Schools on a Mission

Why go to college? For most Americans, “college” is about a bunch of things all bundled together. People want to prepare for white-collar jobs. They want to watch football and engage in hijinks. They want to have an “experience” that they hear will shape the rest of their lives. In my new book about evangelical higher education, I’m arguing that fundamentalist and evangelical schools generally offered students all those things and more. In addition to training students to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers, “Fundamentalist U” prepared students for a unique sort of career that secular universities didn’t. And that focus changed things at evangelical schools in major ways.

1930s application ref form

MBI reference form, c. 1930s. Note question number 8.

For many evangelical Christians in the twentieth century, the main point of going to college was to prepare for a career (or at least an experience) as a missionary. As one Biola student reported in 1940, she wasn’t sure what to do with her life. She had grown up as a missionary kid in China, but she hadn’t planned to go into missionary work herself. However, one day she felt a “call” to become a missionary after all.

How did she go about it? She knew she needed some training, so after diligent prayer and consultation with “the fundamental Church groups” in her area, she decided to enroll at Biola. For her, the entire point of a college education was to become a better missionary. College, in her way of thinking, was the place to learn how to “more perfectly tell [the millions of lost and dying souls in the world] of the matchless wonders of His grace.”

The focus on missionary work didn’t just change the way students decided to go to college and which college to apply to. Schools, too, put formal mechanisms in place to encourage missionary careers. On admissions forms, for example, schools asked about more than just grades and activities. As did the Moody Bible Institute, most schools wanted to know if an applicant “has . . . a genuine love for souls.” Wheaton, too, added extra admissions points if a student had a “demonstrated ability as an outstanding soulwinner.”

The focus on missionary preparation shaped schools in other ways, too. ALL colleges and universities tended to expand their bureaucracies after World War II. They formalized and systematized their admissions departments and alumni outreach bureaus.  In addition to these sorts of new departments, evangelical colleges also formalized their missionary training, by adding departments to help students pick the right missionary career path.

missions flier

Attention Liberty Students–your school will help you get to your mission field. C. early 1980s

One of the central themes of my book is that evangelical higher education experienced its own sort of evangelical existence—IN the world of American higher ed, but not OF it. In some ways, that is, evangelical institutions were shaped by the same sorts of forces that transformed the world of American higher education as a whole. In other ways—as in the focus on training missionaries—evangelical schools shaped those forces to fit their unique vision of proper higher education.

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