College is like a vaccine
The recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland got me thinking about Christian higher education and the future of the church.
It’s a strange connection, I know. But hear me out.
The measles outbreak has prompted a lot of debate and discussion about vaccinations. Those who are against them base their opposition on fear of negative consequences and the rights of parents to decide what’s best for their children.
Those in favor speak not only about protecting individual children but also about the obligation we all have to protect society as a whole — especially those who are weak and vulnerable to diseases.
This social obligation is known as herd immunity: If a majority of people get vaccinated against preventable diseases, everyone can be kept safe.
So what does this have to do with Christian higher education and the future of the church? Permit me to use this metaphor.
The church today is also facing outbreaks of preventable diseases — things like biblical illiteracy, secularism, materialism and individualism. One way to address these outbreaks is through a thoughtful education at a Christian college.
In other words, studying at a Christian college — including, specifically, at a Mennonite college — is like getting a vaccination. And just like how real vaccinations work because they inject a tiny bit of disease into the body, Christian colleges work because they give students opportunities to wrestle with doubt and deal with difficult questions.
And also just as the body’s immune system creates antibodies to fend off the disease injected by the vaccination, Christian colleges help students become stronger as they confront challenges to their faith in a supportive environment.
Finally, if enough Christian youth are “vaccinated” in this way today, the church might be protected in the future — a kind of theological and spiritual herd immunity.
Right now, here in Canada, that’s not the case.
According to Christian Higher Education Canada, the body that supports Canadian Christian colleges and universities, only one out of six churchgoing young adults in this country attends a Christian school.
For Mennonites in the U.S., figures from Mennonite Education Agency show that the number of Mennonite Church USA youth who are attending Mennonite colleges in the U.S. has been decreasing since 2008. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a similar trend for Mennonite Church Canada or the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference (which just saw one of its schools, Bethany College, close for lack of students).
I don’t want to push the vaccination metaphor too far. But here are a few ideas I draw from it.
First, as with real vaccinations, parents play an important role. Children don’t decide for or against getting vaccinated; their parents do. Similarly, when youth are deciding where to study, parents are influential. If they never recommend or even talk about attending a Mennonite college, there’s a good chance their children won’t see it as a viable alternative.
Second, when it comes to real vaccinations, the medical and scientific community plays a key role. In the context of Mennonite higher eduction, theological leaders — pastors and youth leaders — are also key. If youth never hear their pastors or other authority figures speak positively about Mennonite colleges, they won’t see them positively, either.
Third, for all of us, it’s not just about the future we want for ourselves or our children but what kind of future we want for the church. Will it have the strength to resist the challenges it will face in the coming years? Or will it lack any resistance or the ability to fight off those challenges?
Yes, as with vaccinations, there are stories of when things went wrong. Many of us know of someone who went to a Mennonite college or other Christian college and lost their faith. But what of the many who benefited from the experience and who through their lives benefit the church? Those stories may not make the headlines or the after-church conversations in the foyer.
The Bible encourages us to seek the welfare of others, and of the church — not just ourselves. Maybe one way to do that is to make sure that the church leaders of tomorrow get their theological and spiritual shots today.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
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