A Holy Resistance to Mission Drift in Christian Higher Education

Some years ago, while serving on a Christian university board, I was introduced to Greer, Horst and Haggard’s (2015) Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. As a brand new and ultimately incredibly short-serving board member, I received the authors’ message as a call to action for leaders and all people who believe in and work to secure the integrity and fidelity of Christian organizations, including but not limited to colleges and universities. At that time as a board member and continuing today now as a president, my heart’s desire is for Christian organizations, universities in particular, to remain unshakably, undeniably and unapologetically centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ—wholly committed to sharing the Gospel, making disciples and being the hands and feet of Jesus in our mission contexts.

Examining both the drift of some once-Christian institutions and the missional fidelity of other still-Christian organizations, Greer, Horst and Haggard share several truths that I find to be meaningful for Christian universities generally and Houghton University specifically. First among those lessons is that mission drift is seldom dramatic or all at once. Instead, it is more typically gradual. It is a decision here, a hire there—gradual drift, almost unnoticeable, until the organization that was once mission true finds itself so far afield from its founding commitments and convictions that it is indistinguishable from its secular peers. Seldom is there a primary culprit to blame or a specific moment in time to point back to. Instead, drift results from the gradual accumulation of things done and things failed to be done. Christian organizations that were founded for gospel purposes become ones with only a Christian heritage when they could have and should have remained institutions committed to Biblical truth and centered on Jesus Christ.

Mission drift by Christian organizations, the authors assert, must be resisted. Christian organizations that fail to actively and continually resist drift will, in fact, drift. Leaders of Christian organizations must be fanatical about their Christian missions and identity, repeatedly revisiting and reaffirming the mission and Christian commitments of the organization and zealously safeguarding it. The current of culture is strong. Swimming against the current of culture is difficult and often lonely. It is neither for the cowardly nor for the weak-willed. Continuing true to mission and avoiding mission drift requires organizational leadership that is prayerful, courageous and relentless.

Building and maintaining a team of mission-aligned, God-honoring people, the authors contend, is also critical to resisting mission drift. They point to the need for leaders to be slow to hire and quick to fire in order to strengthen and maintain adherence to the mission. Their advice should not be construed to mean Christian leaders should walk the halls or their organizations looking for team members to terminate. What they do suggest, however, is that leaders should be so committed to the mission that mission alignment becomes an absolutely essential criterion for hiring and that, correspondingly, Christ organization leaders’ commitment to mission compels them to quickly rid the organization of employees who are detrimental to the organization’s mission. For leaders, a commitment to mission must supersede any loyalty or commitment to individuals or the desire to be broadly liked and accepted.

As I serve Houghton University during this season, I strive to lead in accordance with Biblical truth and in a manner that honors God. As a Christian and a Wesleyan, I believe it is God’s will for people everywhere to know Him and that the purpose of the Church is to worship God in spirit and in truth and reach and lost and fallen world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Within that context, I have wholly committed myself to Houghton’s mission of providing a Christ-centered, academically challenging education to students from diverse traditions an economic backgrounds. Pointing toward the Church’s and University’s missions, ensuring continued alignment of the University operations and mission, continually reminding our University community of the centrality of mission, and requiring reaffirmation of that mission are essential elements of my leadership. With all of our strength, Houghton will fight to remain a mission-true, Christ-centered university. We know gradual mission drift to be a real and ever-present threat to our Gospel calling. We will not underestimate the strength of the dominant cultural current. I pray for continued Godly wisdom, discernment, humility and courage as I lead Houghton’s holy resistance to mission drift

About the Author
Dr. Wayne D. Lewis, Jr. became the sixth president of Houghton University in June 2021 after serving as the inaugural Dean of the School of Education at Belmont University and recently renewed his contract with unanimous support from the board of trustees. During his first years at Houghton, Dr. Lewis emphasized a strong commitment to students and employees. The University achieved several significant milestones under his leadership—including achieving a new name, Houghton University; streamlining the academic structure; and initiating the development of a future-focused strategic plan. Read more about President Lewis.

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