Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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.

August 15, 2009 - Posted by | education, Kingdom of God


  1. Good question Michael. Honestly I think that some Christian colleges and universities are Christian in name only (giving lip service to the denomintion that funds and supports them). I think that Christian values have a place in business especially in today’s chaotic world. Sometimes a non-Christian like Yunus sets a good example for us all.

    Comment by Paul | August 15, 2009

  2. I wasn’t talking about the “in name only” schools, though, Paul. I know many Christian colleges and universities that really try–but the impact they have doesn’t seem much greater than that of secular universities. My oldest daughter just started high school and is looking at colleges and universities.

    Considering their price, I’m wondering if she couldn’t get just as much Christian influence at Christian societies on a secular campus. I know I thought I had as much Christian formation from participating in InterVarsity and the Baptist Student Union at Florida State University as I did earlier at the (VERY CONSERVATIVE) Palm Beach Atlantic College (now PBA University)–which seemed AT LEAST as interested in turning out business sharks and Republican activists as it did CHRISTIANS (and saw no difference between the two).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 15, 2009

  3. Christian colleges and universities from the historic peace churches seem to me to be producing a greater number of folks doing things differently than the rest of society, at least to judge by my circles of friends from Liberty U, Duke Div, and friends and acquaintances from peace church schools such as Goshen, Conrad Grebel, Messiah college, etc. And I’m not just talking about the fact that they produce many more people who are into peace and development fields. A friend, for instance, from Grebel/U of Waterloo who was Chemistry PhD student was doing his dissertation on how to produce better solar panels (that is, until he quit his very prestigious program to become a high school science teacher).

    Comment by Doug Johnson Hatlem | August 16, 2009

  4. Yes and add Earlham, Guilford, and George Fox (all Quaker colleges)into that list, Doug. So, are these just exceptions that prove the rule, OR are they doing something different that can be adapted to other Christian colleges and universities? Maybe it’s the pacifism itself? Is Christian pacifism so VERY different from the rest of our culture that, adapting that stance, yields more mustard seed graduates than otherwise?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 17, 2009

  5. I would say that one possible answer to this question is that these colleges & universities, along with their graduates, are simply reflections of the larger American church, which is, in most cases, woefully uninterested in these areas of concern. Capitalism and the American Dream have overtaken the justice and peace of God which should be at the forefront of every graduate’s mind.

    Not to mention, that at least from my experience at a “Christian college,” there’s so much focus on ‘practical ministry’ as narrowly defined in the most consumeristic, parasitic sense.

    Comment by Dustin | August 17, 2009

  6. Yes, I think the American Dream heresy is huge. Maybe these colleges and universities are a place where this failure shows up easily.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 17, 2009

  7. I haven’t seen studies on this issue, and my memory is vague, but my impression is that evangelical seminaries are becoming more concerned about social justice or humanitarian issues. Part of my impression is because of graduates I’ve met from these institutions: they actually talk about justice for the poor. But I also remember watching John McCain speaking at Liberty University, and he talked about the need to do something in Darfur. The audience loudly applauded. This wasn’t your typical conservative evangelical issue–abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, etc.–and yet the audience loudly applauded.

    But I agree that you also see the sorts of things your post discusses: graduates from Regent College climbing their way up in the Bush Administration, etc.

    Comment by jamesbradfordpate | August 18, 2009

  8. Actually, that was Regent University in VA. Regent College is a Canadian school. Regent Park College is the Baptist College of Oxford University.

    There is change happening, but it is not statistically greater than graduates of secular universities–except for the schools related to the historic peace churches. I wasn’t referring to seminaries, but that would also be interesting to ask.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 18, 2009

  9. As much as you are correct about Christian educated people going out into the world and being just like secular educated people in the workplace, there are some Christian people who will offer their services at lower prices or at least don’t cheat others regarding their business (car mechanics for one). Christian colleges cannot force morals into people’s heads, but it is the college or university’s job to instill the Word of God into the students who attend the Christian sector. What they do with that knowledge is between them and God.

    Comment by Christian education | August 19, 2009

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