CLA President and CEO Tami Heim interviewed Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D., president of The King’s College in New York City. Thornbury previously served as professor of philosophy, dean of the school of theology and vice president for spiritual life at Union University. He is the author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F.H. Henry (Crossway, 2013).
The King’s College prepares leaders for strategic institutions in society through courses of study in politics, philosophy, economics, business, finance, media, culture and the arts. Heim spoke with Thornbury about Christianity and culture, succession and equipping the next generation of Christians to lead. This is an excerpt of the interview that appeared in the 2015 summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.
As you look back, what best prepared you for stepping into the role as president of The King’s College?
I would absolutely have to say that my best preparation came from the mentoring I received from the leaders with whom I worked and under whom I studied before I assumed presidential leadership at The King’s College. Those guiding lights are Dr. Albert Mohler from Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Dr. David Dockery of Union University (now president of Trinity international University in Deerfield, Ill.). I watched as both of these men in different ways completely turned around a large and historic organization by reigniting theological passion and conviction with strategic planning and business acumen. Both of their stories have been chronicled in recent books that both men have produced. They are: The Conviction to Lead (Bethany House, 2014) by Mohler, and Christian Leadership Essentials (B&H Publishing, 2011) by Dockery.
What struck me the most from a combined 20 years of observation of these two outstanding theological and organizational minds was this: Excellence never had to come at the expense of Christian kindness and compassion. At Southern, I saw Dr. Mohler enter a situation in which the seminary had been theologically adrift prior to his presidency. His willingness to stand for the vision of the seminary’s founders is the stuff of legend. At Union, where I served for 15 years, I saw David Dockery carefully, calmly and boldly build an institution that more than doubled in enrollment numerically and advanced leaps and bounds in terms of national reputation. Although I have never studied leadership formally as a part of my education, I feel as though I have a Ph.D. in strategic vision from these two men.
As a thought leader on Christianity and culture, what advice would you have for Christian leaders about influencing today’s culture for Christ?
I always respond to Christians who say, “I want to engage culture,” by saying: “Too late! Culture has already engaged you.” We think of “culture” as something being outside of the Christian community, something from which we are separated. The truth is that we are deeply enmeshed in society and often unaware of which presuppositions we possess are deeply Christian and which ones are not.
So if we want to influence the culture for Christ, we must attend to the disciplines that helped previous generations of believers do the same. That means we must become informed about philosophy, church history and society. As much as most people don’t want to hear that imperative, it’s true. No challenge that we face today is unique to us.
The church has faced these issues before, and we have much to learn from their example. We are legatees of a great intellectual and spiritual inheritance.
Closely related to this practice of deep learning is the twin experience of practicing the spiritual disciplines. If we are not regularly praying, fasting, devoting ourselves to Scripture and being quiet before God, we might totally miss what God is doing in our time. We might be saved (because salvation is all of grace), and we might even live a life of real personal piety, but we might completely miss out on major developments in the kingdom of God — simply because we’re seeing through worldly lenses.
Finally, we need to be accomplished. That’s why I’m writing a biography on rock ‘n’ roll icon Larry Norman. Larry was a Capitol Records artist, and was produced by George Martin and his team that worked with The Beatles. But Larry sang about Jesus unashamedly. He got away with it because the records were good. Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Frank Black all at some point counted themselves fans. We need to get back to that: work that people who are at the top of their game respect.
At The King’s College you’re equipping a new generation of future Christian leaders of “strategic institutions.” What are keys to doing that well?
I think that there are three absolute essentials to preparing the next generation of leaders of strategic public and private institutions. They ultimately boil down to where you live and how you live. That’s why The King’s College is the only traditional undergraduate residential Christian liberal arts and business college located in the center of one the world’s top alpha cities. And we just happen to be on Wall Street in New York City, the “capital of the world,” as Pope John Paul II once said.
So, what are those three essentials?
First, if you study both Scripture and church history, Christians have always gone to the seats of empire — the financial and cultural capitals of the world. Where did Paul spend the majority of his time in ministry? In Corinth and in Ephesus, the financial and cultural centers of Achaia and Asia Minor, respectively. Conversely, although Paul wrote an epistle to a city like Colossae, he didn’t spend time there or even visit. Why? Because it wasn’t a particularly strategic place to be. Now, we realize that every place where God’s people are is important. It’s just that evangelicals have not focused on some of the most obvious locations for influence in the recent past.
Second, there’s the skill mastery piece. Every biblically literate Christian knows the story of Daniel and his companions. They did not eat from the rich portions of the king’s table. They did not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s false idol. They stayed faithful and were brought through on the other side of the fiery furnace, thanks to the fourth man in the fire. But if you look at a passage like Daniel 1:4, you see something that isn’t talked about as much in our circles. The text says that these young men became competent to stand in the king’s palace because they acquired all of the wisdom and knowledge of the Babylonians. That knowledge came from the seat of empire, and that was Babylon. Here at The King’s College, we believe that New York City is our Babylon — an image that shouldn’t have a negative connotation. We forget that Scripture tells us that the exiles from Israel flourished and succeeded in this seemingly hostile environment. Daniel and his companions became the ministers of finance, culture and the government not only for their generation but for generations to come.
Third, there is the discipleship piece. Long-term Christian influence cannot be done in a “drive by” manner. You have to cultivate intellectual, theological and ethical virtues over a period of years, face-to-face, day-after-day. This was what college and university life was originally designed to do hundreds of years ago. Today, institutions of higher education have largely forgotten that imperative, opting instead to focus on technique rather than character. Integrity is everything, but it is best learned in an environment like New York City where your convictions and values will be daily put to the test.
Dr. Gregory Allen Thornbury will be the keynote speaker for the Intensive Training Institute general session at The Outcomes Conference: CLA Dallas 2016. Register for this premier leadership training event that offers over 350-hours of equipping for Christian leaders called to steward today’s nonprofit ministries, educational institutions, churches, and businesses. Early savings are available through October 31, 2015. Reserve your spot today!