The findings from the recent survey of Christian Reformed churches and their members (see “Who We Are Today,” p. 36) come a number of weeks after the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released results of a far larger survey focused on religious life. As a Reformed Christian college president, I find that both surveys have significant implications for higher education.
Three factors suggest to me that major changes have begun and will forever alter our campuses as well as our churches. (Note: while the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey is limited to the U.S., the CRC survey focuses on both Canada and the U.S., albeit solely on the CRC.)
First, the CRC survey identifies a declining proportion of children attending Christian schools. With respect to higher education, many students applying to Trinity Christian College apply to local Wesleyan and Nazarene colleges and to state universities as well. Many times features such as facilities and athletics influence their decisions. It appears that CRC families are considering a wider range of colleges than only those providing a Reformed Christian education.
Second, the Pew survey finds that 25 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 report that they are not affiliated with any particular religion. By way of comparison, only 8 percent of those 70 years of age or older report no affiliation. With respect to the CRC, we see a similar trend when looking at denominational loyalty. Our survey finds that 71 percent of those 62 and older describe themselves as very loyal, whereas only 53 percent of those younger than age 25 describe themselves in the same way (though only 3.9 percent of the survey respondents are from that age group).
Third, from multiple other sources, it is clear that the population of students of traditional college age is shrinking. Baptism records kept by the denomination and tracked by Calvin College’s director of institutional research suggest that the CRC reflects demographic trends across North America. The number of baptisms peaked in 1984, and the numbers have decreased since then. Not surprisingly, we find decreasing numbers of CRC young people ready to enter college each year.
The data are not encouraging for admissions directors at Reformed Christian colleges.
Moreover, we find ourselves facing fewer college prospects among a college-age generation that might claim to be spiritual, but one-quarter have no religious affiliation. And it seems that among those with a CRC affiliation, loyalty is significantly less than it is with their grandparents. (Not quite so incidentally, these 20-somethings mirror their parents—the 42 to 61 age group—in terms of denominational loyalty.) It’s little wonder that Reformed Christian colleges lose applicants to other schools.
Clearly, it is incumbent upon Reformed Christian colleges to make the case for the value of what we offer in ways that will catch the attention of this denominationally distracted generation. And we must be flexible, finding new ways to connect to people who desire our educational programs but are past the traditional college entry age, unable to uproot their lives and move, and/or are unable to meet the financial challenges presented by the cost of education.
In the book Dutch Chicago, author Robert Swierenga recounts this early perspective and interchange among a largely immigrant group: “The church nurtured ‘children of the covenant’—a cardinal Calvinist doctrine—in the community of faith, while the school prepared them for a life in society. One immigrant complained of the financial drain of the Christian schools: ‘De school vreet de kerk op’ (‘The school will devour the church’), he declared. The fit rejoinder was: ‘Hoe meer de school vreet, hoe meer de kerk groeit’ (‘The more the school eats, the better the church will grow’).”
When the Christian school or college is deprived of that which feeds it—students and the resources needed to educate them—we will see further declines in our churches both in numbers and in commitment, both in our pews and pulpits.
Instead, let’s promote Reformed, Christian education at all levels so that churches will flourish through the power of the Holy Spirit.