Do students go to Christian colleges to find shelter from the violent intellectual storms that have battered the Christian faith in the past 200 years? Some do. On the other hand, do not the pervading secularism and implicit naturalism in most state and private colleges and universities seriously threaten the Christian student’s faith today? Can we have the best of both worlds?

We need models that preserve the strengths of the Christian college and at the same time make use of the advantages of the large secular university. In the hope that this approach could be developed, John W. Snyder asked in this journal in 1967: “Why Not a Christian College on a University Campus?” (February 17, 1967, issue). Today Christian cluster colleges at secular universities are a reality. Advocates of the Christian cluster college assert that this new model preserves the strengths and avoids the weaknesses of both the traditional Christian college and the secular university. What are these strengths and weaknesses?

The Secular University: Pro And Con

Many Christian students are attracted by the secular universities’ excellent facilities, huge libraries, extensive academic and cultural offerings, inexpensive tuition (state universities), or academic prestige (Ivy League). Regrettably, despite the best efforts of Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, and other Christian campus ministries, many of these same students are no longer committed to historic Christian faith at graduation.

Although the days of militant atheism and aggressive agnosticism are largely past, secular universities still tend to foster non-Christian views and life-styles in their classes and dorms. The “practical atheism” that falsely suggests one can be neutral about the ultimate questions of value and meaning is probably more deadly than militant atheism.

Everyone decries the fragmentation of knowledge that has resulted from the explosive increase of data, and everyone recognizes that some principle of selection is necessary in every educational enterprise. But here the secular university is at a loss. A principle of selection has to be drawn from some conviction about the nature and purpose of man, and the secular university claims to be neutral at precisely this point.

In practice, of course, several images of man, all non-Christian, have dominated secular universities. For a time, a rationalist view of man as discarnate mind prompted the university to strive to free the rational soul enslaved by ignorance so that reason could exercise sovereign control over the baser passions. But then the sciences came to dominate the university, and the resulting naturalist view of man as a very complex organism that needs to be adjusted to its environment prevailed. And of course, if the Marxists and/or behaviorists are correct in holding that the individual has no freedom and dignity, why should higher education be anything more than a process of programming the student with the party line that will make him a tool of the society that produces him? But if Christians are correct in believing that knowledge is not virtue (contra Socrates and the rationalists) and that man does possess ultimate freedom and dignity (contra the naturalists), then participation as a student or professor in an educational enterprise that presupposes a rationalist or naturalist doctrine of man is highly problematic.

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The Christian College: Pro And Con

The ideal of the Christian college as presented by Christian educators from Cardinal Newman to Carl Henry and Frank Gaebelein is exhilarating. Beginning with the biblical view of man and the world, the Christian college can integrate all branches of knowledge in its curriculum and help its students develop a contemporary Christian Weltanschauung. Aware that students are not disembodied spirits, the Christian college will provide a program designed to meet the needs of the whole man. It will strive to provide a setting that encourages the students to hear and answer the call of Him who can remove the egocentrism that mere knowledge cannot conquer.

The fundamental oneness in Christ shared by students and faculty in the Christian college creates the type of supportive community in which it is possible to examine old beliefs. Beliefs held fondly since childhood are so much a part of oneself that it is unsettling to think of abandoning them. One study concluded that the factor most likely to change student values was professors “whose value-commitments are firm and openly expressed, and who are out-going and warm in their personal relations with students” (P. E. Jacob, Changing Values in College). The small Christian college where faculty and students worship, fellowship, and study together should provide the ideal setting for the adoption and maturation of a Christian world-view and life-style.

Reality, unfortunately, differs somewhat from the ideal. In addition to desperate financial pressures, the Christian college has other disadvantages. It lacks academic diversity both because it can only offer a small range of majors and because its small departments cannot have representatives of all the major theories and methodological approaches in a field. Its library is often small.

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Most serious, perhaps, the Christian college far too frequently exists in intellectual isolation from modern secular society. Carl Henry has repeatedly lamented the fact that Christian colleges have too often “provided a sanctuary from secular ideas and ideals rather than confronting and disputing the tide of contemporary unbelief” (e.g., “The Need for a Christian University,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, February 17, 1967). Studies conducted for the Carnegie Commission show that students in evangelical colleges score significantly lower than students in most other liberal arts colleges in their awareness of their environment (C. R. Pace, Education and Evangelism). To fulfill the Great Commission, we must understand secular society. In practice, then, the Christian college like the secular university has significant disadvantages. Are these our only options?

The cluster college concept, which is as old as Oxford and not uncommon in England, India, and Canada, offers a third possibility. During the last decade, when decentralization was in vogue and many universities were establishing their own sub-colleges, three distinctly different Christian cluster colleges began: Conrad Grebel College, Satellite Christian Institute, and Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus. Their experience is important for future evangelical strategy.

1. Conrad Grebel College. Established in 1964 by Mennonites in Ontario, Conrad Grebel is a Christian residential college located on the campus of the University of Waterloo. Conrad Grebel’s 106 students enroll in both the college and the university. To help students develop an understanding of Christian faith, Conrad Grebel encourages them to take at least one course each semester in the college from Conrad Grebel faculty (about 25 per cent are regularly excused because of conflicts with courses in the student’s major offered in the university). Students take the rest of their courses in the university, which grants the degree. They pay the normal university tuition for all their courses at the college and the university. By having its own courses, residence hall, a resident student personnel person, and so on, Conrad Grebel can retain many of the strengths of the Christian college.

A Significant New Model

It is also deeply involved in the university. A college representative sits on the university senate. College faculty have joint appointments in the university and are responsible for offering specific courses for the university’s department of religion. Conrad Grebel’s more than forty courses are listed in the university’s roster of curricular offerings and can be credited toward the degree of any university undergraduate. Because well over 1,000 students regularly enroll in these courses (the university reimburses the college), the college can employ eight full-time faculty, and it regularly enjoys a budget surplus. A highly successful Christian cluster college with nine years’ experience, Conrad Grebel College provides a significant new model for the church.

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2. Satellite Christian Institute. SCI in San Diego, California, has experimented with two types of Christian cluster college. In the residential approach (1970–73), a common residence, courses taught by evangelical faculty at SCI, and daily chapel provided the context for developing a Christian world-view. Acceptance at SCI was normally contingent on acceptance in one of several nearby universities, from which the student received his degree. Since SCI’s courses were not approved by the secular universities, they usually did not count toward graduation; hence an extra year was envisaged for completion of the B.A. Tuition costs at the institute were in addition to the tuition at the student’s secular institution.

In the fall of 1973, SCI adopted a decentralized approach. With a permanent location only for an administrative office, SCI will go where the students are by recruiting Christian faculty to teach one or more courses on any secular campus for as many semesters as enough Christian students can be found (through contacts with Christian student organizations, local Christian faculty, and so on). It is too soon to judge the effectiveness of this approach.

3. Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus. A fully accredited liberal arts college of about 850 students, Messiah College has two campuses—one in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania, the other on the campus of one of America’s huge state universities. When the second campus opened at Temple University in the fall of 1968, it was the first arrangement of its kind between a church-related college and a secular, state university in the United States.

The juniors and seniors who attend the Philadelphia Campus take three or four courses each semester from the university, which considers them full-time students and grants them all its privileges. The students fall into two classes: those taking majors offered at the college’s main campus at Grantham and those taking majors offered only in conjunction with Temple. Those majoring in programs given at the home campus can gain depth within their discipline by selecting from a wider range of courses taught by many more professors with differing methodological approaches. Students interested in one of the many majors that the small liberal arts college cannot afford to offer spend their last two years at the Philadelphia Campus and take their specialized courses at the university. Unlike Conrad Grebel and SCI, however, Messiah College still grants the degree. Through this cooperative program Messiah has enriched its traditional curricula and expanded the number of its majors. It now offers more majors (more than forty-five) than any other Christian college in the United States.

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Students accepted at the Philadelphia Campus are automatically enrolled in the university. The university bills the college, which in turn bills the students (Messiah students pay the same tuition at both campuses) and handles their financial aid. Although most students at the Philadelphia Campus are from Messiah’s Grantham Campus, visiting students have come for one or two semesters from other Christian colleges.

The campus at the secular university enables Messiah undergraduates to experience the full force of the secular challenge to Christian faith, but it does not leave them to face modern secularism alone. Resident Christian faculty and fellow Christian students provide a supportive community. Each semester, every student must take at least one of the college’s courses designed to help students understand and challenge the naturalism and hedonism of the university (e.g., “Christianity and Contemporary Problems,” “Personal Ethics,” “Modem Images of Man,” “Contemporary Theology”). Public lectures open to the university community, an evangelistic coffeehouse, and informal daily contacts with students and faculty all present opportunities for Christian witness. If Christian college students want frequent and challenging opportunities to witness to non-Christians, then the Christian campus on the secular university is an ideal setting.

A First-Name Basis

The informal, intimate atmosphere in the five row-houses that contain the classrooms, library, dormitories, dining hall, faculty offices, and apartments for about sixty students and faculty families is in striking contrast to the impersonal, bureaucratic tone that of necessity prevails on the huge university campus across the street. Students on work-study are responsible for the entire food-service operation. Resident faculty families, community dinners, uniform use of first names, and regular chapel all help to create a close-knit community.

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Believing that genuine education in today’s world requires cross-cultural experiences, the college has taken advantage of its location in the heart of the black community. Minority lecturers in class and chapel, association with students from various ethnic backgrounds, attendance at minority churches, and volunteer activity in the surrounding community all provide highly significant cross-cultural learning experiences. Each fall all freshmen from the Grantham Campus attend a weekend seminar on race relations at the Philadelphia Campus. New cross-cultural courses designed to immerse students more deeply in black and Puerto Rican culture are a substitute for the traditional language requirement.

Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus is a successful experiment with another type of cluster college. (For a longer description, see chapter four of the forthcoming book The Urban Mission, edited by Craig Ellison [Eerdmans].) This model could enrich the programs of scores of evangelical colleges without diluting their theological orientation. A second Christian college, John Wesley, plans to open a cluster college at the edge of the campus of a major university, Michigan State, this fall.

While preserving the strengths of the traditional Christian college, the cluster college also enjoys the benefits of the large university—vast library holdings, many majors and a wider range of courses in each major, better equipped laboratories and athletic facilities, and a larger selection of cultural events. The Church’s limited funds can be devoted to things that are directly related to its unique value orientation. Instead of having an expensive library, for instance, the cluster college need only develop a small, specialized collection of evangelical publications.

The Christian cluster college on the secular university has an ideal location for overcoming Carl Henry’s charge that Christian colleges have too often been quiet sanctuaries isolated from secular ideas rather than centers where modern secular man was confronted with a thoroughly biblical option. Isolation is impossible when Christian faculty regularly rub shoulders with secular colleagues and Christian students frequently come knocking on faculty doors with searching questions about challenges to Christian faith raised in classes and other contacts in the secular university. The danger, of course, is that this model could dilute the Christian impact of the college. Surrounded by non-Christian life-styles and taking most courses from the secular faculty in the universities, students in the cluster college could slowly lose their Christian commitment. This need not occur, however, if the cluster college takes account of the secularizing impact of the setting and carefully develops ways to help the students combat the secular challenge. Resident Christian faculty, regular chapel, and required religion courses specifically designed for the cluster-college setting are crucial. The cluster colleges must develop a thoroughly Christian atmosphere in which a supportive community of believers helps each student to work out his or her own response to contemporary unbelief and ethical relativism.

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To the Church, the evangelical cluster college offers a new way to fulfill the evangelistic mandate in a highly strategic part of today’s world. If the quality of their life together validates their proclamation, a community of evangelical students and faculty in a Christian cluster college can offer a contagious Christian witness in the secular university.

Although it may avoid some of the weaknesses of typical Christian colleges, the Christian cluster college (at least the model developed at Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus) does not compete with established institutions. Rather, it builds on their existing administrative machinery and degree-granting powers and strengthens them. The new curricula offered to juniors and seniors at the satellite campus attracts students to the college’s main campus for the freshman and sophomore years. As faculty and students circulate between the two campuses, new ideas, methods, and contacts enrich the home campus.

This new model of the Christian campus at the secular university is highly viable academically, financially, and theologically. Dozens of Christian colleges should explore its possibilities in the coming decade. The evangelical cluster college may be an ideal way for the Church today to be in the secular academic world but not of it.

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