How Liberty University is Raising Up the Next Generation of Believers and Leaders

The back steps of the Montview Student Union were transformed into the Liberty University Convocation stage as students, faculty, and staff gathered for the final Convocation of the year on Friday. It was the first time in decades that the event had been held outdoors.

There’s a moment when every campus wakes up. At Liberty University, that moment comes just minutes before 5 a.m. Artificial light from the LaHaye recreation center’s second-floor window pierces the darkness over an hour before the sun does. By 8 a.m., the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus buzzes with activity. Thousands of students, staff and faculty hurry not only to class and the library, but also to any number of places that are part of campus life—Chick-fil-A, Barnes & Noble, or Starbucks; the gym, ski hill or shooting range; or one of four stadiums. Liberty is a miniature metropolis doing its best to shake the “miniature.”

Every hundred yards along the main road, speakers blare Christian music. This afternoon, they play the Kutless hit “What Faith Can Do.” Their only sonic competitor is a worship tune floating out the open windows of a red minivan. Its driver yields to eager students bustling across the crosswalk to the baseball field, their faces decorated with red paint in support of the home team. In the fall, when Liberty’s first season as an FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) team commences, the whole campus will be wearing team colors. For now, students will have to settle for gorgeous greens and pastel blooms.

For Caleb Johnson, the most beautiful thing about Liberty isn’t its campus; it’s the people. Johnson, a pastor’s kid from North Carolina, didn’t want to be the stereotypical PK attending a Christian school. But he reluctantly went on a tour of Liberty at his mom’s urging. Johnson trudged off the tour bus, looked up and saw something that changed his perspective. He watched as three young women and a man held hands in prayer, then took out their math books to study. After watching these students interact, he says, “I guess I just became a stereotypical pastor’s kid because I was hooked.”

He turned down a nearly full-ride scholarship from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, to enroll at Liberty. Johnson, who went on to become student body president in his third year, calls it the “best decision I ever made.”

In recent years, Liberty has made national headlines for both its massive online school and President Jerry Falwell’s consistent endorsement of Donald Trump. But lost in those headlines are the stories of ordinary students like Johnson. Roughly 110,000 such individuals make up the student body, including over 15,000 on campus. Charisma spoke to some of those students to find out what Liberty’s impact will be on the next generation of Christians.

Liberty’s Beginnings

Liberty may be one of the largest Christian universities in the nation, but it wasn’t always this successful or big. When Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the school in 1971, Lynchburg Baptist College—as it was known—had 154 students.

By 1985, the newly renamed Liberty University had roughly 6,000 students. But behind the scenes, Liberty was struggling financially. In the late 1980s, televangelism donations plummeted after Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart’s scandals. Falwell Sr.’s entire financial model had to be rebuilt. In the book Fasting Can Change Your Life, Falwell Sr. confessed Liberty was $110 million in debt in 1991 after running four consecutive years of $25 million deficits. By 1996, the debt was still $70 million, and Liberty was also in danger of losing its regional accreditation.

“The Lord impressed upon my heart in the summer of 1996 that it was time to do the unthinkable, that is, personally go on an absolute 40-day fast,” Falwell Sr. wrote. “From July 20 to the first of September, I fasted and prayed that 1997-1998 would be the year when Liberty’s debt burden was removed by God. So I fasted 40 days, July 20 through September 1.”

Just 25 days later, he went on a second 40-day fast, fasting a total 80 out of 105 days. As a result, Falwell Sr. said, the university received a cash gift “large enough to pay off our long-term mortgage debt”; replenished cash flow with a gift of several million dollars; appointed a new university president, Dr. John Borek, who served from 1997-2003; and earned full accreditation. Liberty was saved.

On May 8, 2007, Falwell Sr. told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that like Hezekiah, he was begging God for at least 20 more years so he could fulfill his vision for Liberty: “We want a huge, major evangelical Christian university.” Just one week later, Falwell Sr. died of a heart attack. Days later, at the 2007 commencement ceremony, his son—now the university’s chancellor and president—declared, “We have prepared for this transition for 15 years or more. All is well at Liberty.”

Falwell told Charisma that God gifted him with different talents from his father, as befitted Liberty’s leadership for a new season.

“I don’t know that anybody but my father could have started from scratch and built Liberty,” Falwell says. “He had that pioneer spirit, and he was just a rugged individualist who was not scared of taking huge risks. … But I don’t know if that pioneering spirit would have gotten it done in the second stage of Liberty’s existence. I went through those difficult times [with him] and learned how to operate frugally and with sound business principles. And really, I think that’s what was needed in the second stage of Liberty’s history, after my dad passed. So I don’t think it could have happened without him starting it like he did, without his tenacity, but I’m just appreciative and grateful that God let me play a role in the second stage.”

One significant part of this second stage has been Liberty University Online. Liberty invested in distance learning from the school’s beginning, when students would send and receive videotapes in the mail for classes. The early investment paid off. By 2015, the Chronicle of Higher Education named Liberty the second-largest provider of online education in the U.S. Approximately 95,000 students attend Liberty online, including Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, enrolled in the Rawlings School of Divinity.

“I took a leap of faith last year and signed up to take classes at seminary,” Foles told the Associated Press. “I wanted to continue to learn and challenge my faith. It’s a challenge because you are writing papers that are biblically correct. You want to impact people’s hearts.”

Liberty’s Culture

For decades, Liberty forbade students from smoking, drinking, listening to rock music, watching most movies and TV shows and even dating as underclassmen. But in 2015, an updated student honor code—known as “The Liberty Way”—relaxed the most intense restrictions. The new code emphasizes spiritual discernment rather than strict do’s and don’ts. Today, Liberty is still an alcohol-free campus, but students dress casually, listen to Drake while working out and chat about The Office reruns and Kanye’s latest Twitter meltdown. In other words, it’s still a college.

Joelle Brown, a junior who majors in event planning, says Liberty’s code of conduct is on par with most typical Christian universities.

“It’s not like we’re back in the 1800s,” Brown says. “It’s not like some cult where all we do is pray and talk about Jesus, and we don’t talk about anything else. … We still like to have a good time. We show that Christians can have fun in a godly manner.”

When the students do chafe against the rules, the administration and student government work together to find solutions. Johnson says he and his vice president secured late-night sign-out for students 20 and older, allowing upperclassmen to stay out past curfew as long as they sign out and return by 5 a.m.

Freshman Catherine Meijer found Liberty’s rules reasonable overall.

“As a Christian campus and school, we should be living differently,” Meijer says.

Lifestyle is not the only reason students are attracted to Liberty. Almost every student Charisma spoke with described the campus as “huge” and “beautiful.”

Liberty—the nation’s eighth-largest university campus—spans 7,000 acres. Early in the morning, students hear a mix of birds chirping and construction trucks reversing. In May, the campus had at least four active construction sites, the result of a nearly $1 billion investment in renovation. Some staff joke that Liberty’s new logo should be a construction truck.

Another reason the students love Liberty is the faculty. The staff and professors were almost universally praised to Charisma, though students singled out David Nasser, Linda Nell Cooper, Karen Swallow Prior, Nastinka Morgan and Carol Harvey as exceptional.

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SOURCE: Charisma News, Taylor Berglund