Why Christian Colleges Are (Really) In Trouble
The seminary, Christian university and Bible college is in trouble, so says my friend and church analyst Thom Schultz in his latest blog “Trouble at Christian Colleges.” Attendances are in decline. Revenue streams are drying up. Entire schools are folding. Over the past two years I’ve visited dozens of private Christian schools in my work. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve watched layoffs, downsizing and forced retirements. I’ve even experienced it myself. It’s hard to be a Christian college professor today.
As a professor of ministry for nearly 25 years (15 years full-time), I think Thom largely hit the proverbial nail on the headmaster. I was blessed to be part of Christian higher education during its glory days. I love to teach and still miss the classroom greatly. It was a special blessing to disciple students in ministry leadership. I have hundreds of former students, most who serve successfully and lead powerfully in local churches, parachurch organizations, schools, businesses or other Christian institutions. I am still blessed to teach online at one of the best Christian universities in the world and adjunct courses at other schools whenever possible.
Nevertheless, I will confess I left the academy somewhat disillusioned by the institutional machine of modern Christian education. I served as a professor or staff in four schools, from a small Bible college to one of America’s largest Christian universities. Each had unique blessings, special challenges and proven successes. It was clear the larger the school the more she focused upon non-academic stuff, particularly sports programs and the never-ending campaign to erect the next building (supposedly to attract more students, which didn’t always happen). As a professor, I was discouraged to discover that faculty development, evaluation and improvement was minimal (with spotty training to help me improve as a teaching professor). Outside of semester student evaluations there was little constructive feedback and few budgeted resources to improve pedagogy. It wasn’t necessarily my dean’s fault either. These fine individuals were overworked, underpaid and doing the best they could.
My biggest disappointment is how schools, even those camped in the same denomination, are highly territorial. Outside of sports competitions (which naturally create an adversarial relationship), many Christian colleges operate inside their academic bubble high upon their institutional islands. There’s little cooperation or collaboration. Every school tries to reinvent the wheel, completely dismissing affordable and helpful resources easily obtained through sister colleges. Outside of annual meetings and conventions, where sister school faculty, staff and students, might occasionally rub shoulders, there is little camaraderie.
So I understand why students (and faculty/staff) move on. There are lots of learning options today, particularly digital formats. I personally believe the future of higher Christian education and ministry training is online. It’s faster, less expensive, more convenient and, in my experience, even more productive. Information is cheap in today’s cyber economy. You don’t need to pay big bucks to a school to learn something. Online education is the perfect fit for the emerging iTech generation. It’s even more fun (and lucrative) for the professor. You can’t hide in an online class and enrollments have to be sectioned small (under 25 students). Online courses require a higher degree of student commitment, involvement and attitude. Learning happens within the student’s (not the school’s) cultural context. In recent years, online learning has become popular, but few Christian schools have the expertise, funding and infrastructure to do it right, so most muddle along in mediocrity.
So WHY the “trouble at Christian colleges?”
First of all, most Christian colleges, seminaries or universities must jump through a variety of hoops to remain accredited by state, regional or national entities (essential to granting degrees). The U.S. government in recent years has pressed for clear evidence that a school is doing it’s advertised work and producing graduates. If an institution doesn’t pass the fed’s performance demands then student loans and other federal aid is at risk. Meanwhile legitimate concerns the U.S. government might soon become hostile to private Christian institutions are rising.
Second, Christian colleges, seminaries or universities focus on the theological not the practical. Many ministry graduates lament about how ill-prepared they were for real ministry, but it’s not because ministry professors didn’t want to include leadership classes. Rather, the lack of leadership training is again connected to accreditation standards. Many larger Christian colleges and universities pursue regional accreditation in order for their courses and degrees to better transfer to other state institutions. But regional accreditation cares little about ministry leadership training and demands four-year degrees to be loaded with general education courses (many of which, like math and physical education, have little value to a ministry student). And then Bible and theology departments demand their lion share of the ministry curriculum, chewing up dozens of hours. I remember a robust conversation with one Bible professor who defended his ministry epistles class as a required course. It was his only opportunity to teach “ministry,” he said. He was a good guy but his ministry experience was seriously limited. Consequently, my students lost three hours of practical education in order to take his required Bible class.
Third, smaller Bible and Christian colleges (and their ministry students) face a different problem: professors that have little to no experience teaching a particular subject. It can happen at larger schools too. I taught several classes over the years for which I had little to no experience, little to no educational background and little to no expertise, but somehow the class still got pushed on my plate. One semester I taught “women’s ministry” to a room full of ladies (I was totally out of my element). In another I taught physical education (because I was the young athletic professor, I guess!). Even if a professor has knowledge in a subject, including personal experience, it doesn’t mean they should teach it. Teaching is much more than transferring content.
Fourth, since the 1990s, many Christian colleges have watched their local church support dollar disappear. Fewer churches back a seminary or Bible college anymore with their mission dollar. Many larger churches openly say they won’t hire a Christian college graduate (unless they’re willing to intern for peanuts first), preferring to groom their pastors from within. When I attended Bible college in the early ’80s well over 50% of my tuition was paid by local church donations. Today, in many Christian colleges, church support has dipped below 10%. Most private Christian schools are now tuition-driven and that’s a problem for ministry students who rack up huge educational bills only to serve in a field with sub-standard salaries.
So there’s a lot of issues facing Christian universities, seminaries and Bible colleges today.
With that said, I want to categorically state that formal pastoral education remains valid, critical and necessary. Historically, the three most educated people in town were the doctor, lawyer and preacher. The Ivy League schools were originally created to train the clergy. So I don’t agree with some who argue a formal Christian college education isn’t important. Too many churches today, particularly of the megachurch type, are pastored by individuals with little to no theology or Christian ministry training (and their messages, teaching and leadership shows it). The Church is a spiritual enterprise not a business or school. The greatest issue facing the church in the 21st century is biblical ignorance and the Academy can solve this issue.
Naturally, critics of higher Christian education like to point out how Jesus’ disciples were “ignorant” and “unschooled.” However, such criticism only reveals a lack of biblical and historical understanding. In reality, the average Jewish boy wasn’t as ignorant or unschooled as you might think. A synagogue education (boys only) required memorizing the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Jewish homes were spiritual centers and “houses of the Book” served Jewish children with education in secular studies. Furthermore, when it came time to take Christianity into a pagan and educated Greco-Roman culture, God chose the highly-educated Paul (not to mention Apollos and Dr. Luke) over fishing-buddies-turned-preachers Peter, James and John. Early Christianity (AD 33-400) was served well by the academics who kept heresy in check, defended the Faith and carved fresh paradigms for leadership and ministry. Catechumenal schools, cathedral schools, monasteries and eventually the university guided the Church through twenty centuries.
Yes, Christian universities, Bible colleges, seminaries and other religious institutions are in trouble, but its largely due to its inability to think outside the modern-Enlightenment box. Our ministry schools, like the the churches they serve, must reimagine themselves. The future of the Church demands a highly-educated critical thinker, culturally-astute collaborative leader and dynamic communicator. Historically, the Academy has led both the Church and culture through massive societal change and it’s no different now.
Now is not the time for the Church to jettison the Academy.
But it is time for both institutions to partner to find fresh working solutions, innovative new paradigms and creative programming in order to reach postmodern generations.
In the future I intend to share a few of my bubbling ideas on what tomorrow’s Christian college, university and seminary might look like, but my time is up.
Posted on June 9, 2016, in American church, Christian education, Christian Growth and Discipleship, Christianity, Church History, Higher Christian education and tagged Christian education, Christian Growth, church, Church History, future of the church. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.