Today’s guest post is from Dr. Perry Glanzer, Professor of Educational Foundations at Baylor University, and a Resident Scholar with Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author or co-author of books including Christ Enlivened Student Affairs: A Guide to Christian Thinking and Practices in the Field (Abilene Christian University Press, 2020).

One of the glorious things about the United States system of higher education is freedom for innovation. Whereas some countries actually outlaw or discourage Christian education (e.g. China or Russia) and/or private higher education (e.g., the U.K.), in the United States there are hundreds of private Christian colleges from which to choose. So, how do you tell the difference between them? For example, what is the difference between Texas Christian University and Biola University?

In my research, I have discovered that there are twenty clear decisions that a college or university makes that either demonstrate its Christian commitment, or its desire to follow the rest of higher education crowd. My students and I have actually created a spreadsheet that evaluates every institution according to these factors. What we find is that an institution such as Texas Christian University really should stick with calling itself TCU (it scores a “0”), but an institution like Biola University basically uses Christian criteria in all these decisions. Of those twenty factors, there are really five factors or groups of factors that are the most important to consider when trying to figure out the seriousness with which an institution takes its Christian identity.

Of course, the first place to find out if an institution actually even identifies itself as Christian is to look at the mission statement. TCU claims that its mission is to “to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in a global community.” In contrast, the mission of Biola University “is biblically centered education, scholarship and service—equipping men and women in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ.” For secularized institutions, Jesus and God are absent from the mission. Instead, they usually speak in ethical or educational language, but they avoid theological language.

Second, you want to find out who is able to join and lead the community. Are the students, staff, faculty, president, and/or members of the governance board required to be Christian? (e.g., Biola or Taylor University or Wheaton College) Is it some kind of mixture (such as at Baylor, Calvin, or Messiah University)? Or are there no religious requirements for anyone (e.g., Texas Christian University). Depending on the experience you or your future student wants, you should consider these important administrative decisions regarding membership.

Third, you want to find out if there are any required courses related to Christianity. To start, a sure way to spot some differences is whether the department offering the course uses the generic name “Religion,” like my own university, or whether it uses labels such as “Bible,” “Christian Studies,” “Theology,” etc. You can look in the student handbook to see the number of required courses in this area. If it is one or two general religion courses and the students have plenty of options from which to choose, including world religions, the institution is likely not that serious about passing along the Christian tradition (e.g., most every Methodist, Presbyterian USA, or United Church of Christ institution). If, like Biola University, students take 30 hours and receive a minor in Bible, you know it takes education regarding the Christian tradition seriously.

Fourth, you want to look at chapel. To be honest, I have mixed thoughts about this one, since my own qualitative analysis at my institution has found that students generally dislike chapel and find it unhelpful for spiritual growth (and sometimes even a hindrance). You’ll want to corner some innocent-looking students on a campus visit and try to get accurate answers. Depending upon the college student, whether there is required chapel (and how often) can be good or bad. More important than chapel, according to our quantitative and qualitative research, is getting involved in a local church, particularly a college group. I have interviewed plenty of students passionate for Christ, who were not passionate about chapel, but who were nurtured by wonderful college groups, small group, and/or mentors at their church.

Fifth, you want to look at the student life ethos, especially the student handbook. Here, there are four types of Christian institutions. There are those that merely enforce the law in residence life, and focus much of the formation on making sure the liberal democratic virtue of autonomy is respected (e.g., get sexual consent, don’t drink and drive, etc.). They also enforce respect for “diversity,” including affirmation of contemporary elite norms about race, gender, sexuality, etc. These would be your TCU types. Then, there are those Christian institutions who seek to enforce some moral standards, perhaps using an honor code, but they offer no Christian reasoning for the ethical parts of the code to students. Usually such codes are just lists of general virtues you would find at any secular institution, such as “respect,” “responsibility,” “honesty,” “kindness,” etc. Thus, students are simply socialized by university authorities into behaving in accord with broadly acceptable norms of virtue.

Not much better are the Christian institutions that have lots of supposedly Christian rules (e.g., no sex outside of marriage, no alcohol, etc.), but they focus solely on the rules and not a positive Christian vision of sex, drink, and more (like the Pharisees in Mark 10). Finally, there are institutions that actually create a community covenant (often complete with biblical or Christian rationales for the different parts of the covenant) that sets forth a positive Christian vision for students about community, stewardship, sexuality, etc. They ask students to sign these covenants and abide by them. These are the types of institutions that have put tremendous thought into how to live Christian educational life together and ask for mutual accountability (versus taking a simple top-down approach like the rule-focused institutions).

Finally, I want to be clear that these things alone do not make an institution Christian. You could be required to take four courses about Christianity, but if taught by horrible professors who bore you to tears, they might make you wonder why you did not attend State Party U with the rest of your friends. At my own institution, for example, I want my own sons to take religion professors who have maturity and pastoral sensibility, and not a graduate student or assistant professor who wants to discuss the latest doubts with which they are wrestling. Here’s what one student who came to Christ at Baylor had to say about their experience learning from a faith-building professor:

“I’m taking Christian Scriptures and then took Christian Heritage, same professor . . . I have absolutely loved learning from Dr. — … I really appreciate the way that he encourages such a close reading of the text, and the way that he teaches us to interpret the text . . . So rather than telling me what the text says, he tells me, or teaches me how to read it in a way that acknowledges what I as a reader, bring when I reading the text as well as having an informed understanding of the context surrounding it. So I’d say just taking a class with him freshman year, definitely was a huge part of me coming to Christ in the first place, and understanding Him.”

Conversely, you could attend an institution with a theologically rich community covenant, but be ruled by an authoritative RA in residence life who has no understanding of character or spiritual development. People make the most difference, although the administrative structures do help or hinder those people.

Also, I should note that you should not expect college tour guides to be much help to answering your questions honestly. They are generally taught to downplay controversy and market the university. Your best bet is to talk to some senior students who are not being paid by the university. It’s reasonable for schools to market themselves in the best possible light, of course, but Christian parents and students should move beyond rhetoric to see what a school’s Christian commitment means in practice.