Are Christian Colleges and Universities Failing the Church and Kingdom?
Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Eastern University (St. Davids, PA), and gadfly evangelist who provokes his fellow evangelicals, ask whether Christian colleges and universities were failing both the American churches and the Kingdom of God. Since he taught at a Christian college (now university–and now it has an entire program named after him), I didn’t take his question too seriously. Or, I thought he was talking about those Christian colleges, usually very conservative, which were not very academically challenging (such as Palm Peace Atlantic, where I did part of my undergraduate work). Or maybe he meant those institutions which were once Christian, but now were purely secular institutions with little or no relation to the churches (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, University of Chicago, Brown, Southern Methodist, etc.).
But recently, I have begun to think that’s not what Campolo had in mind. Or, if it was, it is not what I have in mind in asking this question. I have begun to wonder if even those Christian colleges with strong academics and also strong connections to the churches, with a pervading Christian atmosphere and a desire to unite faith and learning, are failing the churches and the kingdom–are failing God. This is a question, not a conclusion, and there may be exceptions that still prove the general rule even if the question is answered “Yes, they are.”
Here’s why the question comes to mind: the behavior of most of the graduates of Christian colleges and universities is not noticeably different from the behavior of the rest of the (pagan, secular) culture. Why aren’t the graduates of Christian colleges who go on to, say, Medical school, irritants to the system, questioning the practices of medicine in our society in light of the gospel? And after medical school, why aren’t Christian doctors uniting to build practices and institutions that offer free medical care to the poor–regardless of what our culture does? Do we find a higher than average number of the members of Doctors Without Borders (Medicins sans Frontieres) to be products of Christian colleges and universities? What about the members of Physicians for Social Responsibility? Do we find doctors who come from Christian colleges treating nurses better than most doctors? Do we find them taking less money and living simpler so that they can provide more care to more people? I don’t think so.
Because the healthcare debate is front-burner, I thought of Christian doctors first, but I don’t mean to single them out. What about graduates of Christian colleges and universities who go on to law school and become attorneys? Do we see them take the normal big money jobs, or do we see them living simpler than other lawyers so that they can use the law to bring justice to the poor and marginalized? All lawyers are expected by their profession to do a certain amount of pro bono (free) work, but do we see graduates of Christian colleges doing more of this? Are they volunteering for the cases no one else wants, like death penalty appeals or defending accused terrorists? Are they taking the lead in defending human rights and civil liberties? Do other lawyers consider them a pain in the neck for the way they constantly work to make the system more just for everyone? I have no doubt that some do, but is the percentage any greater from Christian colleges than from secular ones?
If our church-related colleges and universities were truly, uniquely, Christian, we’d expect the education majors to teach in areas with less glamor and resources–or push for changes in curriculum that better educated the young. We’d expect the graduates that went into politics to put Kingdom goals (justice for the poor and marginalized, peacemaking, care for the earth, work for the common good) at the top of their list–and we’d find few if any involved in scandals and corruption. We’d find them refuse to slander colleagues or opponents–not even to win elections–and to defend the character of those whose policies they opposed–to practice humility. If our colleges and universities were truly producing “Christian” education, would not the business majors be in the forefront of efforts to reform banking practices or create opportunities for the poor. The founder of no-interest “micro-lending” to the poor was no product of Christian college, but Muhammed Yunus, a Muslim in Bangladesh. A recent survey of 3 prominent societies for Christian business leaders, many of whom were graduates of church-related colleges, found that less than 1% had even heard of micro-lending and most were skeptical that it could “work” to alleviate poverty–though the success rate is phenomenal and widely praised by international development experts.
I could go on through field after field of inquiry asking similar questions. And they all lead me to wonder WHY our Christian colleges and universities–no matter denomination or theological tradition–are making so little impact on our culture through their graduates? If we find these educational efforts valuable, and I still do, what about them needs to change so that they do not continue to fail the churches and the Kingdom of God?
I do not have the answers to this–not even a few of them. But I think I finally understand why Campolo was asking the question–and I think the time is long overdue for more of us to ask the same question.
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