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In a changing culture, faith-based universities face challenges

Need for Christian higher education 'greater than ever,' Southern Methodist University president says at Christian Scholars Conference.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a culture increasingly hostile to Christians, faith-based, mission-focused universities like those associated with Churches of Christ play a vital role.

That was the message delivered by Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, at the recent Christian Scholars Conference hosted by Lipscomb University.

“At a time in which a clear mission is crucial for small colleges and universities, these universities have a strong mission albeit not always a strong financial basis,” said Turner, who spoke during a 90-minute panel discussion moderated by Tim Perrin, president of Lubbock Christian University in Texas.
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Joining Turner and Perrin on the panel were Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb; John deSteiguer, president of Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City; and Mike Williams, president of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala.

Gerald Turner“Having vibrant Christian colleges and universities closely tied to their religious heritage is becoming a decreasing asset of American higher education,” Turner told his fellow presidents. “But the need for them is greater than ever.”

Turner, who has led SMU since 1995, is a product of Lubbock Christian and Abilene Christian universities in Texas and a former professor and administrator for Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

He and Mike Boone, chairman of the SMU board of trustees, co-teach a Sunday school class at the Preston Road Church of Christ in Dallas.

“The Campbellites are taking over,” Turner joked, using a term sometimes applied to adherents of the Stone-Campbell Movement, in which modern-day Churches of Christ have roots. “It’s a scary deal for the Wesleyans.”

In his serious remarks, he characterized Christianity as under assault in the U.S. and said secular humanists dominate most major academic institutions.

Students walk on campus at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. (PHOTO VIA LIPSCOMB.EDU)“Nonbelievers used to be rather quiet, but a trip to any mainstream bookstore will show dozens of books directly attacking Christian beliefs,” Turner said. “At some universities, including mine, clubs of atheists are seeking official recognition as registered student organizations.”

Such developments make it crucial for distinctively Christian universities to train students to deal with intellectual, philosophical and cultural challenges unseen just a few decades ago, he said.

Those universities must equip students to address not only questions of whether God exists but also whether Jesus is divine, resurrected and the only way to salvation, he added.

“The willingness to confess that Jesus is the son of God has become the greatest identifier of our difference between us and the Muslims, the atheists and others,” Turner said. “When we’re all infidels, if you will confess the name of Jesus, then a lot of other things seem to kind of fade away.”

Oklahoma Christian University President John deSteiguer on the university’s campus in Oklahoma City. (PHOTO BY LYNN McMILLON)The panelists grappled with maintaining close ties with Churches of Christ while educating a generation of which many show no “brand loyalty” to their religious heritage.

“How do we deal with and grow and nurture and attract young people to our institutions to change their lives so that they can go out and make a difference in the kingdom of God?” deSteiguer said. “And how do we not appear to be abandoning things that are held so dearly by people that we love and trust and rely on?”

Lowry said he’s not aware of any faith-based university that has rejected its roots and, 25 years later, would be considered “more Christian.”

Challenging times present an opportunity for a revolution of mercy, compassion and reconciliation, Williams said.

“The current turbulence is actually forcing us to redefine, reimagine, reconstruct what it means to be a Christ-centered university in 2016,” he said.

Perrin agreed, resolving to push ahead with hope, not fear — and in a manner “reflecting the sovereignty of the one we serve.”

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Filed under: Christian higher education National

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