What is a “Christian Study Center?”
Tracing back to Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, there is now a growing movement to establish centers for Christian study, physical presences near leading American universities, where conversations can take place to engage the secular campus with the story of the historic Christian faith. In fact, a new one is being established near the Williamsburg, Virginia campus of the College of William and Mary. It is called the Cambridge House, and I am excited to be part that movement.
According to Charles E. Cotherman, author of, To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, a “Christian Study Center” is a “local Christian community dedicated to the spiritual, intellectual and relational flourishing via the deep cultivation of deep spirituality, intellectual and artistic engagement, and the cultivation of hospitable presence. To be a study center, each of these four elements — spiritual, intellectual, relational, and spatial — must be cultivated” (Cotherman, p. 8).
What was just a few generations ago only a higher education opportunity made available to the cultural elite, has now become almost a rite of passage to adulthood, for a growing number of Americans across diverse backgrounds. The college students of today will become the social, political, business, and intellectual leaders of tomorrow. What part will Christians today have in having conversations that shape the kind of world we will live in 20 to 30 years from now?
I agree with Cotherman that Christian study centers are a vital component for connecting Christians in a local community with the world of their neighboring college campus to make those conversations happen. In the forward to To Think Christianly, Ken Elzinga, an economist at the University of Virginia, and one of the leading founders of the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia, observes that what makes a “study center” unique is that it is a center, a “place having a geographical footprint.” Such a center is a “safe place” where one can bring their disagreements and doubts, to meet with the scornful Nathaniels who ask “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?,” (John 1:46) as well as the doubting Thomas’ who wonder if the resurrection of Jesus is really true.
Furthermore, a “study center” is not just about students, but it is also a place for Christian faculty and college staff to congregate, and build a wide-ranging experience of community.
Unlike the many campus ministries, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and CRU, that often require working with the local university for obtaining meeting space, a “Christian study center” is owned by a non-profit entity, to make such a space available, ideally within walking distance of a college campus. In the case of the new Cambridge House at the College of William and Mary, at 930 Jamestown Road, this new center is just a five minute walk away from the Mason School of Business, and around the corner from the student Ludwell apartment building complex.
But a “Christian study center” is more than a place for stimulating conversation, as it can be a place for prayer, and a place for meditation and study, a short distance away from the hustle and bustle of a college campus. It can also be a place for exploring one’s vocation, to help discern God’s calling for an individual or group in our world.
Finally, according to Elzinga, a “study center” is irenic, “marked by relational warmth and hospitality.” Instead of viewing a secular university as an adversary, a “Christian study center” can engage the campus environment as a partner in dialogue, to help move conversations forward, for the benefit of all, believer and non-believer alike.
As the Cambridge House at William and Mary gets established, having a book like To Think Christianly available now helps to provide the historical context for understanding why several dozen study centers are starting to pop-up across college and university towns across the country. After all, what does it mean “to think Christianly?”
Cotherman examines the history of this movement by first focusing on the story of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and the work of L’Abri, an alpine retreat center at a Swiss chalet founded by the Schaeffer’s in the mid-1950s. The Schaeffer’s were a product of mid-20th century American fundamentalism, when denominational bickering and Francis Schaeffer’s own crisis of faith led this missionary couple to establish L’Abri, which is French for “the shelter.”
Francis and Edith Schaeffer opened up their Swiss home to young people over the following decades, offering hospitality for short-term guests, as well as opportunities to work for the upkeep of the center for longer-term visitors and future staff. Edith in particular took great care to make sure dining ware placement at meals was done with excellence, with attention to detail, as conversation over meals were an essential part of the L’Abri experience. Francis had an appreciation for the history of art, providing many opportunities for conversation among philosophically inclined skeptics. This was no sterile classroom setting, but rather, a living, breathing community that put out the welcome mat for all seekers of truth.
But what the Schaeffer’s became most known for were for the talks given at L’Abri, and the informal conversations that followed, discussing the implications of a Christian worldview with respect to contemporary challenges to such faith in the 20th century. The content of these talks eventually became the substance of books published by InterVarsity Press, which led the Schaeffer’s towards giving lectures across the evangelical world.
In the early years, the Schaeffer’s L’Abri was a “faith-based” ministry, not asking others directly for funds, but rather, the Schaeffers appealed to God in prayer for the Lord to meet all of their needs. By the 1970s, as word of L’Abri spread and brought many more guests into the fold, and the “counter-cultural movement” was in fashion, Francis ‘”took to wearing beige Nehru jackets, odd linen shirts, and mountain climbing knickers” while wearing his hair long and growing a goatee‘ (Cotherman, p. 39). Through the Schaeffer’s, Christ was meeting the counter-culture!
But Cotherman’s story only begins there with L’Abri. Cotherman also chronicles the work of James Houston to establish Regent College in Vancouver, and the subsequent development of the Cornerstone house at the University of Maryland and the C.S. Lewis Institute. Begun in the late 1960’s, Houston’s work at Regent College paralleled L’Abri, but also differed in substantial ways. L’Abri was located away from university settings whereas Houston believed that study centers were best served by being located adjacent to a college campus. Houston was an academic, having done advanced degree work in geography, whereas Francis Schaeffer had no academic training beyond his theological studies. Schaeffer gained most of his knowledge of modern philosophy and art from magazines, as opposed to reading peer-reviewed scholarship found in academic books.
James Houston was concerned that Schaeffer’s L’Abri tended towards creating a type of evangelical celebrity culture and intellectual isolation, whereby a teaching “guru” like Schaeffer was the center of discussion. Alternatively, Houston believed that study centers should participate in academic discussions on college campuses, and he worked towards having a good relationship with the nearby University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, even himself teaching classes there on occasion.
Houston’s vision for Regent College was primarily oriented towards lay education, as opposed to providing seminary education for ordained clergy, thus making theological teaching available to a wider spectrum of people. Part of the early, original ideal was to offer a one-year program of study, particularly for recent college graduates to participate in, before pursuing careers in a variety of professions. By focusing on lay persons, study centers like Regent College, and others, have been able to side-step the thorny issue of women’s ordination, and have continued to improve over the years in providing opportunities for both young men and women to grow deeper in their faith and intellectual life as Christians, living out their vocations in a secular world, as well finding new ways to diversify the ethnic and racial make-up of their communal lives.
Cotherman, to varying degrees, also tells the stories of other study centers, such as New College Berkeley, in California, and R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Valley Study Center in Stahlston, Pennsylvania. The example of R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier is particularly insightful, as it shows some of the challenges that study centers face in figuring out what type of focus each study center should take. There are a wide-variety of approaches!
R.C. Sproul had been forced to delay the completion of his doctoral work in theology at the Free University in Amsterdam, due to family emergencies. This event triggered a series of decisions that helped him to cross paths with Francis Schaeffer, and consider establishing a L’abri-like study center in Stahlston, Pennsylvania. This Ligonier study center sought to offer a wide variety of classes and seminars aimed at providing good, intellectual Christian content, not often found in local churches, while seeking to create a hospitable environment for speakers to share their lives together with their students. In those early part of the 1970s, Ligonier attracted well-known evangelical Christian speakers to offer talks, that had a cross-denominational appeal, albeit leaning towards a Reformed theological tradition.
Ligonier was able to take advantage in the growth of technology, to get R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier content out to a wider-audience, and video-tape recording made this development possible. But as Ligonier’s influence as a study center grew, it also changed its style and focus for ministry. Opening up the homes of speakers for Christian hospitality gave way to a more formalized approach for Ligonier. In the early days of video taping R.C. Sproul’s talks, Sproul appeared nicely tanned, sporting a countercultural appeal with plaid pants, turtlenecks, sunglasses, and long hair. But by the time Ligonier moved their operations to Orlando, Florida, in the 1980s, Sproul was appearing before taped classes with a polished suit and tie look. Gone were the days when volleyball games were followed by casual meals around a dinner table, that allowed for deep spiritual conversation. Now, large, well-attended conferences were giving evangelical audiences a hefty, hearty diet of theological training for which they were starving to receive.
Is a study center a place for theological and philosophical discussion? A place where Christians and skeptics can ask their questions? A place for prayer? A place for hospitality? A place for Christian learning? The answer for each of these questions can indeed be “yes,” but each study center wrestles with trying to flesh out what is distinctive to each discrete instance of a study center. The value in reading To Think Christianly is in helping people interested in the study center movement to tie all of these things together.
All of this serves in Cotherman’s story as the backdrop for the eventual late 1970’s founding of the Center for Christian Study, in Charlottesville, Virginia, adjacent to the University of Virginia campus. The Charlottesville house has served as an intriguing model for what study centers across the country can do, in the local campus communities. Over the years, the Charlottesville house has offered residential living for students, a large library filled with Christian books and material for deeper study, quiet study areas for students as well as kitchens for providing meals and snacks, meeting spaces for prayer groups and Bible study groups, and even a Christian bookstore.
In the wake of its success, a Consortium of Christian Study Centers, originally led by Drew Trotter, was formed, and the Cambridge House near the College of William and Mary is among the Consortium’s newest members. In Virginia, the Cambridge House joins other new study centers near campuses like the University of Richmond, and Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg. What will the Cambridge House eventually look like, in terms of its distinctives? All of this depends on how God moves among the students, faculty, staff, and local churches and interested individuals, in figuring out how to invest in this exciting experiment.