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The late, great Timothy Keller wrote a piece in The Atlantic called “American Christianity is Due for Revival.” In the article, he described his experiences with the “religious nones.” He summarizes the research projections that describe the inevitable decline of the Christian church. However, Keller offers a reason for us to hope for a revival of the Christian church. He points to the many benefits organized religion has for society and the great role churches play in promoting flourishing families and communities. Keller goes further by claiming that “Christianity helps society because its metaphysical claims are true.” This suggests that Christianity can contribute to the betterment of society through our pursuit of justice and care for the poor and vulnerable. However, our greatest contribution is the power and hope of the message of Jesus Christ that we bring to the world.

Keller offers some specific circumstances under which Christianity can be revived and grow again in our society. He presents five conditions under which we can see growth in the church:

1.The Church must learn to speak compellingly to non-Christian people.
2.The Church must learn to unite concepts of justice and righteousness.
3.The Church must embrace the global and multi-ethnic character of Christianity.
4.The Church must strike a balance between innovation and conservation.
5.The Church must capitalize on our counter-cultural “grace and covenant” worldview that is an alternative to the hyper-individualistic secularist worldview we are immersed in (my paraphrase).

If that wasn’t clear enough Keller goes even further to suggest that these conditions alone won’t revive the church. Instead, there are three things we must accomplish to see real change. First, we must “escape from political captivity.” Second, we must unite in “extraordinary prayer.” Third, we must distinguish the Gospel from moralism.

Although Keller’s arguments are being made specifically to the Church, I can’t help but see the many parallels and applications to Christian higher education as well. There is an opportunity for Christian higher education to see revival following Keller’s suggestions. Here’s what that might look like.

1.Our universities must speak compellingly to the nones. At the individual and institutional levels, we must re-orient ourselves to assume that our students are not Christian or familiar with the Christian message. First, this means being very good at our job as educators. Non-Christian students will attend our universities if we offer a high-quality education coupled with a good reputation. This also means being careful about not speaking “christianese,” not making assumptions about biblical literacy levels, and presenting the real-world application of the Gospel message.

2.Our universities must promote Biblical justice. As a Christian social worker, I feel this comes a bit naturally to me. However, I’ve observed that many in Christian higher education struggle with reconciling a focus on personal salvation and individual faith with a corporate responsibility to care for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed. Environmentalism, racial justice, decarceration, and economic justice are all things young people care about. They need to know that the Bible speaks to these societal and cultural issues and we need to present that message clearly. The Black Church tradition and Christian Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have done this for decades and can provide models for us to follow.

3.Our universities must be globally minded and welcome a diverse student body. Let me clear on this. Many Christian universities (especially those with a missionary tradition) do well with recruiting international students. However, that is not the same thing as preparing for and welcoming a diverse student body. Diversity should be understood in racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic, regional, and religious terms. We must intentionally reach out to those who historically have not been welcomed in Christian higher education. This includes diversifying our faculty and administration. Also, it’s one thing to recruit students from various backgrounds and a completely different thing to actually position ourselves to welcome these students. Diversity can come with challenges. In particular, White-majority spaces must be willing to value the unique perspectives that historically minoritized groups bring. We must learn from them, challenge our assumptions, confront injustices, and grow into the picture of Biblical diversity painted in Revelation 7:9.

4.Our universities must strike a balance between innovation and tradition. Not all traditions should be disregarded. Many of our universities were birthed out of rich faith traditions with beautiful faith practices. For example, we have started to introduce Christian contemplative prayer to our students. This is a historic practice that has cultural relevance and practicality today; helping stressed students to cope through prayer. However, we should also seek to be innovative in our use of technology, educational modalities, and degree offerings to respond to the needs of the current generation.

5.Our universities must capitalize on our Christian focus. We offer an alternative to secular universities and we need to lean into that uniqueness. Instead of trying to be more competitive by emulating our secular competitors, we must amplify our distinct view of the world and approach to education. For example, I direct a social work program. When our online students come to campus we start each day with worship, prayer, and devotion. Of course, we do lots of other academically focused activities, however, consistently it’s the worship experience students love the most. Our universities need to be more Christian, not less. However, we need to be clear about what that looks like and not make Christianity synonymous with conservatism, a specific political ideology, and white cultural normativity, which students today will reject.

Although I believe that these are all essential ingredients to lead our Christian universities to revival, I must emphasize one last thing Keller offers us. We must unite in extraordinary prayer! As believers, we must enter into individual and corporate prayer about our purpose and function in the world. We must individually, and collectively, seek God’s face and ask for guidance on how to connect with the “nones.” We must invite the Holy Spirit into the process. This is more than a prayer before our planning meeting. I’m talking about canceling a meeting to have an hour of corporate prayer. When God answers our prayer and He tells us to do something hard, uncomfortable, or painful, we will listen. When revival means that things have to change, we will be committed to seeing His will be done. If this change means shifts in power and privilege we will walk in Christlike humility.

Ultimately, the fate of the Christian university is similar to the fate of the Christian church. Our survival is dependent on revival. God ultimately is in control and is compelling us to get ready. When a student like Jessica is interested in attending your university, how will you receive her? When Jessica is in your office, will you be ready?

Krystal Hays

Dr. Krystal Hays is the Director of the Doctor of Social Work program and an Associate Professor of Social Work at California Baptist University. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with experience providing psychotherapy, and engaging in capacity building, in community mental health settings. As a social work researcher Dr. Hays focuses on reducing the burden of depression and other mental illnesses and improving mental health treatment outcomes for African Americans.