I recently made my first trip to Clearwater Christian College. Dr. Dave Burggraff asked me to come and do a three-day presentation on the book that I just wrote about having daily personal devotions. I flew into Tampa on a rainy Tuesday night just ahead of Ernesto. Dick and Holly Stratton picked me up at the airport after I filled out a lost bag claim slip for my blog recorder. I must admit I was a tad nervous. They can lose my nicest suits, and I’ll be out $50; but that blog recorder is worth more than my entire wardrobe!
Tampa is the lightning capital of the world, and I must admit that it freaked me out. I have never seen such bright lightning. It seemed so close. I would’ve been more nervous, but the Strattons seemed to take it all in stride, so I tried not to appear scared. However, more people die every year from lightning there than anywhere else. On my way to the cafeteria one morning, the thunder was so loud, I screamed like a girl. Not the best thing to do as a guest speaker.
After spending three days on the campus, I just started to get a feel for the place. When I visit a new place, I like to know what makes it tick. What philosophy undergirds its operation? Do they follow their stated philosophy? Have they suffered as a result of their beliefs? What does their philosophy produce? After all, if kids can hold hands on campus, that’s a sure sign they’re all on the slippery slope to premarital sex, right? All of these questions were rolling around in my brain as I checked into the guest apartment.
What is Clearwater Christian College? Here’s the definition straight from their own documents.
Clearwater Christian College exists to provide an excellent liberal arts education centered on God’s Word, with a focus on challenging students to love God wholly, to know Him intimately, and to serve Him fervently; educating men and women to minister faithfully and humbly with evangelistic zeal as they impact eternity for Jesus Christ in every avenue of life.
Clearwater Christian College is a fundamental, Christian, liberal arts, co-educational college which is denominationally unaffiliated and dedicated to sound academic instruction while propagating the historic Christian faith.
What makes it distinct? CCC is distinct as it’s the only fundamental, regionally accredited, Christian liberal arts college in what we call “separatist Fundamentalism.” Accreditation, to this generation, is no longer an issue of association, but one of stewardship. If you are pursuing advanced degrees, you cannot afford to risk spending four years of college tuition on a degree that cannot get you to the next level. While many have different opinions about accreditation, I believe the whole process has only been good for fundamental institutions. In the past, much was done in the name of faith, but what the “troops on the ground” saw were sloppy academic programs, poor processes, lack of clearly stated goals and purposes, etc. Accreditation improves the health of the institution.
Academically, Clearwater seems to be doing well. It has been recognized as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the south for the past six years by U.S. News and World Report.
However, that was not my focus. I was looking for the heart of the school. Here is what I found to be refreshing.
They emphasize discipleship instead of decisions.
CCC didn’t start off the college year with a “confess all your sins from the summer” meeting, but rather a meeting about a personal, daily walk with God. At dinner with the Strattons, my heart sank once I realized I was the “opening act.” I told them that I wasn’t prepared for large altar calls and “Have Thine Own Way.” They calmed me down and assured me that this was intentional. I was doing a Christian Life Seminar, not “Opening Revival.” My stress level immediately dissipated, and I began to enjoy my seafood again.
Personally, I have become less and less encouraged by scheduled “revival” meetings, decisionism, “hard preaching,” and the emotionalism that tags along. I think Christian camps could really adjust here as well. I’d rather take the teens in my church to a week of good exposition through Ephesians than double-barrel messages on music, morals, and movies. We have kids who don’t know the Word, don’t value the Word, and see Christianity through eyes of prohibitions, instead of truth, love, and grace.
Clearwater’s discipleship emphasis also shows through in their mentoring program. Each freshman is assigned to an upperclassman mentor who, in turn, receives training from the staff on how to disciple. I gave one “invitation” the whole week, and that was a group invitation in which mentors got with their disciples and talked about ways they were going to apply the things they had learned.
Their discipline system is pastoral instead of rigid.
A pastoral heart on a Christian college campus is vital. Before I left the college, I asked for a copy of the rulebook. Thirty-six pages of rules are divided into sections that are each headed by a explanation of philosophy.
The dress philosophy is almost as long as the portion of the rules on dress. The heart of a shepherd has permeated what is usually a sterile environment. I also found it refreshing that the rulebook differentiates between biblical mandates and college policies. A very sensible approach to a sensitive topic.
I had lengthy meetings with several students while I was on campus. One particular student burdened me, and I didn’t want to leave without making sure that he would be provided some shepherding. Normally, I would never do such a thing because I couldn’t trust the leadership to not expel the student. However, I felt at complete ease to walk into Bob Hodges’ office, knowing that the student would be shepherded instead of shipped. As a pastor and a father, I can’t tell you how that made me feel.
In my opinion, nothing has done more to damage how local church conflict is handled than the environment on most Christian college campuses where Matthew 18 “does not apply” and “tattling” on your fellow classmate is valued. This is wrong. It hurts the body of Christ. It destroys a discipleship environment. It trains the students in unbiblical methods. (The graduates seldom make the transition to a biblical approach). It betrays the lack of belief the administration really has in the Word of God. We must train the young to follow the text even in less-than-ideal environments.
Their pulpit is student-focused instead of constituent-focused.
Talk to guys in seminary at various institutions. They regularly vent at the double standard between what is taught in homiletics and what is displayed in the chapel pulpit. And everyone gets the point. Part of having an institution is the need to cultivate a constituency. Yet, sometimes the “constituents” would be better off speaking in a prayer group rather than in front of the student body. I asked Dr. Stratton if he would keep the pulpit consistent with the philosophy, and he said, “We are absolutely committed to this.” Amen.
They value systemic change instead of relying on past processes.
“Change” isn’t valued in many circles of Fundamentalism. I remember one fundamentalist leader who pulled me into his office and chastened me for the survey I did on young fundamentalists. In his view, surveys are “instruments of change.” Sad to say, that fearful attitude perpetuates his organization. All organizations, including churches, need to be constantly changing. Fundamentalism needs to change.
Other words for change are “improve,” “reorganize,” “deconstruct,” “create,” etc. An institution that values good, systemic change will begin a trajectory path of excellence that will attract people. Dr. Stratton has created such an environment. After four years of declining enrollment, Clearwater started this year with an increase. Any leader worth his salt knows that you don’t turn large ships overnight. Dr. Stratton has assembled a leadership team that is on the same page, has made difficult leadership decisions, and has kept his finger on the pulse of the students. This recent uptick in enrollment is simply a sign of many good things to come.
During my last night there, we had a roundtable with some of the core leaders at the school. We talked for about three hours, and they asked me what I thought. At the conclusion of the meeting, one staff member said, “I don’t know how else to put it, but I’m just having so much fun here!” When you have that spirit on a staff, that’s half the battle.
Their leaders are visionary and vibrant instead of burned out and plateaued.
You cannot talk about Clearwater without bringing Dick and Holly Stratton into the discussion. They came to the college four years ago, and they have transformed the spiritual character of the school. Dr. Stratton has exhibited strong leadership, and it shows. He has surrounded himself with a quality team, has strengthened the school, and has a developing vision for the future. Good leaders are hard to find and hard to keep. Clearwater would do well to keep the man happy.
But the man wouldn’t be the man without his better half. Holly is a key at Clearwater. I’m always encouraged when a wife embraces her husband’s mission. Here at SI, she has displayed more guts than any writer we publish. She has seen Fundamentalism at its best and at its worst, and she is taking no prisoners. She’s a woman on a mission to help fundamentalists live a grace-filled, God-honoring, “real” life.
Dave Burggraff, who recently moved from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, has electrified the campus. He oversees spiritual formation. Having attended a Bible college instead of a liberal arts college, I was impressed with how Dave has already put his pastoral fingerprints on the atmosphere of the school.
Bob Hodges has also been a great addition to the leadership team. Bob is a former pastor and school administrator. After having been at Clearwater one year, he has begun to inject a pastor’s heart into the office of student affairs. Last week, he was at our church and gave an announcement about Clearwater. He said, “We have a discipline system that is based in grace.” He knows what to say to our parents!
A servant-leadership environment is beginning to ignite. One girl in the bookstore told me what had won her heart. She had just transferred from a university, and during her first week at Clearwater, a faculty member knocked on her door and asked if she could take the trash out of her room for her. She recounted how she just stood in the doorway and cried.
I titled my article “Real Life” because that’s how I felt after visiting. At Clearwater, the atmosphere doesn’t come across as manufactured. And from what I gathered, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Some who read this will accuse me of promoting Clearwater, and I am. However, nobody asked me to say or write anything. I simply did it because I think more kids need to go there. Clearwater isn’t perfect. That’s the neat part. I felt I was among friends. Their star is rising, and it’s great to watch.