I recently saw an online advertisement for a Christian university. The banner across the top of my webpage featured smiling students and, following the name of the school, the tagline, “A Christ-centered education.”
This advertisement, like those for many other Christian universities, implies that Christ-centeredness is an intrinsic part of their students’ education and, more subtly, that attending a Christian school is the best way to have a “Christ-centered” education.
This got me thinking, because it’s simply not true.
I spent the first three semesters of my undergraduate education at a private, Christian university. I learned and grew a lot over that time, and I still have fond memories of attending the school and maintain friendships forged there. However, I chose to finish my education at a public, state university, so I’m able to compare my experience at both types of institutions.
To be sure, attending a Christian college or university is a fine choice for many students. It may be the right kind of environment some need to cultivate and discern their faith, and I’m sure many alumni of Christian schools can claim the same benefits from their education that I found at a secular school. There are stories from all sides—those of students who attended Christian schools and later strayed from the faith, those of students who attended secular schools and found God, and everything in between—and I’d be very interested to hear some of those stories. This is just what I’ve learned from my experience.
So, back to that advertisement: at best, it is quite misleading. Implying that a “Christ-centered” education is best attained by attending a Christian school is the same as saying that a “Christ-centered” career can best be achieved by working for an expressly Christian organization.
To have a Christ-centered education (or job, or life, or anything), one must be Christ centered.
I appreciate that the goal of many Christian schools is to look at education through the lens of Christianity, but in the end (as I’m sure many of these schools would themselves confirm) that work can only be done by the individual Christian in every aspect of his or her life. The only person who can truly and consistently cultivate my faith is me, by the grace of God. There are many benefits that come from taking Biblical exegesis courses or having academic discussions about the intersection of Christianity and other disciplines, but all of the Bible classes in the world can’t replace a personal discipline to study and learn from Scripture and other Christian writings. No number of mandatory chapel services can replace active membership in a church community.
The church is another important factor in this conversation, because the church is (or ought to be) the linchpin for the Christian’s personal spiritual development.
Christian schools are not administers of the sacraments; churches are.
I doubt that any Christian school would claim to be a replacement for the church. In my experience, most Christian schools seek to augment a student’s spiritual development, serving as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the unique growth and guidance that comes from the church. However, I want to emphasize that it’s important for all Christians to remember that Christ established the church to be the guardian and administer of the faith, and other Christian institutions are secondary.
Also, as someone who attended both a Christian and a secular university, I can attest the fact that one’s spiritual development is not necessarily better or worse in either environment, nor do the beliefs of professors or peers necessarily have a crucial influence on one’s spiritual or academic growth.
I was honestly afraid to switch from the Christian school—an environment I had been in since the fourth grade—to the secular university, fearing that my “worldly” classmates would immediately judge, attack, or condemn my faith. Instead, I found that my professors and fellow students were, on the whole, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligently curious when conversations about religion came up. Also, interacting with people who hold different beliefs than I do (about God, school, morality, life) was very beneficial, as it gave me better insight into how people who are different than me think about the world. I learned both how we are different and how we are not so different. I learned that non-Christians are not necessarily “out to get” me, making me more open to honest conversations about life and faith, rather than afraid of them. I took classes, completed projects, and engaged in discussions with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and more. To be honest, a lot of the time our personal beliefs didn’t come into play.
Learning in an environment that was not centered around religion made me realize that many people simply don’t care about my religion, so I don’t need to be afraid of immediate judgments about me based on what I believe. It also drove home the reality that the responsibility to remain Christ centered in everything I do is entirely my own.
I feel that my personal experience in both the Christian and secular academic environments demonstrates that a school’s professed religion (or lack thereof) does not necessarily impact a student’s spiritual development, and, more importantly, that Christ-centeredness hinges first and foremost upon the individual Christian. You may be mandated to attend chapel, but no one is going to force you to go to church. All Christians are called to participate in the work of their faith and to choose for themselves what the center of their lives will be, no matter where they decide to get an education.