mindfulness on our part as an institution about those who have limited or no access to our ‘vineyard’ or educational community.” Under President Phipps, Messiah launched a college-wide diversity strategic planning initiative, rooted in a comprehensive, candid survey of Messiah’s campus climate related to a wide range of diversity aspects in the campus community. “Over the past several years, we have made serious efforts to engage the notion of inclusive excellence, which rests on the belief that the long-unquestioned tradition of pursuing academic excellence in institutions of higher education needs to practice inclusiveness, lest its fruits benefit the privileged few,” she said.

It is worth noting that Phipps sees the call to inclusion firmly tied to Messiah’s very notion of itself as a Christian institution. In a 2019 statement of the school’s mission, she makes this clear: “In a national climate where racism and nationalism are being mistakenly treated as normative, our shared Christian faith must counter that belief by proclaiming that all people are image-bearers of creator God and that Jesus clearly taught that how we treat our neighbors is a reflection of how well we love Him.”

And like the reconstructing believer, all Christians involved with Christian higher education must understand that faithful religious practice is also as systemic as it is individual, dependent on broad networks of shared traditions to which individual believers cleave in community. Traditions Christian colleges preserve as building blocks.

We live, work, worship, and learn in a global world rife with its own. Christian education can, and must, speak into this world with combined authority and humility. I don’t believe it is too late for us.

Julie Ooms (PhD, Baylor University) is associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teaches American and world literature and freshmen writers.

Our Higher Education section is a CT Creative Studio initiative created to support higher education institutions.

More from Higher Education

Christian Colleges Will Survive, but Change Is Coming
Original Content from CT Creative Studio

Christian Colleges Will Survive, but Change Is Coming

Demographics Are Shifting. Are Colleges Adapting?
Original Content from CT Creative Studio

Demographics Are Shifting. Are Colleges Adapting?

How to Make Big Important Decisions
Original Content from CT Creative Studio

How to Make Big Important Decisions