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Choosing Christian Higher Education

Is Christian higher education an endangered species?

by John Longhurst

During my last year of high school, I knew what I was going to do after graduation-attend a local public university. But then a number of adults at my church asked me: “Have you considered going to Bible college?”

Actually, no, I hadn't. At least, not until these people whom I respected and admired put the thought in my mind. As a result of their prompting, I decided to give Bible college a try. It was the best decision I ever made-it set me on my life's course, and provided me with a strong, deep and abiding faith.

That was back in the mid-1970s. But my experience was not unique. Surveys of first-year students today at my school, Canadian Mennonite University, routinely show the number one reason young people come here to study is because of family, friends and people at church.

Right now thousands of Christian youth are deciding what to do after high school. Will they be encouraged to consider Christian higher education? Do parents and church leaders believe it is important for young people to take time to deepen their faith? Or are Christian colleges and universities an endangered species? These are a few of the pressing questions facing Christian higher education in Canada today.

Formative years

In his book The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steven Garber notes that university years are extremely formative for youth. During those years, he says, decisions are made “that are determinative for the rest of life. In the modern world, the years between 18 and 25 are a time for the settling of one's convictions about meaning and morality: Why do I get up in the morning? What do I do after I get up in the morning? One then settles into life with those convictions as the shaping presuppositions and principles of one's entire life.”

But those convictions about meaning and morality don't come out of thin air. They are based on the overarching narrative of God's work in history and in our lives. In their article “Navigating the College Transition,” Derek Melleby and Susan Den Herder write:

“It is important for Christians to think about the biblical story and the proper place of education and learning within that story. The Bible presents to us a true story of a Creator God who made us in His image and who placed us in this good Earth to live and move and have our being in Him. God created us with minds to think, and skills to serve Him.”

That's why Christian higher education is so important. Christian colleges and universities exist to help youth develop strong convictions and critical thinking skills during these important and formative years-convictions that will sustain them throughout their lives and careers.

But do parents and church leaders believe it's important for youth to take time to study their faith and make it their own? That's the big question today. Christian colleges and universities can produce all the slick videos, websites, brochures and marketing campaigns they want, but if key influencers at home and church don't promote Christian higher education, many youth will simply not consider it as a serious option.

And that would be a tragedy-for youth, and for the future of the Church. After all, it's not getting any easier to be a Christian these days. Pluralism, secularism, materialism, consumerism and the general decline of religious influence pose serious challenges for the Church. Will there be any room in the future for faith?

There will, but only if Christians know how to thoughtfully and critically engage the culture. But that will take more than a Sunday school and youth group education, and an hour in church on Sunday mornings. If Christians want to meaningfully participate in the great conversations of our time about things like politics, ethics, poverty, war, the environment, science, morality and so much more they need to develop their hearts, souls and minds.

Private advantage

When recruiters and communicators from Christian colleges and universities get together, they often note that if just a small percentage of Christian youth in Canada attended their institutions, they'd be full to overflowing. Instead, many struggle to attract new students.

Why is that the case? Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, thinks it's partly because of a “prevailing Canadian attitude that if the university education is private-meaning not-government-funded-it is inferior education.”

Unlike in the U.S., where many of the best universities are private,
“Canadians, including many evangelicals, are very slow to believe their young people get an equal education in the Christian university,” he says.

“It is taking time and slow persuasion that what is received at a smaller and Christian university is arguably better than one gets in the public.”

Stiller's comments are echoed by students at my school. When asked what they like about it, they regularly cite strong academics, small classes and personal attention from professors-“I'm not a number here,” they usually say. But getting out the word about the advantages of Christian colleges and universities is hard when budgets for advertising and promotion are very small.

But changing the public's perceptions about Christian higher education is just half the battle. If Christian colleges and universities are to attract more students, they have to address some key challenges:

Academic credibility. Many students today are seeking a rigorous and high quality educational experience. For this reason, instruction and instructors at Christian colleges and universities must be of the highest quality and calibre.

Practicality. High academic standards are important, but courses also need to be relevant to real life. Students and their parents today want to know that the tens of thousands of dollars they spend on an education will translate into a career upon graduation, or provide entrance into a graduate school.

Relevance. It's not enough for Christian colleges and universities to provide quality undergraduate or seminary education, as important as that is. They also need to be seen as leaders and opinion shapers when it comes to the major issues facing Canadians today.

Where are the top Canadian Christian thinkers on issues like Afghanistan, climate change, poverty, government and health care? Many teach at Christian colleges and universities, but I don't see their bylines in the Globe and Mail and the National Post, or hear of them being called on by other media to comment on the major issues of the day.

Other important challenges facing Christian colleges and schools are the limited options for majors and minors-it's hard to offer a comprehensive education on a small budget; limited facilities; lack of competitive sport opportunities; and location. Schools located in rural areas may find it harder to attract students in our increasingly urbanized society.

Lack of finances is also a major challenge. In Canada today, tuition covers only part of the cost of education at public or private universities and colleges. Public universities make up some of the shortfall through government funding, as do a few religious post secondary schools. But all depend on the generosity of donors to meet the budget every year-and as everyone knows, it's getting harder and harder to raise money.

Critical challenge

If Christians in Canada believe that the future of faith in this country is linked to the education of young believers, they need to give to Christian colleges and schools.

Not a month goes by that the media doesn't report some major donation to a public university to endow a program or construct a new building. Christian colleges and universities need their friends to rally in similar ways, providing the funds that can enable them to provide the best possible education for Christian youth today.

Is Christian higher education in Canada an endangered species? A better question to ask is: Will the Church of the future be a relevant force in this country?

The future of Canada's Christian colleges and universities and the future of the Church are linked. Neither can succeed without the other. But the former--Canadian Christian colleges and universities--can't wait until the future to see if they can survive. They need your support now.

John Longhurst is director of communications at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

This article first appeared in the March 1, 2008 edition of ChristianWeek

CHEC would like to thank John Longhurst and ChristianWeek for allowing us to post this article.

© 2008 Christian Higher Education Canada