What We Believe
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To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, by Charles E. Cotherman. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2020, xv + 301 pages, $35.00.

What sort of theological education is available to lay people? Maybe the better question is, where do church members go for theological instruction that is not part of a degree program? Orthodox Presbyterians recently have debated the merits of women writing theology. Some officers have questioned whether women should venture into a domain reserved for special office or academic theologians. But this kerfuffle ignored the larger question about the value of doctrinal understanding among the laity. On the surface, who could object to lay men and women wanting to know more about theology and being sufficiently proficient to offer some comment and guidance? Confessional churches, after all, have catechisms which encourage the laity to explore the faith. These communions also call for parents (usually lay people) to give a kind of theological education to children. Meanwhile, for the last sixty years Reformed seminaries have offered a variety of degrees to people who have no intention of being ordained. Theological education for the laity, consequently, appears to be a wholesome endeavor.

But a question that haunts such a positive estimate is whether churches are delinquent in providing the sort of doctrinal instruction lay people want (and related, whether sermons are sufficient). Charles E. Cotherman’s new book, To Think Christianly, is a great resource for considering at least some of these questions. It is a history of the rise of institutions since 1960 in both Canada and the United States whose mission was to provide instruction for Christian lay people. The specific institutions Cotherman covers are Regent College in Vancouver, L’Abri, the Ligonier Study Center, and the Center for Christian Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many readers may be unfamiliar with James Houston, the man responsible for bringing Regent College to fruition. In the case of L’Abri and Ligonier, with Francis Schaeffer and R. C. Sproul the guiding figures behind them respectively, many people in NAPARC churches will understand how ordinary the idea of lay theological education outside a degree-granting institution is. After all, Schaeffer and Sproul are virtually household names among evangelicals who lean Reformed. And yet, their institutional outlets were study centers designed to draw upon theology as the source for answers to hungry lay Christians’ questions about life. No one arguably complained about the effects of these parachurch, lay-driven institutions on the work of pastors and Reformed congregations. Still, that Schaeffer and Sproul responded to an itch in the church world is one indication that the churches were not providing what lay people wanted. That is, at least, one way to read Cotherman’s generally fine history of what he calls “the Christian Study Center Movement.”

The unofficial guru of this surge in theological education outside the church and for the laity was Francis Schaeffer, a missionary to Switzerland with ties to the Bible Presbyterian Church. Evangelism to children began in 1948 but by 1951 the Schaeffers had begun to bring people into their chalet for meals, conversation, and counsel. By 1955 this informal effort blossomed into something more formal and the beginnings of L’Abri as both a Christian study center and a residential community where young inquirers went to find answers to questions about what used to be called “the meaning of life.” This was the springboard for Schaeffer’s own emergence in the 1960s as an influential apologist, with books and speaking tours in the United States to back it up.

By 1968 L’Abri’s reputation had grown to inspire a study center in Vancouver (British Columbia), first conceived by local businessmen and spearheaded by James Mackintosh Houston, a geographer who had studied at Oxford University. The aim of Regent College was a one-year course of study (with a certificate) and a place for research, comparable to the Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. Regent and L’Abri in turn became the inspiration for the C. S. Lewis Institute, begun in 1973, in connection with the University of Maryland. Just a little before that, R. C. Sproul had founded the Ligonier Valley Study Center outside of Pittsburgh with significant initial support from that city’s Coalition for Christian Outreach. At roughly the same time, the New College Berkeley, located in California, began as another center in the orbit of L’Abri. The last institution to follow in Cotherman’s narrative is the Christian Study Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, began in 1974 in close connection with Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA).

Cotherman does not say much about the historical context of these centers, even though the photos he includes show earnest Christians from the 1970s looking every bit like the Jesus People. Did the baby-boomer generation exhibit a degree of hunger for theology that earlier and later generations did not? Or did the first two decades of the Cold War, in combination with Vietnam, race relations, and the sexual revolution, raise a host of considerations that young people encountered on college campuses but found no obvious responses to in the churches? Just as important was the expansion of higher education at this time. Evangelicals, like many other groups, were going to college in record numbers thanks to the expansion of university programs and state funding for such study. Part of the backdrop of the Christian study center movement may well have been a generation of Protestants going to secular universities, encountering material with which their parents and pastors were unfamiliar, and looking for Christians who could speak to those topics. All of these factors may explain why the study center phenomenon prospered for a time and then required adjustments to sustain its activities.

For whatever reason, the popularity of study centers declined by the late 1970s. The case of Ligonier is instructive. What began as a study center in the early 1970s, partly inspired by L’Abri along with support from networks among Pittsburgh churches, evolved into a parachurch ministry with little in-person opportunities. Initially, Ligonier had a campus made up of homes where staff lived and that provided accommodations for students. In 1978 when the center completed construction of its first dorm, Ligonier had hosted over 3,000 students for overnight stays. Where Ligonier differed from L’Abri, according to Sproul, was that Schaeffer’s work was primarily evangelistic (with a good dose of apologetics) while the western Pennsylvania center was committed to theological education for the laity. By the late 1970s, however, Sproul and his colleagues became convinced that Ligonier needed to expand and that the way to do so was through media. In 1977 Ligonier launched Tabletalk magazine. Five years later, thanks to technological developments that made VHS recordings and distribution affordable, Ligonier devoted resources to tapes of Sproul and other teachers for sale to viewers and students. By 1985 Sproul and his staff decided to leave the Ligonier campus in Pennsylvania and create offices in Orlando where they would produce the magazine, VHS tapes, and other materials. That was the last year that Ligonier held a summer course at its original Pennsylvania location. One factor behind this development was the ebbing appeal of residential study centers. The thought of living together, working on common projects, and studying in community may have been largely a product of 1960s idealism.

The other cases of Regent and Charlottesville also indicated the limits of the Christian-study-center-as-residential-community model. Although inspired by Schaeffer, James Houston, the initial leader of Regent, saw a way for the institution to become a training center for Young Life staffers. But other advisors and some of the faculty at Regent balked at that idea and shepherded the college into a graduate school of theology associated with the University of British Columbia. Regent remains one of Canada’s largest graduate schools in theology. This turnabout was a possible outcome from the very beginning since many of the Plymouth Brethren, largely academics, associated with the institution from the beginning had received doctorates in theology, biblical studies, or church history at British universities (partly the function of existence within Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations). In the United States, in contrast, the chances of study centers moving to degree-granting institutions was the path pursued by mainline Protestant churches almost eight decades prior. By the 1970s, the academic discipline of religious studies was the way that universities and colleges brought faith on campus.[1] As a result, when in the mid-1980s the popularity of informal theological education subsided at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, the institution became a kind of headquarters for Christian ministries at the University of Virginia with programs for the edification of its own students who lived at the Center. (The Center’s programs also include ministry to non-residents.) After 1990, Charlottesville’s Center, with Drew Trotter at the helm, became the hub for a consortium of Christian study centers at college and university campuses across the United States.

Cotherman’s multi-institutional narrative is not meant to be one of declension. His conclusion indicates support for such an enterprise. He appeals both to James Davison Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” (that Christians should seek influence not through big, visible causes but by ordinary, humble means). The author also throws in current platitudes about social justice which seem far removed from the original mission of the study centers. Aside from the odd parts of the conclusion, Cotherman not only raises questions about the theological education of the laity but also about the timing of Christian young people eager to know more about the faith. Where today do people go for the sort of lectures students at L’Abri and Ligonier heard by Schaeffer and Sproul? One hunch is that the integration of faith and culture or politics and society is now easier to find and to do than it was seventy-five years ago. Practically any Christian professor or pastor can write a book about art, music, politics, economics, or law from what they claim is a Christian worldview. But the persistence of Sproul’s own popular theology seems harder to find even as Ligonier itself keeps their founder’s recorded speaking and teaching alive.

Whatever the legacy of the Christian study center, the church’s laity have moved higher up the scale of academic degrees and professional careers than their parents and grandparents. Providing the current generation of young adults guidance in theology that is both serious but not overly technical remains a challenge today every bit as great as it was when Francis Schaeffer started L’Abri.

Endnote

[1] The parallels between these Christian study centers by evangelicals and earlier denominational campus ministries among mainline Protestants between (1900–1930) are uncanny. See D. G. Hart, The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, April 2021.

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