It started with a church’s desire to fulfill its calling to equip people for ministry. Under the leadership of Francis Chan, Cornerstone Community Church had been developing as a body of believers that cared deeply about Jesus Christ being known and loved—both here in Simi Valley and every place around the world. This commitment led Cornerstone to start a Bible Institute.
In 2001, Douglas Bookman and Kevin Oates teamed up to launch the Cornerstone Bible Institute. Though Dr. Bookman’s most recent engagement had been teaching at PBU/Friends of Israel, he had already accumulated a lifetime of experience in Christian education. As the Bible Institute developed, their thought process became more ambitious: what if we turned this into a full-blown college? These discussions began in early 2003. Around the same time, two other key players were added to the staff: Spencer MacCuish, who would later become the Academic Dean, and Joshua Walker, who would eventually become the President.
The discussion about starting a college became increasingly serious. Dr. Bookman began challenging Francis to find out what he was passionate about. Francis was consistent in his response: he saw a void in training people for lives of ministry. In many places, the training was not biblically based. Though there were schools that offered solid biblical training, the costs of such schools quickly became prohibitive. In addition to all of this, Francis was convinced that ministry training must happen in close connection with the local church. If they were going to start a college, it would have address these issues.
By late 2003, the decision was made to start Eternity Bible College, and Mark Henry was brought on to run the school. With their work cut out and piled high, Mark Henry, Joshua Walker, Spencer MacCuish, Francis Chan, Doug Fox, and Chuck Bomar planned every aspect of the college. They refined the key distinctives:
First, students must be enabled to acquire a solid biblical education without incurring debilitating debt. Too often, people called to missions or pastoral ministry would go to school to receive biblical training, only to leave with a mountain of debt that would take them years to escape. In cases where debt did not permanently redirect these students, churches or missions organizations would be saddled with the financial burden. This cycle had become so commonplace that some missions organizations had even dropped their biblical education requirements. The committee decided that EBC would be fundamentally committed to enabling students to graduate debt-free.
Second, students would be trained to engage culture. Too often, in an effort to train people to minister, we actually isolate them from the people to whom they ought to be ministering. The college was founded with a commitment to the type of hands-on training that could only come through students’ being actively involved in the surrounding culture.
Third, the college would maintain a close partnership with local churches. Rather than pulling students away from the life of a local church, each student would be a vital part of the life and ministry of a local church body. Rather than simply teaching students about church, students would live out the daily realities of being a member of the body of Christ.
Fourth, students would be taught how to think, not what to think. Though indoctrination is easier, critical thinking and a fully formed Christian worldview are essential in this cultural climate. Rather than giving students the answers, the committee decided that students would be given the tools and the training to think for themselves.
And finally, students would be taught by practitioners. Ivory tower theologians tend to produce ivory tower theologians. If students would be taught to practically live out what they were learning, then those who teach them must be involved in real life ministry.
With these distinctives in place, planning continued during the Spring and Summer of 2004. Mark Henry and Joshua Walker handled the documentation and set up the infrastructure. Because he had a background in education, Spencer MacCuish was brought in to troubleshoot some of the issues that came up.
Dr. Bookman’s busy schedule had pulled him away as the planning developed and the school began to form. On a return visit, the staff filled him in on their progress. Dr. Bookman’s response put to words what everyone had been quietly feeling: “Huh, you guys are actually going to pull this off.”
Eternity Bible College was set to launch in the Fall of 2004. With most of the planning in place, the school was lacking only one thing: students. The Summer of 2004 was spent promoting the school. As Francis and the other staff members spoke at churches, camps, and conventions that summer, they began to pitch the school. They were selling nothing more than an idea—that was all they had at that point. Over the course of the summer they were able to pitch the school to thousands of potential students.
Mark Henry had been praying that they would have 100 students for the first semester. When Fall arrived and the first ever Eternity class went through orientation, there were 98 students. By the first day of classes, two more students had added.
Unbeknownst to the other staff, Mark Henry had prayed for 100 students because he knew he would be leaving, and he wanted to leave his replacement, Joshua Walker, with an example of God’s faithfulness. Mark Henry left after the first semester to pastor a church in Colorado and the college continued to grow.
After that first semester, the school continued to grow—both in numbers and in strength. Dr. Bookman came back to teach as an adjunct professor. Doug Main, who was pastoring in Sunland, also joined the faculty. The school’s mission statement, values, and institutional goals were established.
One of the major issues that the staff had to wrestle with was whether or not to pursue accreditation. Every new school needs to make this decision. In the Spring of 2005, the decision was made to pursue accreditation through the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE). That decision has played a key role in the direction and formation of Eternity. (For an update on Eternity’s accreditation status, click here.)
In the Spring of 2006, the school launched its first Israel study trip. It was led by Dr. Bookman. In Israel, Joshua and Spencer connected with Nate Foreman and Jon Marshall, both of whom immediately became key members of the faculty. Three Cornerstone Church members were also on the trip: Rick Utley, Del Owyoung, and Larry Thrasher. Though they didn’t know it at the time, these three men would eventually become the beginning of the school board.
With the goals and mission of the school clearly stated, the college was able to begin assessing the curriculum. In January 2007, a group of faculty members went on a retreat to Hume Lake. While they were there, they began to dream up a new curriculum that focused less on Systematic Theology and more on Biblical Theology. They wanted students to walk through the Scriptures for themselves, applying the principles they had learned in their Bible Study Methods classes.
The new curriculum launched in the Fall of 2008. During the first year, students are given the tools they need in order to study the Bible. Then they spend the next three years studying from Genesis to Revelation, drawing implications and applications for all areas of life directly from the text of the Scriptures. This shift flowed directly from the college’s mission and philosophy of education.
Also in Fall 2008, a semester abroad program was launched in Quito, Ecuador. This program had been developing since the Summer of 2003 when Spencer MacCuish and Francis Chan connected with Phil Payne, who had spent the past ten years as a missionary in Ecuador. The program reflects their shared passion of seeing students continue their education in an international context while gaining valuable cross-cultural ministry experience.
Though the future of Eternity has yet to be determined, there are some indications of where the school is headed. The accreditation process has been going smoothly, but much work still lies ahead as we learn more about the great impact Eternity is having in the lives of students, graduates and local churches. Eternity moved from initial Applicant status with the ABHE in 2007 to Candidate status in 2011, and became accredited in May 2016. In Spring 2012, the college graduated its first class that has come through since implementing the revised curriculum in 2008, and the curriculum will continue to be shaped as Eternity grows and learns about its effectiveness through regular assessment and evaluations. Since its doors opened in 2004, Eternity has continued to grow, simultaneously challenging and inspiring other colleges and young people to pursue training that will prepare the next generation of leaders. Because of its commitment to keeping students in the context of their local churches and providing higher education at an affordable price, continued growth is now also coming through planting or partnering with other colleges in conjunction with local churches and through the expansion of Distance Education.
Eternity has graduates serving as missionaries all over the world, including Israel, India, Hungary, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia and Iraq. Others are pursuing additional training and raising support for the mission field or are furthering their education at the graduate or seminary level. Many Eternity graduates have joined the staff of churches and camps across the country. Many other graduates have joined the workforce in a variety of vocations, seeking to further the kingdom of God in every area of life. Eternity is very proud of its graduates, and looks with anticipation to what God will continue to do in and through them as the school grows and develops. Ultimately, the school does not exist to offer classes or degrees. Rather, the purpose is to train people to fulfill the ministries that God has entrusted to them.