Attending a college affiliated with a Christian denomination or that identifies generically as Christian isn’t for everyone. However, choosing to attend one can be helpful for some to maintain their Faith while pursuing higher education. Theology enthusiast Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago) recently discussed the major considerations when attending and evaluating a religious institution.
“The college years are a time when religious faith can be difficult to maintain for a variety of reasons. Students are away from their parents for the first time in their lives, so there is much less governance from someone in authority encouraging or mandating that students stay involved with their religion. There are also a lot of new and exciting things to do that can displace the time the student previously had dedicated to worship, Bible study, prayer, etc.
While these enticements away from their faith have always been present, what has changed over time is the attitude of the academy towards religion, especially any form of orthodox Christianity. In most non-religiously affiliated schools, this has morphed in only a couple hundred years from avid support to passive support, to indifference, to mild annoyance, to the outright hostility that we see in many universities today by significant groups in the administration and faculty,” Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago) said. “Attending a Christian university can help, at least partially, mitigate some of these challenges.”
Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago) explained that one of the benefits of attending a Christian university is that there is at least some official nominal Christian infrastructure to receive students. For example, they can attend chapel on campus and take part in a variety of on-campus, faith-based groups and activities. Many religious colleges continue to have a prayer in the classrooms and specific courses on faith. Moreover, the students are somewhat more likely to encounter students and faculty who share their faith (or at least are less hostile to it).
However, there are often trade-offs, according to Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago). There are a lot of aspects to consider when selecting a university or other post-secondary education:
- Geographical location – perhaps the student wants to be close to family or wants to live in a certain area of the country
- Academic ranking/reputation
- Student life beyond the classroom, e.g. college sports, clubs, etc.
- The majors/degrees the school offers
- Networking potential
- Job opportunities/potential earning
- Cost – these “Christian” schools are not going to be state schools… at least not in the United States!
Each school differs in how it stacks up, but the student’s (or parent’s) desire for a Christian school may have tradeoffs. For example, it certainly seems that the more faithful to orthodox/traditional Christian doctrine a school is, the lower it may be ranked by traditional metrics.
Of course, there are exceptions. For example, Baylor in TX and Wheaton in IL (ranked #153 and #121 by College Factual out of 1,751 colleges) would be considered more traditionally Christian and are clearly respected academically. However, some would consider even these schools now becoming non-orthodox in their beliefs.
Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago) added that many Christian colleges include a statement of faith that must be followed by students and staff members. This means these schools may enact several faith-based requirements or standards you won’t find at non-religious colleges. At many Christian colleges, students may suffer discipline (even expulsion) for drinking or sexual sins while attending college. Hiller noted that discernment would have to be applied here, as well, to make sure such “covenants” are in alignment with a particular denomination’s beliefs. For example, a traditional Baptist might believe a no drinking clause in the student covenant is godly. However, a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Lutheran might view imposing this on a student who is of legal drinking age to have no basis in the Bible, or even be a sinful restriction of Christian Freedom.
“Many Christian colleges are smaller than non-religious colleges,” Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago) said. “With less than 5,000 students on campus, the class sizes are smaller and students often receive more personal attention. Of course, this would be true at a non-Christian school, as well.”
The biggest concern about Christian colleges for parents should be understanding just how orthodox and Christian a given school actually is, said Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago). This may sound counter-intuitive, but Hiller said it is a common mistake that people make. Just because a college WAS a Christian school in the past or has “Christian” or “XYZ Denomination” in the name, is no guarantee that it has an atmosphere of traditional orthodoxy. Just because it was a faithful school 20 years ago when your mother went there or 40 years ago when your grandfather matriculated is no guarantee of faith today. Remember that the Ivy League mostly started out as religious schools to train pastors (effectively seminaries) and today is associated with very liberal worldviews and often anti-traditional Christian beliefs.
So, what are prospective students and parents to do? Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago) recommends a couple of ways that parents can protect themselves.
- Don’t be a caricature of a naïve Christian… be a Berean. In Acts 17, St. Paul has just gotten booted from the city of Thessalonica, after being the victim of malicious lies. Then he goes to a city called Berea. The people there are described as more “noble-minded,” because they are very willing to hear Paul’s claims, BUT they carefully verify everything he claims to see if it is true. (Interestingly, this is what real academics are supposed to do, too!) Parents and students should be Bereans too, with respect to Christian college claims. Visit campus and get off the beaten path. Go wander the halls of the faculty buildings alone. What flyers are hanging up? Look up the topics and abstracts of the theses and dissertations that the school’s students are publishing? These are public record and often online. Are these in alignment with Christian doctrine and/or simply neutral topics with if fine? Or, are the senior theses and graduate students promoting views that are not orthodox. Have open conversations with many people among the students, faculty, and staff. Ask them what their position is and the school’s official position is on controversial topics of theology and morality. If they are straightforward and bold with the right answers, great. If they are political and evasive, cross them off the list, as they have crossed themselves off the Cross.
- Go to the chapel on a non-prospective student day. Colleges put on the best show on special days. You don’t want the demo; you want reality. If the service is your denomination and it seems to be orthodox in BOTH preaching and practice, great. If not, shake the dust off your sandals and move on.
- Investigate the Foundation website and the people on both the Board of Regents / Trustees and the Foundation Board. Sadly, many “Christian” schools are no different than the secular ones in that they follow The Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Christian University Foundations are notorious for being lax with who they ask to join, as long as that person has money, no matter how liberal and anti-Christian their beliefs may be.
- Remember this is not a church – it is a school. That’s it. If it can provide a truly traditional and orthodox Christian environment, that is great and Christ be praised! But, remember that the place’s primary mission is education, not evangelism.
We asked Eric Arno Hiller (emeritus regent of Concordia University Chicago), what can parents do if there is no acceptable Christian university that will meet their needs. He said that a good alternative is to synthesize a community of traditional and passionate people from your own denomination at a non-religious college. Does your denomination have a thriving campus ministry, headed by a man who’s a passionate orthodox pastor? Is there a local congregation in travel distance from the campus that can provide a similar anchor and watering spring for Faith? These are both good options.
The current trend is for less Christian Universities and that those that exist to become heterodox or even heretical/apostate. It is not comforting, but it is a fact. However, once parents know this, they can either find a Christian school that is part of the faithful remnant or take the “Daniel” approach and exceed in the Babylon of the secular university system, hopefully being educated and elevated in their careers, while strongly practicing their Faith with a small but passionate group of the brethren around them.