PHOENIX – If you have never heard of Arizona Christian University, you are not alone. Even school officials joke that few neighbors know what the school is about.

Former President George W. Bush’s appearance on Wednesday at the Phoenix Convention Center is one of the steps the school is taking to raise money and boost its profile.

For now, the school has about 500 students on a 20-acre campus in a middle-class neighborhood near 26th Street and Cactus Road in northeast Phoenix.

The school decided to make a change when it turned 50 this year. The change started in 2008, when the Sun Valley Conservative Baptist Association in Phoenix turned the school over to a multidenominational governing board.

The transformation quickened last fall when Len Munsil, a former Republican candidate for governor and founder of the Center for Arizona Policy, moved from the boardroom to the president’s office. The school, then named Southwestern College, became Arizona Christian University.

“We offer a place for serious Christians to get trained and equipped for service in the community,” said Munsil, who has two children at the school.

Munsil acknowledged the school is not for everyone. With required Bible study, weekly chapel and numerous service projects, the students tend to be evangelical Christians eager to influence the community.

There even is a statement of faith that faculty and staff must sign, and a new statement for students is in the works.

“There are enough people who want what we offer, a community of believers,” said Heather Kim, vice president for enrollment and marketing. “There is a hunger for what we offer.”

Developing that hunger will be a key challenge for the school as it attempts to put a bit of distance — religiously and historically — between its conservative Baptist roots and what it wants to become.

Maxie Burch, a former professor at Grand Canyon University, said that school successfully made the transition about 20 years ago.

But, he noted, GCU began at a less conservative point than Arizona Christian, founded by fundamentalist Baptists who differ greatly from the more populous Southern Baptists, the founders of Grand Canyon.

“Trying to change their image and their curriculum is a tough sell in their (conservative Baptist) market,” Burch said. “There is a tug of war between the founding constituency and those who say we cannot survive as a Bible college.”

Arizona Christian offers a variety of degrees, but it continues to require every student to take a minor in Biblical studies.

Many students are studying Christian ministry. But others are studying business or education, eyeing employment outside of the church.

Jarrod Blair, who attended high school less than a mile away, said a challenge is to “fight that mentality that we are an isolated bubble of believers.” Blair plans to pursue the ministry.

He and a few other students talked about their education and commitment to the school.

“There is a strong belief here in Christian service,” said Josh Greer of Spokane, Wash. He hopes to take that learning into a sports-oriented ministry.

“While we are here, we’re learning and growing in Christ,” said Kelly Haarala of Tempe. “We share our faith in whatever we do.”

The school always has had roots in churches, youth groups and Christian high schools.

Whether it can double or triple its student body from that group is a question.

“To increase their student body, they will need to open themselves up, making concessions” that will run counter to its history, said Burch, now teaching in Canada.

“Students won’t accept the old standards.”

“My desire is to inspire young followers of Christ to engage in the community,” Munsil said. “We want our students to know their lives have meaning, they have a purpose.”