Higher Education and the Great Commission
Many of us struggle to connect the dots between what happens on our college and university campuses and God’s mission in the world.
I have the privilege of serving an institution that speaks with regularity about the Great Commission. I’m part of a denomination that brings together local churches to cooperate and pool the majority of their collective resources for the sake of international missions. My own church has sent out men and women from our own congregation to places all over the globe to push back the darkness of unbelief.
With all of that said, I can’t help but notice that many of us struggle to connect the dots between what happens on our college and university campuses and God’s mission in the world.
Every Student, Every Major
You’ve heard it before. We speak of a particular group of Christians as those “called to missions.” I don’t think we intend to signal that the Great Commission is applicable only to some followers of Jesus. But language has a funny way of reflecting how we actually see ourselves and the world, not just what we claim to believe.
There are no exemptions to the Great Commission. It’s not applicable only to the varsity team (by the way, there is no “varsity Christianity”!). God’s design for every one of his redeemed children is that they would be mobilized on mission to fulfill his work in the world and make disciples of all nations.
What if this moved beyond a theological proposition or statement to which we all give polite assent, but instead shaped our homes and churches? I suspect we’d see families and students making different educational choices. We’d see students choose their respective college according to a different set of criteria than those of the world. We’d see students adopt a radically different mentality regarding student loans and debt. And we’d see students make vocational decisions and choose their majors due to a variety of new and more enduring factors.
I’m not suggesting we’d see a sudden surge of “missions majors” (although there might be great benefit from that!). Rather, a Great Commission reformation in our homes, churches, and institutions would mean we’d see students selecting their majors in a wide range of fields due to a different set of motivating factors than their unbelieving peers.
Is electrical engineering your major? Wonderful. Work hard at it, do excellent work to the glory of God, and seek to love your neighbor well. But be ready. God might call you to take your education and deliberately pursue your career in a place where you’ll be on the front lines of global mission from the marketplace.
Just don’t choose your major because you think it’s the fastest route to the fulfillment of the American Dream. The reasons you choose your major may actually be saying a lot about what and whom you truly worship.
Inseparability of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis
One of the most urgent needs in our time is the restoration of the inseparability of orthodoxy, or right believing, and orthopraxis, or right living. We do real harm to the global church and the advance of the gospel if we send out workers who are theologically illiterate or fundamentally unfaithful to authoritative biblical revelation. One only has to give brief attention to the history of American Protestant missions and they’ll be struck by the infectious nature of heterodoxy when exported through missionary efforts.
So we desperately need churches and campuses to deepen their commitment to the theological education of a new generation. It’s not just for some Christians either. Rather, we need a renewal of discipleship models that are built on the Bible’s authority and seek to shape and form Christian maturity.
And yet, sound doctrine isn’t enough. It will not save you. James tells us that even demons believe (James 2:19). Orthodoxy isn’t the distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus. Instead, the Bible is rather clear that Jesus’s disciples are known by their obedience. If your doctrine doesn’t line up with your manner of life, the Bible has a word for it: hypocrisy (e.g., Matt 23:23).
A renewal of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxis will be costly. So much so that Jesus said that following him involves daily picking up a cross after him (Luke 9:23). We’re living in an age that is swimming in a bifurcation of the two. All around us, we’re seeing the collapse of families, ministries, and churches by those who could check all of their theological boxes, but their lives were given over to sin.
Unfortunately, too many of our historically Christian colleges and universities have been immersed in these waters for far too long. In some places, biblical truth has been abandoned or simply relegated to dark corners of the catalog, as if it has no bearing on the entirety of the curriculum.
This historical narrative is familiar to most of us, populated by institutions established with a distinctly Christian vision and mission but who long ago scuttled their ties to orthodoxy or any historic Christian identity. Evangelicals, in particular, have rightly lamented the loss of these institutions, fought to recover a handful for truth, and started new ones.
But there’s also the clear and present danger of a generation of Christians who score well when it comes to theological orthodoxy and yet live like pagans or, perhaps even worse, self-righteous Pharisees. In our time, there is still a battle to be fought for truth. But make no mistake, our colleges and universities will rightly be judged by the measure of Christian discipleship and commitment that marks our campus communities, including the lives of our graduates.
Stewardship of Christian Higher Education
In the next twenty-five years, Christian higher education will be faced with massive challenges and a variety of existential crises. Frankly, there will be a sifting. Many historically Christian institutions will be revealed to be little more than overpriced and underperforming nonprofit institutions that have been hollowed out of any distinct Christian witness. The headwinds of cultural hostility will grow stronger, the enrollment challenges more severe, the fiscal constraints more difficult.
But for those institutions that are committed and prepared, Christian higher education still represents one of the most significant stewardships of kingdom opportunity. This will likely involve tearing down some of the idols we’ve bought into as American Christians, whether inadvertently or not. Our budgets will be restructured, and how we define “the good life” will need to be realigned with biblical truth, a global vision, and missiological urgency. Our courage to operate from the margins of elite culture, rather than from the ever-elusive dream of within it, will be tested.
With all of those realities, though, there is much opportunity. Students who receive this kind of education will leave with more than degrees. They will have been shaped by a comprehensively Christian curriculum, campus culture, and vision.
Faculty will understand their vocation as teacher-scholars who not only teach and publish at the highest level but are instruments in God’s hand in calling out and mobilizing another generation on mission, regardless of their major. Donors and supporters will enthusiastically and sacrificially partner with these kinds of colleges and universities because they recognize the ways in which their resources are leveraged in a way that no other school could.
Go and Send
When describing the assembly of David’s army, the Old Testament makes a passing reference to the sons of Issachar as those who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron 12:32).
I’m hopeful that we’re seeing some of the offspring of Issachar among us even today in Christian higher education. The need is great and the hour short. Wherever Christ calls, we must go. Whomever Christ calls, we must send.
Our Christian colleges and universities have a part to play in that. So do you.
This article originally appeared at the website of the International Mission Board.