Marriage, Friendship, and the Mission of Christian Colleges

According to research by higher education scholar Robert Kelchen, former students of religious private colleges were much more likely to be married — and earlier — than those at other types of institutions. For example, Dordt College (a Christian Reformed school in Iowa) and two campuses of Brigham Young University topped the field in having at least 43% of their students married by the ages of 23-25. When Kelchen moved to students at the other end of his age range (born 1980-1982), guess which Pietist university in St. Paul, Minnesota joined Dordt and the BYU campuses in the top five, with 80+% married.

That certainly fits my anecdotal sense of campus culture at Bethel. Even as I type this, I can see two save-the-date cards for May 2017 grads on my fridge.

My wedding, in Northwestern's Nazareth Hall
No, I didn’t meet my wife at Bethel – but I did get married at the Christian school down the street: what’s now the University of Northwestern St. Paul

Generally, I’ve found that faculty at schools like ours have mixed feelings about student marriage rates. Many of my colleagues met their spouses at a Christian college and wed not long after graduating. I did neither: I attended a public college and wasn’t yet married when I was hired in 2003. When I got to new faculty orientation, I was taken aback when new colleagues started lamenting phrases I’d never heard before: “Ring by Spring” and “The MRS Degree.”

Fifteen years later (of employment, eleven of marriage)… Yes, it can seem that some students treat Bethel less as a Christian learning community than an incredibly expensive match-making service. And I worry that evangelical subcultures like ours tend to idealize marriage in ways that can be hard on singles and young married couples alike. (To say nothing of young women who come out of Christian college feeling obligated to give up the careers for which they trained so hard in order to stay at home and raise children.)

Still, it’s clear that many prospective students and their parents are considering Bethel and similar schools precisely because they’re thinking ahead to marriage, and I’m not sure we do much to discourage such intentions. As usual, the current issue of Bethel’s magazine ends with long lists of alumni marriages and newborns, and it starts with our president including “With whom will I do life?” among the big questions that he suggests prospective students should ask at college.

Now, while Jay and his wife are famous for hosting a small group with engaged couples at Bethel, I don’t think he only had marriage on his mind. The answers to his next question (“Who will speak into my life as I ask and answer these questions?”) are as likely to be friends, professors, coaches, campus pastors, and other mentors as a spouse. This actually seems right to me: having failed to take time to date, make friends, or find a mentor during my own accelerated rush through college and into grad school, I often tell students that their years at Bethel are an ideal time to form the kinds of relationships that will shape them the rest of their lives.

In fact, the more I think about this, the more I think that these questions of Jay’s are truly core to our mission.

Jean C. Lambert preaching in the 1980s
Lambert preaching at North Park Covenant in Chicago in the 1980s – Covenant Archives

They take me back to Covenant pastor-theologian Jean Lambert’s notion that Christian mission is fundamentally about friendship, with God and then others in God’s name. If she’s right and if our mission as a Christian institution is, in some sense, an extension of the larger mission of God in this world, then we should consider how our curriculum, co-curriculum, and campus culture prepare students to befriend others in the name of the Savior who called his followers his friends.

Applying Lambert’s definition, such institutions should nurture a

friendship with God in Jesus Christ which brings unity and harmony to the disoriented self, thereby enabling relations with other people and the world. Fruits of the relationship are freedom to love and to take responsibility in the world as fellow-creature and friend of any who will likewise take the risks friendship requires.

Not just to identify a spouse who shares one’s faith and values, or to get along with roommates or cultivate a mentor, perhaps Christian colleges should equip their graduates to go out into an uncivil, polarized, individualistic society and befriend in the deepest sense of the word.