Oct 10, 2014

Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe: Concordia or Secular University? (Q and LA)

Welcome to our sixth session of Q and LA (questions and Lutheran answers). As you may recall,

"This is just a discussion that we wish we were having over tea and coffee in someone’s living room. There would probably be kids yelling in the background. There would probably be cookies, and spilled tea."

Feel free to join our virtual tea party by chiming in with your own advice, input, or anecdotes (we love anecdotes) in the comments.

If you want to send us questions for a later addition of Q and LA, you can add them below in the comments or e-mail them to sister-daughter-mother-wife (at) googlegroups.com.

Today's Question

What is your advice to young people who are deciding whether to go to a secular university or to a Concordia for their college degree? Which did you choose, and why (and are you glad you made that choice)? How do you think your choice affected/is affecting your spiritual development? Thanks!

Kristen Weber

Since graduating from CUW with a Masters degree in occupational therapy, Kristen has enjoyed the blessings of single life and the chance to serve her neighbors. She is preparing to move overseas for mission work. 

I went to Concordia University Wisconsin for a BA and MA and lived on campus the entire time. My experience was a good one.  I also had an amazing church family off campus that was a great source of support. Afterwards, though, my transition out of the Lutheran bubble was challenging.  I was used to arguing about detailed theology (i.e., predestination vs. double predestination and the impact of Augustinian thought on Luther). I was suddenly working and befriending people who had no framework to understand this level of dialogue. Our conversations were equally challenging, but from a much different angle.  I had to practice apologetics and defend ideas that I had little experience defending. I was challenged with questions like “Does God exist?” and “How do you know you have the right God?” But, again, I had a strong church family after college and a pastor who helped me see from a Christian perspective.

College, wherever you go, is going to be challenging for your faith, but the conversation will be different in each setting.  I’ve heard it argued that at least in a secular university where you are on your guard, you can more easily see truth, and aren’t going to fall for any sneaking heretical arguments that might assail you at a Concordia.  If you are a curious person and willing to engage in conversation, you will be challenged in either setting.  So, my recommendation is to make your decision based more on whether there is a strong liturgical LCMS church or campus ministry nearby than whether the college is secular.  Even at a Concordia, you will need a church family to pull you away from the bizarre microcosm of college life.  At a good church, you will be fed forgiveness and be able to have your pastor answer your questions and organize your brain when you need it.

Cheryl Magness

Cheryl is a Lutheran cantor's wife and a homeschooling mother. So far, she has sent two kids to college.

As the mother of two college students, I can say with certainty that there is no simple formula for answering this question! There are so many factors that come into play when choosing a college, and it can be quite daunting to try to address all of them. The right answer will vary from person to person and will depend on your individual situation.

First, as important as it is to consider the spiritual implications of your college choice, I recommend that you start your college search by considering what you are looking for academically as well as economically. Attending college requires a significant investment of time and money. You want to make sure you are investing both of those resources as wisely as possible. But once you have compiled a list of possibilities based on those considerations, you can begin to look at what options are available to you for the nourishment of your faith should you choose one school or another. Certainly one option is to attend a synodical school, and as a Lutheran family we looked into it. Ultimately both my children decided on state schools because they were the best choices due to those academic and economic reasons previously mentioned, but before the final decision was made we researched churches in the area and made sure there was a congregation nearby that provided ministry to college students and that also offered traditional Lutheran worship. Neither of my children has a car at this time so it was important that some type of transportation was offered between campus and church. We were thankful in the case of both my children to find a church near campus that provided what we were looking for.

I think that as you investigate your options and plan for the future one thing to keep in mind is that no situation is perfect. I bet you have already learned that human institutions are full of sinners, and whether you go to a Concordia or a secular school you are going to see plenty of them. No matter where you go, your faith will be tested in a myriad of ways. You will be tempted, as we all are at times. to skip church and get a little more sleep. You will be tempted to make everything else more important than your spiritual well-being. But know that wherever you go, you are a child of God. He made you His in Holy Baptism, and He will not disown you. If you were confirmed in a Lutheran church and reared in a Lutheran home, you have a strong foundation of teaching that will go with you. It is important, wherever you attend college, to continue to regularly avail yourself of the gifts of Word and Sacrament, and you want to make sure those things are accessible. Go to church, receive God's good gifts, pray unceasingly, and trust His promises, and during your college years you will grow not only in worldly knowledge but in your love and fear of the Lord. May He bless and go with you!

Erin Mueller

Erin graduated in 2011. She is a CPA in Minneapolis and attends University Lutheran Chapel. She enjoys cooking for her friends and fiancé, as well as planning her next travel adventure.

Great question!

I chose to go to a public state school because they had a great business school and all of my community college credits transferred there.  This allowed me to have a good education, as well as save money on student loans.  These two things were very important to me from a secular standpoint.  However, I would have not attended that college if I was not certain of having a good church home.  I knew there was a solid faithful church within walking distance (no car at the time) where I would be properly, spiritually fed every Sunday. This worked out very well and reminded me what is important as I attended college.  I graduated two and half years ago and am still happy with that choice.  I also continue to attend that church and am engaged to a man I met there.

College is an amazing time of independence and forming experiences different form your immediate family. You will be tempted, whether you go to a secular or Concordia university, just as you will be tempted once you leave college. Sometimes, in the midst of homework, friends, projects, and lack of sleep, it is difficult to make church a priority.   The important thing is to stay grounded in your faith, regardless of the university you attend.

Kaitlyn Nowak

Kaitlyn graduated in May from Carnegie Mellon University (a secular university), where she was president of the Lutheran Student Fellowship chapter for two years.

First, to anyone faced with this decision – don’t worry! You might feel a ton of pressure to make the “right” choice of college, because it is a decision with far-reaching consequences. But I basically stumbled into my situation, and it ended up working out better than I ever could’ve planned. God works wonders even when you don’t know what you’re doing – or maybe especially then!

I can’t really speak to the benefits or limitations of the Concordia schools, since I didn’t go to one (and my fiancĂ©, who did go to a Concordia, told me, “the CU system is like, a PhD dissertation to explain”!). Here I’ll be focusing on what I learned from my experience at a secular university.  

I chose to go to a secular university primarily because the Concordia system didn’t offer engineering when I was applying to schools. I figured that I would attend church weekly, but not have any particular support as a college student. Little did I know that I would end up at Lutheran Student Fellowship of Pittsburgh, which provided both community and the opportunity to grow my faith immensely through Bible studies filled with uncompromisingly Lutheran doctrine. So lesson 1: if you’re looking at secular schools, look into which ones have LCMSU chapters! The pastors there specialize in providing support and instruction for college students. And, following from that, lesson 2: don’t assume that if you don’t go to a Concordia, you won’t have the opportunity to grow significantly in your faith. There are LCMSU chapters all across the country that provide this support and instruction.

To me, though, the clearest benefit of attending a secular university is the challenging of your faith.  This might seem scary, but Christians really do have answers to non-Christians’ objections, and getting those answers can make your faith stronger. In my time on my secular campus I listened to and dialogued with outspoken opponents of Christianity, and in doing so was forced to really examine my beliefs. This helped kindle my passion for apologetics (the defense of the Christian faith). I could’ve learned about apologetics at a Concordia, but the in-my-face challenge to my faith made the need for apologetics real to me, and made my faith so much deeper.  To me, that’s invaluable. So lesson 3: if you’re interested in having your faith strengthened through engagement with opposing worldviews, secular universities are ideal.

Anna Mussmann

Anna graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin with a degree in "Secondary Education, History" and a minor in Latin. She enjoyed teaching in Lutheran schools for several years.

I attended a California state junior college for a year, and became frustrated by the overwhelming dominance of liberalism. The problem was not that I was exposed to ideas I disagreed with, but that there were no visible counter-voices at all. Because my interests lay within the liberal arts, this was especially frustrating-- I felt that a great deal of the liberal approach actually prevented me from learning worthwhile things (teaching literature, philosophy, or history from a postmodernism position tends to make all three subjects ultimately meaningless). So, despite some parental trepidation at the geographical distance involved, I transferred to a Concordia. It was not a perfect place. The academic level of students and classes was mixed, and I wished that more of my fellow-students placed more of a priority on learning and knowledge for its own sake instead of merely doing enough to get good grades.

However, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to attend daily chapel with fellow students, professors, and staff. It was also a wonderful experience to be able to learn from my favorite history and theology professors. Their lively intelligence, sound doctrine, and academic rigor are a rare combination and not to be found in many places. Because they were freed from the intense research and publishing demands of a big state school, they were able to devote themselves to actually teaching. I have also noticed that the fashion in the history and English departments of most state schools is extreme specialization and pressure to produce original theories instead of mastering breadth and depth of knowledge. In my opinion, this usually leads to an inferior way of studying history. At CUW, my professors were able to teach in a more old-fashioned, less silly style.

My advice to high school students who are choosing a college is to seek out professors they wish to learn from (remembering that professors at big schools often leave classes to their grad students). Students who will be studying nursing or engineering are probably better off at a school with a strong reputation in those fields. Students who want entrance into difficult fields like journalism may want to choose mainstream schools that will give them good connections in their field. However, students who want to study the liberal arts from a rigorous, conservative position should consider a Concordia with strengths in that area or another private school.

In addition, I would urge all students to think carefully about where they will go to church throughout their time in college. A good church is important to everyone, but especially to a college student whose faith is maturing into an adult faith, and even more especially to a student at a secular school whose faith is probably under attack at least some of the time in class.

Allison Kieselowsky

Allison is a teacher, a mother, and the wife of a Lutheran pastor.

The most important thing I can recommend about education:  choose a school near a good Lutheran church and build relationships with the congregation and the pastor.  Christ's gifts in His Word and the Sacraments sustain your faith, not professors, classmates, and courses.  You can starve your soul at Concordia schools just as easily as at state schools, private schools, and trade schools.  Likewise, you may be able to thrive, with the support and nourishment of a strong church and pastor, at any given school in the world.  

There are other factors that might help categorize schools as good, better, and best.  I attended a private, non-denominational Christian school for my undergraduate studies, a Catholic school for part of my Masters and finished at a secular school.  The Catholic school had the most progressive, most difficult culture for me to handle by far in the fields of literature and education.  I was a lone island, so I did not complete my studies there.  I loved, on the other hand, my classmates and professors at the secular school and thoroughly enjoyed my studies. 

a. Each school has its own social culture.  When you visit a school, ask different people about what students do on weekends or days off.  Perhaps visit when the school is not having a preview weekend to get a better feel for what "real life" feels like during the semester.  

The private Christian school I attended had curfews, room inspections, a dress code, and tight attendance rules.  I enjoyed it at the time because I felt safe.  I would probably cringe under most of it now, but it was perfect for me at the time.  And I received an excellent education.   

b. You would be more likely to meet Christians at a Christian school than at a state school, but that does not necessarily mean you would receive a better education nor does it mean that you would never meet other believers elsewhere.  But this might be a significant factor in ranking one school as more desirable than another. 

c. Different schools will fall along a spectrum of how conservative or progressive the professors are.  By that, I mean that you might want to study education or social work but not all schools teach classes in those disciplines from the same perspective.  Sit in on classes specifically in a field that interests you and listen carefully to how the professor presents the information.  I thought I'd get traditional training at a Catholic school, and was disappointed by how post-modern (to an absurd degree) the professors were at that particular school.  Others have had wonderful experiences at Catholic schools, so it depends on the school and the degree you pursue.  

d. Don't feel compelled to start at a 4-year school if you have no earthly clue what you want to do.  Some people need to think outside the box and get some life experience through work, volunteer opportunities, and travel before they continue their education.


  1. As a convert to Lutheranism, I personally don't understand the "brand loyalty" (unless your son is going to seminary, obviously). Some friends at church were seriously considering driving an hour every day to my hometown's Lutheran high school. Said Lutheran school long ago became a joint LCMS/ECLA effort., with lady pastors teaching and everything. All the private "Christian" schools in town have warmed over, lowest-common-denominator religion classes or chapels, mostly because the schools have falling enrollment, and they don't want to turn away those who are not religious, but interested in good/safe schools

    I think part of the draw is generations of parents sending their kids there, and it's a tradition (especially at the college level), but there is not a guarantee of faithful teaching/influence.

    Unless one is independently wealthy, I suggest community college, scholarships for tuition at state schools for Junior and Senior years (and opt out of dorm life), then apply for TA positions or other department work to get full ride and stipend at the MA/Phd levels (if your child goes that far). The latter could be a Concordia school, or not.

    Love these discussions--thanks to all the ladies who contributed.

  2. I attended Lutheran schools all my life, from preschool at Bethlehem Lutheran in Saginaw, Michigan, to grade school at Shepherd of the Hills in San Antonio, Texas, followed by Lutheran High School in San Antonio. When it came time for college, I chose to attend Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. Much of my family had attended there, but I also believed firmly in the value of a Christian - Lutheran education. Since I wanted to continue in that tradition and be a Lutheran grade school teacher, it only made sense for me to attend college there. My professors, classes, friendships and even meeting my spouse, made this the best decision I could have made. I will continue to highly recommend our Concordia's - especially to those intending to serve in church work!

  3. As a campus pastor, I really appreciate the discussion here - especially the focus on choosing a school, at least in part, based on its proximity to a faithful Lutheran congregation or on-campus chapel. I also would like to note that most college students will change majors at least 3 times before they graduate! (I myself went from Communications [wanted to be a sportscaster originally!] to Political Science to Seminary.) My point is that - as odd it as it may sound - choosing a school at age 17 based solely or even mainly on what you think you want to study or your future occupation doesn't really make much sense. Choose a school based on nearby church, distance, cost, campus environment, friendships, etc. And, remember, no decision is unalterable - you can always transfer, too. Finally, campus life is to a great extent what YOU make of it - YOUR study & spiritual habits (e.g., no one is going to get you out of bed for church), YOUR chosen friends and social life, etc. It's a GREAT time of life!

  4. My dad is an LCMS pastor, and I was homeschooled K-12. College was a really serious question, and one I spent a lot of time considering and praying about. Ultimately, I chose to attend Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, MN. Partly that was because when I visited the campus when I was 15, it felt very inviting, homey, and small. I'm quiet, and I didn't want to get lost in the shuffle of thousands of students. Partly I chose Bethany because, while I did want to get a college degree, learn all kinds of new things, expand my horizons, etc... what I really wanted out of life was to be a wife and mom. I knew that it was going to be a lot easier to find someone with similar faith and values if I went to a college that appealed to other conservative Lutherans.

    The Lord blessed my four years there with lots of learning and growing, many lovely friendships that continue even now, twelve years after I graduated. And he blessed me with a husband -- we met in German class and have been married since a month after I graduated.

    Basically, figure out your priorities and what school can meet those best. My #1 priority (unbeknownst to my parents, actually) was to find a conservative Lutheran husband. My #2 priority was to earn a degree I could use to support myself if I didn't find a husband in college. Bethany met both of those.

    (BLC is run by the ELS, not the LCMS. I liked it better than the Concordias, mostly because of its size and atmosphere.)


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