Life changes people. The question is, how and in what ways? We may grow up in similar circumstances, attend the same college and be presented with similar options but take different paths and end up in different places. This article examines ways in which members of the Tabor College class of 1967 changed or stayed the same over the decades.
The four of us became friends at Tabor, did voluntary service in Africa after college, went on to graduate school and then into careers in higher education. Over the decades, we often discussed our Tabor experience and the trajectory of our lives. We also wondered what our classmates now think and believe.
To find out, we sent them a questionnaire in December 2021; two-thirds responded. Among other things, we asked how they now view Jesus, the Bible and the church. Here’s what we learned.
Rural and small-town roots
Three quarters of us came from rural Mennonite communities in the Midwest, most growing up on farms. Only 10 percent were raised in cities larger than 25,000. Although a third of our parents never graduated from high school themselves, they encouraged us to attend college. As one classmate said, “My parents expected me to go to college.” Others saw college as an “escape from the farm.”
When we asked why we chose Tabor, most said it was because members of their family or friends had attended. Many also noted the school’s Mennonite Brethren affiliation and their expectation that a Tabor degree would lead them into careers.
Tabor changed us
A classmate spoke for many: “[Tabor] broadened my view, introducing me to people and ideas that I had not considered before.” Another said college “started opening my eyes to a bigger world. It was my first step toward moving into my independent life.” Others spoke of developing their own faith rather than simply reflecting the faith of their families.
The mentoring at Tabor was as important as the classes. Someone recalled that Bible professor Clarence Hiebert “provided a broadened spiritual world view and encouraged me to consider overseas service in Congo.” Another said, “Delbert Wiens (philosophy professor) challenged me to think, to apply my faith and taught me the principles of good writing.”
Most of us arrived at Tabor with conservative religious perspectives; college moderated these perspectives, moving some in our class toward the theological center.
Life opened new doors
Graduation brought big changes such as marriage, employment, the draft, service abroad and graduate school. Of the men eligible for the draft, over 60 percent chose alternative service while others served in the armed forces or had exemptions. A third of us lived abroad for at least a year, many serving with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) or the MB Christian Service program. Nearly all of us traveled outside North America at some point and encountered other peoples and cultures.
Many of us moved from our rural Midwest roots to the city. Two-thirds now live in urban centers. Though half of our parents were farmers, the Class of ‘67 entered a broad range of careers, including education, small business and health care. Only six percent went into farming or other agricultural careers.
Belief and practice
Denominational identity: Most of us were raised Mennonite Brethren; 14 percent called themselves evangelical at the start of college and 12 percent were part of other Mennonite groups. Today, only 18 percent are Mennonite Brethren and 42 percent affiliate with other evangelical churches. Eighteen percent are part of MC-USA congregations and 14 percent part of other Christian denominations. Those who were Mennonite Brethren in their youth and then left generally gravitated toward other evangelical denominations and congregations.
Engaged: Today, 92 percent of our class regularly attend local churches, well above the national average. We also teach Sunday School, sing in the choir (or praise band), give our money and serve as deacons/deaconesses/elders. Although women and men serve on committees in equal numbers, men usually chair them. Nearly all who became trustees were men, and only men served as church moderators. We appear to have retained the gender roles from the MB churches of our youth.
View of Jesus: Using questions from a national survey, we asked everyone how they now see Jesus. Is he (1) Son of God, Lord and Savior, (2) a great teacher and role model or (3) simply a prophet and teacher? Nearly everyone referred to Jesus as Son of God, Lord and Savior.
One national survey found that the number of people who believe in God has fallen to 81 percent. Another found that half see Jesus as only “a great teacher, but not God.” These two studies suggest that while people in the U.S. generally believe in God, they just don’t see Jesus as Lord. The Tabor Class of ’67 does.
The Bible: We also asked everyone how they view the Bible. For half, the Bible is the “actual Word of God to be taken literally, word-for-word.” Another 42 percent call it “inspired…but not everything should be taken literally.”
These high views of the Bible contrast with a recent national poll of U.S. adults which found that only 20 percent take the Scriptures literally (word-for-word) and half believe it is inspired.
Christian perspective: Using a five-point scale from “very liberal” to “very conservative,” we asked everyone to identify their theological perspectives at three points in time: when we arrived at Tabor, left Tabor and today.
Three-quarters considered themselves either theologically conservative or very conservative at the start of college. College is typically a time of exploration and change as students are exposed to new ideas. By the time we left Tabor, one-third viewed their theology as middle-of-the-road, and a few identified as liberal.
The bigger changes came after college. Life and experience produced a shift from the theological center toward both ends of the spectrum. Some conservatives became more conservative while many moved from the center in a more liberal direction.
We found the same polarization in people’s political and theological perspectives. Our political views and theological views aligned more closely over time. The extent to which the two influence each other is not clear from our data.
What caused the change? We asked those who changed their theological perspectives after college why.
Those who became more liberal pointed to building relationships with people from other religions, having a diverse community of friends, the influence of their children and international travel or service assignments.
One classmate said, “I have become more liberal and more socially minded. I believe that Jesus was this kind of person who cared for the whole person.” In the same vein, another spoke of “trying to be a Jesus follower in the real world.”
One of those who became more conservative described “maturing in faith over the years, growing in knowledge of Christ and moving from legalism to grace—without changing (my) basic beliefs.”
Another elaborated, “I am more compassionate and accepting to diverse thinking and opinions, while not abandoning my core beliefs and values. I am not confrontational now and more accepting of questioning than [I was] as a senior at Tabor.”
Still faithful: Life changed us, but we still believe Jesus is Lord and view the Bible as the inspired Word of God, though not all of us read it literally. We attend church at a significantly higher rate than the general population, contribute financially and are active in our congregations. While we’re not as conservative as we were raised and most of us are no longer Mennonite Brethren, we remain faithful followers of Jesus.
The full Tabor Alumni Outcomes Survey (TAOS) is available at: http://TAOS67.net.
AUTHORS: Merrill Ewert, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, lives in Topeka, Kan. Dale Fast, Saint Xavier University professor emeritus, lives in Chicago, Ill. David Klaassen, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities professor emeritus, lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. Kenneth Ratzlaff, scientist emeritus, University of Kansas, lives in Lawrence, Kan.
This article has been posted by Christian Leader staff. The Christian Leader is the magazine of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.