We’re working our way through six major takeaway themes stemming from our ABHE-Barna Research project report, What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education? Thus far, we have considered:
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.
Now we come to a fourth major theme:
Today’s prospective students are hungry for what we’re good at.
At first, this assertion might seem contradictory. After all, it appears inconsistent with one of the most notable and potentially vexing findings of the ABHE-Barna research:
Just what, exactly, is college for? Americans overwhelmingly see higher education as a path to gainful employment and financial security. It’s a view shared across religious demographics: by Christians, by adherents to non-Christian faiths and by those who profess no faith at all. In some cases, Christians most fervent about their faith—including practicing Christians and evangelicals*—are even more pragmatic and career-focused than non-Christians. Moral and spiritual development may be important, but they’re not the best reason to pursue a college education. (What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education? p. 8 [emphasis added])
So how can I say today’s students are hungry for what we’re good at?
Well, to be honest, that assertion is half true. It’s fair to say that a passion for disciple-making is a key plank in our biblical higher education platform. More than one of our member colleges uses a variation of the tagline: Making disciples who make disciples. But what do we mean—what should we mean—by discipleship?
The most stringent and straightforward way to read Kinnaman’s observation is to conclude that the coming student generation is simply not buying postsecondary education that focuses on discipleship and fails to pave the upward pathway toward gainful employment and economic security. There’s some truth to that. I don’t think we can afford to live in denial of these trends. On the other hand, we don’t have to capitulate either. We need to think carefully and adjust both our message and our menu if we’re going to thrive.
Prospective students and their parents need to hear and heed the exhortation from us that the purposes and benefits of postsecondary education have more to do with personal transformation and the acquisition of foundational knowledge and essential capacities than mere accumulation of technical competencies. Moreover, gaining a God-centered sense of personal vocation is more satisfying and enduring than self-serving preparation for a professional occupation. As Mother Theresa puts it:
“May people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is Jesus.”
What is true for the individual is also true for society. Societal flourishing is rooted in a morally virtuous, relationally covenantal, and wisely compassionate citizenry, not in mere technological proficiency or economic prosperity.
That said, a look below the surface suggests that our notion of “discipleship” may be both biblically and culturally out of step. Most of our colleges would assert a convergence between a passion for and skill in discipleship. But like I said, the notion that prospective students are hungry for what we’re good at is only half true.
Here’s what I mean:
We’re good at discipleship but not necessarily at the kind of discipleship that best corresponds to a holistic biblical vision of vocation and to the emerging generation’s questions and aspirations as to how to connect their personal wiring and work to God’s plan and purpose for them and for the world.
You see, when we say “discipleship” we are likely to be thinking about helping students grow in personal piety and to discover, cultivate, and surrender to a personal calling to serve in direct occupational roles in church or parachurch organizational endeavor.
But that is only tangentially associated with what the Bible teaches about discipleship and it does not directly answer the vocational longing and aspirations of many in the emerging generation. I believe our movement may be guilty of having institutionalized a major biblical fallacy that constitutes a disconnect with our present missional (vs. the former “Christendom”) paradigm.
We would be wise to think of discipleship not only in terms of “personal piety/conduct” but also increasingly in terms of vocation.
The emerging generation seeks a highly engaged, highly customizable form of spiritual development that Barna President David Kinnaman calls vocational discipleship. Our approach to discipleship needs to move beyond personal piety and preparation for a narrow set of church occupations to cultivating personal calling and an abiding sense of ministry vocation that is expressed in one’s occupation but at the same time transcends it.
Although Christ’s disciples must learn to embrace the habitudes of personal piety, they also must come to terms with a biblical vision of the nature of vocation.Click to tweet
We need to expand our biblical imagination and educational curricula to encompass vocational preparation beyond church employment to whole-life discipleship that expresses itself in missional gospel engagement regardless of organizational employment. That is even more crucial in light of the “gig” nature of the emerging generation’s employment mindset and patterns.
In his insightful and prophetic monograph, The Great Divide, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s Mark Greene puts it this way:
Indeed, a whole-life perspective enables us to see that every context we find ourselves in is not just a place to display Christian character – to model the ways of Jesus – but also a place to minister to others, to be a mouthpiece for truth and justice and the gospel, to be a maker of disciples and to be a maker of culture – a shaper of the way things are done.
And here’s some really good news: 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 break out of our traditional discipleship boxes and get to work building curricula that correspond to the landscape of biblical vocation and forming disciples who live on mission with Jesus at the intersection, as Frederick Buechner so memorably put it, “…of their deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger.”
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
This Easter-inspired essay by Arab Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies director, Martin Accad, asserts: The cross invites us to quit striving to be God’s well-meaning mercenaries according to the instinctive human understanding of power. His insights are both a rebuke and inspiration.
Barna Group and the American Bible Society have been actively monitoring Bible engagement for more than a decade now. Following several years of alarming levels of decline, there are finally a few signs of an uptick in Bible engagement. Read the highlights here and order the in-depth study.