In 1971, there were just 10 schools in the Christian College Consortium. Today, there are 102 “intentionally Christ-centered institutions” in the U.S. that are members of the Consortium’s successor, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. These schools range in size from 400 students to 21,000, combining for a total enrollment of some 300,000. And they offer far more than theology and divinity courses.
Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., confers the full spectrum of degrees—education and English, business and biology, chemistry and computer science, and the list goes on. Likewise, Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss., boasts degrees in business, sports administration, the arts, political science, education, and more than two dozen programs not directly related to religion. Likewise, Anderson University in Anderson, Ind., proudly promotes its MBA program, plus gives teachers the opportunity to utilize digital portfolios in the classroom. Wheaton College, which sits in the suburbs outside Chicago, offers a Ph.D. in psychology and undergraduate degrees in economics, engineering, history, and physics, to name a few.
In other words, these schools are not preparing their graduates for a cloistered life in the Christian community. Rather, they are sending young people out into the world to change our culture for Christ.
Jesus or Jell-O?
Fueling this emergence of “Christ-centered institutions,” or “mission-oriented colleges,” as I call them, is a relearning of something that is deeply rooted in the Bible, the notion that every follower of Christ is called to spread the Good News and to share in Christ’s redemptive work.
As Dr. Niel Nielson, president of Covenant College, puts it, Christians “don’t have to live in a cocoon” during or after college. In fact, they shouldn’t, according to Nielson. He points to a passage in Hebrews, which reminds us that Jesus went “outside the city gate to make the people holy.”
We are called to follow that example. After all, Jesus challenged us to “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation”—into all nations, into all vocations, into all work settings.
This wasn’t a suggestion. It was a command, a mission. Indeed, it is the mission for those of us who follow Christ. And Jesus Himself declared that our mission is like His: “As you sent me into the world,” He prayed in John’s gospel, “I have sent them into the world.”
When it comes to mission-oriented colleges like Covenant, Belhaven, and their sister schools, sending believers into the world means more than simply producing graduates who want to win souls for Christ. It also means preparing gifted people to be a redemptive force in their respective fields, to show the world how humans were intended to use their talents.
“The majority of our students aren’t studying theology or ministry,” explains Dr. Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven College. He points to the school’s commitment to the arts, the humanities, science, business, and scores of other majors not directly tethered to theology.
However, Parrott is quick to add that God has a purpose and place in all fields. “If you don’t understand whatever discipline from a foundation of biblical truth,” he argues, “you’re not prepared for the world God created.”
He strongly believes that it is a college’s duty to equip graduates with what he calls “a foundation of truth,” and he wonders how someone can teach—or learn—without such a foundation. “The Church has not yet grasped that secular institutions, where students are taught there is no unchanging truth, lack that foundation,” he sighs. “There’s no stability in that. It’s like Jell-O.”
To make sure students aren’t building their lives on Jell-O, Belhaven requires three Bible courses. In addition, the school’s “Worldview Curriculum” course links the Bible with other great works of literature, world history, philosophy, and church history, helping students compare and contrast the development of competing philosophies.
Belhaven is not alone. “Covenant,” Nielson explains, “provides students with a distinctive, integrative way of understanding how all disciplines reflect the glory of God.” Describing the school’s commitment to a unique kind of leadership development, he adds, “We believe leadership must be understood in the context of Christ’s kingdom. As important as it is to develop leaders, the gospel reminds us that the biblical model of leadership is different than the world’s.”
Nielson says Covenant’s goal is to equip its students not with a moral compass, but with “a Jesus compass.” And he believes this “Jesus compass” is what helps prepare students “for every nook and cranny” of life.
“Technical skills are necessary, but they are not enough,” he argues. “So we focus on the heart as well as the brain.”
“Wheaton takes the position that first, a complete education requires more than teaching technical or vocational skills,” explains Dan Coats, a Wheaton alumnus who went on to serve as a U.S. congressman, senator, and ambassador. “And second, regardless of what occupation students choose—sociology, science, politics, education—Wheaton students and graduates are called to serve the world. So the school prepares students to go into the world and live out the principles of Christ in whatever vocation they choose.”
Rev. Scott Smith, who pastors a church in urban Indianapolis, has gained a new appreciation for mission-oriented, redemptive education from an unexpected source. “My daughter attends Loyola University in Chicago,” he explains. “And in everything—their admissions literature, class schedules, degree information, and Web site—Loyola emphasizes service to the world.
“We evangelicals can learn—and are, in fact, relearning—something from our Catholic brothers and sisters: Our conception of the gospel, which tends toward personal salvation, needs to include a global dimension as well, a redemptive purpose.”
Hollow Philosophy and Holy Living
For too long, some Christians and even some Christian colleges ignored the redemptive aspects of their mission—the call to be a light unto the nations by being a light unto the corporations and courthouses, artists and auditors, salespeople and surgeons, statehouses and schoolhouses.
In some cases, this is the result of a uniquely Christian strain of anti-intellectualism that resists engaging in the world’s problems.
As Eric Metaxas, who authored the best-seller Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Campaign to End Slavery, observes in a recent essay, “Many serious Christians have fallen into the trap of striking an anti-elitist attitude and often anti-intellectual attitude.” It began in the late 19th century, in his estimation, as Christians grew disillusioned with how the secular world replaced “true biblical theology” with the “social gospel” and elevated science above faith.
According to Dr. Steve Rennick, an adjunct professor at Anderson University, the anti-intellectual attitude present inside the Church “often stems from a lack of humility.” He believes that when individuals, colleges, or entire denominations, for that matter, assume such a posture and close themselves off from the arena of ideas, it’s bad for the world and bad for the Church.
Metaxas would agree. “It’s usually the case,” he argues, “that Christians somehow become better Christians when they are engaged with the culture around them.” Just as important, by triggering a retreat from the arena of ideas, Christian anti-intellectualism “abandoned the mainstream culture to secular elites.” The result was anything but beneficial, as we have seen during the last century.
In an effort to wash their hands of the resulting mess—and perhaps justify their anti-intellectual worldview—some Christians turn to Scripture.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, for instance, Paul writes, “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness.’”
In another letter, this one to the Colossians, Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”
However, Scripture also tells us that Solomon was smarter and wiser than any man; Luke was a physician trained in medicine; Paul was learned in his own Jewish culture as well as Roman and Greek thinking; and it pays to recall that Paul challenged us to “renew” our minds—not disregard them.
Plus, Church fathers such as Augustine, Calvin, and Luther were towering intellects, who sought after the wisdom of the Word and the knowledge of the world.
The same holds true today. Rennick points to people like Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and author of The Language of God. As Rennick puts it, “Collins reminds us that it’s OK to have strong minds and big hearts for God—to be intellectual and Christian.”
Smith notes how the Lord’s Prayer “envisions the kingdom of God entering the earth—God engaging with the world.” In his view, that’s a strong indication that “God’s people should engage the world and think deeply about its complex problems.”
That’s what makes mission-minded colleges so important. By equipping young people with both a “Jesus compass” and the aptitude to use it to explore and navigate and impact the arena of ideas, these schools are doing something profoundly important.
“Our goal is to be anti-anti-intellectual,” Nielson says. “So we take research and scholarship very seriously.” He believes Christians should struggle, search, and admit what we don’t know, but he offers an important caveat to other anti-anti-intellectuals: “Serious scholars who are deeply committed Christians but refuse to accept the false dichotomies of this world—the secular versus the sacred—will always be open to the charge of being anti-intellectual by those who disdain what we cherish.”
It’s interesting that just as some Christians reject the intellectual ancestry that bridges today’s global Christianity with the tiny church planted by a few followers of a carpenter from Nazareth, many secular institutions of higher learning have forgotten their religious roots. Indeed, one of the sad ironies in all of this is the fact that some of America’s most renowned universities were founded by deeply religious people to serve religious, cultural, and public ends. Yet today, many are bastions of secularism.
Harvard comes to mind in this regard. The school’s motto was once “Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia,” which translates: “Truth for Christ and Church.” Today, it’s simply “Veritas,” or “Truth”—a telling difference. Truth, we are left to conclude, is no longer undergirded by Christ—or meant to serve Christ.
Faith and religion are certainly studied at Harvard, but its graduates are not challenged to go out and redeem the world. Gone are the days when Harvard called on each student to “well consider that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.”
Cultures and Careers
God has always called—or pushed—His people to be redemptive instruments in the world.
Joseph, for example, served as the ancient-day equivalent of chief of staff to pharaoh and ultimately as prime minister of Egypt.
It was in Esther’s public life that her faith made the greatest impact. Guided by God, she found her way to the king’s palace, where she served as queen. And from there, she would rescue her people from a holocaust. With words that still pierce our hearts, Mordecai finally persuaded her to act: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”
Jesus challenged His disciples to spread the Good News everywhere. And they did just that, redeeming the cultures and kingdoms of this world for Him: Philip shared the Word with a high government official from Ethiopia; Peter befriended a Roman military officer; Paul used his Roman citizenship to open doors for God’s kingdom. In fact, Metaxas points out that “Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers,” albeit always with the aim of serving Christ’s kingdom.
And just think about the consequence of their obedience. It quite literally changed the world. Thanks to the seeds planted by Paul, Philip, Peter, and others, mighty Rome, which once laughed at this strange offshoot of Judaism, would one day convert to Christianity.
Closer to our own time, Metaxas reminds us how William Wilberforce and a small, committed group of influential believers—members of parliament, writers, artists, actors, physicians, and lawyers—transformed the godless worldview of their nation. The result: an end to government-sanctioned slavery and child labor and legalized prostitution—and the beginning of a revival.
Moreover, we should remember that faith and people of faith have played an indispensable role here in America. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”
It is in this spirit that mission-minded schools are challenging their students to shine God’s light wherever they work—and in doing so, to redeem and reclaim His creation one office, one profession, and one industry at a time.
Take, for example, The King’s College (TKC), which occupies 34,000 square-feet of prime real estate inside the Empire State Building. TKC is committed to using “the truths of Christianity and a biblical worldview” to equip its students for careers “in which they will help to shape and eventually to lead strategic public and private institutions … to improve government, commerce, law, the media, civil society, education, the arts, and the church.”
Likewise, Patrick Henry College (PHC) in Purcellville, Va., aims “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding.” Hanna Rosin, who wrote God’s Harvard after spending 18 months at PHC, observes that the school’s main mission is “to train a new generation of Christian politicians.”
In many ways, these schools are patterning themselves after how the early church influenced its culture, which was far more hostile to Christ than ours.
The Lord built His church with ordinary men and women, working in ordinary careers, living ordinary lives. Yet they had the humility to allow God to do extraordinary things through them. Much has changed in the intervening centuries, but much remains the same. The kingdom of heaven is still advancing in this world through the words and the work of laymen.
This underscores the importance of mission-oriented colleges. But are they as good as—or better than—secular schools for Christians who intend to work in something other than ministry? And are they having an impact in our culture?
Nielson thinks so. He notes that Covenant has graduates and interns working in federal agencies, on Capitol Hill, in business and industry, all across education, and at non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “We view these not as places to seek power,” he adds, “but as places to answer the gospel call.”
A 1965 Wheaton grad, Coats believes his alma mater has solid answers to those questions, too. “There is an ethic of service that all Wheaton students sense, no matter what they study. And it has an impact. At one point, we had four Wheaton graduates serving as members of Congress at the same time,” he observes. “For a small, Christian, liberal arts school, that’s impressive.”
Parrott offers a similar assessment. “The idea that we can’t compete academically is simply wrong,” he concludes, explaining that Belhaven is one of just 25 schools in the entire country with a special accreditation in theater, dance, music, and visual arts.
Though he is loath to use secular institutions as a standard, Parrott realizes that the world does just that. So he notes, “Our graduates are going to Yale and Harvard for grad school.”
Finally, as evidenced by Rosin’s book about PHC, as well as her spots on National Public Radio and articles in The New Yorker, the upstart, mission-minded school is certainly grabbing the attention of secular media. More significantly, the school has already built a pipeline to D.C. Rosin notes that PHC’s graduates are working in the White House, Congress, the FBI, and other federal agencies. Not bad for a school that’s less than a decade old.
Regardless of age, size, or denomination, mission-minded schools are linked by their recognition that higher education has a higher purpose. They are committed to producing graduates who are committed to redeeming their corner of the world. And in doing so, they remind us of what has been happening since the days of John the Baptist, when, in Christ’s words, believers began “forcefully advancing … the kingdom of heaven” into the kingdoms of earth (Matthew 11:12).
These schools and their graduates also provide a glimpse of what is to come, when heaven’s redemptive work is finally finished and Christ “makes all things new.”
Alan Dowd, a writer and researcher in Fishers, Ind., is the author of more than 400 articles covering everything from faith to philanthropy to foreign policy.