The picture above is one I took last August on my “Last First Day of School”. In Part One of this reflection, I outlined many of the changes that have impacted Christian Higher Education over the last four decades. In Part Two, I want to address the “what now?” questions.
What do all of these structural and missional changes mean for the future of Christian Higher Education? First of all, let me say that claims of scores of Christian colleges closing are mostly alarmist. It is true that costs are increasing and that there is a limit on how fast increases in tuition and fundraising can offset those increases. Yet most institutions have enough elasticity in their operation to offset those challenges for the foreseeable future. The exceptions will be those institutions who have been financially unstable or facing accreditation challenges for a long period of time or who’s mission niche is so narrow that it can’t diversify. In short, it is hard to kill a college in the absence of significant mismanagement.
That said, there will clearly be winners and losers going forward. The winners share some common characteristics while the losers will face ongoing budget challenges and mission drift. They may not close but will be a shadow of their former promise. So who are the likely winners?
The first set of winners will be those Christian institutions of higher education with a national reputation. These are the schools that journalists contact when looking for trends in Christian higher ed. They are the names that get selected in the US News and World Reports reputational survey. While I’m sure I’ll leave some out, it’s clear to me that Wheaton, Calvin, Taylor, Seattle Pacific, Bethel (MN), Azusa Pacific, Gordon, Messiah, Belmont, and Abilene Christian are in this group.
The second set are those school who are located in destination locations. A recent story highlighted the success of three Christian universities in Nashville. It is a booming market in general and is not surprising that students would see it as a vibrant place to study for four years. On the other hand, many Christian universities were founded in areas far away from metropolitan areas. My non-exhaustive list of destination schools would include Wheaton, North Park, Seattle Pacific, George Fox, Point Loma Nazarene, King’s, Colorado Christian, and Bethel (MN).
A third set may not represent destination locations but serve as the major Christian university in their region. Given that students are staying close to home, there is an advantage to those schools that are one of a handful of Christian institution in a two-hour radius. Those schools may not draw large numbers of students from far away but control their local market. Some examples of this group would include Northwest Nazarene, University of Sioux Falls, Colorado Christian, Gordon, Belhaven, and Cedarville.
The fourth set of winning schools are those who, in the face of the gen-Z religious changes discussed earlier, have held most closely to their theologically (and politically) conservative bona fides. They take pride in their non-accommodationist stance and will guarantee to pastors, trustees, donors, and parents that this is not going to change. In fact, many of these schools have taken stances in the last several years to guarantee faculty adherence to traditional positions. Those faculty who don’t align are either not renewed or made to feel unwelcome so that they go elsewhere. Examples of this pattern can be seen at Cedarville, Bryan, Oklahoma Wesleyan, College of the Ozarks, Asbury, and Bethel (IN).
I’ve long argued – it was a major reason for my first book – that there is an alternative to this last group of schools. It would be a Christian university that embraced the changes occurring in a post-Christian economy and found a way to ground those questioning students within a Christian liberal arts tradition, seeing their questioning as the raw materials of education rather than a challenge. Such an institution would likely be in a destination location, would have a diverse non-denominational mission, and would be willing to be on the front lines of the most challenging issues of our day. It would have a clear sense of creedal orthodoxy without requiring narrow alignment of viewpoints.
As I wrote that last paragraph, I suddenly remembered that in 2014 I wrote a case position for something I called “The Center for Cultural Engagement” that would exist at one of our Christian institutions of higher education. I still believe that this is a critical need if Christian Higher Education is to do more than survive in mediocrity but thrive as a center of Christian formation for a post-modern age.
Pictured here is Burke Administration building at Olivet Nazarene University, where I began my career in 1981. My office was between the second and third floor, the top half of the left-hand window above the portico. This May I retire from Spring Arbor University, marking the end of a varied career.
I am happy with what I have done over the past 39 years as teacher and administrator and the small impacts I have had, not least of which was impact on students, hiring some outstanding faculty members, and standing alongside numbers of both groups who needed support.
And yet there are many things that trouble me as I look back over my career in Christian Higher Education. As a Spring Arbor colleague of similar age shared with me recently, he and I may have begun our careers in something of a “golden age” of Christian Higher Education. There was great promise in the early 80s, but much has happened over the intervening years which has dramatically changed the character of the Christian University.
The role of faculty has undergone a significant change over the four decades. Even without returning to the long-past visions of the college president as dean of the faculty, there was a sense that we were all working together toward the institutional mission. As business organizations became a default model for colleges, the faculty role was diminished. There was a sense, partially deserved, that faculty stood in the way of innovation because they wanted to protect their own positions and favorite courses. Yet as trustees were increasingly drawn from the public sector (because they could help with donations and reputation), the faculty were increasingly seen as employees who should simply be happy just to have their positions. Especially as institutions came to rely more and more on adjunct faculty, the privilege of having a job at all was something to be appreciated. It’s not that faculty members wanted to run the institution, but they did want to have input regarding the place where they had invested their future. In many cases, they may have had expertise that could have been valuable to the cabinet, but any inputs were seen as interference with those cabinet officers who “got paid the big bucks.”
As college administration went through the business model transition, a sort of “shared misery” developed. When cuts were made at one institution, it was used as the model for many more in the region. The more administrators argued that “everyone is going through the same challenges”, the less they thought about alternative approaches or the impacts those challenges presented to faculty, staff, and students. We were told that the environment for Christian Higher Education had changed dramatically and we needed to accept the adjustments necessary.
Draconian steps to eliminate majors at one institution became a model for the institution down the road. In part, this was a response to an increased focus on efficiencies that examined data on ‘program production” that hadn’t been part of the equation in the past. In my early years, it was easily recognized that academic programs varied in their cost effectiveness (chemistry and instrumental music are expensive, sociology isn’t) but we were all contributing to overall institutional success without seeing our individual programs as competitors in a zero-sum game. Once we focused on program metrics, that shared sense of mission was eroded. It was rare, indeed, to hear administrators brag about the legacy programs that had shaped so many students over generations when they could extol the virtues of the new money-maker.
The rationale for getting a Christian college education shifted in response to the economic challenges of the Great Recession. Parents and grandparents may have once relied on home equity to support a student’s education. With the housing crash, that equity either evaporated or fears of the future inhibited the ability to use it in ways that had worked in the past. Student loans became the way of covering the gap between ability to pay and the increased costs of higher education. Even with tuition discounting, the inflationary pressures of higher education (especially as incorrectly reported by mass media) became ever more challenging. In response to this and other pressures, Christian colleges sought to place a higher value on job preparation. The public perception that a Christian liberal arts education was a luxury, meant that schools responded by emphasizing access to a first job. Employable skills, while never lacking before, became a primary marketing position.
Another impact of the changing economy can be seen in the diversification of program offerings at Christian colleges. Degree completion or graduate programs were added to offset the instability of the undergraduate market. Yet these programs operated in contrary ways. When the economic outlook was great, traditional enrollment benefited and non-traditional enrollment went down. When the economic outlook was challenging, the opposite occurred. But institutions needed to figure out ways of controlling this uncertainty along with predictions on auxiliary enterprises. The risk of revenue shortfalls actually increased with the diversification of program channels.
The never-ending chase for new markets encouraged institutions to focus on the “big winners”. Programs were designed to meet niche markets, often with the assistance of a third-party vendor who could connect potential students to the new program. Those programs assumed a never-ending growth cycle which proved remarkably vulnerable to market fluctuations. While the big-winner markets had the potential to shore up challenging revenue situations, they feel like a ticking time-bomb because the market bubble could pop at any moment. Unfortunately, too many institutions respond to this instability but searching for more big-winner markets.
Increased competition for students and market wariness on behalf of families caused additional pressures. Applicant pools were smaller than in the past and the expectation that applications would lead to enrollment became more uncertain as families deposited at multiple institutions, often waiting to commit until they saw who had the best financial aid package.
Stories about the growth in student loan debt further complicate the market situation. Even though a detailed analysis of the college debt situation shows that the bulk of the increase over the last two decades has been disproportionately impacted by professional degrees, graduate degrees, and for-profit institutions, the general social consciousness became more risk averse. Evangelical financial planners arguing that Christian should avoid debt in all forms only exacerbated an already troubling context.
Relatedly, denominational loyalty to particular schools disappeared. Where once students had grown up planning to go to their denomination’s school, that became an option among many. As increasing shares of the evangelical population became non-denominational or go to churches who don’t advertise denominational connections, the impetus to favor “your school” over others diminished.
The decline in denominational loyalty was offset by an increase in regional focus and a growth in intercollegiate athletics. For the former, data suggests that a post-9/11 world expects students to stay closer to home than was true in the past. A college might be selected for convenience as opposed to institutional mission or denominational orientation. As an aid to enrollment, many Christian colleges diversified their athletic programs and expanded the rosters of existing teams. Athletes are vital members of the college community but their loyalty to their teammates may far exceed their commitment to the institution. It’s where they got to continue playing the sport they love for another four years. Of course, those students come with scholarship and travel expenses which make their contribution to net revenue smaller than the student body in general.
Important changes were also happening among the student market as a whole. It is easily demonstrated that the percentage of young people who claim to be evangelicals, long the preferred market for Christian colleges, was shrinking drastically. This increased the competitive spiral as the regionally based Christian schools attempted to go after this smaller share of the overall market. Those that were interested in Christian colleges were far more diverse than was true in prior decades. For every group of students who was pushing envelopes and wanting their institution to engage broader cultural issues like LGBTQ inclusion or criminal justice reform, another group of students saw any movement away from conservative principles as an abandonment of core values. This latter group was known to publish underground newsletters and push for sanctions against “the liberals”. This asymmetry (which is mirrored in our religious and political spheres) creates a set of pressures that encourages the administration to clamp down while simultaneously driving the progressive group away from the institution – if not literally, at least in terms of their long-term commitments. Meanwhile, even careful dialogue on these issues in often seen by the conservatives as abandonment of orthodoxy.
For all these and many other reasons, the next several years will likely prove pivotal for Christian Higher Education. I’ll explore those implications in Part Two.
The past few days have certainly been ones for lists. First Kevin DeYoung posts 40 questions for those support same-sex marriage. Then several others post 40 questions for those opposed. Then there are lists of responses to both sets of questions. These are not likely to change many minds.
For those following such discussions, I’d call your attention to two sources of great interest to me. First, Harold Heie has launched another Respectful Conversation; this one on Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality. If it is like the past two years’ series on Politics and Evangelical Futures (respectively), it should be worth bookmarking. Another source I’ve found very enlightening comes from Southern Nazarene church historian/theologian Tim Crutcher. He’s been unpacking a very interesting series titled “A Rose By Any Other Name: A Radical Moderate Approach to Marriage” on the church’s response to same-sex marriage (the first post is here and you can click through to parts two and three).
My purpose in this post, however, is to engage an argument put forward by Phillip Bethancourt, Executive Vice President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. A former administrator at Southern Seminary, he addressed The Top 10 Religious Liberty Threats for Christian Higher Education. I don’t know Dr. Betancourt but I know the ERLC has done some good work. Their president Russell Moore has been exemplary as a voice of reason in recent months and my friend Karen Swallow Prior is a Fellow at ERLC.
Bethancourt’s ten points are similar to many I have read in recent years and especially since the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage (e.g., this summary in Inside Higher Ed). I want to address his concerns carefully because they are important issues.
In some cases, I think his points are one-sided and that the challenges are even more complex than he suggests. In other cases, there is a danger of wolf-whistling. In still others, his facts are not quite right. I’ll address his arguments one by one.
1. Accreditation Issues: He raises concerns that the regional accrediting associations will come after Christian Universities. I addressed some of this worry in a post I wrote on Gordon College, which he uses as an example. In fact, he says that the Northeast Association launched “a probe” of Gordon after last summer’s letter to President Obama from their president (and others). The NEASC clearly stated in March that the request asking Gordon to review their policy was a routine response to being in the news and not an issue of institutional accreditation. As I wrote, institutional identity is central to accrediting bodies and they are likely to protect it. In addition some accreditors actually come from Christian institutions — I just learned that one of the VPs of the Northwest Commission is the former VPAA at Seattle Pacific University. I’m sure he’s not alone among the accrediting regions.
2. Tax-Exempt Status: Much of this concern stems from an exchange between Justice Alito and Solicitor General Virrilli dealing with the 1983 Bob Jones decision removing tax exempt status from the university because of its ban on interracial dating. If Christian institutions ban homosexual behavior on campus, won’t they face the same scenario? Many people have grabbed hold of this interchange, but I don’t think the comparison with Bob Jones holds. Randall Balmer’s analysis shows that the BJU tax case was directly related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. President Nixon had ordered the IRS denied tax exemption to schools that segregated in light of the Act’s designation of race as a protected class in federal law. Sexual Orientation isn’t a federally protected class (although it is in some states). Furthermore, nothing in Obergefell deals with discrimination against LGBTQ individuals but instead focuses on state licensure of marriages.
3. Financial Issues: Bethancourt focuses on two precarious situations at the federal level. What if religious schools no longer have access to pell grants or subsidized loans? Financial issues are the largest challenge to Christian institutions whether that’s seen as a religious freedom issue or not. But the notion that federal changes would come about removing by Christian schools’ access seems both politically and legally unlikely. The Supreme Court struck down laws banning same-sex consensual behavior in 2003 in the Lawrence decision. If that were determinative for Christian institutions, we would have already seen such restrictions suggested at the policy level. There are larger financial implications of same-sex policies at Christian schools. The largest may be a potential loss of students from a generation more amenable to SSM. For institutions that are heavily tuition dependent, not addressing sexual orientation could present a real long-term problem.
4. Donor Issues: He argues that loss of tax exemption (#2) would lessen charitable giving. More important, there is a risk that donors might be shamed for giving to institutions portrayed as discriminatory. This is a potential risk, but not necessarily a large one. Most CCCU donors are small gifts or life estates. It also is quite plausible that a more open and affirming Christian university would find itself the darling of Gen-X alums who are more progressive and have some measure of disposable income.
5. External Relations Issues: This is my primary point of agreement with Bethancourt. Christian Universities are increasingly finding themselves caught in an untenable situation. One the one hand are traditionalist supporters and denominational groups who expect fidelity to past positions. On the other are younger alums (like the OneWheaton group) who are advocating for changes to university policy. Both constituent groups are critical and figuring out how to engage both is going to be increasingly difficult. This isn’t really a religious freedom issue but it is important nonetheless.
6. Student Issues: This section deals with issues of student lifestyle restrictions. How can schools prohibit homosexual behavior? Again, these are issues already raised in Lawrence. These require schools to look closely at their lifestyle policies to make sure they are properly connected to institutional identity. It’s worth noting that Baylor announced an adjustment to their policy last week changing their prohibition to premarital sex without singling out homosexual behavior. Other schools will likely quickly follow suit. Bethancourt also discusses issues with married students and student housing. This is one area with direct Obergefell impact. As I suggested in my earlier post on the impending court decision, if students are legally married by the state, this is one accommodation Christian Institutions might make. An alternative strategy is to privatize apartments near campus so that they are no longer college housing (which impacts the financial issues in #3).
7. Community Issues: In this section, Bethancourt correctly acknowledges that local media will not carefully nuance the college’s position. Not knowing the rationale for the traditional position, media and community figures might take the most negative view, impacting town-gown relationships. He uses Gordon College’s issues with the Lynn school district as an example of not being able to place student teachers. Two points here. First, Lynn is not GC’s “local school district” but is about 15 miles away. Second, there have been some early indications that Lynn overreached. This is a good reminder that the tensions between religious freedom and non-discrimination ordinances will require a lot of back and forth as we figure out the right balance.
8. Recruiting and Retention Issues: In this section, he raises a host of issues that involve student attitudes, faculty recruiting, and institutional reputation. He frames the concerns around the institution’s ability to not accept gay students and concerns of faculty worrying about long-term career issues. I would argue that we have long been accepting gay students (knowingly or unknowingly). This is why the handbook issues in #6 are important. It is also true that the millennial generation is far more likely to be supportive of SSM. It may be much harder to recruit those students to schools that do not address this important questions. When it comes to faculty issues, most faculty already face career choices about Christian schools and the assumptions made about them as candidates for other positions. I’m not sure that issues of same-sex marriage change that.
9. Employment Issues: This combines very real concerns about hiring faculty and staff with those of graduates having a hard time being hired because of the stance of the school. The second of these is a restatement of #7 and again is true to the same extent small Christian colleges already face. It’s possible that employers now hiring Christian college graduates might change their policy in light of Obergefell, but it’s hard to imagine this is a large number. The primary issue Betancourt raises here is about hiring faculty and staff. This is the most important issue on his list and is the one most directly impacted by the Supreme Court decision. It is the most urgent matter for Christian Institutions to carefully engage.
10. Doctrinal Issues: Bethancourt concludes by suggesting that schools solidify their institutional statements of faith. Again, he links this to the Supreme Court decision and I’d argue that this is not something impacted by Obergefell. He suggests that schools without a clear doctrinal statement are at greater risk of institutional crisis. Again, I would suggest an alternative. Wesleyan, Pietist, and Pentecostal institutions — more focused on experience, discipleship, and the leading of the Spirit — might actually be better positioned to avoid crisis that those institutions driven by doctrinal statements.
Here is how Bethancourt closes his article:
For those who are invested in the future of Christian higher education, these are the top 10 areas where schools face religious liberty threats. Granted, all of these issues may not materialize—and certainly not all at the same school. But they are the areas with the most potential for risk.
As Christian colleges and seminaries look to the future, they must think through their strategy in each of these 10 categories to determine how they will overcome the religious liberty risks created by the recent Supreme Court marriage ruling.
I appreciate what he has attempted to do in this piece. Even though I think many of the points require more nuance, these are important issues (although not all are impacted by the recent decision).
At the same time, struggling over perceived threats to religious liberty seems a limited strategy for moving forward. My Wesleyanism is showing, but I’m far more encouraged by what happens in interpersonal engagement. While I was working on this post, I came across this story in the Washington Post. It reports on the new friendship between Robert Vander Plaats, founder of Iowa’s Family Leader (a conservative evangelical organization) and Donna Red Wing, founder of the One Iowa LGBT advocacy organization.
But when they ran into each other on the day the Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples could marry anywhere in the country, crossing paths between dueling interviews at a local TV station studio, they locked eyes.
And then they hugged.
It gives me reason for great hope. The next few years will be messy as we work through these various issues. But we are still confident that God is in control and the Spirit is working. That is what allows staunch opponents to find themselves in a hug.
Three disclaimers before I dive in: 1) This blog has always been my own thinking and in no way represents the positions or policies of any of the institutions I’ve served; 2) I am not arguing for or against same-sex marriage from religious grounds; 3) my attempts here are simply to explore the political and ethical responses Christian Universities may need to consider if the Supreme Court expands same-sex marriage rights nationally.
Sometime in the next three weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down a key decision on marriage in America. There are actually four separate cases being considered, organized around two questions:
Issue: 1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? (http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/obergefell-v-hodges/)
The first question involves the Michigan definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. The plaintiffs argue that this violates the 14th amendment rights of equal treatment because they are gay. The second question stems from Tennessee’s position that they wouldn’t recognize same-sex marriages authorized in other states.
I listened to the oral arguments in April (available here and here). None of the attorneys arguing made an airtight case and faced significant questioning and some skepticism from the Justices, especially on issue one. It seems to me that the Justices correctly wrestled with what I’d call the “legacy question” — can the court simply adopt a new definition of marriage when, as many argued, such an idea as same-sex marriage wasn’t recognized by any governmental authority prior to this century. They rejected attempts to tie marriage to procreation or to link same-sex rights to civil rights 50 years earlier. But it seemed like the legacy issue remained — they did not want to be known as the Court that changed marriage forever.
The second question, the one about recognition, seemed easier for the Justices to see their way through. There is a long history of jurisprudence on recognizing state sovereignty as it affects those who move from one state to another. Key questions to me involved how states accept varying definitions of the age of marriage and don’t differentiate just because the woman was “underage” according to the new state. Since 1823, the Court has consistently held the right of free movement and limited the ability of states to supersede the rights of their neighboring states.
This is a long introduction, but it’s important to set the stage for what I think is going to happen. After hearing the arguments, it suddenly dawned on me that the Court’s most pragmatic solution is to side with Michigan on question one (affirming the vote of the people) while siding with the plaintiffs in Tennessee (requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states). The practical impact of this would be to enable same-sex couples to marry in affirming states and then move back to their home state to live. In essence, the second question nullifies the first until such time that states with same-sex marriage bans vote to overturn them (which, if polling data is correct, is likely to happen within a couple of elections).
So if I’m right (and I’m pretty sure about question two), Christian Universities will find themselves struggling to know how to respond.
One option is to claim a religious exemption by demonstrating that support of one-man, one-woman marriage is central to their operation. I’m not sure that will survive legal challenge, especially as many Christian institutions have made space for divorce and remarriage. Besides, this is an argument about employees more than about students. Making the “essential” argument would be difficult, force the institution into dogmatic language inconsistent with its key ethos, and open the door to claims of hypocrisy or homophobia.
If Christian Universities take the chance to seriously engage the question, what are the issues that need attention?
1. I think the key issue is to draw a bright line around marriage. When it comes to student behavior, there should be clear proscriptions against premarital sex. There is no need to separate same-sex behavior as a special class of activity. If a student is married, sexual behavior is permitted — otherwise not. Yes, this raises the possibility that a same-sex couple attending the university is engaging in sexual behavior but we can allow state law to take precedence in this matter. On a pragmatic note, with the number of commuters and non-traditional students in our institutions, it’s impossible to even know who is in a same-sex marriage. (Unless we were to make that a question on the admission application, which would face significant legal challenge.)
2. Students will want an institutional space for conversations about sexual orientation. One of the interesting developments over the weekend involved the Madeleine L’Engle’s family foundation giving $5,000 to OneWheaton, an unofficial group of current and former Wheaton students who are gay or gay allied. The money will be used to offset costs of a conference this fall. Of particular note, however, is that the gift was unsolicited. This was an attempt by an outside group (well connected within evangelical circles) to have an impact. In his story for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt quoted L’Engle’s grandaughter who chairs the foundation:
My grandmother had a long and deep relationship with Wheaton College and its English Department, and she was enriched by some of the vigorous debates she had with faculty and students there. I believe that the kinds of conversations OneWheaton is seeking to have reflect where she would be if she were still here.
I fully expect other groups to follow the L’Engle foundation’s lead in years to come. Such action will strengthen the voice of the One college groups. Rather than see these as competing yet unofficial voices within the institution, Christian Universities will be well suited to find ways of making them official parts of their student organization universe.
This will lead to a third issue.
3. Christian Universities will need to affirm that there are legitimate differences of opinion within the Christians making up their community. This includes faculty, staff, students, trustees, parents, and alumni. This doesn’t mean that Christian Universities have to abandon their commitment to biblical authority. But it does require them to acknowledge that there are community members who are in complete agreement with institutional mission, confess as Christians, and see loving others (regardless of their position on same-sex marriage) as an expression of both. We will need to avoid the temptation to “explain away” the difference of opinion on sexuality by casting those who are affirming same-sex orientation and relationship (or, at least, not condemning) as somehow “not Christian”. This was what drew WorldVision to their short-lived action last year.
This week’s news of Tony Campolo and David Neff is an illustration in point. They both said that it was time for the evangelical church to move toward affirming same-sex relationships. On the one hand, Campolo’s move wasn’t surprising — he’s been heading this direction for years with help from his wife Peggy. Neff, the former editor of Christianity Today, seemed to catch more people by surprise; so much so that the current editor wrote a response that included the following:
We at CT are sorry when fellow evangelicals modify their views to accord with the current secular thinking on this matter. And we’ll continue to be sorry, because over the next many years, there will be other evangelicals who similarly reverse themselves on sexual ethics (emphasis mine).
This notion that evangelicals don’t reach difficult positions on their own is going to be hard to sustain. Far better to engage the serious discussion among colleagues in Christ. The implication given here is that “real evangelicals” know where they stand yet folks like Campolo and Neff have only been interested in aligning with secular thinking.
The diversity of thought on this issue is real. As the Public Religion Research Institute found last year, 43% of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage. When we consider the correlation between educational level and support of same-sex marriage, I’d imagine the data for Christian University students to be closer to 50% in favor and 50% opposed. This is a legitimate starting place for our conversations. Data has also consistently shown that an unwillingness to address these questions is one of the prime factors in millennial drain from the church. Consider this quote from the PRRI study:
“There are significant generational divisions among some religious groups regarding the effect church stances on gay and lesbian issues have on young people. A majority (55%) of white evangelical Protestant Millennials believe religious groups are turning off young people because they are being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.“
I would argue that it’s not judgmentalism that is the challenge but the inability to have real conversations.
4. We need to have a real conversation about same-sex marriages
Not in the abstract but in the specific. Given the limitations of human resource law on what one can ask in an interview about a candidate’s family situation, it is quite likely that a Christian University will find out that the top candidate for that vacancy, a committed Christian with an excellent teaching and scholarly record and a love for students, happens to be legally married to another man. In fact, I think such a discovery is right around the corner.
Or, as another colleague pointed out, those two single friends on the staff will go off and get married one weekend. This is not a potential situation but one that is quite likely for a number of reasons.
There are serious EEOC legal issues here. I believe the Christian Universities can make a positive affirmation about why heterosexual marriages are the only ones they support in hiring but much more work is needed to make that case. Certainly something more robust than “we don’t believe in that”. There is likely a clear educational case that makes such a hiring distinction essential to the ability of the institution to accomplish its goals but that must be clearly specified. Otherwise, the governmental intrusion on religious institutions that many evangelicals fear may actually come about.
My thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by the work of John Inazu. John is a law professor at Washington University Saint Louis. He has a book coming out on his topic of Confident Pluralism. Here is an extended excerpt from the introduction he shared on twitter:
Confident Pluralism takes both confidence and pluralism seriously. Confidence without pluralism misses the reality of politics. It suppresses difference, sometimes violently. Pluralism without confidence misses the reality of people. It ignores or trivializes our stark differences for the sake of feigned agreement and false unity. Confident Pluralism allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions. We can embrace pluralism precisely because we are confident in our own beliefs, and in the groups and institutions that sustain them.
This confidence in our own convictions reinforces our differences and increases the risk of friction. For this reason, Confident Pluralism differs from a number of other proposals that seek consensus across difference, including various strands of Rawlsian liberalism and, before that, mid-twentieth century liberalism. It comes much closer to law professor Abner Greene’s claim that consensus proposals seek a “false solace” in attempting to overcome difference and “we do better by recognizing difference as something we can’t get past.” Confident Pluralism does not suppress or ignore conflict—it invites it.
At the same time, Confident Pluralism recognizes that we have better and worse ways to live out our own confidence and to negotiate the pluralism around us. Confident Pluralism should not be misread as the rejection of any consensus at all—it is not an invitation to anarchy. Like any serious proposal of how to live together in society, it draws upon certain shared resources and aspirations. We retain some modest unity in our diversity (emphasis his).
Whatever the Supreme Court determines in the next few weeks, we in Christian Universities will need to work our way through what it means to exhibit Confident Pluralism. We will regularly interact with those who do not share our values (including some in our own institutions).
But we need to do the hard work of really focusing on key issues, explaining those issues to any interested parties, and distinguishing the essential elements from those that are simply differences.
The future of Christian Higher education depends on our ability to engage this task.
Much of my attention over the past two weeks has been drawn to events at Christian Universities. Institutions that are often seen as the embodiment of shared community seem torn with conflict between leadership, faculty, students, and alumni. There are Facebook groups, letter-writing campaigns, and lead stories in student newspapers. It’s a lot to process.
The controversies have been covered in local news media, reporting on administrative actions dismissing or reassigning popular figures with the suspicion that it was because the views they espoused were somehow problematic (in spite of statements to the contrary by the administration). Social media played a key role in keeping attention on the unresolved issues, which made news coverage easier.
Administrative controversies are not new to Christian universities. A quick survey of institutional histories shows that the occur at nearly predictable intervals. In one of my institutions, the first major administrative crisis occurred within a decade of its founding, resulting in the dissolution of the board.
I experienced an upheaval 25 years ago. In conversation with a colleague who had left the same institution 20 years before that, we found that we experienced an identical pattern of action, recrimination, and abandonment.
I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had late in the 1989-1990 academic year. We were meeting in small groups to discuss the concerns about the administration. In that meeting, a faculty member who had come out of the pastorate shared this perspective:
It seems to me that the President is like the pastor of the church and the Trustees are like the church board. The faculty and staff are the congregation. The President discerns God’s leading for the institution, consults with the trustees, and the rest of us have faith in that leading.
That’s my paraphrase of what he said. I may not have the words right, but I know I got the sentiment.
Back in those days, nearly all of the trustees were pastors or lay leaders in the congregations and districts. They understood strong leader images. They didn’t particularly “get” academic culture. And there were still enough faculty members who shared a similar background with my quoted colleague to not rock the boat.
The Christian University is a far more complex entity than it was a quarter century ago. We now have more business leaders on the trustees, who may be likely to substitute a strong CEO model for the strong pastor model (although the two have gotten increasingly interchangeable).
Today we also have faculty members who believe in principles of shared governance, transparency, and integrity. We have students who feel free to express their opinions and challenges both on social media and in person. We have alumni who can look back fondly at their undergraduate years but are far more culturally savvy today and are willing to speak on behalf of those students who may feel powerless.
The Christian University is not like a church.
The Christian University is not like a business.
The Christian University is an educational community committed to critical thinking, careful communication, open dialogue, multiple perspectives, and truth-telling.
Leadership plays a role in providing strategic direction for the community precisely because leaders are operating first and foremost as community members. They know how to listen and how to engage. They exercise remarkable insight on how to make university policies become instruments of institutional values and are willing to change policy when it violates those values.
When we see the Christian university as having a special touch of God’s leading, interpreted and administrated by leadership, it keeps us from addressing real issues that need attention. We have too many chats about God’s plans for success and far too many comments on “for such a time as this”. It’s no wonder that leaders in such a culture wind up acting unilaterally without considering process concerns.
I believe people are gifted in administrative skills (not all of those people are in formal leadership). There is a responsibility to nurture those gifts and guard against the temptation to believe one is infallible.
Financial and political crises will come and go. They are part of the reality of small faith-based institutions of higher education. But how those are dealt with requires a commitment to community and not a default to strong leadership.
It goes without saying that the strong leader metaphor is even more problematic in the local congregation but I’ll leave that for another day.
When I started teaching in Christian Colleges three decades ago, I was a fan of the Christian Worldview motif. It draws upon a number of scriptural references: “Let this mind be in you…“, “Think on these things“, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and, of course, contrasts between the “foolishness of God” and the “wisdom of men“. I now recognize, as I didn’t in my younger days, that almost none of those verses actually speak to issues of education unless they’re taken out of context. But they fit into a Christian mindset that was focused on separation from The World, an important theme of the founding of many Christian colleges.
Rather than starting with the stark contrast between church and world, the first chapter of my book begins in a very different place. In place of working from theological presuppositions, I begin with what I think is one of the most amazing passages in the book of Acts: Peter’s vision in Acts 10. We aren’t stringing together verses to make a patchwork conception of worldview. We’re trying to understand a very strange life event and its even more remarkable interpretation.
Peter is in Joppa and has an amazing vision. A sheet is unfurled before him containing all kinds of animals and unclean things (when looking at pictures on Google, there are lots of images of giraffes and camels — I honestly never thought about them when the verse says “all four-footed creatures“). A voice tells Peter to kill and eat. He says “Surely not, Lord. Nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth“. Three times the sheet comes down but Peter maintains his purity. Immediately after the third sheet, the Spirit tells Peter that three men were coming to see him and will take him to the Roman centurion Cornelius. He goes with them and baptizes Cornelius and his entire household.
The separatist perspective of Christian worldviews struggles over contrasting issues: faith and science, good and bad literature/movies, relativism and absolute truth. These contrasts and conflicts play out today across Facebook, Twitter, Christian magazines, and popular preaching. They speak fearfully of slippery slope arguments and too often make education something to be feared.
Peter’s vision takes us to a different place. The voice says to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” The message is pretty clear — God is in control and nothing we come in contact with is beyond his scope. Take and eat.
Maybe in education, it should be take and read. Explore that idea. Look at things from another perspective.
Peter is listening to the Spirit and is willing to consider what faithfulness means to him. He is living in obedience to God’s call even though it’s taking him in directions he was initially unwilling to go.
As fascinating as I find Peter’s vision in Acts 10, I’m blown away by what happens in chapter 11. When he gets back to Jerusalem, the apostles and believers want to know what in the world was going on.
They were probably writing nasty posts on Facebook calling out Peter for his irreligious actions: click “like” if you think the we should stay away from uncircumcised men.
So he tells his story. He explains what he was thinking and what was in the vision. He tells of the leading of the Holy Spirit, both when he goes with the men and again at the baptism.
The other apostles listen to Peter, consider his integrity and testimony, and reach a conclusion: “So then even to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” They not only endorse what Peter did, they view it in the larger more theological terms. They learned vicariously through Peter’s vision and obedience.
This is the image I hold in considering how students should engage their new experiences in college. They shouldn’t come in fear, worrying that they’ll come across things that are challenging. They are listening for the Spirit leading them to new and deep understandings. They are sharing those understandings with those around them: other students, faculty, staff, parents, pastors. Those others listen carefully to the students and to the Spirit and help them put their new learning into a larger context. Faith and learning are not opposed to each other but both lead us all to new depths of understandings.
It requires a lot of faith, a lot of patience, and a lot of growth. But in the end, it results in students not constrained by the polarizing topics of prior generations. It results in students able to articulate faith to an increasingly postmodern, religiously unsophisticated culture.
It’s the time of year when freshmen are packing the family car and heading off to the new adventure that is college. All the excitement of new friends, new possibilities, and new challenges runs right alongside the anxieties of fitting in socially, keeping up academically, and managing independence.
Yesterday I spent four hours with a group of colleagues who had agreed to give me feedback on the draft of my book. It’s written specifically to freshmen entering a Christian university, hopefully to be used in freshman seminar courses. It was simultaneously an exciting and scary prospect to submit two years of work to others to see if the arguments made sense to anyone besides me. It turned out to be a great experience and I am indebted to each of them for their support and their challenges.
The book reflects my attempt to articulate an approach to Christian higher education that speaks to the postmodern sensibilities of evangelical millennials. Such an approach must begin in a different place than some of the separatist stances of the past. We must find a way of engaging the complexity of the world while working through tested perspectives of faithful learning.
I’ll finish the next set of edits over the next two weeks and then send the manuscript off to my publisher so the real fun can begin.
The book is what has prompted me to react against all those who like to marginalize millennials, labeling them as narcissistic, spoiled, brats who only want their needs met regardless of the broader consequences. I’ve been trying to get into the mindset of 18 year olds ready to start college. I’ll unpack the detailed argument in coming posts.
In general, here’s what I’m trying to say to these students:
If you’re like the students I see regularly, you do see the world through your own lenses, but you know that those images are incomplete. The reason you desire community is because you need your story to fit in with others. But you aren’t willing to hide that story just to fit in. You don’t want a community that pretends to be nice. You want to belong to something. You’ve come to college not for mercenary reasons but because this is your ideal time to sort out your questions of who you are supposed to as an adult.
Telling your story is only the first step. It’s where you discover than your own view is only a partial view, shaped by your particular experiences and environments. It is necessary to blend those unique views with those of others at college: fellow students, faculty, staff. All of those stories intersect with your story. Your story shapes all of the others — even those of your professors.
In a Christian university, you learn that we are all parts of God’s greater Kingdom. We are all working to be what we were created to be. That’s not narcissism, it’s vocation. The entire process of the college years should be about learning the deep meaning of that vocation. Your intellectual development, social engagement, athletic participation, spiritual practices are all are part of learning how you will play an active role in God’s Kingdom.
A college education, then, is not a roadmap to get to the end goal of a diploma. It’s a unique journey to explore what it means to live in responsible community that reflects Kingdom principles and leaves a changed world in its wake.
A Christian university education isn’t Christian because it requires Bible classes and chapel. It’s not Christian because it retreats from “the world”. It’s Christian because it is empowered by the Holy Spirit as all members of the university community pursue God’s unique call on their lives.
Sure, it’s a big transition from home and family. One filled with adventure, mistakes, lessons to be learned, and obstacles overcome. Like Luke Skywalker, there is a need to trust. The first step is recognizing that true adventure depends upon stepping into the unknown with confidence.
Most of all, it’s about a first step into a larger world.