There’s a lot of talk about mission drift in our universities. President Harrison, God bless him, recently pointed it out in the case of Concordia University Wisconsin. The basic concept is that a college drifts away from its mission because of a self-survival instinct. It takes money to operate a college. What good is a mission if you can’t fulfill it? But if you compromise it a bit, let it drift into something a little different, then more students will come, then the accreditors will be happy, then the institution can survive. This drift in mission was very obvious in the woke Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity push at Wisconsin, obvious enough to create the stir it did and invite a visitation from the president of Synod. But in all the talk of mission drift, what gets lost is a more important and far-reaching change that has taken place in all conservative Lutheran institutions of higher learning, not just in the LCMS, but in the ELS and WELS. And that is not simply a drift in mission, but a complete shift, a change. The shift was not so much in the change from two-year to four-year colleges,1 but the unspoken assumption that went with that change, that all of these colleges needed to grow, get bigger. And in order for that to happen, they needed to attract non-Lutheran students. It started slowly, but it increased exponentially at the end of the twentieth century, until the Concordias all became majority non-Lutheran, and Bethany (ELS) and Wisconsin Lutheran (WELS) are at least approaching that mark. And this is the great shift: from being a Lutheran college preparing Lutherans for life in the church and the world to being a Lutheran college preparing anyone, even non-Christians, for careers in the world.
Every single Concordia was founded to be a Lutheran institution for Lutheran students with Lutheran professors. The main focus was to educate church workers, pastors and teachers. Since this paper was originally presented in Nebraska, I’ll give a shout out to Seward, because it has retained a strong focus on this mission and continues to supply the majority of church workers to Synod. It also has the most Lutheran student body, at least among the undergraduates, at 50%. This is by far the best among the Concordias. Wisconsin is less than 40% Lutheran among its undergraduates. The others aren’t even close. But all of the Concordias, Bethany, and WLC abandoned the all-Lutheran approach. Their mission ceased to be by Lutherans and for Lutherans. The professors aren’t all Lutheran. In most cases, the majority of professors are non-Lutheran. And the students are majority non-Lutheran. It is this great shift that brings with it everything else—high cost of tuition, woke pressure, careerism, financial instability, and secular culture. The original mission is found in pockets—pre-sem programs and theology faculties and sometimes chapel worship—but the mission itself has not simply drifted; it has shifted entirely.
The great shift is a money problem as much as a theology problem. The two are completely intertwined. If you have seventy majors to attract thousands of undergraduate students, and if you have built many massive buildings to accommodate all these majors and students, it takes millions, even hundreds of millions, to meet budget each year. If you don’t meet that budget or fall short of it by too much, you end up bankrupt and closed like Portland, Bronxville, or Selma. But in order to bring in that kind of money, you need not only to hike up your tuition, but to attract as many students as possible. And that means attracting more and more non-Lutheran students. The basic trend at the Concordias, Bethany, and WLC is that their Lutheran student population has remained static throughout the last decades, it hasn’t changed, but their growth has been rapid and it is due entirely to non-Lutherans filling the ranks, until the Lutherans are a heavy minority and the entire culture of the campus changes. As of 2019, if you included graduate students, the percentage of Lutherans in the Concordia University System was only 11%.2
The tuition of the conservative Lutheran colleges and universities averages around $30,000 a year. Add to that room and board, books and fees, and the yearly price tag hovers around $50,000. As interim president of Concordia Wisconsin, Dr. Cario, recently pointed out, the expected decrease in student enrollment across all colleges and universities in the coming years is 15%. At Concordia Wisconsin that would be a reduction of over 300 undergraduates. Multiply 300 and $50,000 and you get a $15,000,000 loss in revenue a year. These are the kinds of differences, crushing differences, student enrollment makes when you charge these high prices for tuition. So the push is for growth. Grow bigger and you will be financially stable. But what does this growth mean for the mission of the college?
First, it means bringing in non-Lutheran students. I cannot stress how important this is for the mission of a Lutheran college. Most of the people you go to class with aren’t Lutheran, don’t go to chapel, don’t pray before eating, don’t have the same views about dating and sex outside of marriage, and this, even more than what you hear from your professors, shapes your reality, shapes your view of how the world works. When I attended Bethany Lutheran College twenty years ago, most of the students were Lutheran and the regular flow of campus life moved from class to chapel. You were the exception if you skipped chapel. It was normal to discuss the sermon afterward. Now at the same college the vast majority don’t attend chapel, and despite the college being twice the size it was when I was there, the attendance at chapel is half what it was, even though the same number of Lutherans are there now as when I was there. The culture changed, not just for the non-Lutherans but for the Lutherans. The same trend exists, exponentially so, at the Concordias. Chapel life is not the life of the campus. It is the life of a tiny minority of the campus. The cohesion—shared Lutheran beliefs and shared moral assumptions—that prevailed years ago simply does not exist.
But this is not only the case with students. It’s the case also with faculty and staff. The proliferation of majors needed to drive student population up requires the hiring of more and more professors. And there simply aren’t enough Lutherans interested in these positions or qualified to take them. The number one complaint from the faithful presidents of our Concordias is the trouble they have finding Lutheran professors. The positions, though, are not very attractive to most Lutherans, even if the Lutherans are qualified. Let’s look at business, for example. A college position might pay you $50,000 with benefits. But you can make twice as much and more with a job in the real world. And so the college positions are very often attractive only to professional academics, and very few of these are Lutherans. Concordia Chicago made the news this last year after the suspension of Paul Stapleton, an English professor at the university. Stapleton’s theatrics after his suspension, which included open opposition against the biblical doctrine on marriage, showed him a pompous liberal and promoter of LGBTQ anti-culture. But he taught at CUC for years. Thank God for President Dawn at Chicago and Dr. Francisco who have consistently acknowledged the problem and taken big steps to correct it. Chicago cut 15 programs and dozens of faculty and staff in 2020 in order to make the university accord with a Lutheran mission. But the problem remains. Most of the faculty is non-Lutheran and more than eighty percent of the student body is non-Lutheran. In order to survive, they need to market themselves to non-Lutherans and they need to hire non-Lutheran faculty. In response to bad press attacking Concordia Chicago for lack of diversity in the wake of the Paul Stapleton fiasco, the university is quoted in the Chicago Tribune, “Concordia-Chicago has been very clear that it openly accepts students, faculty and staff of all faiths as members of the University community.”3 This is simply the reality all the Concordias have to work with, even when you have the best president and provost imaginable.
All the conservative Lutheran colleges and universities now have a campus community that is in fact religiously and philosophically diverse—different faiths, different worldviews—and this among both the faculty and the student population. It does not take a perceptive person to notice that this is a shift, not a drift, in mission from the original purpose of these institutions. The push for more majors was made without regard to the obvious fact that it would be impossible to fill the faculty positions with Lutherans and it was done without regard to the obvious fact that it would attract a non-Lutheran student population. The Lord Jesus asks, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-31). We simply did not count the cost of these decisions. And the cost is the loss of the original mission: an all-Lutheran faculty with all-Lutheran students for the good of the Church.
Accreditation has played a role in this also. When Dr. Gregory Schulz publicly stated that accreditation concerns played a role in the woke agenda at Concordia Wisconsin, the administration openly retorted that this was a lie. It was not a lie. It was and is obvious and it’s embarrassing not to admit it. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which accredits all of the Lutheran colleges in the Midwest, has a five-year plan called EVOLVE 2025, where it states that “an equity framework should permeate…all levels of institutions (e.g., students, staff, faculty and governing boards)” and then further states that “HLC will ensure that concepts of equity, diversity, access and inclusion are demonstrated in its mission and other foundational statements.”4 Their visitation teams lecture the administration and faculty on how overly white and non-diverse our Lutheran colleges are. The expectation is for more women in authority, more non-white faculty, staff, students, and regents, and more public acceptance or toleration of LGBTQ or BLM-type groups. If any of our Lutheran colleges or universities loses accreditation they will go bankrupt almost immediately. Enrollment will dip so drastically that it would be impossible to sustain their enormous budgets. Every regent knows this and every administrator knows this. The fact that HLC is openly woke and pushes wokeness on the institutions it accredits is a problem and an obvious factor in the leftward shift.
Sports have also played a role in shifting away from Lutheran culture. They have led to the active recruitment of non-Lutherans. They have sunk millions of dollars into stadiums and buildings that make the yearly operation of the universities far more expensive, which requires more students to pay the bills and so more dependence on non-Lutheran attendance. Once again, no one cared to count the cultural and missional cost of expanding organized sports on our campuses.
A word here about the “missional” argument for inviting so many non-Lutherans onto campus. The argument goes like this: We are a mission. We bring the unchurched and the non-Lutheran in and then they learn the Christian and Lutheran faith, and so we are spreading the Gospel. It does happen occasionally that people are converted to Christianity or become Lutherans because they attend these colleges. Thank God for that. But it happens rarely, because the non-Lutherans outnumber the Lutherans. And it is undeniable that the influence goes the other way too. When most people around you aren’t Lutherans, there will be little encouragement to become one, especially when most majors do not require much instruction in the faith at all—one class, most of the time, and there is no chapel requirement at all.
But the theological and cultural problem is also the financial problem at these institutions. The business plan is unworkable. The times are coming, and are now here, when young men and women will not want to go into outrageous amounts of debt to get a college education. As I said, the estimate is a 15% decrease across the board. That’s a conservative estimate. And it will hit institutions like the Concordias harder than other institutions. Hillsdale College, for instance, won’t suffer. Hillsdale now has a 20% acceptance rate, compared to a 55% acceptance rate a few years ago. People really want to go there. But only one in five who apply get in. If the number of students applying decreases by 15% it doesn’t matter at all. And in fact the number of students applying won’t decrease. It will increase, because Hillsdale is known for being conservative and for being academically rigorous and for being pro-American. And it has already maxed out its student population. It’s not growing any bigger. It has found a niche, acknowledged its limitations, been true to its mission, and so secured its future. It has no money problems at all. Lutheran money, a lot of conservative Lutheran money, has gone to Hillsdale instead of to our Concordias, because Hillsdale found a niche that the Concordias, Bethany, and WLC easily could have joined. That is the classical, conservative niche. But there is no classics department at any of these Lutheran colleges, and the word “conservative” is hard to find on their websites—at least not in any positive sense.5
Dr. Cario at Concordia Wisconsin openly acknowledged in a virtual town hall that other sources of revenue will have to be found in order to make up the enormous difference this impending 15% decrease in student population will bring.6 The closures of Portland and Bronxville are the proverbial writing on the wall. Charging $30,000 a year tuition and relying on non-Lutheran students for tuition revenue, while trying to maintain massive campuses that were built for a much larger student population, is an unenviable position to be in. It is in recognition of the great shift and the financial issues that it involves that the Board of Directors of Synod and the Board of the Concordia University System will be recommending through the 7-03 committee, that the LCMS vote in its 2023 convention to change its relationship with the Concordias. If the resolution passes, and it almost certainly will, the Concordias will receive theological accreditation from the LCMS and be associated with the LCMS, but the Concordia University System will be dissolved and the assets will be released to the individual universities.7
And so we come to the actual point of this essay, which is not how to make a Lutheran college non-Lutheran, but the opposite, how to keep a Lutheran college Lutheran. We are starting a new Lutheran college and we often get the question, “How can you be sure Luther Classical College will remain Lutheran?” How do we avoid the great shift that happened to every single Lutheran college in this country? We learn from history. Those who don’t are doomed to repeat it.
1) First, a Lutheran college is for Lutheran students. It is not an outreach to unbelievers. Outreach happens elsewhere, and the students of Luther Classical will be eager to reach out to unbelievers, because they’ll know their Lutheran doctrine and they will love it and they will want to share it with anyone who will listen. They’ll experience the joy of singing Lutheran hymns with fellow Lutherans. They’ll see the knowledge and happiness that liberalism and unbelief robs from people. And they’ll learn from their professors and their fellow students what it means to be a city set on a hill and the light of the world, as Jesus says His Christians are.
So every student at Luther Classical College will sign a Lutheran faith statement, conservative, confessing the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and the Lutheran faith as they have learned it from the Small Catechism to be faithful and true. They will promise to attend church faithfully and chapel daily. They will promise by the grace of God, as they did at their confirmation, to live a godly life to the glory of God, and in faith, word, and deed, remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit even unto death. Every single student at Luther Classical College will be a conservative, confessional Lutheran. No exceptions, ever.
This acknowledges the enormous importance of community at a college. The reason so many send their kids off to college and then receive them back changed—liberal and rebellious against what they had learned at home—is not mainly because of what they are taught at university, but because of who they were with. When those around you think like heathen, you will not remain unaffected. Bad company corrupts good morals. God said that. But good company creates good morals. I’ve seen it. The reason Lutheran hymns ring out in my house every day is not because anyone told me to sing hymns with my family. It’s because I saw it again and again and I loved it and then I did it naturally. And that is what happens on a college campus filled with Lutherans who love Lutheran theology and hymnody and who sincerely want to live virtuous, Christian lives. Beautiful culture is lived and it gets handed down and shared and then invigorates every congregation these students end up making their home.
2) Second, a Lutheran college has Lutheran professors. If we are seriously going to say that every subject taught in college has something to do with Christ, then we had better make sure that every professor teaching is a Lutheran, specifically, an LCMS Lutheran. And more specifically, an LCMS Lutheran who agrees completely with our conservative, Lutheran mission, because every single class at Luther Classical College will be taught from a Lutheran perspective. The lie is that there is such a thing as neutrality in teaching. There isn’t. Everyone is biased. You can’t teach literature without one bias or another, or you wouldn’t be able to speak or comment at all. And the selection of literature to read is already a theological, biased decision. Why read Milton’s Paradise Lost and not, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses? Because one teaches virtue and censors vice and the other teaches vice and censures virtue. And you certainly can’t teach science, the study of God’s creation, without bias, or what our moderns call “theory.” Your theory is either that God is Creator or not, that He is actively involved still in maintaining His creation or not. So you never compromise on this. Not a single professor can be anything but a confessional, conservative Lutheran, who lives his life like it and is an example to the students.
3) Third, a Lutheran college has Lutheran goals. The careerism that has taken over higher education is so obviously of the world. Jesus says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33), not second, after career. In fact, when He says that we should plan and count the cost before we build, He says, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow Me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Plan and count the cost, knowing what it takes to remain a Christian in this world. A college is not primarily for equipping students for a future career. It is for equipping them to live as Christians in the church and the home and the world. This has to be the goal of a Lutheran college or it will necessarily slip into worldliness, compromise the first things in order to gain the secondary. That’s not to say the secondary considerations aren’t there. Students, especially men, need to be able to provide for their families. God says that the person who doesn’t provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). But a classical education will give the type of intelligence, hard-work ethic, speaking ability, clarity of thought, and respect for authority that employers across the spectrum are looking for. But you never make the secondary primary. It is more important that our children remain Christian and Lutheran than that they gain the mammon of this world. (As a side note, no one is complaining about not getting a job after graduating from places like Hillsdale or Wyoming Catholic College or New Saint Andrews. Their rate of graduates getting jobs is better than our Lutheran colleges.)
4) Fourth, a Lutheran college doesn’t get entangled in the world. A Lutheran college runs by Lutheran support, not by funding that comes from an increasingly hostile government. There are always strings attached to the money the government gives. And as our government—obviously the Democrats but also the Republicans, with very few exceptions—as our government becomes more and more friendly toward the LGBTQ agenda, we will see strings attached to the money it lends or grants to students. We’ve already seen this related to Diversity and Equity and Inclusion. It’s already happening. Hillsdale can do what it does and say what it says, it can remain so vocally conservative, in large part because it doesn’t accept government funds. The same is true of New Saint Andrews College and many others. It’s far past time that we have a Lutheran college doing the same. I was informed recently that even if we at Luther Classical College tried to change our mind on receiving government aid or seeking more liberal accreditation, it’s already too late. We’ve said too much. We’re too conservative and unapologetically Lutheran. So we are blessedly locked in—no federal funding; and our accreditation will have to be friendly to Bible-believing Christians.
Besides this, the access to federal funding also drives up the cost of tuition. The kids can borrow the money from the government, so you can drive up the cost of attendance. That’s what happens. It’s time for us to realize that it’s immoral to impose crippling debt on our children. I have a friend who ended up $200,000 in debt going to Concordias. He was irresponsible, obviously. But he was also a kid. No financial officer should have allowed that. And while that may be an extreme example, it’s not uncommon to find a husband and wife coming out of a Lutheran college with well over $100,000 in debt. And then they make life decisions based on this debt—not based on the Bible, but based on debt. They put off having children, even though children are a gift from the Lord and would make their life so much happier, because a hundred thousand dollars can’t give you a hug or say, “I love you, Daddy,” or, “I love you, Mommy.” They get sucked into careerism and make their goal in life paying off debt and then saving enough to retire. It becomes all about money. We have adopted a system that is systemically anti-family and pro-money. We are Christians. We are pro-family. We cannot allow our children to go into these loads of debt.
5) And this means a Lutheran college has to be an affordable college. Luther Classical College is purposely setting our tuition at $8,500 a year, because a student can make that amount in a summer of working. I made $6,000 a summer twenty years ago when I worked my way through college. You can make $8,500 a summer working at Walmart or waiting tables. And if you get scholarships, the cost will be easily manageable.
How can we afford to do this, charge only $8,500? The answer is twofold. First, we can’t. We don’t want to be able to afford it. We want Lutheran support that will make it possible. And we’re getting it. Fifty congregations are supporting LCC right now. Our goal is a hundred by the end of the year, and we’ll get it by God’s grace. We don’t want to survive as an institution without Lutheran—congregational and individual—support. Second, we actually can afford it, because Luther Classical College won’t have a ridiculous number of faculty and staff. We’ll only need twelve full-time professors. Twelve. Because everyone at Luther Classical College will take basically the same classes—80% or more of the classes. There will be only one major. We won’t have a business major, a marketing major, an underwater basket-weaving major. Employers aren’t even looking for these majors anymore. They’re looking for competence. Teach everyone to be competent, to speak well, think well, to be hard working, to be respectful, and they will be able to learn just about anything. Ask anyone whether he learned more in college or more on the job, and the answer is always the same. You learn by doing, so long as you have a good foundation. And that’s what a classical education gives: a beautiful foundation. This is how New Saint Andrews does it in Moscow, Idaho and Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, and they’ve had amazing success. You cut out the bureaucracy and the proliferation of majors8 and the sports and the pampering programs, and college becomes affordable again.
6) The great shift took place in all three synods because the colleges wanted to get bigger than their mission allowed. It is puzzling to me why this was ever a goal, getting bigger. Why? But it was a goal and it spelt not only the shift in mission and the non-Lutheran population but also the rising tuition. So it’s also essential that a Lutheran college remain small, in the same way as a Lutheran congregation should remain relatively small. If you get much over 300 regular attenders, start a new congregation. A pastor can’t take care of 1500 souls. He can’t even know all their names. So it goes with a college. Once Luther Classical College has to start turning down qualified applicants, we’ll start another college. We’ve got a few places in mind already.
7) Finally, a Lutheran college can never be impressed by the academic elite. The LCMS and Lutherans in America have an inferiority complex. We have the greatest doctrine, the pure teaching of Scripture, but we want to flirt with sectarians. We have the best music—we have Bach!—and we adopt schmaltzy fluff or embarrassingly repetitive soft rock from our inferiors. So it goes with academia. We have the greatest knowledge and tradition in the world, and we apologize for it and seek after the recognition of fools who are wise in their own eyes. Religious academics are famously terrified of being called fundamentalists, of being that type of Christian: so ignorant as to believe in the verbally inspired Word of God, so backward as to believe in a young earth, so bigoted as to believe in the divinely created differences between men and women. It’s time we defend the fundamentals and scoff at an academy that believes sci-fi theories of humans evolving from slime and searches for nothing in history, the Bible, or literature but gender and gay theory. We know the better way, the best way. And we need to be unapologetic about pursuing it. We have nothing to hide when we pursue knowledge purposefully as confessional, Bible-believing Lutherans. And that, by the way, is all “classical” means: an honest, God-fearing, patriotic, conservative pursuit of knowledge in every area, from math to science, literature, history, theology, music, and language.
It is not only possible to keep a Lutheran college Lutheran. It has to be done. And it has to be done with purpose from the very start. That is exactly what we are doing at Luther Classical College. We start classes in Fall of 2025. Professors are excited to come on board and students can’t wait to attend. We conservative, confessional Lutherans have to be done wringing our hands. It’s time to build up the good and the beautiful and the bold and look forward to the bright future of the Lutheran Church in our native land.
1 As J.A.O. Preus pointed out fifty years ago, this spelled the end of the “system” and the senior college.
5 Compare the following from CUW’s vice provost, Dr. Michael Uden, “Yet even amid a shared global experience, our sinful human nature still attempts to divide and conquer us. We focus on measurements and definitions regarding our differences—vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, conservative vs. progressive, caring vs. calloused.” This is typical of LCMSers, as if the conservative vs. progressive is not also Christ vs. Satan! https://blog.cuw.edu/advent-preface/
6 February 24, 11am CST, virtual townhall.
8 CUW boasts over 70.