As America’s second-oldest Lutheran college, Roanoke College in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley proclaims that it is “never sectarian” in outlook, while maintaining that “critical thinking and spiritual growth” are essential.

The online spiritual-life page also offers this advice: “We encourage you to follow your own personal spiritual path while here at Roanoke.” The collage “honors its Christian heritage” and its affiliation with the progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by stressing “dialogue between faith and reason,” according to its “Mission & Vision” statement. “Diversity, inclusion and belonging” are strategic goals.

These commitments are “so informal that it’s hard to call them doctrinal commitments at all,” said Robert Benne, a retired Roanoke College professor who founded its Benne Center for Church and Society. “This is what you see in many Christian colleges. … These vague commitments go along with efforts to embrace whatever is happening in modern culture.”

This isn’t unusual, he stressed, after studying trends in Christian higher education for decades. In the post-pandemic marketplace, an increasing number of small private schools — religious and secular — face economic and enrollment challenges that threaten their futures.

Leaders of many Christian colleges and universities face a painful question as they try to stay alive: When seeking students and donors, should administrators strengthen ties to denominations or movements that built their schools or weaken the ties that bind in order to reach outsiders and even secular students?

If the goal is to remain committed to traditional Christianity doctrines — in classrooms and campus life — academic leaders need to take specific steps to build academic communities that can survive and thrive, said Benne, in a new essay for the interfaith journal First Things.

Any “serious Christian school” has to “have an explicit, orthodox Christian mission and it has to hire administrators, faculty, and staff for that mission,” he wrote. “It has to have a fully informed and committed board that insists on those things happening. Without that there will be a slow accommodation to secular, elite culture. Indeed, if a college or university has swallowed that ideology whole, orthodox Christianity will move out as it moves in.”

Earlier in his career, Benne argued that three different kinds of colleges were managing, to varying degrees, to remain faithful to the traditions on which they were founded.

First, there were “orthodox” schools that required faculty and staff to be members of a specific church or tradition. Then there were “critical mass” schools in which administrators “kept roughly two-thirds of the faculty, staff and student body composed of members of the sponsoring tradition.” Then there were “intentional pluralist” schools in which a “Christian vision” retained a “place at the table” in increasingly secular schools.

When his book “Quality with Soul” was published in 2001, Benne received a detailed critique from the now-deceased Father James Burtchaell, former provost of the University of Notre Dame and author of “The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches,” an 868-page tome published in 1998. Benne said his friend’s verdict was blunt: “Only the orthodox will survive, and they will have to take care.”

Now, Perry Glanzer of Baylor University has published a book — “Christian Higher Education: An Empirical Guide” — ranking the degree to which 537 Christian colleges and universities have maintained their founding missions and core doctrines.

Benne said he was shocked to see the degree to which institutions he once considered “critical mass” communities — such as Baylor and Notre Dame — received weak, middle-of-the road scores for their efforts to “keep the faith.”

In an age in which Christian colleges and universities face intense legal pressures on moral issues — especially policies linked to sex and marriage — it is now especially important to note whether schools require faculty, staff and students to sign “doctrinal covenants” defining commitments on behavior and beliefs.

“The Sexual Revolution promotes the belief that people can do whatever they want, as long as it is ‘consensual,’ with ‘consent’ defined in long documents full of highly technical language,” said Benne. When discussing matters of sex and misconduct, “things tend to get legal really quick. These ‘consent’ policies are the covenants that matter at many colleges today, since no one wants to talk about religion and morality.”

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