communicating to customers

After a brief hiatus during which I was immersed in ABHE Board meetings and the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education’s (ICETE) C-18 triennial global consultation on theological education held in Panama last month, I’m returning to my extended conversation with you about the Barna Group report, What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education?

So far, my posts have addressed the first two of six major categories in which I believe the data call us to transformative thinking and action:


Definitional Dilemma

The tension between established public perception about the nature and scope of Bible colleges and the institutional self-identity, curricular scope, and missional aspirations of many ABHE member colleges.



The key to enrollment success and mission fulfillment.




This is not a problem, it is a fact of life.





Today’s prospective students are hungry for what we’re good at.




One size does not fit all—and it doesn’t fit most of our prospects.




Will you be talking past your audiences, or will your digital media mastery have a leveling effect?


The emphasis of my previous two posts has been the critical strategy of differentiation and the need for messaging to be framed in terms of benefits rather than features. Before we move on to the subject of demographics, I want to offer a caution about our messaging: while we must craft and shape our messaging to correspond to target audience perceptions and attitudes, we must not sell our souls in an attempt to cater to consumers—Christian students and parents whose postsecondary educational values and aspirations run counter to and will ultimately erode our mission.


We should be looking for mission quality students, not just more students.


The good news is that we don’t have to capitulate to consumers.


Many of our core, historic distinctives resonate with today’s students and parents.

There is notable interest in studying the Bible. The unprecedented contemporary assault of and access to information and the intellectual and moral ascendancy of secularization demands development of discernment through comprehensive understanding of the grand biblical narrative of redemption and capacity to apply biblical/theological reasoning to the competing narratives of the day. Surely, we can offer superior value in that vein, can we not?

Prospective students and parents also place high value on experiencing Christian community and pursuing spiritual development and discipleship growth. These things are right in our bread basket. We can deliver.


Speaking of spiritual development and discipleship growth, we would be wise to think of discipleship not merely in terms of “personal piety/conduct” but also and especially in terms of vocation. The purposes and benefits of postsecondary education have more to do with personal transformation than mere accumulation of competencies. Gaining a God-centered sense of personal vocation is more satisfying and enduring than self-serving preparation for a professional occupation.

The ABHE-Barna research project affirms that our traditional conflation of “ministry vocation” with “church occupation” is not only incongruent with biblical teaching, it also fails to capture the imagination of our prospective students. Have we been guilty of propagating an unbiblical sacred/secular vocational divide that confines sacred activity to church property and programs, inhibiting whole life discipleship that affirms and releases God’s people to be on mission with Him 24/7?

The emerging generation seeks a highly engaged, highly customizable form of spiritual development that Barna President David Kinnaman calls vocational discipleship. Kinnaman argues that human gifting and inclination tends to fall under one of three clusters, each of which can be the vehicle for truly vocational career discipleship (c.f., Gen 1:28):

E=entrepreneurial: abundance

S=science/technology: order

C=creative [humanities/arts]: beauty, connection

If we embrace this more biblical and expansive vision of discipleship, we can hope to expand our prospect pool beyond the 16% “inclined” into the 28% “open” toward considering Christian higher education. That would nearly double our enrollment prospect pool. Let’s get to work.

Next time, I plan to take up Barna’s research findings relative to Demographics. That’s another good news/bad news subject. Stay tuned!

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


  Evangelism is a Work of Social Justice

Only if you limit your sphere of reality to the immanent (here and now) can you deny that evangelism is a work of social justice. So says Christianity Today editor Mark Galli. He reasons: “To put it starkly: If we fail to share the greatest riches we enjoy, if we keep this great news to ourselves, we are no better than the materially privileged who refuse to share their goods and work to alleviate poverty. We are, in short, practicing a type of injustice.”


  Big Screen, Little Screen

Philip Yancey’s thoughtful account of the story behind Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” is instructive and heartening. We need to pay more attention to the “little screen” than the “big screen.”