Are Church-Related Colleges Also Christian Colleges?

by Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr.

Richard Hutcheson is senior fellow at the Center on Religion and Society in New York, New York.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 28, 1988, pp. 838-841. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Mainline church colleges intentionally designate themselves “church-related,” seldom using the term “Christian”. And members of the flourishing Christian College Coalition have established a number of criteria for the “Christian” label, of which church-relatedness is not one.

A minister of a mainline Protestant denomination, newly hired as a chaplain of a denominational college, met with a committee of the regional judicatory within whose bounds he would be working. "Tell me," a committee member asked him, "is this college 'churchrelated' or 'Christian'?"

Officials at the college found the question offensive, as would most people involved in denominational schools . It suggested, quite pointedly, that there is a difference between the two. But more and more people do perceive the two as distinct. Mainline-church colleges intentionally designate themselves "churchrelated," seldom using the term "Christian." And members of the flourishing Christian College Coalition have established a number of criteria for the "Christian" label, of which churchrelatedness is not one.

In recent years I have observed this bifurcation from three viewpoints. One was as a consumer, when my daughter graduated from high school and went through the process of choosing a college to attend. The second was as a member of a denominational college's board of trustees, while it was re-examining the Christian dimension of its campus life and the meaning of its church relationship. I served as chair of search committees that brought both a new president and a new chaplain to the campus. Finally, I was pastor of a congregation that was expected, in various ways, to support its denomination's colleges. In this capacity I served on a regional committee that conducted a fund-raising drive for four colleges. From these perspectives, I have reflected on what it means for a college to be Christian or church-related. Are they the same thing? Does the terminology matter?

For my daughter, it mattered very little. I should mention that she has probably been more involved in church activities and other evidence of Christian commitment than most church members her age. In high school she had not only attended church regularly and actively participated in youth fellowship (which probably went with her preacher's-kid status), but also worked for two surnmer mission projects in underprivileged communities. She had been a member of a youth covenant group, and had served as a senior high leader for a junior high covenant group.

She applied to seven colleges, four of which were church-related. The church relationship, however, was a negligible factor, if it was a factor at all, in her selections. She based her choices on academic standing, reputation, size, location, cost and certain campus intangibles that had little if anything to do with religion. She did not perceive the church-related colleges as significantly different from the others. They were on her list for other reasons. The school she chose, from among those that accepted her, is church-related (though not to our own denomination), but that was largely coincidental.

What was true in her case appears to be generally true for her peers at her high school and church. Our church has a large, vigorous and spiritually focused youth program. Most of these young people, I am convinced, expect to continue a close relationship with the church after they enter college. But for most of them, a college's relationship to a church is not an issue. There are some exceptions, and each year a few young people (or their parents) select a college that they expect will provide a distinctively Christian environment. Their choices are Wheaton, Messiah or a similar nondenominational Christian college. One family chose for their daughter a denominational college, expecting that it would provide a Christian atmosphere. The parents were deeply disappointed at what they perceived to be an absence of Christian influences on their daughter's life there.

This pattern reflects some societal trends. The skyrocketing costs of higher education coupled with declining sources of financial aid have made state colleges and universities the only option for many students, including some from families with relatively high incomes. The secularism of public education, which has come to be. widely accepted and even insisted upon at the high school level, carries over into attitudes toward higher education. Students and parents have come to think of education and faith as separate compartments of their lives.

But an equally important factor is the present stance of many mainline church-related colleges. Beyond having a historical tie to a particular denomination, offering some religion courses and some elective extracurricular activities, they would be hard-pressed to demonstrate how their church relationship affects their academic program or campus life.

At a recent symposium, two former presidents of church colleges listed factors that had characterized such colleges prior to the 1960s. First, such colleges had a formal relationship to the church, specified in a charter or by-laws. Its board of trustees consisted of significant numbers of ministers of the denomination (often appointed by a church judicatory). The schools expressed a commitment to Christian higher education. The school's president was a member, and in many cases a minister, of the denomination concerned. Most of the faculty were expected to be active members of some Protestant denomination. The schools had a strong department of religious studies, and required some religion courses for graduation. Campus life included fairly strict parietal rules, the provision of a chaplain, and required chapel attendance. These colleges received some measure of financing from church sources.

Little if any of this remains true today of many church-related colleges. In fact, several have deliberately adopted the academic stance of disinterested relativism that characterizes the contemporary secular campus, and are distancing themselves from the "piety" of Wheaton or Westmont colleges. Minister presidents, once ubiquitous, are the rare exception. Faculties feel constrained by the strictly nonreligious standards of secular "academic freedom." Required chapel attendance -- or even, in many cases, optional chapel services -- are long gone. Viewbooks, bulletins and promotional brochures express few religious claims. The schools sell themselves on the basis of academic excellence, programs offered, small classes, personalization of the educational process, teacher-student ratio, a "friendly atmosphere, " or location and environment. There is a studied ambiguity in such colleges' attempt to maintain some religious identification for the church constituency, and at the same time come across as open and nonthreatening to non-Christian constituencies.

Meanwhile, the vacuum left by the traditional church-related colleges' abdication of the "distinctively Christian" role has been filled by the increasingly popular "Christian" colleges, represented in part by the Christian College Coalition. A few are affiliated with mainline denominations, but most are not. Their standards include many of the qualities that the denominational colleges used to value-presidents and faculties consisting of evangelical Christians, strict rules of behavior, required Bible courses and chapel attendance. There is a strong market for what they are offering; these colleges are flourishing, and a number of relatively new ones -- LeToumeau.College, Oral Roberts University and Liberty University, among others -- have joined older institutions such as Wheaton, Gordon and Westmont in an effort to meet the need.

But many mainline Christians, including a number of those who, having been affected by the renewal movements that have swept through major denominations at the grass-roots level, seek a deeper spirituality are unhappy with the choice before them. The "Christian" colleges, in many cases nondenominational or affiliated with one of the smaller conservative or Pentecostal denominations, tend to be parachurch or sectarian in outlook and atmosphere. Sometimes they seem to portray mainline churches as "the enemy." While some are entirely respectable academically, few are in the first rank, and in some cases academic excellence takes a back seat to theological orthodoxy. But church-relatedness that is indistinguishable from the secularity of public state universities is an equally unpalatable alternative.

Why must "church-related" and "Christian" be different qualities? Some former church colleges that clearly have left behind their denominational origins now operate simply as private 'secular institutions, as is their right. But cannot some church-related colleges offer a distinctively Christian education and atmosphere?

It was with this question in mind that a few years ago I joined the board of trustees of Davis and Elkins College, a small coeducational Presbyterian institution in West Virginia. As in many such institutions, its Christian distinctiveness had been seriously eroding since the '60s. A lovely chapel in the middle of the campus had been almost totally unused in recent years. The position of college chaplain had been deleted as a costcutting measure some years earlier. The religion and philosophy departments had been combined, and no course in Bible or religion, much less chapel attendance, was required. Recent presidents and faculty had been chosen on the basis of academic criteria (plus fund-raising ability, in the case of presidents). Worst of all, perhaps, the institution had somehow acquired a reputation as having the most "partying" campus of any private college in the state.

But the board still contained a number of ministers and committed laypeople, who began trying to reverse these trends. In particular, they were completing a drive to raise funds to restore the college chaplaincy through an endowed chair. And many board members wanted to take further steps.

A new president -- an academic who had impeccable credentials and was also a committed Presbyterian laywoman who shared the board's goals for change-was installed. Under her leadership further steps have been taken. A full-time chaplain has been given a central place in campus life. Chapel services, though not attended by large numbers, are regularly conducted. Attendance is required at the newly instituted periodic convocations, which occasionally concern religious topics. Strenuous efforts, helped by the state's raising of the drinking age to 21, have been made to bring the "partying" under control. A course in Bible and religion has been restored to the graduation requirements. Specific goals regarding campus Christian life and strengthening the school's relationship to the church have been incorporated into the college's long-range plan. And perhaps most important of all, the board and administration's efforts to encourage a Christian atmosphere and educational philosophy are widely known.

Results are far from conclusive. College students often resist new requirements and perceived threats to established "privileges." But a serious effort to bring together "church-relatedand "Christian" is under way.

Many such colleges now receive or have in the past received denominational financial support. The nationwide network of denominational colleges was started, and in the early days supported, with church money. Indeed, through the colonial period and the first century of national life, American higher education was largely a product of the nation's churches: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and William and Mary were all founded primarily to educate the clergy. Christian higher education was long a cherished and generously supported cause for American denominations. For a number of reasons, this has changed radically in our times. Though church people (particularly alumni) support church colleges individually, very little church money as such goes to colleges. One reason is that denominational and judicatory officials have shifted their attention away from such "private" issues as education and toward public policy and social change.

But surely another reason is the widespread perception among church people that gifts to church colleges are gifts to a generalized kind of "higher education" rather than a specific kind of "Christian higher education," in which churches have some unique stake. As numerous church-related institutions have faced financial crises brought on by escalating costs, growing competition from state and community colleges, and a shrinking enrollment, many have eyed the churches to which they are still "related" as possible sources of funding.

However, these churches are not likely t o increase their gifts unless the school reclaims that distinctively Christian dimension. The opening for this exists, and seems to be crying out to be filled.. Churchgoers have grown increasingly concerned about the secularization of culture and the moral,vacuum in public life, and many seek solutions in the reChristianizing of education. Prayer in public schools has been a symbolic cause celebre, particularly for the religious right, and fundamentalists are actively promoting alternative Christian schools. But for mainline Protestants, long committed to public education, no such easy solutions are at hand.

However, the network of church-related colleges provides mainline churches a ready-made opportunity to add to American culture and higher education a distinctively Christian world view and value system. These schools can freely teach and defend the Christian view of reality. They can nourish a substantial segment of the nation's future leadership, coming out of the churches, in their particular traditions and perceptions of the challenges of the future.

The colleges themselves must initiate a commitment to this vision. Few are directly controlled by church structures; most are self-governing and self-directing. But colleges that make such commitments can be strongly supported by the churches, financially and in terms of student recruitment.

What would such an effort on the part of a church-related college, to renew and emphasize the Christian dimension of higher education and enlist the support of the church in such an undertaking, look like? Christian higher education has always been 'varied, but some general outlines could be posited. At its heart would be the Christian proclamation that there is a sovereign God, incarnate in Jesus Christ and attested by the biblical revelation, and that this reality shapes the meaning and purpose of human existence. Building on this understanding, an institution's academic offerings would reflect a Christian world view. In all academic endeavors it would promote an unfettered pursuit of truth (after all, truth is of God) while maintaining that truth is not limited to human rationality, mathematical computations or empirical findings. The Christian world view proclaims an ultimate truth that lies behind and gives meaning to all human truth. Requiring one or more basic Bible or religion courses would be one way to affirm this, and a strong religion department would offer opportunities for deeper reflection.

Such a college, while allowing teachers to express dissenting views and freely to exchange ideas, would insist that they be committed to the biblical faith and distinctively Christian values and lifestyle. Jewish or secularist professors, recognizing that they were in a Christian environment and accepting the responsibility for presenting alternative views within it, would not negate that environment. But a substantial majority of both the faculty and administration should be Christian.

This would encourage Christian faith and values in the student environment. The chaplain would be central to campus life, with full institutional support. Worship life, Christian activities and student counseling from a Christian perspective would all be part of the campus atmosphere. Student rules and standards that reflect some difference between Christian and non-Christian lifestyles would not be restrictively imposed, but strongly encouraged. An additional dimension of the Christian world view might well be reflected in the commitment of the community (faculty, administration and students) to some form of service, in the inner city, in areas of rural poverty or elsewhere. Nothing so clearly expresses the Christian spirit as a community joined together in service.

Such an institution would schedule periodic gatherings for public expression of the implications of Christian faith. Required chapel attendance is probably no longer feasible. But in addition to voluntary chapel services (which faculty and administration would regularly attend), the school could require attendance at certain official events.

Finally, such an institution would directly, forthrightly and publicly acknowledge its Christian dimension. It would renounce the kind of conscious or unconscious ambiguity that seeks to have it both ways: a touch of religion for the Christian constituency, but basic secularity for the non-Christian. But within the context of such a forthright commitment, the school would be open to students of all religions or none, to interfaith relationships and to freedom for academic exploration and inquiry. Such an institution would seek not a restrictive environment, but one with a sharply defined sense of its own identity.

Clearly there is a significant place in higher education for the state or private secular institution, in which faith commitments are limited to the private realm -- and the churches have a special ministry to the students of such universities. There is undoubtedly also a place for the kind of Christian college which seeks to provide a highly sheltered and perhaps sectarian environment-certainly the sectarian witness has a long and honorable history within Christianity. But surely there is also a large place-larger than is assumed today-for church-related colleges and universities in the nonsectarian mainstream tradition, institutions that are quite explicit about their

Christian stance and the uniqueness of the educational experience such a stance provides.