Strategic Discipleship

Strategic Discipleship

Spring 2023

Joy Mosley and Gentry Sutton

More and more CCCU member institutions are facing an issue that has become increasingly apparent in the last few decades: Students are arriving at our institutions with less and less knowledge about the Bible and basic Christian beliefs. The problem is not a new one, for Christian college and university professors have lamented students’ biblical literacy levels for years. Yet many faculty members would argue that the problem seems to be getting worse.

“As our culture has continued to shift, I have noticed that few of my unchurched students have any exposure to the Bible,” says Roy Millhouse, associate professor of biblical studies at Sterling College (Sterling, KS). “Unfortunately, I increasingly see something similar for those who grew up in the church.”

Robert Herron, professor of religion and ethics at Regent University (Virginia Beach, VA), shared a similar assessment. “When it comes to discussing the Bible with today’s students, I definitely have to start in a different place and with different assumptions than I did when I began my career,” he says. “In fact, general understanding about the very nature of Scripture is one thing that has changed over the years.”

In their 2019 book Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock share their research about young Christians who are “resilient” in their faith compared to young people who were previously in the church but have drifted from faith commitments. Their research makes clear what we all know: What they call “Digital Babylon” is a monster of an obstacle to biblical literacy and the understanding of basic Christian teachings. Kinnaman and Matlock found that the typical 15 to 23-year-old spends approximately 2,767 hours per year consuming digital content; the typical churchgoer of the same age spends only about 291 hours taking in spiritual content. Unchurched young people spend only 153 hours per year consuming spiritual content and, presumably, much of that content is likely not orthodox or even Christian.

The statistics are overwhelming. But for Christian colleges and universities that are serious about making a spiritual impact in the lives of their students, they do offer clear direction: We must compete for students’ time with strategic discipleship efforts. Christian colleges and universities have students in their spheres of influence for two to five years and, consequently, have an opportunity to significantly reduce the negative impact that Digital Babylon can have on them.

Recognizing Our Influence

As cultural confusion about God and who he has made us to be continues to affect young people, the role of discipleship in Christian colleges and universities becomes more and more important. In fact, Christian higher education is arguably the single most important means for the Christian worldview to compete in the world of ideas. The most socially influential professions in our culture typically require college degrees, but most citizens in those professions have graduated from universities where Christian beliefs are repudiated or marginalized and where students have thus not learned to apply a Christian worldview to the challenging issues of the day.

Therefore, for the Christian worldview to contend well within those professions — and thus contribute to meaningful solutions for cultural and societal problems — college graduates who have been pointedly discipled within their academic disciplines need to represent a larger portion of the influential workforce. As Brad Fipps, professor of religion at Southern Wesleyan University (Central, SC) says, “I am concerned that if we don’t disciple our students well during this crucial state in their development, their generation will continue to fall prey to the temptations of competing worldviews.”

In its recent “Moral Compass Summons,” the CCCU Moral Compass Taskforce demonstrates a succinct understanding of the cultural importance of Christian higher education:

“A Christian education has the dual focus of forming students to be faithful citizens of a Kingdom whose builder and maker is God, while also teaching them to be constructive and responsible members of the communities where they live and work. It seeks objective knowledge, which is essential in the quest for truth. An education that promotes faith and learning is a bulwark against baseless assertions, dark fantasies unsubstantiated by evidence, and destructive falsehoods that imperil our safety and stability. The temptation to fall from uncertain truth to certain untruth is a constant in human experience. [Christian] education is an indispensable means for resisting this temptation.”

Given both the cultural need for graduates steeped in Christian worldview training and the challenge that Digital Babylon poses to the faith commitments of young people, the issue of discipleship in our institutions is of critical importance.

Exposure vs. Discipleship

It is important to define discipleship in the context of Christian higher education, and a term of contrast may be helpful.

Like Robert Herron noted above, there has been a noticeable reduction in biblical literacy among students attending Christian colleges throughout the years. For a long time, Christian institutions could be distinctly Christian and operate according to what we (the authors) call an “exposure model.” The exposure model is a passive approach that assumes students have received solid biblical teaching at home and are active in a church.

How the exposure model impacts the life of a student varies from campus to campus. For some institutions, exposing students to Christian thought may look like a prayer or devotion before classes but not necessarily include biblical integration with subject matter during class. For others, a Christian worldview may be integrated throughout each discipline but mainly relegated to the academic side of the house. Others might include courses on the Bible or Christian theology in their general education requirements or offer regular chapel services without being strategic in developing additional discipleship opportunities at other points in the curricula. Still others may include behavior requirements for students without teaching students why those behaviors are not compatible for Christian living.

Even if the exposure model has worked in the past for some institutions, we suggest that Christian colleges move toward a more proactive “discipleship model.” Jesus commands us to go and make disciples (Matthew 28). Making disciples is necessarily an active and strategic posture (go and make) that involves evangelism, but it is more than that as well. In a post on Cru’s website discussing discipleship, Jayson Bradley writes, “Discipleship goes beyond evangelism. The discipleship process is more than teaching people the right knowledge about God. A disciple models him or herself after someone. Making disciples of Jesus goes beyond teaching facts about Jesus. It means teaching people how to know and be like Jesus—to obey God and seek his best for their lives.”

This definition shows campus leaders that faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students are all disciple makers. Discipleship cannot be relegated to any person or department, or even the faculty as a whole. Every person on campus can take ownership of this responsibility, creating a unique opportunity for the campus community. As Millhouse notes, our students’ lack of understanding about Scripture and the faith “can also be an excellent opportunity for us to reset as we address perceptions from the culture at large and offer tools to help our students become informed Bible readers. That said, there is only so much a required general education class can do. Thus, I have appreciated it when the entire campus community seeks to move students forward in foundational knowledge of what it means to be a follower of Christ.”

Start with How You Hire

One way for a campus to move toward discipleship is to be intentional about mission in its hiring practices. Institutions operate in different denominational contexts, locations, and historic missions, but our suggestion is to prioritize hiring within the specific institutional context. We both have connections with Warner University (Lake Wales, FL), and so we will share some of the insights and practices from our work at Warner as examples to consider and adapt as needed in various institutional contexts.

When it comes to hiring considerations, Jan Craigmiles, Warner’s vice president for HR and organizational effectiveness, told us: “Hiring the right employees is crucial to the missional success of Warner University. All employees, no matter their position, interact with our students and may be called upon to evangelize and disciple them both in formal and informal settings. As a part of our hiring process, we talk to applicants about their spiritual journey. New hires are also required to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Warner Statement of Faith. Our faculty also reaffirm this commitment annually as a part of signing their academic contract.”

As the provost at Warner, I (Gentry) have found that having a clear Statement of Faith that is front and center in the hiring process makes hiring for discipleship much easier. Warner’s Statement of Faith is boldly orthodox for the times, and that boldness is invaluable as I interact with applicants. We ask candidates to respond to our Statement in their application materials, and when interviewing, I review every paragraph of our Statement, one by one. I frequently see four results:

  1. Candidates will avoid the cultural issues about which Warner has decided to be bold;
  2. They will express disagreement with our Statement;
  3. They will say they agree with certain parts of our Statement but do so reluctantly; or
  4. They will agree enthusiastically, expressing gratitude that an institution of higher education has actually decided to stand on biblical truth and face in faith and obedience the possibility of public scrutiny for doing so.

Provided they have the right academic qualifications and experience, the candidates in the latter category rise to the top of our applicant pool.

Here, the support and active engagement of the Board of Trustees is also crucial. A board is usually responsible for the mission fidelity and long-term sustainability of an institution. Trustees should thus play a vital and active role in discipleship, even if their campus interactions are limited. “At Warner University our board is fully committed to our mission,” Craigmiles says. “In addition to annually confirming their commitment to our statement of faith, our board members often ask to hear stories of student spiritual growth. Our faculty and staff play an integral role in many of these stories as they lead and guide our students spiritually. Knowing that our students are discipled by our faculty and staff gives the board confidence that we are living out the core values and mission of the university.”

I (Joy) am an advisor for the board of Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA) and a member of the board at Warner University. At both institutions, I am required to annually affirm the statement of faith to ensure board alignment with the mission of the school.

Connecting the Programming and Expectations

Intentional discipleship goes beyond hiring and trustee involvement though. It is also important to ensure that evaluation practices complement discipleship efforts and that discipleship is tied to the curriculum.

Many institutions have, in the last few years, reduced the required number of Bible and Christian worldview hours in their core curricula. But with the power that Digital Babylon has over our students, it seems that now is the time to be adding more Bible requirements, not removing them. I (Gentry) do my best to ensure that discipleship drives everything we do on the academic side of the house at Warner, and that’s why Warner has added more Bible requirements to our curricula in recent years.

Additionally, we are intentional at Warner about addressing the various elements of our Statement of Faith in our programming and expectations:

  • We are intentional about having and assessing program-level objectives related to faith in the various academic disciplines.
  • We have created a strong connection between faith integration and faculty review and promotion.
  • We report to our trustees about how we are adhering to our biblical commitments in the hiring process.
  • We discuss faith integration at almost all faculty workshops.
  • We are intentional about working with athletic coaches and support personnel in helping students grow in Christ.

But discipleship is owned by the whole campus at Warner. Everyone is expected to model being a Christ-follower, and staff play an integral role in discipling students. As much as possible, we offer outside-of-the-classroom activities that are co-curricular, not extra-curricular. Athletic coaches are required to submit discipleship plans, and virtually all student life and residence life activities are mission-driven. The three guiding principles of student life are hospitality, grace, and accountability. The hope and goal are for all students to experience the welcome of Christ, to feel accepted as image-bearers, and to be fully who God is calling them to be.

We would be remiss to not point out that budgets must also support discipleship. As Warner president David Hoag puts it, “If an institution wants to disciple their students, they need to invest in discipling those who will be discipling students.” Budgets need to allow for investing in faculty and staff and in programming and other activities that model discipleship. As budgets are stretched thin, it can be easy to cut dollars that do not seem as directly related to instruction and other necessities—but discipleship must be considered a necessity.

We want to encourage campus leaders to prioritize Jesus’ command to go and make disciples. The historical exposure model seems ill-suited for today’s students and the opportunities that are before us. A discipleship approach to higher education to can and will impact our students and thereby our communities, but it must be characterized by intentionality from one end of campus to the other.