For over 20 years I have taught at a Christian (read “evangelical Protestant”), faith-based university. During that time, I have lived through several changes in leadership, as well as many personal and institutional ups and downs.  Today, like most small private liberal arts universities, my institution is facing significant financial challenges in the face of declining enrollments and reduced support from government and private sources.  Such pressures are causing universities such as mine to reconsider their mission and operational paradigms.

In one sense I find it ironic that I have worked for a Christian university for all this time. First off, I don’t consider myself an evangelical and have not for a long time. However more significantly, when I was at the age where I was thinking about going to college, my pastor specifically advised me AGAINST going to a Christian college. He said that by and large faith-based colleges were Christian “ghettoes” designed to keep Christian young people in the fold, rather than prepare them to meaningfully engage the world. He felt that it was important for us – his church’s youth – to be put in a situation where we would be challenged to think critically about our faith in settings that would stretch us. He even sponsored a pre-university class designed to help us meet those challenges. I appreciated his advice and equipping, and went to a so-called “secular” university, where I was greatly stretched and yet grew immensely both academically and spiritually.

So, it was odd that many years later I found myself teaching adults who had returned to complete their undergraduate degrees at one of those supposedly ghettoized Christian colleges. Much to my surprise, I found it invigorating to challenge my students – many of who were not practicing Christians – to consider the spiritual, theological and ethical dimensions of their personal and work lives. While I had never considered myself “evangelistic” in the traditional sense, I found that I was in a context where I could engage folks on their terms and invite them to reconsider their relationship with God thru discussions on ethics, organizational dynamics and leadership. Later, I moved to the Urban Studies program where I was able to challenge Christian graduate students to engage the issues in their neighborhoods and communities in much the same way my pastor had done with me decades before. Throughout this period, attended academic conferences where I would occasionally encounter apathy or antagonism toward my theological perspective. But by and large, I found people open and interested in theology, and the spiritual perspective that undergirded it.

While all this was transpiring, I also realized that my experience and my approach within the world of Christian higher education was not the norm.  I found that what my pastor had said about faith-based schools years before was generally true of my school and almost all other Christian universities. The undergraduate students at my school have been largely Christian kids from large Christian churches, who went to Christian high schools and then a Christian college.   I have learned that Christian colleges generally are generally inward focused, and while mine did not require students to be professing Christians, that is the kind of student who was recruited and came to the school. I realized that despite our continued reference to our “evangelical heritage” we were not really sharing the good news outside our tight circle, and we were largely a Christian bubble in an increasingly secular world. My students and my focus on faith-based engagement with non-Christian society was not the norm and my positive experience in the wider academic arena was considered an anomaly by many of my colleagues.

I share this bit of personal history and analysis because now faith-based universities like mine face a new challenge. Not only is the number of students looking to go to college decreasing, but those looking are more racially and ethnically diverse, less able to afford college tuition, less prepared academically AND increasingly unaffiliated and disconnected from any religious background or heritage. Furthermore, at least in the case of my school, those Christian kids who would “fit in” at a Christian school like mine increasingly are choosing to go to non-religious schools. In short not only are there less students to recruit, those who could come can’t pay, and/or are choosing the non-religious option.

While one might think I am predicting the demise of Christian higher education, that is not the case. Instead, I am calling for a new paradigm. While interest in religion might be down among the college-going generation, interest in spirituality is not. Moreover, the millennial generation is more socially aware and concerned about social justice issues than their elders. Therein lies the opening for faith-based universities like mine to provide an educational approach open to spiritual and theological issues, deeply concerned about ethical and social issues, and committed to working for a more just and secure world. While the pressures on all colleges and universities are to train students to be “job ready,” faith-based colleges can do so with a focus on ethics and concern for one’s fellows. Instead of giving people the “Christian” answers, faith-based colleges can present the Christian view among many others and challenge students to answer the “whys” behind their “whats” – to think of the values and beliefs that underlie their life decisions and actions. Moreover, faith-based colleges can prepare their students to interact more effectively in the multi-faith, multicultural society and world in which we all must live and work.

The challenge for these evangelical colleges is:  Are they willing to broaden the scope of their appeal? Are they willing to attract students of color whose church background may not fit the white evangelical heritage? Are they willing to reach beyond the Christian fold to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and plain old secularly minded individuals? Are they willing to stand out in the professionally driven, business-oriented higher education environment to talk about ethics, sustainability and basic human values not because it is profitable, but because it is grounded in historic religious traditions including the Christian tradition? Are they willing to take the heat from their fundamentalist Christian brethren who will say they have compromised with “the world?”

I believe such a paradigm shift, while extremely difficult (as any major paradigm shift is) is not only possible but imperative. I believe this change of approach is possible because (1) I have been able to that in my own role as a professor in a Christian university and (2) I have taken my cue from many Roman Catholic universities that have been doing this for a long time. I have had occasion to be on such campuses and see students in Muslim hijabs and Jewish yarmulkes, where a diversity of perspective is embraced while a distinct theological framework is also maintained. I believe it is imperative because if Christian higher education is to have any relevance in the 21st century, we must break out of our inward-focused bubble and embrace the new world that surrounds us. Failure to do so will cause many faith-based universities to fade away while others will become increasingly rigid, fundamentally dogmatic and sadly irrelevant. Despite my pastor’s early warnings, I have come to believe that Christian colleges and universities do have a significant role to play IF they are willing to make changes that will make them relevant in a changing world.