A decade ago, a majority of freshmen at Rochester College in Michigan, York College in Nebraska and Abilene Christian University in Texas claimed membership in Churches of Christ.
That’s no longer the case.
An increasing number of colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ draw more freshmen from outside the fellowship than within, a survey by The Christian Chronicle
Ten years ago, Church of Christ members comprised 70 percent of freshmen at 18 Christian higher education institutions, according to a separate study by Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark.
By fall 2009, that figure dropped to 53 percent.
“I think many of us were surprised at the extent of that decline,” said Mike O’Neal, president of Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City and chairman of the Christian Higher Education Foundation, which commissioned Yeakley’s study.
Across the nation, total combined freshman enrollment has dropped sharply at the institutions studied by Yeakley.
However, new programs for graduate scholars and non-traditional students have helped fuel overall enrollment growth at some Christian universities.
Yeakley collected annual data for 1997 through 2009.
The 18 institutions he studied reported total freshman enrollment of 5,361 in fall 2009 — down 19 percent from a high of 6,636 in fall 2001.
“Most of that decline came because fewer members of the Churches of Christ were enrolling in these schools,” Yeakley reported to the Christian Higher Education Foundation, which consists of presidents of colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ.
At the beginning of this school year, 2,858 freshmen claimed membership in Churches of Christ — down 36 percent from a high of 4,461 in fall 2001, Yeakley reported.
“As we begin to examine this trend,” O’Neal said, “it appears that two of the most significant reasons contributing to the decline are the attraction of our schools to families outside our fellowship … and less encouragement of Church of Christ young people by parents and church leaders.”
Included in the study were Abilene Christian; now-closed Cascade College in Portland, Ore.; Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Ark.; Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala.; Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.; Great Lakes Bible College in Waterloo, Ontario; Harding University in Searcy; Heritage Christian University in Florence, Ala.; and Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.
Also included were Lubbock Christian University in Texas; now-closed Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss; Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.; Oklahoma Christian; Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.; Rochester College; Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas; Western Christian College in Regina, Saskatchewan; and York College.
“Yeakley’s findings should serve as a catalyst for open dialogue in Churches of Christ,” said Brian Starr, Lubbock Christian’s executive vice president. “Why are we in decline? Why does the decline seem to disproportionately be hitting our youth? How is God calling our fellowship and its universities to engage the world in this new environment?”
RECRUITING POOL SHRINKS
At Rochester College, 24 percent of traditional students gave their religious affiliation as Church of Christ in fall 2009.
That’s down from 55 percent in 2000, said Rubel Shelly, president of the Detroit area college.
One explanation: More students with Church of Christ backgrounds write “non-denominational,” “Christian” or “independent” on their registration forms, Shelly said. But a bigger factor, he said, is a decline in the membership pool of Churches of Christ.
“Churches that once had 600 to 800 members may have 100 now,” Shelly said, noting that many Bible Belt church members who moved to Detroit to build cars after World War II retired and returned to the South.
At York College, a majority of freshmen have come from outside Churches of Christ the last two years. In fall 2009, 42 percent of freshmen listed their religious affiliation as Church of Christ.
While citing some of the same factors as Shelly, York President Steve Eckman voiced concern about “a lack of emphasis on Christian education among the families and churches. It is no longer assumed that these kids will choose a Christian education.”
For the first time since its 1906 founding, Abilene Christian enrolled a majority of freshmen from outside Churches of Christ in fall 2008.
A decade ago, two-thirds of ACU students identified with Churches of Christ, the university said. That has declined to about one-half.
Phil Schubert, who will succeed Royce Money as ACU president June 1, said he does not see the changing student demographics as a negative.
He points out that some of the non-Church of Christ students are the children and grandchildren of ACU graduates. They do not attend a Church of Christ, he said, “yet they resemble the heart of our alumni base.” Other students have no past ties to ACU or Churches of Christ, he said.
“We feel that honoring our Church of Christ heritage and remaining firmly committed to it is at the core of who we are,” said Schubert, ACU’s executive vice president. “At the same time, we think the growing interest in ACU from broader circles is something to be celebrated.”
At Faulkner University, 31 percent of freshmen identified with Churches of Christ in fall 2009; 36 percent claimed a different affiliation; and 33 percent cited no religious preference or marked “other.”
Factors contributing to Faulkner’s declining number of Church of Christ students include the expansion of a commuter scholarship program and the addition of new intercollegiate sports, said R. Joel Farrell, director of the university’s Center for Assessment, Research and Evaluation.
“One of the factors affecting Faulkner … is the increasing appeal of a conservative, religiously based liberal arts education to the general population,” Farrell said. “An increasing number of parents and students are interested in the distinctiveness of our worldview.”
Before it became a senior college 17 years ago, Ohio Valley University drew 80 percent to 90 percent of its students from Churches of Christ, said Dennis Cox, senior vice president. In recent years, however, the traditional student enrollment has been split about 50-50, Cox said.
“First, there are fewer prospective students in the churches in what has been our primary ‘territory,’” Cox said. “Secondly, most of our Church of Christ alumni with college-age children are also alumni of sister colleges and universities.”
In fall 2009, Lubbock Christian joined the list of universities with more freshmen from outside Churches of Christ than within. Non-Church of Christ students represented 57 percent of the freshman class this school year — up from 36 percent a decade ago.
“The majority of our students come from the area in and around Lubbock,” Starr said. “The Church of Christ population is declining in many West Texas towns, and that decline changes our recruiting pool.”
At Lipscomb University, a slim majority of freshmen — 51 percent — came from Church of Christ backgrounds in fall 2009. Five years ago, 62 percent of freshmen were Church of Christ members.
“Enrollment by freshmen who identify themselves as members of Churches of Christ has declined over the last three years, but not as fast as our overall enrollment has grown,” said Ricky Holaway, Lipscomb’s senior director of admissions. “Part of the issue is, we are attracting more students who are seeking out the faith-based education, grounded in our brotherhood’s faith principles, that we offer.”
At Pepperdine University, the proportion of freshmen from Churches of Christ hit 26 percent in 2003. In fall 2009, such students represented 16 percent of freshmen.
“With an overall declining church population nationwide, the task of recruiting and enrolling qualified applicants from the Churches of Christ is a growing challenge,” said Mike Truschke, Pepperdine’s dean of admission and enrollment management. “University-wide, there has been an increased effort to reach students from the Churches of Christ.”
EXAMINING THE IMPACT
Oklahoma Christian still draws a majority of students from Churches of Christ — but the percentage is on the decline. In fall 2009, 68 percent of Oklahoma Christian students came from Churches of Christ. That’s down from 80 percent seven years ago.
Oklahoma Christian has appointed a strategic issue group to examine the impact of student demographic changes.
“We are experiencing some decline in the last few years in our new student enrollment from Churches of Christ,” said Bill Goad, OC’s vice president for institutional effectiveness. “Our percentages remain above the composite in the Yeakley numbers, but they are clearly following that general trend.”
At least a few universities, however, seem to be bucking the trend.
At Freed-Hardeman University, 85 percent of freshmen claimed Church of Christ membership in fall 2009, up from 84 percent a decade ago.
“If indeed fewer Church of Christ students are enrolling at our brotherhood institutions, we should be concerned,” said Jud Davis, Freed-Hardeman’s director of marketing and university relations.
However, he questioned whether other factors could be at play — including the recession and a desire by some students to attend college closer to home.
At Harding University, Church of Christ members made up 75 percent of the freshman class in fall 2009.
That’s down slightly from past years, but it’s no cause for concern, said Glenn Dillard, assistant vice president for enrollment management.
“The aggregate number of Church of Christ students at Harding has declined very little,” Dillard said. “However, Harding has experienced dramatic growth in the number of bright students from non-Church of Christ backgrounds.”
As student populations change at universities associated with Churches of Christ, some express fear that the institutions could lose what makes them distinct.
“This trend,” Yeakley said, “can continue to the point where the school follows the path of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other schools that started out as religiously oriented schools that lost their religious emphasis.”
But at places such as Rochester College, survival demands adapting to the new realities, leaders said.
“True to the rhetoric of our non-denominational heritage,” Shelly said, “Rochester College is committed to being a Christian college for our region that young people from a variety of backgrounds can choose as their destination campus.”
Church of Christ members
1997: 3,664 (63%)
1998: 3,754 (63.8%)
1999: 4,351 (70%)
2000: 4,411 (66.4%)
2001: 4,461 (67.2%)
2002: 4,060 (63.9%)
2003: 4,034 (65.4%)
2004: 4,208 (66.8%)
2005: 4,175 (63.7%)
2006: 4,029 (63.6%)
2007: 3,080 (57.8%)
2008: 2,948 (54.9%)
2009: 2,858 (53.3%)
1997: 2,156 (37%)
1998: 2,128 (36.2%)
1999: 1,868 (30%)
2000: 2,232 (33.6%)
2001: 2,175 (32.8%)
2002: 2,291 (36.1%)
2003: 2,130 (34.6%)
2004: 2,091 (33.2%)
2005: 2,378 (36.3%)
2006: 2,302 (36.4%)
2007: 2,248 (42.2%)
2008: 2,423 (45.1%)
2009: 2,503 (46.7%)
Study by Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark. Yeakley studied freshman enrollment trends at 18 higher education institutions associated with Churches of Christ. Yeakley reported that some university presidents found his report hard to believe and asked him to double-check his figures. While that effort uncovered a few minor changes, the general trend held. “This, of course, is just what
and not why
,” he said of his findings.