Institutions of higher education provide a very specific good to the societies around them: they advance and disseminate knowledge—the former through research and discovery, and the latter through teaching and learning. At one time the church represented authoritative knowledge independent of rulers, but after the medieval period, it was gradually joined in this role by the college, which developed out of the womb of the church via the monastery, as the quadrangle emerged from the cloisters.
As the curators of vision and purveyors of meaning, the church and increasingly the college or university nurtured in society an intergenerational sense of direction—a telos—and along with a free press, they provided social criticism. But as the church’s authority receded, colleges, still considered authoritative institutions for disseminating knowledge, became the main source of competent, visionary leaders and responsible citizens in modern democratic society. They funded a sense of higher purpose, of collective and transcendent obligations.
Today, mainstream universities have begun to falter in that role. Many have embraced amoral naturalism, or postmodern relativism, and its corrosive hermeneutic of suspicion. And so they are in danger of undermining that very public function: to bring higher purpose and vision to a society. Where there is systemic silence or suspicion about first things, vision atrophies—and where there is no vision, the people perish.
So, in this cultural climate, one of the exciting trends of our time is how North American Christians and Christian colleges are increasingly understanding and adopting a more comprehensive view of the Christian faith and Gospel— one that includes reaching out to our culture and the public square. Many Christian colleges have added the goal of “engaging culture” to their mission statements, expressing this fuller vision of Christ’s coming Kingdom. And this broadened view has brought many positive changes to the Christian college campus, including the integration of faith and learning across the entire curriculum, the preparation of students to serve Christ in the full range of vocations, and the addition of service-learning in a variety of settings and organizations.
Christian colleges and universities are now positioned to take their place in serving the public function of advancing and disseminating authentic knowledge and an explicit vision of a higher purpose—even while their secular counterparts are vacating this role. Yet Christian colleges need to go further, conceptually and practically, before they become self-conscious about their public role and enhance their contribution to the public good.
Though many emphasize “engaging culture,” few Christian colleges explicitly reference serving the public good. “Engaging culture” is meant to communicate positive involvement and Christian witness in the wider culture, but in one sense, it suffers from the same problem as “integrating faith and learning”—both point to a connection, but imply a (not intentional) separation, and as a result, neither captures the fullness of what Scripture teaches about Christ’s claims and renewing work. It may be a remnant of a separatist posture, or the result of an appropriate focus on serving the church and Christian community, but when they talk about “engaging culture,” Christian colleges suggest that they are outside of culture, trying to get in. And this fails to acknowledge and convey a fuller normative sense of their actual societal role.
It would be better to begin by recognizing that Christian colleges have a public mission and contribute to the public good, by honouring Christ and serving his renewing mission. As Lesslie Newbigin has put it, the Gospel is in fact a public Gospel. It is like a light on a lamp stand that benefits everyone in the civic house, like a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.
If we start with this recognition, we can enter a more full-orbed discussion about the place of Christian colleges in the good society, flowing from a richer understanding of what it means to serve and follow Christ. Reframing the mission of the Christian college as a public mission better accounts for the connection between the Christian faith, Christian colleges, and the public good. It also helps us better recognize the public contribution these institutions are in fact already making, and opens up new avenues for them to be good civic partners in their teaching, scholarship, and service.
The Primary Public Good—Preparing Graduates as Citizens and Leaders
Armed with this vision, Christian colleges have the practical challenge—and opportunity— to move from a more circumscribed to a fuller implementation of their public mission across a wide range of public roles, from their primary task of teaching to participation in the academy, from community service and partnerships to institutional relations. Christian colleges will flourish as they fully realize their public mission and contribute to the common good.
Christian colleges provide a holistic educational experience, and therefore, they shape graduates with a unique set of attitudes and abilities that are especially relevant for the public good. This is arguably the highest expression of the public purpose these institutions fulfill, and they do so in a manner that is superior to their secular counterparts. Christian colleges meet appropriate academic standards and their graduates have similar academic qualifications to their counterparts at other colleges and universities. But it doesn’t end with academics: Christian colleges also articulate a comprehensive and teleological vision of the meaning of life that encompasses persons, institutions, society, and the creation— and this gives their graduates intellectual tools to envision and contribute to the common good in ways that secular universities no longer can or do. In Robert Benne’s words, Christian colleges provide “quality with soul.”
This sort of education begins with liberal—or perhaps better said, liberating—arts and sciences courses, together with the frame of a Biblical worldview. A liberal arts training gives students a well-rounded context for their more specialized work, and the worldview of the Bible provides a meaning and telos for reality and life in the renewing work of Christ. This twin basis, together with study in a discipline or field, encourages distinctive analysis that is spiritual, historical, structural, multi-dimensional, and contextual, all with what Abraham Kuyper called an “architectonic perspective” that opens up fresh, thirdway thinking and alternative approaches to the secular mainstream.
The experiential side of learning at Christian colleges also helps students develop practical wisdom and grasp the reality of proximate obedience and situated Christian action. These opportunities encourage students to develop a heart for social justice and for the voiceless in our society and world, and helps them become aware of the need for cross-cultural communication and civility in discourse that uses public language to bring to bear Christian views and insights. Christian college graduates learn to be principled pluralists.
Most importantly, students are encouraged to deepen their personal commitment to Christ and his Kingdom through reliance on his Word, prayer, and the leading and power of his Spirit. This gives them a sense of vocation that promotes humility, an awareness of spiritual warfare, a desire for renewal, and courage to persevere. Graduates can then see their calling as extending to both Christian and wider community efforts and organizations as they seek to glorify God and advance his Church and Kingdom.
Christian colleges train these responsible citizens and leaders who can then take up roles in the church, the Christian community, and Christian agencies. This is an important contribution to the public good. These colleges’ public mission is more completely fulfilled as they populate the wider society, marketplace, and public square with volunteers, employees, and leaders who are uniquely equipped to envision and contribute to the public good, both individually and communally.
Another Public Good— Participation in the Academy
Christian colleges can also increase their public contribution through participating in various disciplinary and professional groups in the academy, as well as institutional academic organizations and accrediting bodies. Being a good academic citizen means a Christian college will be a member of Christian academic organizations as well as organizations that include a variety of faith-based and secular institutions, which lets them dialogue and make distinctive interventions that shape the discourse in a discipline or professional field.
This same posture also pertains to scholarship at a Christian college in all its various forms, including refereed publications, creative endeavours, applied research, popular media pieces, organizational assessments, and consulting. When expertise is shared with a wider audience, it benefits society. This is why faculty members from Christian colleges also apply for and receive research grants from national and provincial funding bodies, as well as foundations. When faculty members are involved in wider networks of scholars and participate in the academic mainstream, they strengthen the claim of “engaging culture” and demonstrate public contribution.
Finally, as faculty and administrators participate not only in Christian organizations and professional groups but also academy-wide groups, they again demonstrate this fuller Christian institutional presence, contributing to excellence in higher education and respecting the diversity and unique missions of faith-based institutions, thereby fulfilling and enhancing the public mission of Christian colleges.
Serving the Public Good—Community Focus in Teaching, Scholarship, and Service
Christian colleges also have the opportunity to extend their contribution to the world around them in the various ways that they relate to their surrounding communities—through continuing or adult education, community-focused scholarship, community service, and even the use of campus facilities.
Christian colleges, as privately funded and nonprofit institutions, have a special responsibility to their own supporting constituencies in these areas. But overplaying this leads to a more inwardly oriented institution that does not fully walk its own “culture-engaging” talk. Supporting communities that are committed to the Gospel as public Gospel will encourage a focus on both the Christian and wider community that reinforces the public mission of the Christian college.
One responsibility of a Christian college can be to provide thoughtful leadership in the Christian community through continuing education. It can also be very enriching to take the various strengths of a liberal arts and sciences institution and parlay these into a series of lectures and short courses designed to share the institution’s perspective in ways that reach a wider audience.
This also extends to athletic contests and cultural events in art, music, and theatre that are part of the educational programs of Christian colleges. If they are of sufficient calibre, the college can promote these beyond just the Christian community. Providing summer camps in the arts, athletics, and sciences is another way of reaching out to the public with an institution’s resources, as well as giving students practical experience.
The same can be said for other forms of community service by which institutions of higher education contribute to the good of society—pieces in the popular media, creative works, applied research, organizational assessments, and consulting. As Christian colleges make a public contribution that goes beyond the Christian community, their scope of service is enlarged. With appropriate translation of identity and vision, insights expressed in the national press rather than the Christian media greatly magnify their impact and more obviously demonstrate the public value of Christian colleges.
Christian colleges are also gathering places; their campuses are magnets for events, meetings, and networking. Making facilities available to both the Christian and wider communities lets a greater range of visitors tangibly experience the institution’s ethos and character through service and hospitality, thereby promoting its identity and mission.
A Public Orientation
Christian colleges can move beyond a narrower default mode through community partnerships with a wide array of businesses, organizations, and agencies to provide the placements, volunteer opportunities, and internships required for service learning. Christian organizations often provide these opportunities for students and recent graduates, but if there is a broader range of potential placements that include interaction with those of other faiths, or no faith at all, students can learn to translate their views to make them more accessible, better preparing them to make a Kingdom contribution in society that may draw people to Christ.
These learning partnerships embed Christian colleges in a rich associational network—Christian and beyond—that open up additional opportunities for faculty and administrators to speak or share expertise, serve on local organizations and boards, or link course work to beneficial research projects. These colleges, in turn, can also draw on resources for speakers and courses, seek support for student scholarships, and secure sponsorships for projects and events. These mutually beneficial relationships expand good will and support for the mission of the institution, even among those who do not share its faith.
When a Christian college fully embraces its public mission, its public service orientation also will shape its institutional advancement and so-called “external” relations with organizations in the wider society, particularly various levels of government. Christian colleges should take their place in the public square, dialoguing and maintaining a positive relationship with the authorities who set the legal context within which they carry out their mission. When involved in the public policy process, these colleges can also press for benefits or freedoms perhaps not always extended to faith-based and privately funded institutions, given a bias toward secular and publicly funded institutions in higher education.
Christian colleges also serve the public good as alternative models in higher education, not just in their faith basis but also in their educational programs and institutional operations. They demonstrate how small institutions with a liberal arts focus, a vibrant campus community, an emphasis on personal development, and a strong supporting constituency that provides funding can be both viable and strong. Their distinctive character can also spur innovation in the wider sphere of higher education. Most of all, as primarily privately funded institutions, they do all this with little cost to the public purse.
A public orientation can also have an impact on how Christian colleges approach fundraising and marketing. While a primary focus will always be traditional supporting communities that share the institutional vision, Christian colleges will also be able to reach out to the wider community for financial support and other resources, while tailoring aspects of their marketing and communications to include language that makes the mission of the institution accessible to these wider audiences.
As contemporary curators of vision, Christian colleges model most fully what it means to be an educational ambassador for Christ when they serve not only the church and Christian community but also the wider society. Serving the public good in this way is integral to embodying the full scope of the mission of Christ’s renewing Kingdom. This public witness helps Christian colleges thrive and grow as they stay true to their animating faith basis, ethos, and worldview while also striving to translate these for wider societal participation. Rightly practiced, this does not dilute the college’s witness; it fulfills it.
The public mission of Christian colleges and the vital role they play in the good society underscore an important fact: they are worthy of respect and, in some cases, public support, rather than suspicion or opposition for being narrow and balkanized. Instead, the Christian college with a public mission can be encouraged and celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike for its contribution to the public good and a flourishing society.