Three years ago, Dr. H. Lee Mason pronounced that Cincinnati Christian University faced an existential challenge so significant that it “dwarfed all others” which had ever come before. This storied institution, once referred to as “The West Point of Christian Service,” was, apparently, no longer content to fulfill the parochial task of “training a force for Bible ministry.” Instead, CCU’s board of trustees began ushering the school down a familiar path “into the vast wasteland of becoming just another liberal arts school,” wrote Mason – a man with enough foresight and courage of conviction to spur an entire conference of Bible colleges. Mason was right. Spent by the failure of its glamorous football gambit and having no idea what to do next, CCU’s administration is intellectually bankrupt.

It’s three years later, and another bankruptcy is about to be declared. While blunders are blamed and fingers pointed, the current imbroglio is too large to be explained as simply a handful of remediable noncompliances with the Higher Learning Commission. The school’s malaise goes far deeper than that. Cincinnati Christian University has lost its way.

And no other figure has done more to painstakingly document the unraveling of this major institution than the Christian Restoration Association’s Dr. Lee Mason. In fact, without the CRA, one could fairly say that the Restoration Movement might be, itself, facing extinction.

For all its efforts, however, the Restoration Herald is as noteworthy as a failure as it is as a success. In CCU’s specific instance, Mason’s call for increased alumni involvement in the school’s direction, for austerity measures, for appointing a new president free from any unseemly conflicts of interest, and for a return to original bylaws, went entirely unheeded; today CCU is more liberal and less secure than ever. Nonetheless it would be a mistake to view the RH as a mere historical artifact, for Mason’s tocsin rings as loudly today as it ever has.

Part of the difficulty in understanding Dr. Mason and the CRA involves the confrontational nature of their work, which at times causes these brave men to be unfairly maligned as “reactionary” and treated as unwelcome guests. But this is far more reflective of our white, American, middle-class cultural Christianity than it is a commentary on the custodians of the CRA. In some ways, this difficulty should come as no surprise considering the number of high profile “scholars” within this Movement who continue to mischaracterize unity as a virtue. It isn’t. Neither, for that matter, is identifying (by name) those who promote false teaching a sin. Don’t get me wrong, unity is certainly desirable but unity without the pruning effects of confrontation – even public confrontation – is an illusion. (This is no better illustrated than in the book of Galatians where the Apostle Paul, publicly and by name, called out the Apostle Peter for not being straightforward about the truth of the gospel.)

Complicating matters further, a generation of young believers who associate traditional Christianity with Establishment stuffiness. Ironically, the reality is that many (if not most) establishment leaders are now contemptuous of both scriptural enthusiasm and traditional orthodoxy. Even more ironic, had CCU’s scions only followed Mason’s traditional prescriptions, they might not be seeing their institution crumble around them.

So now comes the hard part: where to go from here? If I were giving my alma mater my own two cents – and whaddya know? I am! – I’d tell the trustees of CCU not to look for inspiration from say . . . the USC admissions scandal – lawyering-up to the gills, which they seem to be doing.

I’d look to Dominoes Pizza.

You may remember the 2010 commercials touting the iconic pizza-delivery chain’s reinvention. If not, Domino’s new campaign was summed up easily enough: “We blew it.”

Focus groups and surveys revealed something pretty much everyone outside of Domino’s had known for years: Its pizza stinks.

And in a surprisingly rare moment of corporate humility and transparency, the executives, associates, and chefs at the company confronted their harshest reviews head-on. They talked about how much it hurt to hear that their product “tasted like cardboard” and was worse than microwave pizza. But they admitted the truth and committed themselves to starting over with more flavor, better crusts and cheese that didn’t taste like window sealant.

The appeal of the campaign was obvious: honesty. The company had lost its way and wanted a second chance.

Obviously, the analogy to CCU isn’t a perfect one. For example, last I checked, CCU can’t match a three topping, mix-and-match deal delivered to your door in thirty-minutes or less.

But CCU’s troubles have had a lot to do with the fact that congregations didn’t stop liking what CCU was supposed to deliver. They stopped liking what CCU actually delivered.

As a preacher who cares more about doctrine than celebrated athletic programs, I hated seeing CCU abandon sound doctrine in order to be more popular. Imagine Domino’s listening to critics and then deciding to get into the Chinese food business. It just doesn’t make sense. But perhaps that’s why my last worship leader, a graduate from HIU, had never heard that baptism was a necessary part of conversion. Seemingly, a direct result of an institution chasing prominence and prestige by surrendering to the ascendant philosophy of  tribal doctrines.  In effect, they promise that you can have your pizza and Kung Pao chicken all in the same dish. That’s not a good meal; that’s a hot mess.

So what would a CCU turnaround look like? I’d go back to Mason’s original recipe and stop worrying about size, status, and glamour.

But first, CCU needs to admit it messed up. After all, more than any other group on earth, Christians are all about second chances. We love contrition and redemption. We love it in our leaders and in our institutions, and on more than one occasion it has given those who needed it most a new lease on life.

Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.

28 replies on “CCU Has Lost Its Way”

  1. “Congregations didn’t stop liking what CCU was supposed to deliver. They stopped liking what CCU actually delivered.” That’s the pull-quote of this essay, and I doubt anyone anywhere could have said it better!

  2. Very good article. One other thought current leadership of congregations devalue the theological education and
    frequently hire “managers” from the secular world. I believe that trend has also contibuted to the downturn in our christian colleges.

  3. I worked for a private school that lost accreditation in 2012. We were not church related, nor were we as in bad of shape as CCU. But we had the same fate “show cause.” We fixed a great deal of the problems and thought we had done well with the site visit; however, we lost accreditation. We appealed and got a stay of execution for six months, but the inevitable happened.

    Had we lawyered up, we might still be open today. Since then, every institution at this stage of the accreditation game who sought legal council were allowed to remain open; however, some like Virginia Intermont closed in a couple of years as the problems were too great to fix the school.

    Saying “we messed up,” although honest and repentant, probably is only going to salve consciences and save face. You were right in suggesting that their loss of mission was a chief concern. The HLC thought so too, as that is one of the areas where they were out of compliance. If you haven’t see the HLC’s report, I am providing a link.

    What can we do, we can pray for CCU – so they weather the storm. If the worst happens, pray that the affected people land safely. Trust me, when this happens, you flood the local market with people looking for jobs. Some, with whom I worked, have never found work. God took care of me, but it was rough.

    1. “Higher Ed Professional,” thanks for the thoughtful and well written post. I agree with much of what you say, however, I would still point out that a mia culpa would do a lot for the school’s alumni. And it seems to me, whatever the strategy is going forward, anything that doesn’t include the alumni is sure to fail. They need our support. Additionally, prayer without contrition seldom works. And more important than alumni support is support from above.

  4. As a graduate of CCU (when it was CBS) I’ve read with concern the issues of the institution. When I first heard of the football program I knew where this was headed. What really is bothersome is the connection of the current president and the banks. My first thought was. “Wouldn’t the banks like to close on this property due to the views the location and the current real estate market?”

  5. RGriffith I was very surprised about that myself. That and the fact that the President of the school didn’t have a RM background. It is all very strange. Surreal even.

  6. Thanks for the article. As a graduate of CCU, I remember the ‘good ol days’ with great fondness. I can’t help but wonder what the Fosters, or my old minister, Wayne B. Smith, would be saying. My heart is broken, and, to be honest, I’m kind of ashamed to say who my alma mater is. Yet, I am so grateful for the education I received there.

    1. Sam Burton, this certainly is a seminal moment. We should all take a moment of reflection. Thank you.

  7. Thank you all for your continual prayer for the university. The strength of the alumni is a blessing to the campus.

  8. Chris thank you for your thoughtful insights. I have been saddened and churning over the things that I continue to hear and read about the plight the school finds itself in. When I was at the Seminary there was always a sense that a mantle – and a responsibility – of the Faith was being passed on to me. Did I enjoy every professor? Was every class a moment of spiritual challenge or bliss? Hopefully these rhetorical questions don’t need an answer. What I knew was I was being taught by faithful men and women who were committed to sound doctrine and who wanted me to share the same commitment. I have been teaching God’s Word in one way, shape or form, professionally and as a volunteer, since 1978. The chances of me having this foundation are slim were it not for the faithful leadership of the “hill.” I pray that a remnant will find their way back.

  9. I went to CBS 1960-63. It was primarily a Bible College and a good one. Why Bible Colleges are trying to be all things to all people, I do not know. I also see many of our churches trying to be part of the world instead of winning the world to Christ. Many seem to have more of a country club atmosphere. I will continue to pray that we please God.

    1. Karen thank you for taking the time to read the post. I join you in your prayers and pray specifically that this and other issues we face as a Movement will embolden us to retake some of the ground we have lost.

  10. What CCU needs is for a certain recently retired Southeast Christian Church Senior Minister to step in and get the school back to its original mission. I attended CBC from 1986 to 2005. In 1986 we were told that Cincinnati Bible college was not even going to open its doors for the school year. It rebounded then and it can now with the right leadership.

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I was there from 1985-89. So we must have seen each other at some point. Unless you are referring to Bob, I can’t share your endorsement. But I agree with your line of thinking of complete administration change. That seems to boe the convention wisdom on social media.

  11. What was CCU’s original reason for beginning? A reactionary against the Disciples of Christ movement? Also, Lee Mason has done more to harm the RM than to help it. No wonder why schools like Ozark and Johnson aren’t sponsors of the herald. It’s a magazine that projects one specific method of beliefs, while claiming that in the essentials we find unity and everything else, we give grace. Where is the grace to CCU? Where is the grace for the many wonderful faculty, staff, and students who have graduated or been apart of making ministry happen for decades? For Lee Mason and other prominent RM folks, they hold onto a restrictive grace in a movement that believes in ambiguity. It’s time to be part of a movement rather than speaking against one another. When’s the last time you went on campus? Drove past the dorms? Spent time at a chapel service? The reality is that if we were alumni who were active, supportive, and willing to serve maybe these situations wouldn’t have happened. However go be a part of the change on campus rather than be a critic.

  12. I’m always late to the dance. My father was 50 when I was born; he was born in 1904. I inherited much of the old generational values, especially in religious matters. Raised conservative Episcopalian (what else was there in rural Maryland in the 1960s?) but found my way to the DOC in Oklahoma in 1979 (weekly communion, right?). I was eyewitness to the “stealing” of the movement at the local level that was highlighted in the 1950s. Even went to Phillips Univ. Enid, OK, to get some Bible training and ended up a minister in rural churches. (I did appreciate the course on the history of the movement at Phillips that allowed the original appeal to be taught redaction-free). However, it was and still is a fight to maintain scriptural and doctrinal orthodoxy, even today when I’m in the marketplace of ideas. I was reading Lewis Foster’s piece on “the earliest collection of Paul’s letters” and found it both intellectually demanding and spiritually comforting that the Holy Spirit still moves through educated men! I was scorned for bringing a Bible to a minister’s convention in the 1990s. I moved from DOC to CCCOC and served congregations in the Midwest. I was a chaplain in the US Army Reserve and served in Desert Storm thirty years ago. (Cooperation without compromise). Slowly I’ve moved from topical to expository preaching. Main point: I saw at Phillips and DOC what could be happening around the SC movement; 1. letting anybody be a student 2. Allowing any doctrinal position except the position that in Christ all other doctrinal positions are heresy. 3. No vision for saving the lost through direct evangelical contact. We are afraid of being laughed-at, ridiculed, out-debated, and embarrassed. 4. The world has more of a hold on us than we will admit. 5. We don’t preach the WOG: we listen to self-help sermons and topical sermons that use humor and cultural pegs for 10 minutes before getting to the meat. 6. We have no follow-up discipleship for new people. 7. We have lost pastoral contact in homes through the elders/minister. 8. We are afraid to be seen in the public places in a “chaplain” role. 9. We let the world intimidate us that religious language is private and has no place in public. 10. I couldn’t think of a #10 but I’m sure you have! Anyway, I knew CCU was special in the movement and now I know more. I enjoy reading Jack Cottrell. I’ll keep following your work. I’m slow to the dance, but I enjoy dancing before the LORD. 2 Sam. 6:14. Semper Fidelis.

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