Are Christian Colleges Too Detached from Churches?

The first of three posts following up on comments on last Tuesday’s open letter asking churches to support Christian higher education…

Today let me start with a thread running through several comments: the argument that if Christian colleges are not receiving as much financial support from denominations and churches, it’s because the colleges themselves have created the distance. That critique manifested itself in a number of more specific observations (I’ll come back another day to the complaint that Christian colleges tend to be more “liberal” than their sponsoring denominations), but today we’ll focus on how two of the main groups of people within any college — students and faculty — relate to denominations and churches.

Let’s start with this segment of a rather lengthy comment from one of our former Bible/theology majors, now serving as a pastor in Kansas:

Worship at Bethel
Image of worship at Bethel from the university’s Campus Ministries page

Bethel has not positioned itself as a para-church arm of its denomination, seeking to serve the needs of that denomination (its churches and its students) as well as the world at large. It is by and large simply a para-church entity. Undergraduate students are encouraged to find mentoring and participate in student life and campus ministries. All of which I benefited from greatly during my time and was often active in leading. However, the there is a *glaring omission* of stressing and promoting the local church. Students are trained to get their ‘spiritual fix’ on campus. Chapel replaces church membership. Vespers replaces congregational worship. RIOT replaces instruction, Bible study and training in the local church by qualified elders. None of these are bad things, if they are made to *complement* the local church. Instead they compete and replace it.

Almost to a person, I can trace the spiritual well-being of my undergrad classmates by thinking back to who was active in a church body while attending Bethel. The students that weren’t, who were spoon fed community and worship in an environment completely untethered from how they would be called to live out their faith in the world upon graduation, by and large, drifted from the church or the faith all together.

Students treating on-campus religious programs as their “church” is a pet peeve of mine as well, for some of reasons touched on above. (I’m also concerned about how such an approach distorts expectations for community: do students experiencing “church” on campus learn to be part of the Body of Christ in all its generational, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic diversity, or do they come to expect those gathered to look much like themselves?) I don’t think that our campus pastors knowingly encourage this attitude (which is probably fed by our being located on a semi-secluded campus in the middle of suburbia — though plenty of local churches provide shuttle service for students without cars), though I’m not sure how much is done to push back against it.

Is that approach to church common among Christian college students, however? And do students value denominations and colleges’ relationships to such bodies?

Perry Glanzer
Perry Glanzer – Baylor University

Here we have some potentially useful data courtesy of the same team of scholars (Perry Glanzer, Jesse Rine, Phil Davignon) on whose research I drew for an earlier post on denominational financial support. In the third and final part of their series of articles in Christian Higher Education on the relationship between denominations and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), Davignon, Glanzer, and Rine shared results of a survey of over 3000 full-time undergraduates studying in sixteen denominationally-affiliated CCCU schools.

• While over 43% of the students surveyed said that denomination was the best way to describe their religious identity, the largest single group (almost 28%) of students who took part in the survey described themselves as “non-denominational.” A slight majority said that denomination was not important in their choice of college, and nearly two-thirds said it wasn’t very important to their parents either.

• The survey didn’t ask directly whether respondents attended a local church, but it did ask which factors were most important to the students’ faith lives. More than two in three said their home congregation was extremely/very important, then just over 60% said the same about their “college congregation.” (Versus 53% for chapel and 18% for parachurch group.)

• When choosing a congregation, denomination was the least important factor, extremely or very important to only 30% of respondents (as opposed to pastor’s theology — almost 80% — and preaching — just over 70%; and also behind worship style and available programs).

A second way of thinking about college-church detachment would focus on faculty: How involved are they in local churches? How committed are they to the denominations that support their employers?

I haven’t seen a study that would answer the first question. I assume that most Christian college professors regularly attend a local church, but I’d be very curious to learn how many play leadership roles within them. I’m in my fourth year as our church‘s chairperson and was on its Leadership Team for a couple of years before that (and a now-retired Bethel Bible/theology professor finished his term as chair not long before I arrived at Salem), but while I have colleagues who play similar roles in their congregations, I suspect that that’s not a common pattern.

Tracy McKenzie
Robert Tracy McKenzie – Wheaton College

I’d also be interested to know how many college (rather than seminary) professors regularly exercise their teaching vocations within congregational settings. If not, is that by personal choice, or for lack of opportunities? (See Mark Galli’s May 2013 piece in Christianity Today encouraging local churches to regularly invite Christian college professors to teach and preach.) Here I’d also point back to earliest posts of mine applauding a seeming shift within the main professional society for Christian historians, the Conference on Faith and History, whose current president, Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College, has called on its members to recover a sense of vocation “to the church.”

On the second question — how committed are Christian college faculty to their schools’ denominations? — we have some data, again courtesy of Glanzer, Rine, and Davignon. The second part of their series in Christian Higher Education shared results of a survey of over 1500 full-time faculty serving in thirty-seven CCCU schools. Some key findings:

  • About 40% had earned a bachelor’s or higher degree from a school sharing the same denominational affiliation as their employer, and about the same share belonged to the denomination that sponsored their school.
  • Just under 60% agreed or strongly (28%) agreed with the statement, “I have a strong sense of affinity to the denomination of my institution.” Just under 20% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
  • Just over half of those surveyed disagreed or strongly (13%) disagreed with the statement, “I wish my institution’s statement of faith was more generic or ‘Mere Christianity.'” About 14% agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. (However, two-thirds believed that their schools should be able to hire Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox professors.)
  • “Generally speaking, faculty perceived denominational identity as enhancing to organizational culture and practice. In particular, a majority of participants identified campus ethos and moral climate (76.1%), on-campus worship (66.2%), recruitment and admissions (51.4%), and governance and institutional leadership (50.5%) as specific areas in which their colleges’ denominational character was a support…. A plurality of respondents (41.9%) also thought that denominational identity enhanced the financial health of their respective institutions, a somewhat curious result given the precipitous decline in denominational funding over the past decade…”
  • A plurality (about 42%) thought that it was important or extremely (7%) important that the majority of the faculty belong to the institution’s denomination. I wonder if the number would have been higher if a phrase like “critical mass” had been used instead of “majority,” since about one-third of respondents were unsure.

So while the study had complex findings, on the whole it suggests that faculty still provides a significant point of connection between church and college; even those (like me) whose own church membership lies outside the sponsoring denomination are unlikely to dismiss the value of that relationship.

Here I’d love to see students and faculty, but also local church pastors and members weigh in: What’s your experience and perception of the relationship between those Christian college constituencies and local churches (and perhaps denominations)?

Read the next post in this series>>

One thought on “Are Christian Colleges Too Detached from Churches?

  1. I don’t want to criticize your former student, whose comments are in bold above, but would suggest that data we got from Bethel students on Assessment Day showed several years ago fairly high participation rates in local churches. We actually asked for information about the kind of involvement students had–attendance at worship, participation in Sunday School or an adult congregation, service at the church (Sunday school, nursery, youth group)–and we found much higher participation rates than we thought we would. I think you are right about relatively lower participation rates for faculty in leadership roles, but I don’t know that we have much evidence that would substantiate this.

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