(Continued from Part II)

A Future for Christian Higher Education, Part III

Problem #3: Christian higher education is facing a crisis in Canada.

Leaders in Canadian Christian higher education collectively express difficulty in recruiting students, often citing Christian parents as a primary obstacle. Increasingly, Canadian Christian parents want their children to go directly into a career track at public institutions, not to waste time and money developing faith. Recruitment is further hampered by a growing trend among churches to hire clergy who have little or no Christian education, or for churches just to do their own training in-house.25 Given the ideological nature of the threats assailing today’s church, it seems an unlikely strategy that an undereducated clergy should produce a robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered church.

The challenge of recruiting students from the church reciprocally becomes a problem for the church. Christian higher education depends on a robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered church to support and supply it with students to develop and send back to the church as robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered leaders.

Another challenge is from the church’s changing relationship to government. When Canada and the church were historically better aligned, Christian higher education could somewhat safely depend on additional support from government with a reciprocal understanding that Christian education created good citizens. As Canada secularizes, and as the church battles with its integrity and identity, Christian higher education gets into a negative reinforcing loop with ever lowering supply (students and support) and ever lowering demand (for robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered leaders), increasingly threatening its ability to operate and to fulfil its leadership pipeline mandate.

To operate, Christian higher education has typically relied on:

  1. student tuition,26
  2. individual, church, and corporate donations, and
  3. limited or derived public funds through such things as government grants, student loan eligibility, and charitable status that permits granting tax receipts.

Different from the US, large endowments are rare among Christian higher education schools in Canada.27 Years of declining enrolments have steadily eroded a core income stream – dangerously so for some institutions after two years of COVID-19 low enrolments.

Shrinking church attendance and shrinking spiritual vitality has contributed to shrinking church and individual donations. Furthermore, negative public perceptions of the church puts social pressure on Christian corporations not to publicly align with overtly Christian causes like Christian schools. And as Canada secularizes, Christian access to public funds becomes increasingly precarious. It would take only one act of government that required institutions to comply with policy contrary to religious conscience for a Christian higher education institution to lose some or all of its limited or derived public funds. Left alone, this negatively reinforced loop would spiral downward and eliminate Christian higher education and any recognizable sense of the church. Fortunately, neither Christian higher education nor the church is a novel institution so easy to kill.

As an institution, Christian higher education has functioned as the primary pipeline for church leadership almost since the church’s inception. From catechetical schools in second-century Alexandria to the invention of universities in Medieval Europe (originally for training clergy) to the creation of seminaries in the Counter-Reformation to the birth of Bible Colleges in the late nineteenth century that proliferated across Canada through the 1950s, Christian higher education has a lengthy pedigree. The Bible college movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries arose to educate young Christian leaders in truth and for ministry in response to the increasingly liberal ideologies being taught at universities, seminaries, and mainline churches in Canada.28 Similarly, when the “Confessing Church” emerged in Germany as a response to the Nazi-endorsing German state church, one of its first acts was to establish a seminary to prepare its leaders. Led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “underground seminary” at Finkenwalde focused on teaching biblical interpretation, preaching, and personal spiritual formation as essential curriculum for church leaders to counter the prevalent Nazi worldview until the Nazis forcibly shut it down.29

The church, on the other hand, is God’s institutional plan for the world. Pastor and culture critic Mark Sayers predicts that now is God’s timing for church renewal in the west, with a “remnant” church emerging and exhibiting “vital Christianity” and “hot orthodoxy.” Sayers muses,

Central Pentecostal College in the early days

Central Pentecostal College, 1962

“As cultural Christianity washes away, a blank canvas is appearing, with the possibility of a new story being written upon it. What seemed like a crisis, when reframed through the eyes of the Spirit, [is] an incredible opportunity.”30

And despite the church’s recent history of hemorrhaging young adults, Barna continues to locate “resilient disciples” – smaller numbers of passionately committed next generation followers of Jesus preparing to step in and lead the remnant church.31 Like the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, the Canadian church will rise up to serve as Christ’s witness, carrying on his mission in the power of the Spirit. And like the Confessing Church, it will need robustly biblical, intelligently competent, Spirit-empowered leaders to lead it.

But practically speaking, how can Christian higher education overcome its lower enrolments and decreased financial supports and continue to fulfil its leadership pipeline mandate in Canada?

To be continued…

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Dr Jeromey Martini ______________________
Dr. Jeromey Martini, President, Horizon College & Seminary and Professor of New Testament Studies

25 This was a point of discussion at a recent gathering of Christian Higher Education Canada presidents, hosted on Zoom on May 30, 2022. Corroborating the concern, at a special General Conference meeting of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada – Canada’s largest evangelical denomination – a resolution passed on April 21, 2022 to remove “academic requirements” from the PAOC’s Constitution as a necessary component for licensed ministry credentials. Although the verbal explanation of the resolution noted its intent is for “exceptional circumstance” pathways for ministerial credentials, this explanation is not in the PAOC’s Constitution, leaving it open-ended.

26 Note that Canadian Christian higher education institutions generate almost twice as much of their budgets from tuition and fees compared to publicly funded universities. See Hiemstra, “Competition,” p. 101.

27 Stanley Porter reports that 1/3 of Canadian ATS seminaries have no significant endowments. Only 61% have endowments under 5 million dollars, and only 2 institutions have endowments over 19.9 million (one at 20 million and the other at 21 million) (p. 27). He states, “The situation is similarly bad for evangelical institutions, where nearly half of them have no endowment funds, and again nearly two-thirds (61%) have under 5
million dollars.” Stanley Porter, “Canadian Theological Education in the Twenty-First Century—An Update and Evaluation” in McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 14 (2012-2013), p. 28.

28 See Robert Burkinshaw, “Evangelical Bible Colleges in Twentieth-Century Canada” in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience. Ed. by G.A. Rawlyk. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), pp. 369-373. Curiously, despite a much smaller population density, Saskatchewan has birthed more Bible schools than anywhere else in Canada. See, Bruce Guenther, “Bible Schools and Colleges” in The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. Accessible at: http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/bible_schools_and_colleges.html.

29 See Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich (Thomas Nelson, 2010), ch. 17. See also Bonhoeffer’s letter describing the seminary to theologian Karl Barth, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “To Karl Barth, Finkenwalde, September 19, 1936,” in Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937. Ed. H. Haylon Barker; trans. Douglas W. Stott (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2013), pp. 252-255.

30 Mark Sayers, Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture (Moody Press, 2019), p. 11. For Sayers, Vital Christianity is when “correct biblical faith and doctrine is affirmed, alongside a healthy spiritual life of a significant amount of a congregation;” Hot Orthodoxy is when “correct biblical faith and doctrine flow out of a vibrant spiritual life. God moves powerfully. Truth and presence are everpresent. A majority of the congregation lives a powerful and vibrant spiritual life” (p. 82).

31 Kinneman and Matlock, Exiles. Barna identifies c. 9% of the Canadian population as “resilient disciples.” Barna, “Connected,” p. 13.

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