Sunday, October 28, 2012

Universities and mission

Ralph Winter was a highly influential missiologist. In 2007 he gave a paper Learn from our Mistakes to a group of Asian mission leaders. He lists various mistakes made by Western mission organisations in the twentieth century. Here is the first one. Winter gives no justification for his view. More on that below.

The Mistake of Starting Bible Schools, Not Universities
The Student Volunteer Movement [I wonder if this is confused with the World Student Christian Federation], in which John Mott [who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946] was a leader, is noted for the number of universities that it established around the world. The missionaries who went to China made sure there was a university in every province of China. However, in later years Evangelicals, who had never been to college, went out across the world and established Bible schools, Bible institutes or theological schools that either replaced or ignored the university tradition. In the last 50 years the majority of American mission agencies have not founded a single university. 
The curious thing is that, even though Western missionaries cannot be given credit (except in the earlier period) for establishing universities, the hundreds of thousands of national leaders who have been a product of Western mission agencies have been able to see what the missionaries could not see. They have recognized the great influence of the university pattern. As a result they have taken the initiative to found over 40 universities in the last 40 years. I myself was, somewhat accidentally, part of the founding of an evangelical university in Guatemala, which now after 40 years has 37,000 students. No missionary can be given any credit for the founding of this university. In my case I merely stood up for a photograph of the founding board of directors two weeks before leaving the country to be a professor at Fuller Seminary. 
Why is it that missionaries have not realized that Bible schools, no matter how high the quality of instruction and curricula, simply do not represent the global mainstream of the university pattern? In the last 100 years in the United States 157 Bible institutes eventually, after sixty or seventy years, have converted over to colleges and universities. Why haven’t missionaries applied the same practical wisdom in their work overseas? This has been a serious strategic mistake. We can at least be glad that national leaders have taken the initiative to found universities without the help of Western missionaries.
Why does Winter think this is a mistake?
My guess is that Winter realises that universities train leaders and give them a world view and the world view and values of the leaders ultimately shapes a culture and a nation.  Furthermore, well educated graduates in science, education, medicine, engineering, and economics with a servant heart can be involved in transforming communities and building nations. Bible college graduates cannot do that.

A concrete example of what Winter is talking about occurred recently in Tanzania. Australian missionaries have been involved there, particularly through CMS, for more than 100 years. Yet, only a few years ago St. John's University was started completely on the initiative of national leaders in the Anglican church.

The problem one has to face though is the historical trajectory chronicled in George Marsden's  The soul of the American university: from Protestant establishment to established unbelief


  1. Hi Ross - some friends of mine have grabbed this sort of vision for transformation through universities - and they're off to work with CMS in Tanzania - they have a nice little promo video here that must be referencing Winter's work, or its thought world.

    1. Hi Nathan,
      Thanks for your interest.
      Unfortunately, it seems to me you have may missed the Winter's main point. Your friends are doing something very worthwhile and commendable. But they are NOT starting a new university. They are following in the traditional model of Western mission agencies which Winter is saying is mistaken. Find people and preach the gospel at them, whether it is in villages or at a secular university. Then hope that those individuals will transform the society. Winter seems to be suggesting throughout his article that this is not sufficient.