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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Christian Higher Ed at a Crossroad? A Response to Mark Galli

I am an educator and am a big fan of the Church’s educational endeavors. I have often quipped that if education is to be rightly done, it is to be done by the Church. I believe that our theology of humanity, our theology of revelation, and our theology of Creation allows us to have the most authentic and humanizing enterprise in teaching and learning.

In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a the best public schools in Louisiana[1], then private Baptist universities for my Bachelor’s[2] and Master’s[3] degrees. I am currently a student completing the Doctor of Ministry degree at Baylor University. Further, my wife also attended stellar public schools in Mississippi[4] and then attended the same two private Baptist universities that I did for her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Christian educational endeavors are essential, critical, and necessary for the mission of the Church. Our schools, much like our hospitals[5] and orphanages[6], are the intersection of our theological convictions and our missional expressions of faith. When we educate the unenlightened, nurse the sick, or feed the hungry we are testifying to our faith in God’s ultimate desire for the flourishing of human life. The struggle to maintain these ministries should be a primary concern for our congregations – they are in many ways the very hands and feet of the Gospel in the community.

Mark Galli has written a piece[7] for Christianity Today about the relationship between Christian higher education and the local congregation. He sees a growing divide between the local church and the not-so-local Christian university. He describes the situation, saying, “We in the local church tend to think of Christian higher education as a service industry. We look to it only when we have a student ready for college or seminary, or when we have a staff opening and need the schools to give us the names of qualified candidates. Christian higher education is there to grant accredited degrees and vet pastoral candidates.”[8]

This observation is certainly appropriate for the pastoral search process in the local congregation, but it is not reflective of what goes on at our Christian universities. The Christian university is more than a seminary or preacher factory. When we speak of the university (or the seminary, for that matter) we are talking about more than the specific church-related fields. Christian universities are home to mathematicians, biologists, linguists, lawyers, businesspeople, artists, and athletes. These students and their professors are incarnating the Gospel by learning and teaching through the lens of Jesus Christ. The breadth of academic disciplines at most Christian universities and seminaries is testimony to the breadth of our theology: inasmuch as there are things to learn and truth to explore, there is the Gospel.

Yes, a university may be a Christian institution, but that does not imply that the local church’s concern with that institution is only in terms of finding a new Pastor. Instead, the local church should encourage its young people to consider that university as a home for their education. I would not have traded my private Baptist educational experience for anything, especially for the experiences of my friends who attended public institutions. I consistently encourage my students and church friends to at least consider the opportunities available at Christian universities as they consider their future plans.

Much like a recent NCAA commercial[9], even though so many people attend Christian universities and seminaries were people are educated and trained for ministry, “most of us are going pro in something else.”

Galli’s primary concern is not the nature of Christian higher education, but rather the cost of that education. It has been well reported that the costs of higher education are rising much faster than most families can afford, and that private Christian higher education is already prohibitively expensive.

To address these financial concerns, Galli recommends that Christian universities wholly embrace the emerging model of distance education via online courses and web-based seminars. This trend is already changing the educational landscape in America at every level, from primary and secondary education all the way to graduate programs. What is not happening, though, is the decrease in tuition that Galli anticipates with the proliferation of online education. It is not enough to remove room and board from student fees, which is the essential savings in online education. Rather, tuition, books, and student fees would have to be reduced as well to have any meaningful impact on a student’s bottom line.

Galli encourages local congregations to do several things to help bridge the gap both in terms of finances and in terms of the congregation’s relationship to the university. He suggests, “…create budget line items to at least once a year fly in a teacher to give a daylong seminar or even a week of classes…consider using some of their benevolence giving to support Christian higher education…begin asking schools for [free or reduced online courses].”[10]

All three of these things are exactly right. The local congregation should be involved in the teaching and learning involved with visiting scholars, but usually a local church would have no reason to invite a professor of anything other than Theology or Biblical Studies. Further, as Baptists we have supported our denominational and affiliated universities through our offerings for generations. The call to support these institutions with line items in the budget or benevolence fund is appropriate for denominations that have no such structure. May I recommend an alternative? Instead of giving budgeted or benevolence funds to the university’s general fund, let us consider developing scholarships for our own students or the students in our communities that will assist our students with their tuition and housing. Such scholarships helped me immensely in my education, and were personal, direct, and loving gestures of the church to further my education.

Finally, permit me to humbly suggest that we need to reevaluate the nature of higher education in our culture. It is apparent that “college” has lost all of it meaning: programs so unrelated to the historic nature of higher education are multiplying and “colleges” are being formed and grown with little care for the humanizing process of the university setting. What I’m getting at is this: inasmuch as we have emphasized that college is the goal for every student we have deteriorated the experience and formation of higher education. I believe that living on campus, being present with a professor, and experiencing Christian community in an academic setting are to be preferred over online education.

I have taught and learned in online settings, and I have become convinced that personal, face-to-face courses and the community that is formed by living with and among your colleagues is essential to the nature of higher education. Online education has its place, but asking our Christian universities to further erode the formative experience of higher education in the name of creating a market for cheaper (free?) courses is not helping the need for Christian education in our churches and nation. When we reduce education to watching a YouTube video, the schools will “falter, [and] also the local church.”[11]

[8] Galli in Christianity Today
[10] Galli in Christianity Today
[11] Ibid.

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