Is Lutheran Higher Education for the Church?

By Robert Schmidt

The director of church relations of a local Concordia University was leading a Bible class at the church he was visiting.  He was hoping that the congregation would put the university in their budget.  In the Bible class he had the opportunity to talk about the university.  He talked about their programs in education, management, and nursing.  Enrollment had doubled in the last ten years.  He went on to make the point that they were preparing leaders to “make a difference” in society.  Yes, they had a solidly Lutheran administration and were working toward getting the requisite number of Lutheran faculty, although as he was quick to point out, that was not easy.

“Do you still train pastors?” asked an older woman.  “Yes,” he replied, having expected the question.  “What good does it do to train pastors” asked another, “when we can’t even afford to pay one?” Another chipped in, “I hear that they are giving early retirement to seminary professors because there have been fewer people who want to be pastors in this society.” Still another observed, “I know a lot of the professors at the university say that they are Lutheran but never come to church, at least our church.”

As he drove home, the director of church relations sighed and said to himself, “Yes, this was just another parish that was dying because it hadn’t kept up with the times, yet… there were so many of them.”  He had no doubt that the university would survive, but he wasn’t so sure about many of the congregations he visited.  As he thought about the faculty at the university, he knew why many of them were less than enthusiastic about “going to church.”  Church was so unrelated to the subjects they were covering and the students they were teaching.  No, it should not be that way; but it was.

This fictional director of church relations was thankful that they had not asked him how many new pre-seminary students had entered the university this past year.  The university had started as a college preparing young men to enter the seminary.  But when enrollment went down and costs went up, the college had to offer other programs. Now the percentage of pre-seminary students compared to other programs at the university was minuscule.  There were fewer congregations able to pay a pastor and fewer students preparing to enter the ministry.  Could this university still provide education “for the church?”

To provide education “for the church” the university faces not one but three challenges. The first is to show that the church has an intrinsic value vital for the well being of individuals, families, and society.  The second is to help change, reform, and transform the churches from what they are now to what they might be in the future.  The third is to educate students, staff, and faculty at the university to become the pastors, teachers, evangelists, administrators, counselors, social workers, and prophets of the future church.

The Intrinsic Value of the Church

Is the local congregation really necessary? It seems that all of the arguments for belonging to a local congregation do not persuade people in our society.  Fellowship?  People can get fellowship in clubs, lodges, sports, and even at the local bar.  Spirituality?  They do that with a contemplative walk on Sunday mornings.  Moral education of the kids?  Somehow the kids seem far more interested in their TV shows and computer games that in any Sunday school they have ever seen or experienced.  Death and dying?  Now hospice provide their own chaplains so one need not have to rely on the local church for help with that either.

Among many young people, indifference to Christianity, manifest in the local congregation, has actually turned into hostility.  According to David Kinnaman young people in today’s society have extremely negative views toward both the faith and the church. They see church members as hypocritical, homophobic, and too involved in right wing politics.[1]  Even though students attending Lutheran colleges and universities may have a more positive view of the faith, one suspects that they share many of the negative perceptions of the church with their contemporaries.

Even among life-long church members there are serious doubts about their local congregations.  This is especially true if the congregation has financial problems or is torn with conflict.  Is it really necessary to have so many events and meetings that take up so much time?  After being strengthened with the simple Gospel of “faith” in Christ, people wonder why congregations demand so many “works” to keep the institution going. Indeed, one of the chief motivations for getting new members in the church is so that they can take over some of those responsibilities others have done over the years.

Seeking to recruit students from all sectors of society, Lutheran colleges and universities point out that they are open to people of all faiths or no faith at all.  Even though they are still eager to teach the faith, the focus has now gone from the church to society. Thus, they argue that they can be true to their religious background as well as their self-understanding as institutions of higher learning.  This certainly seems acceptable to the faculty, administration, and accrediting agencies.  Ironically, however, by charting a direct path from the faith learned at the university to improving society and almost ignoring the church, Lutheran colleges and universities may actually be discouraging graduates from becoming active members in a local congregation.

Is the church, as manifested in a local congregation, really necessary?  Behind the questions of church people who ask the university, “What have you done for me lately?” is a serious and pointed concern.  They believe that their congregation has an intrinsic value for themselves, their families, and society at large.  During the communist time in Russia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn mused on the meaning        of all those little churches dotting the Russian countryside.  Most had been converted into places to store grain or provide offices for the local commissar.  He grieved over the change.  Those churches once lifted up the vision of the weary farmers beyond their toil to a glimpse of the transcendent.  Here the Almighty came down to recognize even serfs to give them a taste of God in the Eucharist.  Never mind that they counted for nothing in the world.  Here in a country church they were chosen and loved by God.  Here they were part of God’s people across the world and through the centuries.[2]

And is it really that different today?  In a merit-oriented society, rewarding chiefly the capable or lucky, little attention is paid to the also-rans, the losers, or even people down on their luck.  The elderly, the immature, and the newly arrived still hunger for the attention that only God and his people will give.  Only the church deals with the “HOLY” (Heb. Qadosh), which is totally separate and apart from the ordinary, the everyday, and, oft times, “the boring.”  Only the church in the Eucharist can touch the lips of the “all too human” with that which can come only from the divine.

Yet this vision of church seems hardly recognizable in many local congregations struggling for their life and their future. There are good reasons why Christians at the university prefer to link up with the society rather than the church.  Instead of conveying the transcendence of God to the world, the local congregation seems no different from other organizations in the struggle for finances, relevance, customers, and sustainability.  Were  Lutheran colleges and universities to provide education “for the church” they would also need to work for the reform and transformation of the churches.

The Transformation of the Churches

It is almost a truism that the Lutheran Reformation was born in a university. Ignited by the rediscovery of the Gospel, the University at Wittenberg became the center for the renewal of congregations throughout Germany and beyond. Theology was the queen of the sciences and permeated the study of law, medicine, and education. Approximately 16,292 students attended the University of Wittenberg between 1520 and 1560, most of whom returned to their communities excited by the new reform movement.[3]

Now the church was freed from the old patterns of church life.  The Sacrament was celebrated with both bread and wine.  All Christians who were baptized were regarded as priests whether they had an office in the church or not.[4]  Piepkorn writes, “Between 1537 and 1560, roughly a quarter of a century, 1,979 persons were ordained to the sacred ministry. . . .  A minority were university graduates.  In the case of 1,025 of these clergymen we know the vocations in which they engaged before they entered the sacred ministry; 44 are described in the record merely as “citizens” (Bürger). . . and 92 were artisans.”[5] This was in accord with what Melanchthon wrote in the “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope,” that congregations could exercise their right to chose, call, and ordain ministers, and a pastor could perform an ordination without the approval of a bishop.[6]

To recapture the excitement and vitality of the Lutheran Reformation, colleges and universities of the LC-MS might also work for the reformation and transformation of congregations today.  First, they can again critique the church’s theology, its preaching and teaching, with regard to its mission in this new century. Secondly they can also refocus their attention on the Eucharist as the focus and purpose of the gathering of God’s people.

At the time of the Reformation the University of Wittenberg did a major evaluation of the Church’s teaching and the root of its authority.  The rediscovery of the Gospel opened the Scriptures for new applications to the lives of people of Saxony and later to all of Europe.  Perhaps one of the reasons why young people think the church’s message is out of touch with reality is due to the fact that seminaries and universities have not done a very good job of continually examining the church’s message and ministry.

Lutheran colleges and universities are in an excellent position to test the applications of the Christian message to the lives of their students. Christian biologists, educators, business professors, nurses, political scientists, psychologists, and poets have a lot to say to the church.  The Synodical division of seminary education from university education with separate campuses has removed those preparing pastors from the helpful challenges from colleagues in other disciplines.  One of the best ways universities can help the church is to challenge both its faithfulness and relevance, to probe its content for non-essential elements, or even wrong-headed aspects, and to help the church think through its message and mission.

To again be an education “for the church” Lutheran colleges and universities can lift up the Sacrament as the chief reason for its gathering. Moved again by the Gospel, the Eucharist can again be that place where the transcendent meets the imminent, where the finite is capable of the infinite(Finitum est capax infiniti).[7]  It is in the Eucharist that the church as the body of Christ is most tangible.  In the church as Christ’s body, differences in nationality, race, politics, and culture are superseded by a more universal fellowship, loyalty, and communion. Religion classes required of all students need a healthy section on Lutheran Eucharistic Theology.  Yes, this can even be done in teaching the Bible as literature or the church and society.  It need not be tied to Lutheranism as a denomination but as a vital introduction to what the church is and also can be.

Unfortunately, this profound view of the Eucharist is usually held within congregations and church bodies burdened with the seeming necessity of church buildings, paid clergy, and all those forms of organization and self-promotion that have led people to avoid those congregations.  As the Reformation broke with existing patterns of church leadership, a similar break can be made today.  It is not necessary to have a paid pastor and a church building to “be the church.”  The Reformation pattern is clear.  Any group of Christians can publically call a Eucharistic leader.  Even under the present LC-MS rubrics, licensed deacons, many of them serving small congregations for little or no remuneration, can preside at the Eucharist.  According to The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, they can even be ordained.[8]

Preparing Church Leaders

The third challenge facing Lutheran colleges and universities is to educate students, staff, and faculty to become the pastors, teachers, evangelists, administrators, counselors, social workers, and prophets of the future church.  At the present time whenever church leadership is mentioned it is qualified by the word “professional.”  People ask, “How many students are studying for professional church work, as if that was the criteria for leadership.  Not only does that limit the number of church workers, it also reinforces the idea that the church is dependent upon finances, organization, and the endless meetings and events that turn off many young people from the church.

Lutheran colleges and universities have always taught students who later became the stalwart lay leaders of congregations.  This result was always welcomed but preparation for such leaders never quite made it into the curriculum.  What a waste!  Part of the recruitment effort for new students should advertise that it is the sincere intention of the university to prepare leaders to plant congregations, to help churches care for their aged and homebound, to mentor the children, to lead in worship, and to mobilize other church members to work in their communities. Furthermore, it should be emphasized from the very beginning that these ministries are to be done without any expectation of remuneration.

Were universities to be serious about this, they might prepare students for five areas of ministry.  The first is a ministry of Word and Sacrament.[9] In New Testament times it was possible for any baptized Christian to begin a new church with a ministry of Word and Sacrament.[10]  Christians in clergy-short areas or those with a desire to evangelize those who distain the institutional church, can begin a new fellowship centered in sharing in the Word and in the Eucharist.

A second ministry might be that of a peer counselor. In his penetrating book on lay ministry William Diehl calls for a ministry of counselors, who at the time of death, divorce, loneliness, or acute anxiety can give emotional first aid until professional help is available.[11]  Many congregations have benefitted from working with the Stephen Series preparing such peer counselors.[12]  This might also be done in the university with a good course in peer counseling integrated with studies in theology, psychology, and sociology.

A third direction lies in the area of community development.  Whether the locale is rural Nigeria or downtown Detroit, every community has a hierarchy of needs. Alerted to the possibility and potential of such development, students might be trained to work in concert with other church people, neighborhood leaders and local politicians to improve life in a community.  Leverage might be applied to secure more lost-cost housing, a free clinic, and safer streets.

Since some communities have most of the needs and others have all of the resources, a fourth lay ministry is also required.  This is the ministry in world politics.  For too long Christian political opinion has been confined to Bible class lessons or church pronouncements few take the time to read. Meanwhile, the political process continues directed largely be selfish interests.  “Bread for the World” has demonstrated Christian political effectiveness in terms of one significant issue.[13] Students can be exposed to other approaches and issues, and can get practice in campaigning, lobbying, and peaceful protesting.

A fifth ministry is that of communication.  In this area of service are the arts of music, painting, literature, drama, and various forms of journalism. The Christian-humanist tradition of Lutheran colleges and universities has already produced excellence in many of these fields.  In many cases little more needs to be done than to alert participants to the ways in which these gifts can be used for the church and by the church to enhance and apply the Word of God to the world.

Christian colleges and universities are in an excellent position to equip people for part-time avocational ministries.  Their resources are more than adequate to equip students for ministry.  All that is needed is the will of the administration and faculty of these schools to see this as one of their primary missions.   Then will come some additional courses in practical theology for lay people, extra-curricular activities in “being the church,” and an increasing number of alumnae who can come back and relate how they fulfill their ministries.

Equipping lay people for their ministries is already being done at a number of schools and is under study in others.  Concordia University in Portland has just created a Center for Applied Lutheran Leadership (CALL).  The purposes of the center are leadership enhancement, missions, and spiritual formation of youth and young adults — CALL will provide meaningful programming, leadership, and partnerships to create vibrant, healthy congregations focused on their mission.[14] What programs it will institute to achieve these goals have yet to be developed, but the creation of the center is a step in the right direction.

Concordia University in Austin offers a Lay Leadership Institute.   Courses are offered in servant leadership, managing change, Biblical foundations for leadership, financial directions, and communications skills for leaders.[15] Here students are equipped to fulfill important ministry functions in local congregations.  Were there also to be courses on planting congregations and leading worship, graduates could also start congregations in those areas that cannot afford a pastor.

Concordia College in Bronxville, New York, offers courses in Social Work Family Life Ministry.  According to their catalogue, “Family Life Ministers have the academic, theological, and practical preparation to develop and implement programs to help the Church build and strengthen Christian marriages and homes throughout the various stages of life while recognizing the uniqueness of people and cultures.”[16]

Concordia University, St. Paul, offers a minor in Family Life Education. The objective of the family life education program is to enrich and improve the quality of individual and family life.  The program is available to complement any of our liberal arts majors.  Most often, students majoring in criminal justice, psychology, communication, or sociology select a family studies minor. Family life educators work in health care settings conducting workshops and classes in hospitals, in community education, and in religious settings.[17] Concordia St. Paul also sponsored a Lay Leadership Institute together with the Iowa West District, which seeks innovative ways to help congregations thrive and grow in an environment of change.[18]

Is Lutheran higher education “for the church?”  It once was, almost exclusively.  However, to survive it had to broaden its scope to prepare its students for many different vocations.  Now as many congregations find it difficult to survive in a climate of change Lutheran colleges and universities have a unique opportunity once again to prepare its graduates “for the church.”  However, in so doing it may need to participate in the reform and renewal of congregations by reexamining its life and by using the contribution of lay people in all forms of ministry.



[1] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … And Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007.

[2] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Stories and Prose Poems (New York: Farrer, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970) pp. 263,264.

[3] E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and his Times (St. Louis. Concordia Publishing House, 1950) p. 3.

[4] Ibid., pp. 619, 620.

[5] A.C. Piepkorn in The Concordia Theological Monthly (Vol. 38, No. 1) January, 1967, p. 54. Piepkorn cites Hans Lietzman (ed.) Die Bekenntnissschriften der evangelische-lutherischen Kirche,herausgegeben in Gedenkjahr der Augburgischen Konfession 1930, 5th ed. By Ernst Wolf [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963], p. 501, n.1)

[6] Philip Melanchthon, “Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope” in the Kolb & Wengert (eds.) Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) pp. 340.341.

[7] See the discussion of the Lutheran vs.  the Reformed view of the person of Christ and the Sacrament of Holy Communion in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics,[Vol. 3]( St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1953) p. 323f.

[8] Melanchthon, op. cit., pp. 340,341.

[9] Much of the following material is taken from an article by the author, “The University and the World Mission of the Church” in The Cresset February 1981, (Vol. XLIV, No. 4) pp. 26-28.

[10] Cf. Roland Allen, Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours? (London: World Dominion Press, 1956).

[11] William Diehl, Christianity and Real Life (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

[12] Information on the Stephen Series can be gotten from

http://www.stephenministries.org/stephenministry/default.cfm/918

[13] See Arthur Simon, The Rising of Bread for the World: An Outcry of Citizens Against Hunger (New York: Paulist Press, 2009).

[14]See http://www.cu-portland.edu/call/

[15] See http://www.concordia.edu/page.cfm?page_ID=334

[16] See http://www.concordia-ny.edu/academics/undergraduate_programs_of_study/church_programs/

[17] See http://www.csp.edu/academics/Undergraduate/Programs/Minor/FamilyStudies.html

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