Every town of any size in America seems to have a road called “College Street”; often there is no longer an institution there, but one was planned or one was shuttered as the economy fluctuated or populations shifted or mistakes were made that proved to be fatal.
Recently I toured several college campuses while on a business trip, which is a favorite activity for me. Their semi-rural, leafy campuses were marvelously lush and peaceful. Like many of the colleges in the U.S., they reflected a viewpoint that college life was best lived in a retreat, out in the country where reflection was possible. This is why, for example, Ole Miss is in Oxford rather than in the state capital of Jackson. Most flagship state universities are in cities away from the urban areas, even as land-grant institutions (mostly agricultural and technical institutions) were rural for specific purposes.
Christian colleges in particular have tended to be rural, reflecting the heartland populations of the faithful. To some extent, cities were for missions trips, while towns were for study. When I look at a contemporary map of faithful Christian college campuses, most are rural or semi-suburban. Many have reached out beyond their respective “bubbles,” and the advantages of their settings are many, but something is afoot in Christian higher education: urbanization.
Recently Business Insider posted a map of the United States that shows that 50 percent of the population of the US lives in 146 counties. To underscore this: fewer that 150 counties balance the entire rest of the nation in terms of population; along with people come commerce, political power, and cultural influence. Many of these counties are contiguous to others, reflecting the urban metroplexes that dominate our maps.
This summer I joined the administration of Pres. William Fleming at Palm Beach Atlantic University (he was inaugurated in 2012), serving as provost and following a very specific sense of God’s leading to serve in an urban context. In many ways, West Palm Beach, Florida, doesn’t feel terribly urban, but we are on the immediate doorstep of the South Florida metroplex (5.8m people; I’m using stats from 2013 estimated populations), our home county is the size of Rhode Island and has 1.3M, and we have a significant campus in Orlando (2.2M). We are on the rim of the Caribbean Basin, Latin America, and all of South America, where people dream of coming to Miami.
I have dear friends who have recently joined other urban campuses, notably David S. Dockery, the new president at Trinity International University / Evangelical Divinity School and Gregory Alan Thornbury, president at The King’s College in New York City (19.9M in metro area; began serving in 2013). In Chicago, Dockery joins Philip Ryken at Wheaton (started in 2010) and others who are serving a population of some 9.5M. Pres. Michael Lindsay (started in 2011) is poised to take Gordon in the Boston area (4.6M residents) to new heights. In 2012, Pres. Daniel Martin began serving at Seattle-Pacific, with a metro area of 3.6M.
Slightly longer serving leaders are in Texas, where Pres. Robert Sloan and his provost John Mark Reynolds (started in 2012) are taking Houston Baptist University into the heart of 6M residents, and in Southern California, where three vital institutions serve a metroplex of 13.1M: California Baptist (Ron Ellis), Azusa Pacific (Jon Wallace), and Biola (Barry Corey).
There are more, of course, and any list like this is always filled with grimace-producing omissions (my apologies in advance!); perhaps commenters to this post can add other urban-serving institutions, in fact, who need to receive more attention. It seems like seminaries have a longer standing in these areas, which reflects the older missional focus on cities, but which positions them for significant work.
If you are keeping track, that’s an incredible number of deeply committed Christian universities in urban areas who have received new leadership almost simultaneously. Historians will look back on this era, I hope, and see that this was not an accident. This was the beginning of a movement.
The other day I told someone that Aslan is on the move, to steal Lewis’s phrase, that there is a movement of the Spirit underway that is not gaining media attention per se, but that it is real and it is becoming more evident to those of us in these settings. This is particularly true in the realm of the Christian mind. My hunch is that it is global, not just American, as Christianity is shifting to urban strength in many regions. Yes, Aslan is on the move, but this time Narnia is a city.
The moment we face as American Christianity is whether or not we will shed our suburban comforts for the challenges of urban life. As hard as this F150-pickup-truck-driving Mississippi native finds it to say, this is the future. At least if we want to join the work of the Spirit (as Henry Blackaby once phrased it).
Please don’t think that I am denigrating our non-urban partners in the educational work of the Kingdom. Trust me, one of my first lessons in moving to Florida has been that space and resources are scarce. The more urban institutions will have to partner strategically with sister institutions in order to have the hands, heads, and hearts that are necessary for transformational work. We are co-laborers in the fields. But the future is in the cities, and we’d better get used to it for the sake of the Gospel.