Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Coming, "Remnant" Christian College

1. I started this post on Friday when I heard that Jim Stump had resigned from Bethel College in Mishawaka because its Board had decided now to require faculty to sign a very specific faith statement involving the special creation of Adam. That is entirely their right, but with so many of these incidents recently, it prompts us to ask what exactly is going on right now in Christian higher education.

In just the last month we have seen Tom Oord leaving NNU and Daniel Kirk leaving Fuller. Now Jim Stumps. Others could be mentioned from recent years. I fear this is just the beginning.

2. I don't think it is just a matter of faculty types not getting the political context of the educational institution. There is some of that, of course. Faculty tend to think of academic freedom as an absolute, when it isn't at any institution. Every institution has things you can and cannot say. The goal is to work at a place where you can say what you want to say and don't mind keeping your mouth shut if there are things you just can't say there (especially when you don't have tenure yet).

Take Brandon Withrow. We should deeply respect him for realizing that he just can't teach at a Christian seminary if he has stopped believing. Good for him. I have the same respect for Jim Stumps, who realized it wasn't worth it to sign a statement that forbade him from exploring an aspect of faith that was central to his work as a scholar.

3. But I think something bigger is going on here. I thought of two or three possible factors that might be driving this increasing trend. And I suspect it is headed in a certain direction, at least in the short term.

First, I believe there was a predictable, conservative backlash after 9-11. No one was saying the stuff you hear on Fox News today in 2000. In the year 2000, it seemed like no one cared about inerrancy as an issue any more. All the college students I knew at the time were completely on board with social justice. I remember when I asked now President David Wright if he would write a chapter on "Communism versus Capitalism" for a philosophy textbook and he wondered if anyone was still talking about that issue any more.

Second, the majority position on homosexuality and gay marriage has dramatically shifted so quickly that many, many Christians are in a state of complete disequilibrium and instability. What is happening to a country where, just a decade ago, we seemed in control of the White House?

Coupled with this sense of societal vertigo is the rise of the nones, those who no longer identify with Christianity. This trend relates especially to the 20 somethings. Ed Stetzer has plausibly argued that "convictional" Christianity is not actually on the decline at all, but that it is nominal Christianity that is quickly converting to the "no religion" category.

4. Here's what I'm wondering. What happens when you feel like you are being routed in battle is retreat, retrenchment, regrouping. You get inside the fort. The coach calls a time out and you huddle on the sidelines.

For a long time now, civil religion has been the name of the game, what Richard Niebuhr called "Christ over culture." This is rapidly, predictably, converting to a "Christ against culture" posture. (The Anabaptists will be glad to welcome us all. They've been trying to tell us no nation can be Christian for 500 years.)

You can already see it. Just this past Sunday my own pastor was preaching about how Moses, despite the fact that he had a very comfortable life in Egypt, eventually had to face the fact that he belonged to a different homeland. This is all very predictable. This is righteous remnant theology. For the near future, convictional Christians will see themselves as something like a remnant in exile.

5. In a time of insecurity, we can expect many "convictional" Christian colleges to clamp down on what their faculty teach. They will go into protectionist mode. Many of those who still want a Christian college will want an island of protection from the world more than ever, defined in whatever way that particular tradition defines it.

To the degree that nominal Christians have been open to a Christian college, we should expect them increasingly to avoid colleges where Christian faith is front and center. I have reason to believe such colleges may even disgust them, repulse them. So the pool of potential students will decline. Some Christian colleges will probably have to close--and not because of the government. They will close because there just won't be enough Christian students to go around.

Meanwhile, many of these campuses will develop a remnant mentality. Boards will exert ever stricter standards on who is hired and what they can teach on these islands. New, stricter yard sticks will force existing faculty to leave.

These actions in turn will disgust a lot of students, even as it may delight some parents. According to Kyle Roberts, the Southern Baptist Church lost 200,000 people last year, the most ever in a single year. And less than half of its churches baptized any millennials at all last year.

6. Is there another option? I suspect there is. There is the "influence" model I experienced at St. John's College at the University of Durham in England. The leadership of the school were all Christians. Christian worship was readily available to those who wished to avail themselves. But there were plenty of atheists around too and none of them felt one bit uncomfortable there, as far as I could tell.

At St. John's, Christianity was host to the students, who took their classes at the broader university. We would say it was co-curricular. It did not wear its faith on its sleeves or push faith on the students. But it invited whosoever willed. It provided a context.

There is something different about Tom Oord and Jim Stump than some others who have left institutions. It is clear to me that their faith actually stands at the center of their outside-the-box thinking. IWU's President once described faith statements more as the fertile soil from which academic inquiry grows rather than a fence to keep faith from going outside. By that standard, Oord and Stumps would be able to continue teaching at a Christian college that feels secure about itself.

I wonder how a Christian college would do in the days ahead if only professors like Oord and Stumps were allowed to teach there. Would there be a market for a Christian college like that, where faith defined the starting point but not so much the ending, faith seeking understanding? A kind of L'Abri 2.0?

7. Part of me says this is just a transitional moment in history. The disequilibrium of the moment will pass. There will be a new equilibrium. After the smoke clears, there will still be convictional Christian colleges. The question is what they will look like.


Anonymous said...

Kind of disorienting really. I was reading and first thinking "convictional" meant the living in the convictions of how Jesus of Nazareth envisaged all things being made new and "nominal" meant in-the-name-of and having his name but not his nature. This whole Adamic angst seems more about labelization than identification in the divine essence and its flourishing in this world making things on earth as they are in heaven. Anyhow, seems more about nominalism and isolationism that bringing first fruits forth. Alas. I think it'll be more and more difficult to find followings seeking the pattern of being right when what the world might instead need is being made graciously and gorgeously anew.

David Drury said...

Your writing is always important, and often quite compellingly accurate in describing the present. This one is both of those and in addition prophetic, I feel.

Thanks for this. A needed reflection.

I wonder will schools that have a denomination (like your own) to "back them up" be in better shape on this dynamic you suggest--as they are not built on suspicious shifting sands as often? Will those boards be less likely to assert themselves to "prove a point"?

For some time now I have been concerned that when the boxers leave the ring defeated, they would return home to beat on the family. Our "culture-warriors" don't seem to be taking the gloves off, and the family isn't even all that interested in fighting them on this stuff. Which of course is interpreted as being part of the enemy.

I'm reminded of the demotivational poster proclaiming:

"The beatings will continue until morale improves!"

Ken Schenck said...

I have heard that fear expressed before. Can the Crusaders turn their swords into plowshares now that they are returning from the war? Or perhaps there will be new culture battles to fight?

Anonymous said...

The SBC report about losing 200,000 members last year is somewhat misleading. The rolls of SBC churches are often notoriously bloated. Anyone who joins the church is added to the membership roll, and if those members stop attending or move to another church or another city, unless they formally move their membership officially, their names remain on the roll of the previous church. In the past 10-15 years, many (but certainly not all) SBC churches have started purging their membership rolls of all these members they can no longer locate. So yes, it looks like there are sudden and dramatic drops, but really the membership drops have been more gradual over the last 20-30 years even though it wasn't reflected in the actual statistics. Most pastors don't/didn't want to purge their church rolls because it looks more impressive to be a pastor of a 1500 member church instead of a 700 member church.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the clarification!

Martin LaBar said...

Sobering. Thanks.