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The Role of Higher Education in the Christian World Mission: Past, Present and Future

Larry Poston

The Influence of Higher Education

Of the three institutions most closely associated with the Christian world mission—the local church, the theological school and the missionary sending agency—it is debatable as to which is the most important. Rather than becoming bogged down in what would most likely be a fruitless discussion regarding this question, I am going to pursue an altogether different line of inquiry. In the long run, it may be more productive to ask which of the three is the most influential, and in answer to this question, I would like to propose that the theological school is the linchpin of modern ministry-related endeavors.

 With respect to the local church institution, for instance, the leadership—pastors, youth pastors and other administrative officials—almost without exception are the holders of, at least, a bachelor’s degree. In the case of the pastorate, only in rare instances will a person without an M.Div. or its equivalent be employed in this day and age, and for churches which are large or which serve a higher socioeconomic class, a D.Min. or even a Ph.D. is becoming an expectation, if not a requirement. Thus all of the most influential persons within a local church structure have passed through at least one, and in most cases more than one, institution of higher learning.

 With regard to mission agency personnel, it is difficult to imagine that the majority do not have a college degree—from the executive officers who lead the organization to the accountant who keeps track of the finances. Finally, it is the expectation of every credible missions organization that missionary candidates hold at least a bachelor’s degree in some biblical or ministry-related field of study, and it is increasingly common to see men and women with masters and even doctoral degrees beginning the process of deputation. Higher education is thus the common denominator in each of these aspects of ministry involvement.

 On the other hand, it is possible to become a missionary while bypassing a mission agency entirely. While the corps of “tentmakers” living abroad and engaged in missionary activity has never been large, awareness of this group has increased significantly over the last two decades. Some mission organizations have offered services to Christian businessmen, teachers, engineers and government workers abroad, providing loose structures of fellowship and accessibility to materials and counsel. But there is little direct influence, and even less overt control in all but a handful of cases.

 Then there are the “lone ranger” missionaries, the independents who have heard a “call” and have made their way overseas in some fashion. Again, no direct connection with a mission agency is present. But nearly all of the members of both of these groups have been in schools of some kind—Bible institutes, Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts institutions, seminaries, universities—and even if these alma maters were not specifically “Christian,” involvement in parachurch campus groups was often the spur which led to a missions emphasis while on an overseas assignment.

 Parachurch experiences also make it possible to bypass the local church in one’s spiritual development. Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators and other similar groups have produced entire generations of Christians with tenuous connections to traditional local church structures. Many students make their way from university undergraduate programs to evangelical seminaries and thence to mission organizations. Short-term internships in local church situations may—or may not—be required in the course of seminary training. Some students merely continue their parachurch involvement when choosing a practical assignment. Candidates with interdenominational agencies, charged with raising their financial support from whatever sources they are able to discover, are sometimes fortunate enough to establish contacts with local churches seeking to extend their missionary outreach. Many candidates, however, rely almost totally on the support of individuals, and thus the influence of or involvement in the local church in their lives is minimized. And even those whose deputation experiences bring them in contact with church structures often have very little interpersonal contact other than the monthly financial contribution.

 For these reasons we maintain that schools are the linchpins which hold the missionary enterprise together—or weaken it irreparably. It is the educational institutions, and those who teach in them, which bear the chief responsibility for the success or failure of the Christian world mission. The questions that we must therefore seek to answer are these: Have educational institutions and their faculty members clearly understood their responsibility with regard to Christian missions? Are they taking the steps necessary to carry out this responsibility in an adequate fashion, given the current trends which exist both within higher education as well as within the missionary enterprise itself?

Educating for Ministry—from Yesterday to Today

 Currently, Christian institutions of higher learning are being forced to walk an incredibly narrow tightrope, bridging between academic integrity and credibility on the one hand and faithfulness to the Bible and the Great Commission on the other. Some schools have seemingly been more successful at walking this rope than others. It does not, for example, appear to have troubled most Roman Catholic institutions. Roman Catholic universities and colleges have maintained at least some semblance of religiosity while attaining enviable academic reputations. Notre Dame, Georgetown, Loyola, Fordham—the list is an impressive one.

 But Protestants have not been successful at developing institutions that have stayed the course. The Ivy League universities—nearly all of which were founded and sponsored by Protestant denominations—have been sundered from their religious roots and rate only the term “secular” at the present time. And the Bible institutes, Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts colleges and seminaries established by conservative evangelicals have never attained either the academic or societal status that Catholic universities have acquired.1

 The absence of such status was not a problem in the past. Indeed, one can easily substantiate the claim that a primary reason for the failure of these Christian institutions to attain the heights of academic respectability was simply that they never aspired to do so. Their very establishment was an act of protest against much of what the drive for academic “respectability” had produced; namely, institutions which not only sidelined all attempts to discover aspects of spirituality and the divine, but which in many cases openly ridiculed such aspects in the context of academic pursuits. For most evangelicals, acceptance and approval of their own institutions from “Ivy League” schools would have been a mark of failure in that such acceptance would have signaled nothing less than an apostate status.2

 Therefore, A.B. Simpson’s Missionary Training Institute, Jonathan Blanchard’s Wheaton College (begun as the Illinois Bible Institute), Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Dallas Theological Seminary and other such schools forged new paths of their own. And for the majority of these schools, such concepts as “state approval” and “regional accreditation” were of no concern for the first several decades of their existence. Students in these institutions were, for the most part, adequately equipped to perform the tasks of evangelism, disciplemaking, Christian education and church planting. Pastors, missionaries and Christian educators were the products of these institutions, and they carried out the Great Commission in accordance with a Pietistic interpretation of the Bible’s texts, emphasizing the internal and personal transformation of the individual rather than an external and institutional development of society.

 This Pietistic emphasis contributed in part to the nearly unanimous adoption of dispensational premillennialism by evangelicals in the opening years of the twentieth century and the concomitant rejection of the amillennial and postmillennial eschatologies of historic Protestantism. Consequently, the focus of the Christian world mission shifted from national and global concerns—such as extending the kingdom of God in a physical sense through expansion of the institutional Church—to a strictly individualist orientation. Dispensational premillennialists had no intention of establishing a worldwide Christian culture—which would have involved a much more holistic approach to the education of converts—but was instead primarily concerned with “bringing back the King”—an event which could be hastened by concentrating solely upon the task of “preaching the Gospel to every creature.”3

 The establishment of “Christian” political, economic, judicial and other such structures—tasks which would require a basic liberal arts education in addition to Bible training—was considered a colossal waste of time, given the presumption that due to the innate sinfulness of all human beings—including the Christian populace—the King would be forced upon His return to dismantle any and all earthly structures (including those established by Christians) in order to build His millennial kingdom.

Paradigm Shifts in Evangelical Higher Education

 Three major changes occurred after World War II which had the effect of producing a new focus on the part of Christian institutions of higher learning. First, evangelicalism began to undergo a subtle transformation with regard to its “Christ and Culture” philosophy. Using H. Richard Niebuhr’s paradigm, one can maintain that prior to the war, dispensational premillennialism had placed its adherents either in the “Christ Against Culture” category or the “Christ and Culture in Paradox” position.4 Both of these perspectives marginalized evangelicals not only from the standpoint of secular society, but also from the perspective of a large portion of “Christianity” (i.e., the mainline Protestant denominations) as well.

 As we observed earlier, such marginalization was not problematic for Christians living in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But the devastation to human civilization wrought by World War II in the 1940s, the crass materialism and rise of communism in the 1950s, and the political, social and moral liberalization of the 1960s forced evangelicals to ask themselves if they had been correct to concentrate so exclusively upon the individual aspects of human life; perhaps something needed to be said about external and institutional concerns after all.

 But it was immediately apparent that the transformation of cultural institutions requires a much different form of education than that which existed in conservative Christian colleges. New curricula involving the humanities and the social sciences had to be developed, and the only extant models for such curricula were in the secular colleges and universities. In order to provide this education from a Christian perspective, it was necessary either to draw upon Christians who had earned their degrees from secular institutions or to send teachers who had gained their credentials exclusively through Christian institutions to acquire further education within the secular university system.

 When a person receives his or her undergraduate education from a Bible institute or Bible college, proceeds to a seminary graduate program, gains experience through involvement in a pastorate or missionary context for several years and then returns to a teaching position in a Christian institution, a cycle is formed which permits only a minimum of new ideas to enter a curricular program. But when men and women are drawn in from “the outside” (i.e., a secular educational environment) or when Christians are sent to be educated within such an environment, the concepts which then enter the pool of Christian ideas contain drastically different philosophical (not to mention theological) underpinnings.

 The effect of such ideas upon Bible college and seminary curricula has been profound, and the consequent effect upon those educated in accordance with such curricula—including missionary candidates and aspiring pastors—has been profound as well. We will return to this theme shortly.

 A second post-war change concerns the kind and quality of the education provided by Christian institutions of higher learning. The expectations of evangelical Christians regarding what their educational systems should be characterized by have been shaped in recent years by various media which have published comparative data regarding institutions of higher learning in the United States. The availability of such rankings to the Christian public has led many to question why evangelical institutions—with only a handful of exceptions—never appear in such rankings. The implication, of course, is that the education received at such institutions is of such poor quality that they have been completely excluded from the charts.

 Not long ago, such neglect by secular rating systems would have been worn as a badge of honor. In addition, the fact that the secular rating systems use somewhat subjective criteria for their assignments should be of significance.5 But separatist “badges of honor” are no longer worn by evangelicals, and perception—rather than objective data—has become the order of the day. As a result, parents who are doling out increasingly higher tuition fees for their sons and daughters to attend Christian institutions of higher learning have begun to conclude that they are not getting sufficient value for their dollars.

 Consequently, Christian institutions have been faced with two options, neither of which is attractive. They can adapt their curricular programs and campus environments to compete with the institutions that are ranked at or near the top of the rating systems—these institutions being essentially secular in orientation—or they can look forward to a slow decline in their student populations and eventually close their doors.

 The desire of parents to receive more value for their college expenditures is not the only financial pressure brought to bear on Christian institutions, leading to yet a third change in the educational enterprise. Rising costs have forced an increasing number of schools to seek state and regional accreditation in order to become eligible to receive and award federal and state grants and loans. Lacking the resources to supply financial aid in significant amounts to students, Christian institutions have been unable to compete with state and private universities which receive heavy subsidies from both government and private agencies.

 To meet accreditation requirements, certain compromises have been necessary in the areas of curriculum and institutional ethos. George Marsden, for instance, cites the example of New York State, which has “withheld aid from religiously affiliated colleges until they furnished satisfactory evidence that religious considerations were secondary to defining the tasks of the college. . . . [S]uch pressures as well as those growing out of parallel court decisions of the era sped the processes of secularization for many colleges.”6

 Since, as we have established previously, nearly all of the current generation of pastors, youth leaders, missionary candidates and missionary agency personnel have passed through these institutions, we must conclude that the changes noted above have affected the Christian world mission in a number of ways.

 With regard to the various Christian educational institutions, it is perhaps the situation of the Christian liberal arts colleges which should be of greatest concern at the present. Bible institutes, Bible colleges and seminaries do not stand in nearly as dangerous a position. Why is this the case?

 Most Bible colleges have acquired state and, in some cases, even regional accreditation and are able to offer baccalaureate degrees in a very limited number of fields (i.e., Bible and music). In order to meet accreditation standards, these schools have added a minimal number of liberal arts courses, all of which are taught from an undeniably Christian perspective, most often by professors who have obtained either a “mixed” education (i.e., both “secular” and “sacred”) or an exclusively “Christian” one. These liberal arts courses have enhanced the typical Bible college curriculum by injecting elements of the social sciences and humanities which have broadened the horizons of the students in attendance.

 Bible and theology courses, however, continue to be the mainstay of the overall course of study, in most cases comprising one-third to one-half of the total number of required credits. Thus a Bible college graduate comes away with an extensive knowledge of the Bible and theology; this knowledge will be expanded and sharpened by the seminary experience which nearly all who today plan to enter full-time Christian service eventually obtain. Thus the traditional criticisms of Bible institute and Bible college education (i.e., no accreditation and no broad-based general education requirements) have to a large extent been addressed.

 The Christian liberal arts college, however, seeks accreditation for a large number of majors, including subjects in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and technological fields. The push to enhance the liberal arts aspects of these schools has in many cases eroded the Bible and theology content of general education requirements to an absolute minimum, such as one or two courses.

 An evaluation of evangelical seminaries yields much the same conclusion as was drawn regarding Bible colleges and institutes. The purpose of such graduate institutions is to prepare men and women for professional ministerial functions, and therefore most of the curricula offered in these schools are heavily weighted in favor of Bible and theology courses. This is not always the case, however, and so it would be useful to distinguish between the various categories of entering students and the types of programs available to them at the graduate level, for different combinations of these categories will yield varying products. At least four combinations can be suggested:

Category #1: The graduate of a Bible college or institute who prepares for ministry through attainment of a master of divinity seminary degree. Such a combination essentially adds an additional three or four years of biblical and theological studies to the four years of introductory level courses acquired at the undergraduate level.

Category #2: The graduate of a Bible college or institute who prepares for ministry through a master of arts seminary degree. If this graduate level degree is in Old Testament, New Testament or systematic theology, further education in biblical studies is, of course, forthcoming. A master’s degree in missions or Christian education, however, moves the student into a very different set of academic disciplines. For the aspiring missionary, studies in anthropology, linguistics, comparative religions and urban ministry will most likely be the standard bill of fare. Built upon a Bible college or institute background, these studies have the effect of broadening one’s education in directions helpful to one’s professional aspirations, although further training in purely biblical studies will most likely be minimal.

Category #3: The graduate of a liberal arts college or university who prepares for ministry through attainment of a master of divinity seminary degree. In most such cases, the undergraduate degree will be in a field unrelated to Bible or theology. Thus the seminary program must bear the full responsibility for preparing such a student both in terms of biblical/theological knowledge and in terms of professional ministerial training. Since statistically speaking this is the most common type of student found in evangelical seminaries, most such institutions have adapted their programs to meet these needs. At the completion of his or her formal training, however, the student in category 3 will most likely have up to sixty or so credits less of Bible and theology instruction than his or her colleague who is in category 1.

Category #4: The graduate of a liberal arts college or university who prepares for ministry through attainment of a master of arts seminary degree. Again, if this degree is in the area of Old Testament, New Testament or systematic theology, at least some training in biblical studies is acquired, though not nearly to the extent of one enrolled in a master of divinity program, and certainly not to an extent even distantly comparable to the category 1 student.

 The student in this category who chooses to major in missions (or some other than purely biblical field) will without a doubt be the “weakest” in terms of overall Bible preparation. As noted above, the courses in this program of study will revolve around anthropology, communications, urban studies and the like. Some Bible courses will, of course, be required, but this will be a minimal amount. The question that all mission agencies must ask is whether or not the candidate who is a category 4 graduate is adequately prepared to be a minister of the gospel in cross-cultural situations. It may indeed be the case that category 1 students are, by comparison, “overqualified,” but would it not be so that those in category 4 might be dangerously underqualified to fulfill the aspect of the Great Commission that requires ministers of the gospel to teach new disciples to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20)?

 Some might object that if the category 4 person was a graduate of a Christian liberal arts college, the “danger” suggested here might be mitigated. But to be frank, this may not be the case at all. It is even conceivable that a student who has graduated from a fully secular institution might actually be better off with regard to Bible and theology training than one who has attended a Christian liberal arts college. Let me explain.

 The Christian liberal arts college is not a new concept; indeed, many of the earliest Protestant institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and Northwestern could be said to have been Christian liberal arts institutions at the time of their inception. The title is now reserved, however, for schools which have banded together around a specific set of criteria, in the main espousing a conservative view of the Bible as the inspired Word of God and a likewise conservative approach to the interpretation and application of the Scriptures within the context of life and society.

 James Davison Hunter, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, has been a leading researcher into trends involving evangelicals, including evangelical higher education. His study of nine leading evangelical liberal arts colleges and seven seminaries, published in 1987, noted several disturbing trends in these schools. Stated simply, the educational process of these institutions often serves to undermine the religious commitment of students rather than strengthening it. With statistical support, Hunter claims that “the more intent evangelical higher education is on preserving the integrity of its traditions, the less successful it is. . . . Among Protestant colleges, the more serious a commitment to the task of higher education, the more prevalent the liberalization and secularization tendencies.”7

 This last statement could well be interpreted in the following manner: the better the institution is from the standpoint of secular ranking systems—the standards which “count” with contemporary parents and students—the more likely the institution is to “secularize” its students. It would thus be tempting to conclude that the lower an evangelical institution is ranked by such systems, the better an institution it will be from the standpoint of biblical values. A college or seminary which does not appear at all on these lists could presumably wear this omission as a badge of biblical integrity. But such conclusions—even if they are warranted—are essentially without value at the current juncture of history.

 This is so for two reasons. First, it would be impossible to convince the parents of college-age young people of the truth of such logic, for the plausibility structure of our time disallows the separatist notions that accompanied the establishment of the early Bible institutes. The argument that approval by a secularist ranking system is indicative of spiritual decline might conceivably have succeeded in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but not during the corresponding period in the twentieth. Secondly, it would be even more difficult to convince the faculties and administrative personnel of the evangelical institutions which are now beginning to appear on the lists of “quality” institutions that all of the striving they have undergone to attain academic respectability has actually resulted in a decline in their spirituality. Suggesting that they should seek a lower position in ranking systems would be considered ludicrous in the extreme.

 Given our current cultural context, we must seek to attack these problems in another manner, one which adopts the somewhat optimistic presupposition that biblical integrity and academic respectability need not necessarily be inversely proportional. But I shall leave this topic for the final section of the essay. Presently it is necessary to enter into a discussion of yet another topic so that when we begin to assemble our conclusions, we will have all the necessary components at our disposal.

Current Trends in Education and Their Implications for the Christian World Mission

 If, as we have claimed, institutions of higher learning are the clearinghouses for church leadership, mission agency leadership and missionary personnel, then we can expect that trends in education will eventually make their presence known within both church and mission contexts. It is thus incumbent upon Christian denominations and mission agencies to keep their fingers on the pulses of the schools from which their most significant personnel are drawn. It is also incumbent upon these schools to assume responsibility for the physical, intellectual and spiritual development of the men and women who enter their halls and engage in the pursuit of truth. Part of this responsibility involves an awareness of the constantly changing profile of today’s students. The following are some of the more significant trends that currently exist.

 1. Older Students. Demographically, the pool of students in the traditional college age range of eighteen to twenty-two years has declined significantly during the last three decades. This may be difficult to observe at first, since a much larger proportion of persons in this age range attend college now than was true in previous generations. Many begin college programs—and so the numbers look good. But a large percentage of these persons are not adequately gifted or prepared to withstand the rigors of a college education, and so less than half of those who begin actually complete a four-year degree.8 Thus the generation of eighteen to twenty-two-year-olds can no longer be expected to supply the recruiting needs of tuition-driven institutions, and therefore other markets are being tapped.

 A result of this change in demographics is the growing popularity of degree completion programs, designed specifically for persons who began a college career but who for one reason or another never completed their program. These persons reenter the academic environment at a (usually) much older age, and a number of these persons plan to use their degree to facilitate a career change. Sometimes the change is to a ministry-related field; the person has experienced the new birth, developed a desire to be involved in pastoral or missionary ministry, learned that a certain amount of education is required and, because of a “late start” attitude, seeks to complete this academic training in as rapid a manner as possible.

 Most undergraduate degree completion programs require one or two years. Seminary or graduate school training—almost universally required for the pastorate and increasingly necessary for missionary service—adds another two to four years. Acquisition of the requisite educational credentials can thus take from three to six years. For persons who begin in their late twenties, thirties or forties, time spent in the classroom can easily boost the age at which they assume full-time ministerial responsibilities into the next decade of their life. And candidates with faith mission agencies can look forward to a two- or three-year support-raising period in addition to their completion of educational requirements.

 2. Dysfunctional Family Backgrounds. As the rates of divorce and remarriage continue to hover at approximately fifty percent of all marital relationships, the familial experiences of students entering Christian institutions of higher learning are, in perhaps a majority of cases, very different from the situations of previous generations. Effects include either a profound distrust of and skepticism regarding the institution of marriage in general, or an overly eager desire to find a marriage partner and “succeed” where one’s parents failed.

 The first attitude produces a delay in entering into serious relationships until the late twenties or even beyond, which from the standpoint of personal spiritual formation may be good (in that more time is devoted to undistracted physical, intellectual and spiritual development) or bad (when the temptations of the profoundly immoral modern world beset the single Christian). The second attitude may produce a motivation strong enough to make a marriage succeed at any cost, or it may result in ideals and expectations which are so unreasonable that the union is destined to fail before it even begins, thus renewing the cycle of divorce and remarriage.

 Students arrive at institutions of higher education with a host of family-oriented problems which can manifest themselves in ministerial situations long after the educational process is completed, and it is clear that the stresses of cross-cultural adjustment can exacerbate these problems to the point where new missionary candidates will break down under the strain. Mission agencies and churches which insist upon appointing or employing only “well-adjusted” individuals without such backgrounds are most likely already feeling the strain of a vastly decreased pool of qualified candidates. To fill the constant—and in many cases increasing—number of available positions, denominations and independent missions agencies are often forced to choose persons who are a “risk,” necessitating the establishment of counseling programs for those who, under normal circumstances, would be expected to be spiritual counselors themselves.

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