I received comments on my last post on the “Christian university by the numbers” that leads me to believe I may not have been fully clear. My point was not that Seattle Pacific is failing to attract its share of students and needs to shift strategies. This is certainly not the case. SPU clearly is one of the most attractive Christian universities in the country. Nor was I saying that other fine Christian universities are failing to be attractive. Most of our premier institutions, like SPU, have by far more students than they can accommodate. Most importantly, most of these institutions are delivering incredible value.
My main point was that our Christian families, what surely is our logical market, simply do not recognize the deeper purpose of what the Christian university is all about. There is some huge structural disconnect in these numbers. I am puzzled. With only 3% of the estimated prospective students from Christian families attending our Christian schools, there is something missing within our Christian culture.
The issue is not, if only we added DI athletics, or only if we would add this or that program, all would be well with the numbers. Something deeper is going on here. The slippery slope of secularization took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, secularizing most Christian colleges and universities in America, places like Harvard and Yale and scores of others. Apparently our Christian families bought into that secularizing process. Perhaps they believe there is no difference between the secular and Christian university. Of course I disagree: Those differences are substantial, meaningful. Why our churches and our families don’t notice or care about those differences puzzles me deeply.
But here is a further thought I have about the numbers. Small numbers throughout Christian history have never kept Christians from their mission to spread the gospel of Jesus across the world. I read in Walter Brueggemann’s Out Of Babylon, just last night, quoting from Deuteronomy, that “it was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.” This has been a strong theme throughout Jewish and Christian history. Small numbers, perhaps, but a big impact.
Our confidence comes because Christians have something extraordinarily important to offer the world. This confident posture describes the Apostle Paul. Up against the numbers and power of the Roman empire and his own religious establishment, Paul was never intimidated. He had “a truth to tell,” as Newbigin says, and that made all the difference. This is also what drove the confidence of Augustine and the Church Fathers out on the raw edges of an unraveling classical culture in the fourth century. It has been true throughout Christian history: Numbers are not everything. In the end, they really don’t define what is of true value or what will be effective and successful.
But on the other hand, the numbers tell us the field is wide open. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. There is a new wave of learning technology on its way, a virtual tsunami that is sweeping the globe of education. It will change the way our universities do their work. And here is my point: These new tools, in this newest wave of online learning, can be used to spread the special value of the Christian university, in places we cannot even imagine.
We must enter a new era of innovation for higher education, through these new tools, and just perhaps these numbers on the Christian university will give us cause, motivation, and excitement, to get out on the front edge of this great wave coming. It is coming. It has already begun. May we find those fresh new ways to take our special value to the far ends of the earth, as we are called to do.