In order to survive in an increasingly pluralistic culture, Christian colleges and universities must remain firmly anchored in their theological and spiritual heritage, and uphold a fundamentally Christ-centered worldview as the lens through which they provide education, an expert in Christian higher education has warned.
Dr. Kevin Mannoia, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals who currently serves as chaplain at Azusa Pacific University, chair of the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium, and president of International Council of Higher Education, explained in an interview last week that in previous years, the United States operated from a "predominantly Christian worldview."
However, that is becoming less and less true.
"We are increasingly operating in a pluralistic culture," Mannoia said, explaining that today, Christian colleges' commitments on sexuality, abortion, and other cultural issues are constantly challenged.
"Our culture has said abortion and same sex marriage is okay," he said. "Our culture says marriage is a civil institution. Our culture says lifestyles and even gender and sexual orientation are not a factor. Those are some cultural positions that are inherently at odds with a historic Christian worldview."
A recent study released by Barna Group found that 12 percent of Gen Z teens — those born between 1999 and 2015 — described their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual, with 7 percent identifying as bisexual.
Overall, 37 percent of future college students said their gender and sexuality is "very important" to their sense of self, compared to 28 percent of their Gen X parents. In total, about a third of teens know someone who is transgender, and the majority (69%) say it's acceptable to be born one gender and to feel like another.
In light of this reality, Christian schools can no longer presume that all of the students that come to them have an established worldview that is based on a Christian foundation, Mannoia said.
"Given the fact that culture has changed around us and we operate within a culture that is increasingly pluralistic, that also means that the students who come to us are going to be coming out of that environment into an environment where we are saying we are trying to hold up a fundamentally centered Christian worldview as the lens through which we provide education," he said.
"In some cases, students are going to be confronted with how Christian faith integrates into the learning process and they are going to be challenged with some fundamental questions regarding things that they have grown generally accustomed to in a pluralistic environment," he continued.
The 2017 "Shame List" from Campus Pride — which identifies the "absolute worst campuses for LGBTQ youth" in the United States — listed dozens of Christian colleges as promoting "religious bigotry that is unsafe, harmful and perpetuates harassment toward LGBTQ youth." Some of the entrants in the "absolute worst" category included Wheaton College, Covenant College, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dordt College, Bob Jones University, and dozens more.
Amid increasing pressure to conform to a secular worldview, administrators and scholars within Christian academies must ask themselves: "How do we integrate faith into our learning process in a way that forms the life of the student and remains true to our fundamental Christian mission?"
"Christian institutions must develop a deep understanding and anchor in their own theological and spiritual heritage because that is going to be the single most important anchor for them as they engage the changing culture around us," Mannoia said. "When they have to speak out regarding LGBTQ issues, students, clubs, hiring practices, it's going to be their theological and spiritual heritage that is going to be their most important asset to help them shape how they go about engaging that issue."
"Every Christian institution in America has to deal with the fact that there are social issues and cultural changes all around them," he continued. "The question isn't whether they deal with it; it's how they deal with it. The most important asset that they have is their spiritual and theological identity."
According to Allie Bidwell of U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of attending a four-year public university is $8,893, while the cost of attending a private university is $30,090. While many Christian colleges offer scholarships and other forms of aid, the cost of attending a private college increased by nearly four-percent from 2012 to 2013, and that number is only rising.
Mannoia, who also serves on the board of America's Christian Credit Union, said that as Christian colleges face low enrollment rates and other financial issues in competing with their secular counterparts, faculty and staff "need to make sure they're clear about the values the student is going to receive."
"Parents send their children to faith-based institutions for a reason, and they need to understand the uniqueness, the distinctive, and the value that is added to the student when they go there, because that's gonna be their future," he said. "If they don't know what that is, they're going to struggle with survival."
According to the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, there are 120 colleges in North America that identify as "Christ-centered higher education" facilities.