I am afraid that schools will prove to be the great gates of Hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, engraving them in the hearts of youth. I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not increasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt.
— Martin Luther
I was on my way to speak at a church in the Midwest. One of the alumni of our university picked me up at the airport. Accompanying him was a sharp young man from his youth group who was thinking about enrolling in our school. So we talked about the usual: majors, campus life, financial aid, job prospects, etc. Then the young man asked me a question that I had not been asked before, or since, in my 20 years serving as a university president. He asked, “So, if I come to your school, will my faith be built or broken?”
So, if I come to your school, will my faith be built or broken?
I asked him what he meant by that question, but I already knew exactly what he meant. He clarified the question in exactly the way I thought he would. He told me a number of the young men and women from his youth group had gone to “Christian” colleges. He said he noticed something about several of them that bothered him. In his words, “They were once ‘on fire’ for God” but having gone to these schools it appeared their faith had been broken. Some of them seemed no longer Christian at all. They did not go to church, or if they did it no longer seemed to occupy the place of importance in their lives it once did. And so, he asked the question again, “If I come to your school, will my faith be built or broken? Will I end up like some of them?”
The young man’s question surprised me, but his reason for asking it did not. His question surprised me because for a high school junior it is very astute. He knew his observations of the lives of some who have attended Christian schools were real. At a place where it seemed obvious that Christian faith should be developed, grow, and thrive, for some, it had done just the opposite.
The reason the question didn’t surprise me is because I have heard similar stories over and over again. In all honesty, it is not reasonable to criticize the way secular education has tried to eclipse the face of God. But we should be evaluating the experience of some who attend Christian schools whose faith was diminished or even destroyed as a result.
Perhaps you have heard some of the rationalizations. Some say the teaching is misunderstood by these students. It is claimed, “We are simply asking the tough questions, helping students struggle with faith in real and meaningful ways.” Sometimes it is claimed these students have been too sheltered and need to be exposed to the deeper questions of life. I have heard some say, “We may break down faith but it is only so we can build it back in a sophisticated and intellectual way.”
All this rationalization may have elements of truth, but by and large it is less than compelling. The fact is there are those who teach in Christian schools whose faith is not worth emulating. They teach what they themselves have been taught — much of it at the hands of liberal professors from secular institutions or seminaries well known for naturalism and faithlessness.
A recent press release on the ongoing National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose offered some interesting information on students who are beginning their college years. While 79 percent of all freshmen believe in God, 69 percent pray, and 81 percent attend religious services at least occasionally, 57 percent question their religious beliefs, 52 percent disagree with their parents about religious matters, and 65 percent feel distant from God. College students are asking deep questions about their faith.
Unquestionably, the college years are a very critical time of life. Older adults look back at those years and can clearly recall how the course of their life was shaped by their time on campus. Parents and students who are looking ahead to college should be humbled by the magnitude of the decision and the implications that it will have on the rest of their life. This is not a time to make a blind decision. We must choose wisely and go in with our eyes wide open, aware of the educational environment that has been chosen. What do we feel are the most important criteria? Dr. R.C. Sproul nailed the issue on the head when he wrote:
One of the problems we have here is the criteria we use when choosing colleges or university to attend in the first place. So often parents are impressed by the beauty of the campus of the particular institution or by their own remembrance of the commitment of the institution a generation ago, overlooking the reality that the approach to Christianity changes in various institutions as the faculty changes. The most significant barometer for choosing any kind of institution of higher learning is not the beauty of its campus. It is its faculty.1
Yes, the type of education you choose is ultimately dependent on who is in front of the classroom teaching your student. When you boil down all the options, first of all you’ll have to decide between three general forms:
- You can choose a secular institution.
- You can choose a compromising Christian institution.
- You can do your best to find an institution that is thoroughly committed to the authority of Scripture — understanding that none are perfect! As someone once said, if you find the perfect church, don’t join it or you will destroy it!
A Secular Institution
To gain some insight into the decision, we asked the presidents, vice presidents, and professors of Christian universities what they thought Christian parents used as criteria when deciding to send their children to secular schools.
When we add up some of these categories, it’s revealed that the staff of Christian colleges believes that at least 36.5 percent of Christian parents are sending their kids to a secular university for financial reasons. In my opinion, that number is too low. The vast majority of the Christian parents I talk to confess that financial concerns rule out the “possibility” of sending their children to a private Christian institution. They’re making decisions because of money, sending kids to a non-private school, leaving them to navigate their way through the debauchery. Along with financial considerations, most parents offer other justifications for this decision:
- Kids need to learn to be in the world. They know that they’re going into enemy territory, but we have raised them well. They are young adults now. We believe that they are solid in their faith, able to defend the truth, and will be able to survive.
- As young adults, it is time for them to be in the world, but not of it. Sooner or later they are going to have to learn to navigate through the world on their own. Now is that time.
- There needs to be Christian witness on the campus. Our child is going into this setting as a student and missionary. They are the light of the world. We don’t want to put that light under a bushel. It’s time to let that light shine to the benefit of those on campus who need to hear and see the truth about Jesus Christ.
- In other cases though, the parents simply do not realize the gravity of the situation. Many years ago, even most secular institutions were still rather Christian in their beliefs. So grandparents and parents may not know what the secular institutions are like in today’s culture (even 50 years ago, public high schools still had prayer!).
To be fair, both Ken and I are living proof that surviving secular schools is possible. Both of us attended secular universities, grew through that experience, and, by God’s grace, were used as lights to a certain extent in that dark world. However, we admit we had lots of “baggage” to discard along the way — and we grew up when even many secular institutions still held (even though inconsistently) more of a Christianized worldview to one degree or another.
One prominent Christian financial advisor not only recommends less expensive state schools, but also recommended taking advantage of community colleges near home. There are several advantages to this option. First of all, community colleges create a sort of “buffer zone” where students experience the realities of the secular world while still living at home. It can be something of a transition period, where a student gets their general studies done at a fraction of the price while still being under the guidance, protection, and watchful eye of their parents. Then, after a year or two, they transfer to a different institution that specializes in their area of interest. As finances become more and more of an issue, several families are going this direction.
If you choose the option of a secular public school, know that students are systematically bombarded with the messages of the philosophy of naturalism.
But let there be no doubt, if you choose the option of a secular public school, know that students are systematically bombarded with the messages of the philosophy of naturalism — the philosophy that is the driving force behind the dominant worldview of public education. The entire premise that your education is being built on is contrary to the truths of Scripture:
- Naturalism assumes that the world you are in today is the only reality — there is nothing beyond this life.
- Naturalism assumes that the origin of life is due to random forces of nature — there is no Creator, no God.
- Naturalism teaches that ethics is a human-based concept — there is no objective truth or reality, only subjective feelings, each with as much merit as the other. All ideas are equally valid and we must be tolerant of all ideas (with the exception of Christianity it seems).
If you choose the secular option, you must go in prepared and with your eyes wide open. You must take with you the weapons you need to defend your faith and take a stand for the authority of Scripture. This can be a faith-building experience — and clearly, there is a need for this type of witness on any campus. But in order to survive, you have to realize that you are going as a defender and a proclaimer, not as a learner and a student. You really have to go in prepared for battle, because the academic atmosphere on a secular university is enemy territory in the battle for your soul and these professors often affect grades if you hold to biblical position (and they are aware of it), especially in science fields like biology and geology. We suggest there are some students more able to cope in a situation than others — and the parents need to be discerning in regard to this matter and understanding where their own children are spiritually.
A March 29, 2005, Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz, titled “Study Finds College Faculties a Most Liberal Lot,” reports that most faculty at non-Christian colleges disdain Christianity, with 72 percent indicating they are liberal, 84 percent favoring abortion, and 67 percent indicating homosexuality is acceptable. In most cases, students reflect the values of college faculty they encounter in their upper-division coursework. These faculty members are typically the advisors and mentors of students. Certainly the above findings indicate that the answers and directions students receive from most faculty members at these institutions will not be supportive of traditional morality and religious values.
I did my undergraduate degree in philosophy at the State University of New York. I had planned to go to a Christian college to study for the ministry, but for a variety of reasons that did not happen. I know I got a good education as it relates to math, English, social science, etc., at the university — the kind of education that is supposed to prepare you for a life of gainful employment. But there was absolutely no evidence of anything Christian or spiritual on that campus. I do not even remember there being any kind of Christian ministry on campus. In classes it was not unusual to hear Christianity mocked.
I stayed spiritually strong during those days because I was very well connected to my home church where my father was the pastor. This is a big key for students who go to secular schools. You must stay connected to a Bible-believing fellowship and, if available, be connected to a Bible-believing campus ministry. This strategy has protected many a student who otherwise would not have withstood the pagan culture of a secular campus.
I had a very negative, fearful experience on that campus when I was a senior preparing to graduate. One day in class, one of my philosophy professors asked me what I was going to do upon graduation. He said he was hopeful I would continue in philosophy and go to graduate school. I told him I was planning to go to seminary and train to become a minister. His reaction is etched in my memory. He was incredulous: “You’re going to do what?” he said. “You are going to seminary and become a minister?” The ridicule in his voice I still recall. Then he said, “I will do anything I have to do to stop you from such foolishness!”
And what followed was the scariest thought I have ever had. I can remember thinking, Maybe he is right, maybe seminary and ministry is foolishness and my future should be in philosophy. Maybe I should become like my professor . . . .
The thoughts did not stick, but in that moment I certainly entertained the possibility — thoughts that would have set my life on a course where I might very well have missed God’s calling for me. That story is quite mild compared to many others who have lost their way in the pagan culture of secular education. Some of the most destructive, ungodly, unholy ideas known to mankind have come out of the secular institutions of our nation. That is why I say the secular classroom has the potential of being one of the most dangerous places for Christians in America.
Some of the most destructive, ungodly, unholy ideas known to mankind have come out of the secular institutions of our nation.
It was tough on a secular campus back then, but I believe it is far more intense today than when I was an undergraduate. And that’s just the ideology. There is also the issue of morality. I know what goes on at a lot of secular schools. To be honest, I wouldn’t be the least bit comfortable sending my kids into that environment. The reality is that many young persons, once committed Christian young men and women, have gone to secular schools where an anti-Christian, atheistic philosophy has devastated their lives.
At the same time, there are so many exceptions that we can’t draw an absolute black-and-white line. I’ve seen plenty of students flourish spiritually on a secular campus. We’ve seen many who lose their faith while attending conservative Christian universities. Can we say that this is the one factor that makes a difference in a student’s life? We cannot. There is no formula that will guarantee the spiritual safety of the student, but still, the decision must be approached with prayerful wisdom. And a lot of it does come down to how they were trained in the home by their parents.
A Christian College
The vast majority of American young people go through the public schools. Even the vast majority of young people from Christian families also go to public grade schools, high schools, and public institutions of higher education. Only a minority go to private Christian schools and on to Christian institutions of higher learning. In my church, I would estimate that no more than 10 percent of college-bound young men and women go to our church-related institutions. There are undoubtedly more who go to other Christian colleges or universities, but the fact is the numbers are low. When we asked the presidents, vice presidents, and professors of Christian institutions why they felt parents chose a Christian institution, their answers were revealing:
There were other answers, but these accounted for 96.2 percent of all responses. The administration and faculty feel that a safe campus and high morals account for 30 percent of the decisions. We believe that most parents would agree with this, and we also believe that these are very important factors! All you have to do is check out a tailgate party at any college football game and you will understand what we are talking about — tens of thousands of students doing the most unbelievable stuff. There’s a reason that parents want a safe campus and high morals for their student. College campuses are notorious for drug use, sexual promiscuity, and alcoholism. Hey, Ken and I saw it firsthand while we were studying at secular colleges. Many other parents have been there as well, and have little desire to see their children submerged in that environment.
For those who feel the college years are still a time of preparation before going out into the “real world,” the option of Christian education looks very good indeed. It looks more advantageous, safer, and more morally nurturing. In some cases, that’s true. But as we’ve seen, in far too many cases it’s not.
A Compromised Christian College
Both Ken and I feel that perhaps the worst option for a student is going blindly into a so-called “Christian” college that is compromising the authority of the Word of God. As the research has shown, this is far too prevalent. There’s a massive amount of confusion across the board. It needs to be called out. We need to deal with it. There are good Christian schools out there and we feel they are better than the secular alternatives by far. But these issues of compromise have to be addressed.
Parents are sending their students into the schools assuming that they are going to be faith-nurturing and truth-affirming institutions. In reality, many of them discredit faith, discredit the Bible, and break kids down rather than build them up. That’s why both of us are strong advocates for homeschooling, Christian schools, and carefully selected Christian higher education, because kids are dying out there and the Church doesn’t seem to care enough to do anything about it. When it comes to colleges and universities, the problem is that the majority of Christian schools seem to be just like the secular — disguised with a few Christian elements.
I have had many parents say to me that they would rather send their kid to a secular school, knowing how blatantly pagan it is, than send them into a Christian school where they are told that they believe in the Bible and its authority, when in fact they really don’t. It seems that Christian schools naturally progress from focused conservative faith into compromised secular ideologies.2 If we learn nothing else from the Ivy League, it should be this: if the salt is contaminated, it’s no longer good for anything. If the schools are already compromised, what good are they? Many well-known Christian schools are becoming conformed to the world, rather than to Christ. Jesus says that He would rather we be hot or cold rather than lukewarm. But lukewarmness seems to be the natural trend. Who is the worst enemy? Certainly, the enemy is the world. But doesn’t the enemy also include the compromising leaders who lead people astray?
Many well-known Christian schools are becoming conformed to the world, rather than to Christ.
In Jesus’ day, He didn’t call out the world and the Romans. Jesus called out the Pharisees and the scribes who were hiding behind their religiosity. It was the religious leaders that He called the snakes and the vipers. We should not be surprised at the attacks we get from the world. We should call out those who claim the name “Christian” and yet subtly compromise the authority of Scripture in so many different ways.
Why was Stephen killed? It was because he confronted the religious leaders, calling them stiff necked and pointing out their false teaching. Ken is sometimes rebuked by Christians who don’t like the way that he calls out compromising Christian leaders. They say that the real enemy is the world, and we shouldn’t be attacking our own brothers and sisters in Christ. But I don’t think so. I think the real enemy is the compromise within the Church, and, as we have seen too clearly, in the Christian colleges and universities that are already compromised. We should not be surprised at how the world acts — but we should be appalled at God’s people when they compromise God’s Word. And for those who are teachers influencing the coming generations — the Scripture has a warning: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
So how do we help you decide where to go? I don’t want my kids going to a secular institution. But I’d rather have them go to a state institution than send them to the wolves who are dressed in sheep’s clothing. Thankfully, there is a third option.
A Committed Christian College
My kids attended the Christian college where I serve. It was a decision of their own choosing. Sure, I gave advice and direction — including telling them my experience in going to a secular undergraduate school. While they could have gone anywhere, they chose a Christian college. I sometimes ask them about their experience at a Christian college and ask what sticks out in their minds as being the most important outcomes of that choice. The answers always center on the same three things:
- First, they talk about their wonderful friends that they met during college days — friends that they cherish and still are very close to this day, Christian friends.
- They also talk about the faculty that made a difference in their lives. They will talk about their mentoring, about their kindness, even recalling lectures that meant something to them.
- Then, they always talk about the importance of the chapel worship services. They describe these as the most important thing about going to a Christian school.
On top of that, they often recall the importance of serving others and being part of a local church. They see the value of finding a Christian mate who shares similar values and similar desires to raise a Christian family. When I added it all up, I realized that this Christian education has helped them to write a biblical Christian worldview with the alphabet of their souls. And I rejoice.
Ken didn’t send any of his kids to secular schools, nor did he send them to compromising schools. He and his wife Mally sent them to a couple of the best conservative schools that they could find. Are they perfect? No. On several occasions Ken had to intervene and square off with professors and administrators who were compromising the Word of God. But at least the schools had a clear commitment to the authority of Scripture, rather than a subtle or blatant denial of absolute biblical truth.
So if you want to see what we really recommend, I guess you don’t have to look any further than what we did with our children. What we are really saying is that your kids probably shouldn’t go to a secular college. Send them to a Christian college, but be very discerning, because there are only a few that are on track in all areas — and even then you have to be careful as they all have “warts.”
If your intent is to send your child into a spiritually nurturing environment you must ask the question, “What is the best opportunity for my kid to go and hear the proclamation of true Scripture?” But to get the right answers to that question, you have to ask a lot of other questions.
Certainly, one of the biggest lessons we learned from this survey is that people don’t always say what they mean, and many times even what they mean is in conflict with what they actually believe. So how do you find out what an institution actually believes and teaches? How do you find out what each individual professor believes and teaches? You can look at the official brochures, or you can even ask the president, but does that guarantee that’s what the institution and professors believe and teach? Sometimes, but certainly not always.
The survey showed that some presidents seem to be disconnected with what is really happening on campus. Not only that, but we’ve seen that there is confusion between the departments as well. At the same school, there may be great disagreement on important issues between the religion and the science departments. And within those departments, there can be professors who teach whatever they want without consequence. Even if the school has pinpointed a particular faculty member who is compromising the Word of God, it’s very difficult to remove them, particularly if they have tenure. Unfortunately, very few schools have clear doctrinal statements, and even those that do often don’t have consequences for those who teach things contrary to the Bible. So it’s clear that if you want to find out what a school is really all about, you not only have to ask questions, but you have to know the right questions to ask.
Asking the Right Questions
The naturalistic worldview has gained a very powerful foothold on many Christian campuses. This worldview can make it very difficult to get clear answers. Sure, the answers might sound clear at first, but often the answers are coming from a relativistic view of truth that says, “What’s true for you may not be true for me.” And as we’ve seen, “newspeak” allows people to say contradictory things as if both are true. People also define words differently, so key concepts might mean something totally different to someone else. So not only do you have to ask questions, but you have to ask the right questions. How do you do this?
First, we would suggest starting with the same kinds of questions that we asked in this survey. These questions are important because they are the questions the average person in the Church is asking Christian colleges to answer. When we were designing this survey, we asked the questions carefully and from several different angles so that we could compare the results. You’ll need to do the same thing. They are not the typical “academic” questions. They are the simple, down-to-earth questions that the people ask, and those who ask them have every right to a clear simple answer. They are not “trick” questions. These are the questions the Church wants answers to.
Second, we would suggest asking questions that are both hypothetical and actual. For example, question 12 asks if there are consequences for antibiblical teaching. The answers you get to this may be vague. You can help clarify that by asking questions like these:
- If someone on your faculty began to teach that literal truths from Scripture were actually figurative, how would their department head respond?
- Do you know of anyone who has recently been disciplined for teaching something contrary to the Bible? Can you tell me more about that?
Figuring out what people mean by what they say is also a challenge. People use words that we are familiar with even though they may mean something different to them. When you are sorting through their catalogs and sitting down to talk to someone, you’ll need to ask them what they mean when they say something like “We believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis.” But then you’ll need to double-check these answers with specific questions that reveal what they really believe, such as, “How much time do you teach it took God to create the world and everything in it?” or “Were Adam and Eve real people that God specially created?” or “Do you teach that the Flood described in Genesis covered the entire surface of the globe?” Hopefully this way you will be able to learn what people really mean when they say things like “infallible” or “worldwide.”
Without being deceptive, you might also want to ask questions that play to the liberal mindset, and see if the leaders or professors are willing to take a stand for the truth. For example, you might ask something like this: “If a student presented a speech in class where she professed her sincere belief in evolution and why she thinks it’s true, how would you respond?” Or something like this: “If one of your students was struggling with his sexual identity and was truly contemplating whether or not God had created them for same-sex relationships, how would you counsel them?”
From our own experience we have found conservative Christian colleges that have certain professors that teach a compromising message — yet other faculty are either unaware of it or they turn a blind eye to it. Sometimes the administration will say that because of tenure, they can’t do anything about a certain professor who is obviously teaching material that undermines the authority of Scripture. And sometimes a conservative Christian college will employ someone who doesn’t strictly adhere to the statement of faith — but they are supposedly “okay” in a certain area of expertise the college needs. More and more such professors are employed — and the slippery slide is underway.
You’re going to have a challenge finding out from a few individuals what is actually taught across the whole campus. Remember that the survey discovered wide discrepancies between individuals, departments, and positions. So whom do you ask?
Asking the Right Questions of the Right People
You’re going to want to talk to as many people in as many different positions as possible. At larger schools it’s going to take effort just to get past the admissions department and the students who give you a campus tour. But be persistent. Try to meet with the president or the dean of students. Find out the office hours of professors in various departments and drop in to meet them. The more that parents begin to do this, the more these people will realize they are being held accountable. Eventually, this will cause many colleges to think about these issues — particularly if parents stop supporting them and stop sending their children to them.
Some of the best people to ask are going to be former students or the parents of those students. Experience is a good teacher, and what other people have experienced at a college you’re considering can teach you a lot about what things are really like there. Former students will generally be able to tell you the good and the bad about what’s really happening on campus and in the classroom. Ken said that he has been on Christian campuses and spent time at lunch with some of the students. He then asks them what they are taught in certain areas — he has been quite shocked at what he heard from students at what he thought were really conservative colleges. This is another way to find out what is being taught — spend time with those who know what their professors are teaching them. These students also hear from their friends about other professors.
At the center of the whole issue is what the teacher teaches, particularly about the Word of God, the Bible.
At the center of the whole issue is what the teacher teaches, particularly about the Word of God, the Bible. Because of that, we think it’s worth it to investigate the educational background of the faculty. Smaller universities should have a complete list of their staff available that lists their experience and educational background. At larger schools, you might have to go to the specific departments to find this information. Oftentimes this is all posted online, and with a few clicks of the mouse you can get a good feel for where the professors were trained. Sometimes it is very tough to stay faithful to a high view of Scripture as God’s Word to us when you are part of the secular academy. Many have done so, but it takes strength and discernment to remain faithful. While educational background alone does not determine what someone’s worldview actually is, knowing this information will give you a feel for the worldview under which the faculty were formally trained.
Making the Best Choice for Your Family
Unfortunately, choosing a college or university is no longer a clear, black-and-white decision. If we have accomplished nothing else in this book, I pray that we have brought to light important variables that you may have never even considered when selecting a school for yourself or your children. The variables are many, and at the end of your search there will still be a certain number of unknowns. We do believe that by being aware of the issues and asking the right questions of the right people, you can make a much more informed decision than you would have by blindly choosing a college based on more superficial criteria . . . and then naïvely walking into that situation unaware of adversaries that await you. In the next chapter Ken and I are going to share from our hearts a final challenge to students. We believe that by being aware and informed, and by prayerfully trusting in the Lord for wisdom as well as financial provision, you will now be able to make the best choice possible.