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Some things never change

By Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

The aim of our college is to give young people an education that is Christian, not merely in the sense that devotional exercises are appended to the ordinary work of the college, but in the larger and deeper sense that all the class work, all the students’ intellectual, emotional, and imaginative activities shall be permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity.”

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Those words were first written seventy years ago by a group of Christians who set out to establish a Christian college in Iowa. Twenty years later that effort finally took root with the establishment of Dordt College. Yet those words from almost three quarters of a century ago reveal both insight and foresight. In the midst of the bleakest aftermath of the Great Depression those folks articulated the broad vision of a comprehensive biblically-informed higher education that is still valid today. I think that’s astounding.

What is even more amazing to me is the realization that you wouldn’t have to change a word of that statement to describe the ongoing mission of Dordt College today. Some things never change. And in this case, I think that’s good.

The comprehensive mission articulated at Dordt’s founding still sets us apart from all but a relative handful of the more than 3000 institutions of higher education in North America today. Among those institutions, you would be hard pressed to find ten percent who would even want to be known as explicitly Christ-centered institutions. Bold statements about having the “spirit and teaching of Christianity” infuse our institution may be an old-fashioned way of saying it. In fact, it may make Dordt College (and others who share this same commitment) seem rather odd.

Yet at Dordt College we believe it is still relevant, and we take that mandate seriously. We ask the questions: How can we shape both coursework and dorm life by Christian principles? How should our plays, musical performances, art displays, and athletic contests be filled with the “spirit and teaching of Christianity”?

Obviously the way we talk about things has changed somewhat in the past seven decades. Our newest mission statement says it like this. As a college our aim is to become the kind of place where “discipleship becomes a practiced way of life both on and off the campus.”

And we mean that comprehensively. “Discipleship” doesn’t just mean a solid devotional life, great as that may be. True biblically shaped “discipleship” means conforming every aspect of our lives to the word of the Lord—and to do so both in our curriculum and in every co-curricular aspect of college life as well.

Sometimes people wonder whether a residential college is just a high priced summer camp. My answer is that, if it is, it’s probably not worth the investment of time and money that it requires. A Christian campus experience, as it comes to expression at Dordt College, can better be compared to a four-year intensive training camp designed to prepare you for a lifetime of serving God’s kingdom in every aspect of your lives. If so, then as the MasterCard ad says, that’s “priceless.”

Has Dordt College changed over the past half century? Obviously it has—and it should. The way in which we carry out our mission needs to change with the times and the challenges. Our vision for the way a biblically Reformed college takes shape will be as different today from the mid-twentieth century as our homes, cars, businesses, music, entertainment, communication media, and all the rest of our culture in the 21st century differ from the 1950s.

At the same time, some things never change—and they shouldn’t. At Dordt College, our purpose, our goal, and our mission remain the same: that all students who enter our college will confront an environment where not only each of their classes but also every aspect of their intellectual, emotional, and imaginative life on campus will be permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity. Building a college that expresses that commitment has taken a lot of time, prayer, and money. But it’s also been worth everything we have put into it if, in the end, the mission is maintained and our students leave here committed to discipleship that has become for them a practiced way of life, both while they were on our campus and in Christ’s broader kingdom for years to come once they leave.

Indeed, some things never change. And when it’s our pursuit of our biblical mission that hasn’t changed, then surely at Dordt College we have to be sure that God alone gets all the glory.