Saturday, December 10, 2011

The future(s) of religious higher education

I have an ongoing interest in the intersection between religion and higher education for many reasons that readers of this blog might have noted--I'm religious myself (or perhaps religiously confused might be more accurate), I'm convinced that some spiritual practices have great potential for secular higher education, and I'm beginning to suspect that faith-based institutions do a much better job on institutional vision and the development of students than their secular counterparts do.

To these reasons let me add one more:  that current and historic practices in the creation of churches might provide some insights into ways to respond to challenges facing higher education.

Carol Howard Merritt's post "Ten Church Models for a New Generation" neatly summarizes emerging practices among people wanting Christian churches to flourish.  There are five themes that run through them.

  • First, the church, like higher education, has moved away from the needs of its congregants, either by succumbing to the temptations of largeness and prominence or by remaining complacent while the world changes around it.  
  • Second, that successful innovations are coming in small settings, where the trappings of religion--big buildings, formal worship services--are less important than building a sense of common purpose among those who are participating.  
  • Third, that these new forms of congregations have, in many instances, developed new funding models as well, where the congregation is funded by proceeds from a coffee shop, say, or where the pastor is an entrepreneur.
  • Fourth, these newly successful congregations emerge from the efforts of a few people who plant a new congregation and nurture it while it grows into something sustainable.
  • Fifth, while in some new versions technology plays a central role, in most technology is secondary to the broader mission of the organization.
In this list one can see suggestions for institutions of higher education.  Particularly intriguing to me is the possibility of college-planting, where institutions of higher education select a couple of people to open what is essentially a store-front version of the home institution, dedicated to the particular needs of the people  who live nearby.  In a higher education landscape where even small colleges have hundreds of students, and where campuses are nearly always set off from their surroundings, store-front schools would be a place both to reach new participants, to innovate in education, and to build the sorts of relationships between learners and teachers that result in powerful learning.

Given that the trends that Merritt summarizes are emerging from the church, it may be that church-affiliated institutions are the first to move in the direction of small, emergent colleges.  But no school should overlook the potential of emergent churches to suggest ways to reach new communities of learners, explore new models of revenue, and reinvigorate the human relationships (and the understanding of those relationships) that were once at the core of what it meant to be an educated person.

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