Amid the Stresses and Strains of Higher Education, Christian Study Centers Are Thriving

How a postwar evangelical movement to unite mind and heart spread to campuses across the country.

In the May 1972 issue of Christianity Today, Frank Nelsen, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, proposed creating “evangelical living and learning centers for undergraduate students [to] be built on private property near large state universities.” These centers would provide students with space to pursue “an intellectually honest investigation of the Christian faith and its relation to secular disciplines.”

Nelsen suggested the idea—targeting a niche between campus ministries, local churches, and Christian liberal arts colleges—as a solution to what CT had identified a year earlier as the “Crisis in Christian Education.” The postwar boom in higher education was waning, and evangelicals were unprepared to respond. Rather than stick to an aging model, Nelsen asked: “Is there an educational alternative to the private college for evangelicals to consider in the light of current economic stresses and strains?”

The question is, unfortunately, as timely in May of 2020 as it was in May of 1972. Once again, universities—both public and private—are facing a tidal wave of new “economic stresses and strains.” And what of Nelsen’s proposal? In the almost-half-century since, “evangelical learning centers” have popped up on dozens of college campuses, from flagship public institutions such as the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin–Madison to elite private schools including Yale and Duke. The 30 or so individual centers have formed a national Consortium of Christian Study Centers, founded in 2008. While the details of Nelsen’s proposal never came to fruition (he suggested separate …

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