The Task of the Christian University: Connecting Students to Christ and His Kingdom

Almost 20 years ago, I listened to Dr. Elaine Storkey, formerly of Wycliffe Hall Oxford, address a Christian college community where she reminded us that our task as Christian college faculty was urgent and one that we needed to embrace and pursue. The nature of this task, in a phrase, was that Christian colleges and universities must embrace their task to reassure, to challenge and to connect students to Christ and his kingdom. I was reminded that we do not simply teach, that we do not simply offer courses, that we do not simply have departments and committee meetings and outcomes and graduates, that we are not simply a coterie of Christians. We are up to something much more than simply “doing what universities do.” Rather, we have a mission, a project that is so significant and urgent that if we do not embrace it with both seriousness and joy, and if we do not strive after it both individually and corporately, then something quite precious might be compromised or even lost.

I do not mean to suggest that our project is altogether new. Our world has always needed to hear the voices of articulate, modern-day prophets that measure what is against what should be. We must also equip our students for daily faithfulness and for a vision of renewal closer to home, within reach of their everyday relationships and activities.

All of this is to say that this project is not new per se as regards Christian higher education or the Kingdom of God. But it strikes me that crucial projects like ours are always in danger of being obscured, or minimized, or domesticated, or perhaps even profaned—“Come now, did God really say not to eat that fruit?” Other, competing and compelling projects subtly and not so subtly contend for our attention and for our allegiance.

Let me share a few components of our Christian higher education project loosely taken from the Fresno Pacific Idea (with apologies to James K. A. Smith):

Our project is about helping students to see more and to see more clearly

Perspectives, stories, projects, worldviews, legitimating ideas, narratives, points of view—in most ways I am not concerned with exactly what word we choose to convey the idea that the Christian university concerns perspectivalism. I am most concerned that we help students to understand that thinking and living have everything to do with the unavoidability, the centrality and the richness of perspectives. That is, a perspectival emphasis suggests that we do all that we do particularly—that what we do must beanimated by and shaped by the Christian point of view that we say is true and good and right. So the subjects, the departments, the books, the facts, students’ career aspirations and the like proceed from and towards a fundamental commitment to honor the Lord. One might say that we teach both perspectives and perspective. 

Our project is about helping students to discern the times…and to know what to do

By their very nature, perspectives are discriminating—they limit, they make distinctions and they precipitate appropriate judgments and actions. Perspectives provide a foundation for discerning what to make of things and ultimately how to live. Discernment might be described as the process by which we attempt to understand or to “read” the times—past and present; discernment seems to have substantial affinity with what the Bible calls wisdom. It necessarily involves coming to terms with what we can affirm and what we must critique, and subsequently what all that means for daily decisions and behaviors. 

Notice that such a Christian educational project is simultaneously and intentionally committed both to exposing students to the world via coursework and other educational experiences and to helping them craft judgments regarding the extent to which anything and everything in the world to which we expose them is of the world, of the Lord or a little of both. Thus, a Christian university must hold both in tension, both fearlessly and fearfully: fearlessly because the earth and all therein is the very context of God’s redeeming love, and fearfully because our discerning efforts are never to be autonomous or self-aggrandizing, but always rooted within and drawn towards heavenly honor. 

Our project is about helping students to understand calling and vocation

Perhaps one of the most relevant means of assisting students to understand how to signpost Christian faith in daily affairs is to emphasize arenas to which God calls us by his grace to serve him faithfully. In being and doing so, however, we will eschew any suggestion that vocation equates solely and/or inappropriately to job or career. Instead, based on Christian theological, anthropological and creational concerns, we should highlight a multiplicity of vocations that God calls us to consider, through which he calls us to serve and within which he calls us to signpost his kingdom. In this regard, the Christian university must strive to be “practical” in that we teach and model for students—in and out of classrooms, with regard to ideas and with regard to behaviors, in our personal relationships and in our structural processes—how they might enflesh Christian perspective and Christian discernments of the times and, in so doing, serve as what Al Wolters calls “billboards” for God’s Kingdom to others.