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SBC LIFE (ISSN 1081-8189), Volume 25, Number 4, © 2017 Southern Baptist Convention, Executive Committee


February 2002 Issue

The Challenge For Christian Higher Education
by Michael Duduit

According to a British news report, the Royal Navy has discovered an innovative cost-cutting measure. In teaching recruits to fire guns at the HMS Cambridge training facility near Plymouth, live rounds are no longer used. Instead, sailors-in-training are given phony shells; they are to then load the fake shell, aim the gun, and exclaim, "Bang!"

As one might imagine, naval recruits consider it a joke, but a Royal Navy representative (presumably with a straight face) insisted that live firing was not necessary in training, given that real shells cost too much in comparison to the value received in firing them.

Actually, the HMS Cambridge is itself a bit of a phony. It is not a ship, but a ship-like structure built on dry land adjacent to the sea.

There is a great danger in the 21st century that Christian higher education may become the academic equivalent of the HMS Cambridge: a feeble imitation of what it purports to be, sending graduates into a secular culture unprepared to be bold advocates for a Christian worldview. In the face of the cultural onslaught of materialism and naturalism that faces our students each day, we must prepare them to do more than whimper "bang!"

There is a secularized environment that pervades most university campuses today — including many that understand their "religious heritage" to be an uncomfortable piece of history rather than a living reality. Those who lead the academy from their outposts in major universities have set out to "deconstruct" truth so that the very notion is sapped of its meaning. The search for truth has been replaced by the glorification of "tolerance" as the preeminent virtue; all "lifestyle options" (heterosexuality, homosexuality, premarital promiscuity) are considered "value neutral" on today's "enlightened" campuses.

In American higher education, the barbarians have not simply stormed the gates; they have assumed the mantle of academic leadership and become masters of the castle.

That is why there has never been a greater need than today for authentically Christian colleges and universities — institutions which understand that all truth is God's truth, and that there can be no true understanding apart from knowledge of and relationship to the Creator; institutions which recognize that faith and learning are not enemies but essential partners in the task of education.

John Leo (U.S. News & World Report, April 19, 1999) cites an "intellectual climate of meaningless and breakdown (that) pervades our colleges." He tells about a conversation with a friend — a professor in a Catholic college — who now finds himself "surrounded by a new crop of young professors who are total nihilists." Says the seasoned prof: "They don't believe in anything at all." Unfortunately, such cases are not the exception; American higher education is increasingly being taken over by views and value systems in direct opposition to traditional moral values, much less a Christian worldview.

Today's Christian colleges and universities must provide an intellectual bulwark against the secularizing cultural trends that have swept through American higher education. If any institution is going to demonstrate the integration of faith and learning, it will be our Christian universities. If any institution is going to train America's next generation of leaders that "truth" has meaning, it will be our Christian universities.

How, then, can we insure that our church-supported colleges and universities stand firm in these essential tasks? This is a challenge that faces the entire church, not simply a handful of academic leaders. Five steps must be taken.

1. The church must learn the difference between "church-related" schools and "Christian" universities.

Too many "church-related" institutions have opted for a schizophrenic approach to higher education: the "church" side sponsors chapel services, campus ministry, maybe even a religion department, and raises money from churches, while the "academic" side operates in a manner interchangeable with any other college or university.

What is the difference between a merely "church-related" institution and a truly "Christian" college or university? A Christian university is one that recognizes Christ as the foundation on which education is built. A Christian university is made up of faculty and administrators who share a deep commitment to Christ and His truth — not as a compartmentalized portion of their lives reserved for Sunday, but as a guiding philosophy and foundation which influences every part of the educational endeavor.

At a Christian university, professors understand that every discipline stands under the authority of Christ. That doesn't mean teaching "Christian chemistry," but teaching chemistry from a perspective of faith in a God who created this world and all that is in it. That doesn't mean teaching "Christian business," but teaching future business leaders that Christian values must under gird their future actions. In every field and every academic discipline, Christian faculty will bring a profoundly different approach and philosophy to the classroom than that found in the secularized academy.

In a Christ-centered university, professors help students understand how their Christian faith is integrated with academic disciplines and professional vocations. The goal is to graduate young men and women who enter the future with an enlarged sense of Christian commitment as well as professional excellence.

If our churches are going to have the kind of leaders who are equipped and prepared to confront our culture from the perspective of a Christian worldview, then it is essential that they make it clear that the academic institutions they support must meet a higher standard than simply being "church-related." They can and should expect Christian colleges and universities at which all programs — from the chapel to the classroom to the residence hall — to be "Christ-centered."

2. Denominations and boards of trust must reclaim responsibility for the direction of their schools.

Trustees and denominational leadership bear a significant responsibility in setting the direction and tone of the institutions for which they have responsibility. Yet all too often, trustees and others spend far more time discussing budgets and athletic programs than determining if an institution's academic and campus programs are truly Christ-centered.

In his article "Southern Baptists and Higher Education," Bob R. Agee cites the role of trustees in what he identifies as "distinctively Christian" colleges and universities. He observes: "In these institutions the trustees are chosen from among the church constituency and are regularly reminded that they are accountable to and responsible for the Christian mission of the institution." He adds: "Trustees seek to hire faculty and administrators who are committed to the core values of the Christian community which sponsors the institution."

The most critical task of trustees is to protect and enhance the "Christ-centered" mission of the institution. All of a board's other responsibilities, even fiduciary, pale in comparison to this key purpose. And it is important for a denomination, in electing such trustees, to make clear this central responsibility.

When a board of trustees ceases to place the school's "Christ-centered" mission at the heart of all its actions, the institution begins its journey away from that mission.

3. Presidents must be elected who will set a vision for Christ-centered education.

The election of a president is the single trustee action that most clearly sets the direction of an institution. If a president elevates the "Christ-centered" mission of the institution and wisely manages with that purpose in mind, the institution will remain faithful to that mission. On the other hand, the election of a president who does not share a thoroughgoing commitment to that "Christ-centered" mission is the most important action toward abandonment of the mission and values which once characterized the institution.

Almost without fail, institutions that have departed from a "Christ-centered" mission have done so with the active leadership of a president who seeks something else for the institution. That alternative goal may be financial support of non-Christians or nominal believers (whom the president may believe will not be attracted by a "sectarian" institution), or the recruitment of students who may not be attracted to the Christian lifestyle required by the former mission, or it may even be a desire for an enhanced reputation among the wider, secular academic community.

Whatever the reason, an energetic president who is determined to shift an institution away from being a "Christian" college to merely a "church-related" one can accomplish that purpose in only a few years, unless he or she faces the active opposition of an equally-determined board. That is why boards must be vigilant in their role of electing presidents who share their commitment to Christ-centered education, and equally vigilant in working alongside that president to insure that the institution's mission is faithfully implemented in hiring and other decisions that impact the institution and its students.

4. Faculties must be taught to integrate faith and learning.

Faculties who view their respective disciplines through the lens of a dynamic Christian faith are vital to the task of building and developing a truly "Christ-centered" academic institution.

It is clear that secular institutions have fully understood integrating their prevailing worldviews with their pedagogical activities. Today's leading universities are hothouses of secular, naturalistic worldviews that under gird the teaching of the arts and sciences, from philosophy to literature to education.

For the Christian college, it is not enough to cling to a veneer of religious activity — such as chapel services and church emphasis days — if the philosophical assumptions that pervade the classroom stand in sharp contrast to a Christian worldview. In such a duel for the hearts and minds of students, the classroom will win in all too many cases.

This is a battle that will be won or lost in the hiring process. I recall a conversation with a university president some years ago who commented, "In hiring faculty, if I have to choose between a mediocre economist who is a strong churchman, and a great economist who is an inactive churchman, I'll take the great economist every time." Not only is that a false dilemma, but it is an attitude guaranteed, over time, to lead an institution away from its "Christ-centered" mission. Presidents and academic officers must recognize that every faculty hire who adheres to and teaches out of a Christian worldview is a stepping stone toward a great Christian institution. Likewise, every faculty member who fails to teach thus is a step away from accomplishing the institution's mission.

Many young faculty will come to our institutions with a commitment to our mission but little grasp of how to integrate faith and learning. Such faculty will be wonderful resources and make a unique contribution as we make an institutional commitment to train and equip them in integrating a Christian worldview into their instruction. To do less is to miss an enormous opportunity to build great Christian institutions.

5. Students must be drawn to the mission of Christian universities.

Just over a decade ago, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities did a national study which estimated that as many as 250,000 Christian high school graduates never even considered attending a Christ-centered college or university. Given the ever-expanding marketing budgets of our schools, it's likely that enormous percentage has increased.

There are plenty of reasons: cost, location, failure to offer certain academic programs, and so on. But at the heart of the issue is a failure to draw students to the mission of our institutions. If a young person and his or her family are truly engaged in the mission of Christ-centered education, the other obstacles will usually diminish in importance.

Overcoming that primary issue will require the combined efforts of colleges and churches. Together, we must make the case for Christ-centered higher education. And even as the academic community provides much of the rationale, the key communication of that case will take place within the local church. Thus, if we are to accomplish the goal of reaching most Christian high school graduates with the case for Christian higher education, it will involve a strong and ongoing partnership of college and church.

Those who represent Christian higher education must make the case to pastors, youth ministers, and denominational and church leaders in a way that goes beyond past relationships. We must help them understand that a large part of the church's task in the 21st century will be to confront a secular culture with a Christian worldview — and we must help them understand that the persons best equipped for this challenge will be the graduates of authentic Christ-centered universities.

Half a century ago, Winston Churchill played a pivotal role in saving Britain and the world from the evils of Nazi conquest, and in that task helped protect democratic rule for millions. In an essay on Churchill in The Weekly Standard (January 3/10, 2000), Christopher Matthews observed, "He saved Britain not by protecting it but by rousing his countrymen to brace themselves for what he assured them would be their 'finest hour.' ... At the crucial moment, Churchill's understanding of Hitler, of Britain's danger, of politics, and of his countrymen allowed him to face down the appeasers and make the case decisively for all-out war."

Today we face a different but no less compelling challenge, as western culture plummets headlong into a morass of secularism. As Kingdom partners with the church, Christ-centered colleges and universities are called to stand in the gap of cultural decay and point toward a higher, better way. Let us claim that mission and so carry out that task that future generations will look back and see that in this pivotal moment, we helped make a difference in Christ's name.

Michael Duduit, former executive vice president and associate professor of Christian Studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., is editor of Preaching magazine.

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