Tough Questions for Christian Colleges: The End of the (Evangelical) World As We Know It, by Richard Flory

Richard Flory, one of my very bright former colleagues at a stalwart CCCU school, is currently associate research professor of sociology and senior research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

In the aftermath of the Rob Bell universalism controversy Richard is asking some very tough questions confronting leaders of the Christian College movement about the future of Christian Higher Education in the midst of dramatic worldview shift among younger evangelicals.

I’m interested in everyone’s take on this, but especially CCCU and ABHE leaders in particular.  What are your thoughts?

The End of the (Evangelical) World As We Know It

USC Associate Professor Richard Flory

Several recent reports suggest that the evangelical Christian world, as we have come to know it over the last 30 years, may be changing forever…

(R)eports of younger evangelicals suggest that they have a distinctly different perspective than their elders on such issues as gay identity and marriage, the environment, how to address poverty and other social justice issues. As writers for the New York Times and TransMissions have reported, they are even, apparently, arguing against a traditional conception of hell.

While it is not exactly clear the extent to which these beliefs are really a part of the worldview of younger evangelicals, or how they may translate into different forms of social action, they do suggest that important changes are unfolding within a important sector of American society…

There are several angles that reporters might pursue, starting with whether the theological reorientation of charismatic leaders like Rob Bell really represents a broad trend within evangelicalism (or are they getting attention because they’re savvy about self-promotion and the usefulness of pushing their opponents’ buttons).

Further, reporters need to ask not only how many younger evangelicals there are who support a more progressive interpretation of the Gospel, but what influence they might actually have on politics and culture.

For example, what might these changes mean for key evangelical institutions such as churches, colleges and seminaries? John Thune and Mike Huckabee, two potential Republican presidential candidates, are products of evangelical schools. Will these institutions support changes in scriptural interpretation and social ethics, or will they maintain their traditional role of working to keep young evangelicals within the range of acceptable beliefs and practices?

…Ultimately, only time will tell. But in the meantime, there are many lines of inquiry that reporters can pursue to help us understand whether and how younger evangelicals represent new wine in old wineskins. Or whether they are just the same vintage in a shiny new bottle.

Your Thoughts?

Richard is the co-author of Growing Up in America: The Power of Race in the Lives of Teens (Stanford, 2010) and Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (Rutgers, 2008).

Read Richard’s entire article on USC’s website.

7 Replies to “Tough Questions for Christian Colleges: The End of the (Evangelical) World As We Know It, by Richard Flory”

  1. The evidence that Christian college students are "soft" on core biblical beliefs and traditional personal ethics has been around at least since James Davison Hunter's 1980s book, "Evangelicals: The Coming Generation." Rob Bell (I confess to ignorance and, thus, suspension of judgment concerning the present universalism accusations leveled at him) may be more a manifestation of what Hunter predicted concerning that generation than a commentary on the present generation. You might say that we shouldn't worry so much about the implications for Christian higher education in the present or future so much as we should consider the fruit of Christian higher education in the '70s and '80s that gave students little Biblical substance or competence in theological reasoning with which to address the real issues of their day. How can education be truly Christian and superficially biblical? How many Christian college faculty members themselves have the tools to think biblically in their disciplines? I'm not talking about spiritual platitudes and proof texts. I'm talking about the capacity to critically examine epistemological "verities" within their disciplines and to craft a biblical epistemology which governs and informs thinking, theory and practice. We're sending graduates out into cultural hostilities with paint guns. Don't misunderstand me, the answer is not so much to equip graduates to win contemporary arguments but to suffer with joyful integrity when reviled and persecuted and to act with gracious compassion when their contemporaries suffer the inevitable personal and social ravages of autonomy and estrangement from the Creator and Lord of life. If we help to equip students with biblical substance and skill, they can and should re-visit traditional doctrinal and ethical formulations. As my mentor, Robertson McQuilkin would often assert, we undermine the authority of Scripture just as much by adding to it as subtracting from it. Could it be that we should re-examine our traditional assumptions about heaven, hell, eternity? With deference to and respect for the Holy Spirit's active teaching and illumination of our forbears, we can and we must. By the same token, could it be that the real erosion relative to these doctrines has already occurred? While our generation has upheld traditional BELIEFS about heaven, hell, and eternity, our VALUES and PRACTICES belie our beliefs. We either have to change our beliefs (more convenient) or examine our priorities. I believe the key is to teach and practice true submission to the authority of Scripture in belief and life — and to help students cultivate the reverence and skill necessary to do so with reference to the questions and challenges their generation is presenting.

  2. Similar to King David who felt ungainly in the king’s armor, many of our new apologists are trying to fit into a theological armor that they do not have firsthand experience with. It is one thing to tell a younger generation that “this is how it is”, it is quite another to get their experiential buy-in.
    In addition, new generations often challenge the old guard simply to establish individuality and to find out if they are still loved and accepted if they have different ideas.
    I like to think that this is just normal generational tension and that with the love and acceptance of elders, as well as our trust in the agency of the Holy Spirit, that most of the really bad ideas will fall by the wayside leaving the constructive new ideas intact to breathe new experience into old armor. The process of generational change is always disturbing and challenging to existing securities. Why should we expect this one to look different? Actually, this one is more exciting. I got stuck with disco defining my generation! How embarrassing.

  3. Via Facebook:
    It's interesting because when I was at Biola I was left of the school and most people there–I was a democrat and Clinton won the election and I was told I'd help to install the anti-Christ. I'm not a universalist, but I do think that world could stand for some change.

    1. Christine, Yeah, Richard seems to imply that schools like Biola have always been politically monolithic and that only NOW is that changing. Obviously, that's not true.

  4. Via Facebook:
    I think this is the key part of that article: "While it is not exactly clear the extent to which these beliefs are really a part of the worldview of younger evangelicals…" Research required! I went to college with the Rob Bell generation of church leaders and I have to say I find them a little annoying sometimes. They certainly don't represent the majority of believers our age (IMHO) though they may represent the beliefs of the generation that follows us.

    1. Karen, I think you raise a great point. Rob is 40 and I don't think he represents most 40-somethings. Its the current teenagers (and their mostly 40-something parents) that Christian Colleges are primarily concerned about. Could be quite a ride.

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