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In the era of declining enrollments, Christian colleges and universities face two perennial questions: what are the defining features of Christian education, and why are they worth a higher tuition rate than the state school down the road? Christian colleges offer many distinctive features, including chapel, single-sex residence halls, and required courses on theology or the Bible. In the classroom, faculty regularly pray before class, connect course content to Scripture, and teach from a Christian worldview. These are all good things, but are they enough to produce the goal to which Christian colleges aspire: the transformation and renewal of students’ minds? (c.f. Romans 12:2)

Many colleges seem to assume transformation of mind will occur if they teach from the perspective of a Christian worldview. Yet, the mind is more than the sum of our beliefs; it is shaped by our imagination. Cognitive psychology and philosophical theories of action suggest much of human behavior is guided by underlying dispositions of mind and heart, rather than rational deliberation (e.g. consciously applying a Christian worldview). What our students imagine and desire to be good is formed less by information, and more through the practices of everyday life. In the modern era, a secular vision of reality (what Charles Taylors calls the modern social imaginary) seems to have become the default. Christian colleges and universities embrace the mission to transform minds, but their work occurs at the intersection of three spheres that rely on vastly different norms and assumptions: the academy, professions, and the church. Even when the academy and professions are not overtly anti-Christian, they may be rooted in assumptions related to the created world, freedom, and the human person—manifested in everyday practices—which conflict with the mission to transform minds. Christian colleges may affirm a Christian worldview, but to what extent do they rely on routines and practices that unintentionally foster secular (of the age) dispositions of mind and heart?

On the surface, practices of modern education seem to be morally neutral, but often they cultivate dispositions that are antithetical to Christian formation. Consider the use and abuse of PowerPoint in the college classroom. The beauty, goodness, and depth of many topics cannot fit within the container of the PowerPoint lecture, yet it has become a default means of transferring information to students—in part because it is so efficient. The overuse of PowerPoint encourages students to imagine their education as the collection of useful facts. Previous cohorts of students digest these useful facts and turn them into flashcards on sites such as Quizlet, which further reduces the incentive for deep engagement with course material. Students whose educational experience is defined by sitting through PowerPoint lectures, studying on Quizlet, and taking multiple choice exams learn to envision the world as raw material to advance their careers, rather than creation imbued with God’s grace and love. This approach to education does not transform minds, but instead conforms them to a secular vision of reality.

Christian colleges may also perpetuate a secular mindset when they treat courses instrumentally—as a mere means to sharpen students’ reading skills or critical thinking. A liberal arts education ought to strengthen these skills, but the motivating purpose of the liberal arts is to read great literature and explore great ideas for their own goodness rather than just their instrumental uses. This instrumentalizing mindset is perpetuated when students and their advisors talk about courses in the liberal arts as something to “get out of the way”—a chore that must be completed (sometimes by taking a test or taking a summer course at community college) in order to get on to subjects that are directly relevant to one’s future career. This box-checking mentality is a sure sign of a secular imagination, one that is unable to recognize – or care about – the inherent goodness of creation. This inability to know and love the goodness of creation limits people’s ability to know and love their Creator.

A final way that Christian colleges may unintentionally perpetuate a secular mindset is by exalting the importance of worldly success. Thumb through the alumni magazine of the typical Christian college and you’ll see honors heaped on those alumni whose careers are deemed a success, as indicated by their prestige, fame, and income (all for the glory of God, of course). Scripture speaks of the proud being humbled and the humble being exalted (cf. Mt 23:12); not so the alumni magazine. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with worldly success. Colleges ought to celebrate such successes while devoting equal attention to celebrating alumni whose mission field and influence have a smaller scope. The problem with granting too much priority to worldly success is that it signals to alumni, parents, and students what the institution considers to be truly important—even if it would claim otherwise. Students and alumni already feel enough pressure to measure themselves by their accomplishments; they likely need the reminder that their life, career, and worth are not measured by worldly standards of success. Failing to stand in opposition to these worldly standards can perpetuate a secular vision of career, wealth, and self-worth.

Of course, PowerPoint lectures and accolades have some place in Christian education, but colleges that fail to properly prioritize the highest ends of Christian education are complicit in perpetuating a secular mindset among their students. Many Christian colleges prioritize “hiring for mission,” and rightly so. But the mission of Christian colleges is not merely to offer a secular education administered by people who pray before class and intersperse their lectures with Bible verses. Even if professors affirm a Christian worldview, their practices in the classroom may undermine their efforts to form students’ hearts and minds. Christian colleges serious about the mission of transforming minds must have the courage to question whether they have unwittingly embraced structures, routines, and assumptions that perpetuate a secular mindset among students. Otherwise, they will end up graduating students who may be practicing Christians but practical atheists.

Phil Davignon

Phil Davignon is Chair and Associate Professor of Sociology at Union University in Jackson, TN. He is the author of Practicing Christians, Practical Atheists: How Cultural Liturgies and Everyday Social Practices Shape the Christian Life.


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    How do we get students to grapple with ideas? Are we asking questions (in class and via assignments and exams) that require students to apply Biblical perspectives to the content presented in a given course? PowerPoint, for example, can be very useful if we use it to launch students into a discussion that challenges them to view an issue from a Biblical stance. Bonhoeffer, for example, saw nothing wrong with Christians participating in war until challenged with the question: “Do you think it’s OK then to kill another Christian in battle?” That question so shook Bonhoeffer that he ended up speaking out against the Nazis mistreatment of German Jews (and the churches’ silent acquiescence) and joining the German resistance during WWII. The materials we assign our students to read, the documentaries we assign them to watch, and the questions we force them to grapple with as they consider the input can go a long way towards strengthening both their Christian worldview and their ability to see the errors in a secular mindset . . . reminding them consistently of the importance of Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Equipped with a growing knowledge of the Word and an ability to apply its principles to their lives and the world around them can help them to be effective salt and light to those in their midst.

    • David Ward says:

      Gordon, I appreciate your response to Phil’s post. You ask some very good questions and, I suggest, the answers depend on the course content, the teaching style of the professor, and the type of students that take the class. I teach science and there are two things I intentionally do with my general core science class. At the beginning of the semester, I project on the screen statements about science and faith and have the students agree or disagree, using electronic keypads. Then later in the semester I address some of the responses. For example, I ask them to agree or disagree with the statement “God is the supreme scientist” and typically about 95% strongly agree with that statement. Then within the next week I address that question and share with them how I feel about the statement, and I remind them what science is. Next, we use Canvas here and I leave open for several months a place where students can anonymously ask science/faith related questions. Once some good questions have been posted, I devote some class time to discussing their questions (this semester I devoted three class periods to their questions—it varies a little). …This works for the way I run class (well, I hope and feel like it does). In closing, I’ll mention an idea that recently occurred to me after reading an article in The Physics Teacher by Dr. Krista McBride (Belmont University) entitled “Customizing Physics Courses for Non-Physics Majors Using Relevant Problems to Motivate Students” from the Dec 2022 issue. She outlines how she requires students to generate a physics question and answer their question. You caused me to think of Dr. McBride’s paper. Perhaps, occasionally, we could require on an exam (or as an assignment) that students pose their own question related to the course and the Christian faith, and some of the more thoughtful student submissions could be used in class. … Thanks for making me think this morning! God bless.

  • David Ward says:

    Thank you, Phil, for this thought-provoking post. I agree that PowerPoint has its place, but it is overused, and often misused. (I avoid it as much as I can.) Test banks provided to instructors are also poor assessment tools—especially when most of them are available on the internet (though sometimes with a cost attached).

    You mention instructors who pray before every class…I make a point to not do this. A colleague (wish I could recall who!) some years ago mentioned to me that if prayer is done at the start of every class then praying could become simply routine. Prayer then becomes just another box to check off as we generally utter the same generic prayer. I don’t pray in class unless I feel led, or a student asks.

    Thanks again!