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October-November 2020

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Christian Colleges, Distinctive Community, and the Transformation of Students

By J. Matthew Pinson


The COVID-19 crisis has me thinking a great deal about the idea of community for the Christian college or university. The concept of the college as an ecclesial community of teachers and learners, mentors and mentees, has long been at the heart of Christian higher education. The present crisis bears out how important community continues to be for the sort of “value-added” education Christian colleges and universities provide.

Christian higher education at its best stands in stark contrast to a shocking statistic reported by Gallup just a few years ago. This poll indicated only 14% of college graduates had even one professor “who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.” [1] This shocked me because personal investment into the lives of our students is so essential to the vision of Christian higher education at Welch that we can’t conceive of a collegial educational mission without it.

President James Garfield once said all you really need to have good education is “a log hut, with but one simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other.” (Hopkins was president of Williams College, Garfield’s Alma Mater.) [2] That is still really what is at the heart of the most effective methods of education, regardless of delivery system: people who think, feel, and make free choices communicating wisdom and knowledge to other people who think, feel, and make free choices.

Obviously, when we frame education in this “total-personality” context—to use a phrase my own academic mentor Leroy Forlines used constantly—we see that it is in the context of authentic human relationships that effective teaching and learning most naturally occur. [3] That’s because we are created in the image of God as persons—thinking, feeling, acting beings—who, because we are personal beings created by a personal being, long for personal relationships. That is the way the personal God designed us.

I have a story I often share with students to illustrate the community aspect of what Welch College describes as our “Christian community of faith and learning." [4] As a freshman having a particularly hard time “finding myself,” one day I was talking with a fellow student, Tim Caldwell, in Goen Hall, the men’s residence hall at Welch. During the course of the conversation, Tim said, “Matt, I know somebody who can help you with your problems.”

“Problems?” I shot back. “I have problems?” He chuckled wryly and said, “Yeah. You need to go see Leroy Forlines.”

“Leroy Forlines?” I replied. “How can a 65-year-old, gray-haired, theology professor who uses words like epistemology and traducianism help an 18-year-old kid with his ‘alleged’ problems?”

Tim, however, convinced me, and I’ll never forget the spring day I went to Professor Forlines’ office on the second floor of the Johnson Academic Building and sheepishly knocked on his door. He answered, “Come in,” in his melodic eastern North Carolina accent and his iconic soft voice. I went in, and he said something he has said a hundred times since: “Whatcha got on your mind?”

Now, mind you, this was not just an ice breaker. He really wanted to know what I had on my mind.
That day, in his office, he began a relationship with me that provided what 86% of college graduates say they never had: “a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.” Yet, he did this in the context of what he calls “the inescapable questions of life.” [5] He spurred me on to explore those questions from the vantage point of a distinctively Christian worldview. His investment in my little world had a life-changing impact on me, and today, 93-year-old Leroy Forlines is one of my best friends in this world.

Every graduate of Welch has experiences like the one I just shared. This is seen across the world in Christian colleges and universities. That’s why that sector of higher education scores so high in nationally normed surveys of student satisfaction with the college experience: We pour our lives into students. And the reason we do this is because we have discipleship in view, discipleship of the whole person—intellect, affections, and will. We get this vision of discipleship from Jesus Christ, as He is presented to us in Holy Scripture.

It’s a tragic fact of higher education reality in our late-modern context that only 14% of college graduates can say they had only one professor “who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams.” Christian higher education is different, because it remains committed to the vision of providing truly Christian communities of faith and learning that have a transformative impact on the “total personalities” of students for the sake of the gospel of the Kingdom. May we, in this hectic time of the COVID-19 crisis, recommit ourselves to these distinctives.

About the Writer: J. Matthew Pinson has been president of Welch College since 2002. To learn more about Welch College, visit

1 Mark William Roche, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 53.

2 Burke Aaron Hinsdale, President Garfield and Education (Boston: J. R. Osgood and Company, 1882), 43.

3 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Theology in a Postmodern World (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), xii–xvi.

4 With a nod to Arthur F. Holmes, who uses the phrase “community of faith and learning” to describe his vision for Christian higher education in The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975). See esp. chapter 7, “College as Community.”

5 Forlines, 1–2.


©2020 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists