Rev. Stretch Dean, Senior Pastor Wollaston Church of the Nazarene, will speak during ENC’s chapel service on 11/28/2018 at 10:25am.
One brisk Philadelphia night, the young Stephen “Stretch” Dean clawed into his Friendly’s orange sherbet ice cream as soon as his meal was blessed; Dean found himself across the table from his lead pastor. He remembers his pastor telling him what ENC would be like: explaining what he should study, who he should to talk to, and which pastors he should get to know.
“So, I’m going to ENC?” Dean thought for a moment, not realizing it would be one of the better decisions in his young life.
Like many of the peers in his Philadelphia youth group, Eastern Nazarene College was the next step in their faith journey. The youth are raised through different ministries, first in Sunday school as a toddler, then as a teenager in youth group, and lastly completing their discipleship journey at one of the eight Nazarene colleges in America.
Once these eight universities were seen solely as a ministry helping young adults grow their faith; now, these institutions are vessels not only for faith to grow, but also for education to grow while pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
The dilemma the Church of the Nazarene faces is the increasing number of young Nazarenes who choose higher education at other schools, forgoing the chance to attend a Nazarene college, particularly Eastern Nazarene College.
The steady decline in Nazarene enrollment is puzzling to most people within the Nazarene church, especially to “Stretch” Dean, who was a Class of 1992 ENC graduate and lead pastor at the Wollaston Church of the Nazarene.
“I grew up craving a Christian education,” said Dean a Philadelphia native that grew up with aspirations of going to ENC from a young age. “I really appreciated the interconnectedness between the Nazarene church and my Nazarene education.”
In a time without social media and extravagant marketing campaigns, the main draw to ENC for Nazarene students was “the opportunity to grow spiritually, be with your friends from Festival of Life, and earn a bachelor’s degree at the same time,” said Dean.
Ashley Prax, a junior Intercultural Studies major at ENC and a third-generation Nazarene, shares the same sentiment and attended ENC nearly two decades after Stretch Dean. “Growing up, all my friends wanted to go to a Nazarene school because it was instilled in us by our youth pastors at a very young age the importance of Nazarene higher education.”
A native of Copperas Cove, Texas, Prax lived closer in proximity to Southern Nazarene University but had her eyes set on ENC knowing that whether it was an hour drive away or 2000 miles away being at a Nazarene school was best for her.
Meghan Johnston, also an ENC graduate in the class of 2002 and the current Worship Arts Coordinator for the Wollaston Church of the Nazarene, found that ENC was “mostly Nazarene during her time at ENC.” She also found that Festival of Life was a major contributor to the number of Nazarenes on campus.
“As a college student and while I was in high school, I found that FOL really exemplified the excellence of the Nazarene church,” Johnston recalled of her experiences at FOL.
Inherently, she assumed that all the people whom she met at FOL in high school would be students at Eastern Nazarene College.
From the time Johnston graduated in 2002 until 2004, FOL at ENC was discontinued because of the declining number of applications. After the short break, attendance at FOL dropped “from approximately 1800 students in 2001, to close to 550 in the past several years,” according to Crystal Erb, former Coordinator of Admission Events at Eastern Nazarene College.
Festival of Life has long been ENC’s best way to recruit Nazarene youth across the Northeast District of the Nazarene Church. The declining number of youth interested in FOL would ultimately lead to less Nazarene students having the first-hand experience of visiting ENC when deciding which college they want to attend.
Those who did experience the vibrancy and the excellence exhibited by FOL are drawn to ENC, but also experience their own independence. FOL is a retreat that distances one’s faith from one’s parents, pastors, and friends which shifts the responsibility to the youth. For some that responsibility encourages them to go to Nazarene schools, but for many that responsibility can push them in a different direction.
Because many Nazarene youths grow up attending worship on Sunday, participate in youth group, and go to FOL every year, there has been a growing sentiment that they aren’t restricted to a Nazarene higher education.
“Peers in my youth group would consider other schools because they feel that they can make a difference on other campuses,” Prax said in response to why all the members of her youth group didn’t go to a Nazarene school.
With the Nazarene church being service and mission orientated, it would make sense for students to feel empowered to go out to a secular school and “make disciples of all nations” as the Great Commission in Matthew 28 states.
Also playing a factor in the declining Nazarene enrollment rate is the declining high school graduation rate. Laura Krantz, a writer for the Boston Globe, reported last April that “the high school graduation rate is shrinking at a rate that will only continue to decrease since fewer parents have had children since the 2008 economic recession.”
With the children parents do have, there has been less encouragement to the next generation of Nazarenes to attend Nazarene colleges, according to ENC historian James Cameron. In his book, The Spirit Makes A Difference: A History of Eastern Nazarene College, Cameron cites “the lack of biological ties” (p.497) as a reason for declining Nazarene enrollment in the early 2000s.
With so many post-secondary options for parents to encourage for their children, continuing the ministry of the Nazarene church has become less important compared to continuing a child’s education.
Dr. Bill Malas, the Department Chair of the Religion Department at ENC and the father of two children who attended ENC, believes that the commercialization of a college education is contributing to the decline in Nazarene enrollment. “Colleges are like brand labels. Students are getting basically the same education content at each school. The difference is the name of the school.”
The cost of a college education has only risen since the 1990s according to Krantz of the Boston Globe, especially within small private schools. Regardless of price, faith plays a big factor in a student’s decision to attend a Nazarene college. Mckenna Kern, a fifth-generation Nazarene and 2018 ENC graduate, illustrates this well. Kern, a Hebron, Maryland native, turned down a full ride scholarship from University of Maryland Eastern Shore to attend ENC because “it felt like home” to her.
On a program level, ENC can offer much of the same programs other schools can, but the advantage of a Nazarene education has more to do with the engaging spiritual community that also happens to be a smaller more intimate community especially among Nazarenes.
As I am not Nazarene, I did not grow up with the pressure of attending a Nazarene school. However, I did understand that ENC could give me a chance to live out my faith openly at a Christian college.
ENC is a Christian school before it is a Nazarene school, so no matter which walk of faith people come from, they always have the freedom of worship whether it be a bible study in a residential hall or a group prayer before finals.
Rev. Lynne Bollinger, also an ENC graduate (class of 1992) and the current Chaplain of the College, expressed the positivity drawn from the diversity despite the decline of Nazarene enrollment.
“In the 80’s and 90’s when I was a student, ENC was more homogeneous in terms of students’ faith backgrounds; we have become much more heterogeneous, much more diverse, which allows a richer collective understanding of God.”
Evidenced by the graph above, the percentage of combined Catholic, Baptist, and Non-Denominational students rivals those of the Nazarenes in recent years. Meanwhile, the percentage of those who identify as “other” has grown in number of Nazarenes beginning in 2011.
Bollinger describes ENC as “a community of faith, accepting people from various faith backgrounds and open to different styles of worship.”
Whether people identify within the “other” faith traditions covered in the Cultural Perspective ENC course World Religions or follow the more popular American faith traditions, they all inhabit ENC seeking an understanding of the ultimate reality in life. I hope all will join us for chapel with Stretch Dean.