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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Mulling the Closures of Bible Colleges

Western Baptist Bible College, Paul Sableman, 2016
This week I've written about two colleges shutting down. Both were affiliated with the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the religious group with which I was connected for about two decades of my adult life. There's a little more I'd like to reflect on with these events.

First, as noted in my previous posts, these closures are happening in a broader contemporary context of the collapsing market for private, non-profit colleges. Market forces are working against them, including the rise of online learning. Some, like the college I'm attending to work on a Masters in management, has gotten on that wave by offering graduate courses online. Avila University is based out of Kansas City, Missouri, and I simply came across it while looking for a graduate program that fit my needs. Colleges that offer professional degrees online at the graduate level are doing so to subsidize their real mission, which is undergraduate education. Whether it will work long-term for Avila remains to be seen, as is the case with all such programs.

Second, the closure of Cincinnati Christian University appears to have had less to do with poor market opportunity for their offerings, and more to do with bad management. That's at least what I take from the publicly-available information. I'm not sure whether its demise should be chalked up entirely to the problems facing private non-profit colleges generally.

Third, CCU and Nebraska Christian College are far from the first schools of higher learning in this branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement to close. Numerous such Bible colleges and preaching schools popped up in the early 20th century and never made it to the new millennium. Few would remember Midwest Christian College of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which in 1985 merged with Ozark Bible College to form Ozark Christian College. I've been given to understand that aside from mergers, Ozark and other Christian colleges hold the student records for a number of Bible programs that closed. Just understand: colleges closing in this branch of the Restoration Movement isn't new.

Fourth, I'm thinking of the impact this will have on churches. When I was attending Central Christian College of the Bible, and even for a while after, I served as a supply preacher. The college had a list of churches that said they needed someone to preach, and on a weekly basis the young men (never women, heaven forfend) who were listed as eligible to preach were contacted with their assignment. This gave me and many others like me the opportunity to develop and hone preaching skills in a friendly environment. The thing is that, with the exception of the occasional church that just needed someone to fill in for their regular preacher who was away, most of these were tiny country churches with between 5-20 in attendance. In those days I preached for as few as 3 people, and as many as 200. The honorarium was modest but meaningful to a cash-strapped college student like myself. For the churches, this meant that they had a way to survive. Without Nebraska Christian College I imagine there will be little country churches closing the doors in not too long.

This isn't an argument in favor or against those churches, although I now would take issue with a great deal of what they believe and teach. It's just an observation about a less-visible consequence of a Bible college closing.

A fun fact about my supply preaching: most of the churches that financially supported my mission internship in Brazil in 1997 were ones I had preached for in this system. They might have been small, but their gifts gave me an experience that changed the course of my life, and I also owe them for the experience I gained as they patiently endured the novice preaching of young people like the one I was.

Fifth, and in close connection with the previous point, is the impact this will have on students. Although I think a Bible college education isn't really something for which the federal government should be providing financial aid (I'm fine with theological studies in a liberal arts context though), it's arguably better than nothing. A missionary I knew told me about visiting Nebraska Christian College over 10 years ago, and the conversations he had with students. He was surprised to find that of those who spoke with him, most weren't seriously thinking about full-time ministry. For example, he asked one young man why he was at NCC, and he simply shrugged and said that he thought it would be good to go to college somewhere. Had he not had the encouragement to attend Bible college, he likely would have gotten no higher education at all.

One other thing about the people impact: a joke back in Missouri was to refer to CCCB as 'bridal college,' because it was a common place for young Christian women to meet young men to marry.

I know, it sounds like something out of the 1950s.

The loss of a Bible college can, as indicated in points four and five above, drain the vitality of and connection between these independent Christian Churches. After all, they have no higher ecclesiastical bodies beyond the local congregation to keep them united and supporting one another. Without a regional Bible college, fewer young people will be meeting and marrying people who share the same beliefs, meaning potentially fewer families in the churches going forward.

Sixth and finally, having said all of this, I want to repeat that I do not believe in the mission of Bible colleges. For the most part I see them as the fundamentalist Christian counterpart of Wahhabi madrassas in the Muslim world. They teach and austere worldview focused on purity and separation from the world while preaching hellfire and awaiting salvation in heaven. This probably comes across as unduly harsh, but I invite you to consider the comparison. It can be argued that Bible colleges don't produce terrorists, but then most Wahhabi schools don't either. Rather, they graduate people who are committed to an inadequate and harmful worldview who reject science and any facts that contradict what they were taught.

In the United States, they vote.

It may seem that I'm a hypocrite, as I unrepentantly hold a Bachelor of Ministry degree. I would argue, however, that since I had the benefit of a liberal arts education to earn it, it is substantially different. Bible college degrees are sorely lacking in science and humanities, while Christian universities, for whatever their flaws, do require these with all theological and ministerial programs. They have to do so, if they want to keep their regional accreditation.

It is my opinion that for society at large, fewer Bible colleges is a good thing. Perhaps some of those young people who only went to Bible college because it was there will do the same thing and go to community colleges. There are many throughout the country, and they certainly provide far more worthwhile humanities and science education than any Bible college. Fewer and weaker conservative churches can also mean one less point of organization and propaganda for right wing political ideologies.

In sum, the closure of Bible colleges is natural given the current market, normal in the context of history, and will have a deep sociological impact on the Christians and their churches that were previously in their orbit. None of that is necessarily a bad thing, and as I see it, nets positive for humanity as a whole.

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