Tag: mission

Why We Do What We Do

So I’m in the process of finishing up my grading for this year. Two sets of papers to go plus a couple of stragglers. Commencement is Saturday. This is the end of my second year at Spring Arbor. It means I’ve been here long enough to have significantly invested in the folks who will cross the platform to shake the president’s hand.

I knew something had changed about a month ago. I was at the spring play (starring one of my students) when one student I haven’t had told me he was excited to be taking my sociological theory class next spring. Shortly thereafter, I realized that a number of our majors had taken to calling me “Hawthorne“. Not Dr. or Prof or even John. Just Hawthorne. I realized that it’s what they use as a reference when they talk about me. And now they use it as my appellation. It means I have an identity in their universe.

Last week I was in a meeting with the peer advisors who work with our freshman groups. We were talking about the nature of service. I wound up repeating a line I’d used for years: that the thing that makes a Christian residential liberal arts institution special isn’t that people know students by name — it’s that they know me. Not as the name at the top of the syllabus but as me.

I’ve invested myself in them and they’ve invested themselves in me. It’s what Spring Arbor means when we call ourselves a “community of learners“.  Those that leave us this weekend change that community as we go forward. I’ll feel a sense of loss (even though Facebook lets me stay in touch). And we’ve already begun investing in a new group of freshmen who came to preregistration last weekend.

This interpersonal dynamic is what Pete Enns was describing in this excellent post yesterday on the joys of teaching Bible classes at Eastern University. He wrote: Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.

I’d take Pete’s point one step farther. To create that culture, he has to embody transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. As Parker Palmer has written in nearly all his books, that embodiment (incarnation) is game-changing. Students find the ability to dream, to take chances, to push themselves.

One of my students wrote yesterday that she’d always thought the integration of faith and learning was about balancing content. Now she thinks about seeing learning as an expression of her commitment to Christ. She’s still working on what that means for her, but it’s exciting.

Today Christianity Today had this editorial about the future of Christian Higher Ed. It tells the familiar story: rising costs, concerns about debt, ponderings about the role of distance education. The author argues that churches should care about Christian universities because that’s where ministers come from and how parishioners get benefits from Christian faculty in their midst (and who, in turn, keep aware of life in the pew).

Such a narrow vision of the purpose of Christian Higher Education will not serve us into the future. We don’t exist FOR the church by operating as some kind of leadership farm club. We exist AS the church reaching out into the highways and byways. Our graduates can go out and work in community to advance the Kingdom of God because they’ve been practicing faithful Christian living for four years.

We send out missionaries. Some of them go overseas. Some work in insurance companies. Some work at Starbucks while they figure out the right grad program to attend. But they’re all carrying something forth — the notion that a community of learners matters in shaping identity.

This is why MOOCs are not the solution. If having great content delivered by folks like Michael Sandel (and he is good — I use his book in my capstone class) was all that mattered, then the folks at San Jose State and American University need to get with the program.

But it’s not just about content. It’s about personal investment in lives. And that investment is worth more than the tuition we charge. The payoff comes when we see that timid freshman cross the platform four years later as a confident and thoughtful adult. It comes when we hear that the village he serves in the Peace Corps has been dramatically changed because of his investment in the people there. It comes when new ministry forms emerge that keep Young Evangelicals engaged in the local congregation in ways that are authentic and meaningful. It comes when their children show up at the college ready to go through the whole cycle for a new generation.

Saturday my students will cross the platform and I’ll stand and clap for them. I’m looking forward to meeting their families and talk about how much we’ve been through together.

But mostly I’m excited about who they are and where they’re going. The world will be changed by their presence in it. And I’m just humbled to play a part in God’s work in this place.

Christian Higher Education hasn’t lost its mission. We just need to do a better job of reminding ourselves that it’s been right here under our noses the whole time.

Harvard’s Slippery Slope?

In my previous entry, I asserted that many Christian universities approach this changing generation by “holding the line“. This conservative stance is not something I mean to make fun of — it’s part of the DNA of much of Christian higher education. I want to explore that stance from a sociological perspective to see if we can find avenues for changing the educational culture of Christian universities without abandoning their core commitments.

First, many Christian universities had their origins either in reaction to perceived problems in traditional higher education or as means to prepare ministers within a particular denominational tradition. The former creates a condition where the outside world is looked upon with some degree of suspicion. The latter privileges the stance of the sponsoring denomination (trustees and donors for nondenominational schools) and thereby brackets critical thinking, opening a critique of such schools as places of indoctrination. The combination of these twin tendencies creates an insulation — those on the “inside” are pleased not to be like those on the “outside”. If you map the member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, it’s not surprising to find many in small towns removed from major urban areas (and their institutions of higher learning). It is this tendency that moved Peter Enns to recently ask if evangelical colleges can truly be academic institutions.

Second, many Christian universities place a high premium on clergy trustees. This is seen as important to protecting the core Christian identity of the university. Those schools that have diversified their boards have drawn trustees more heavily from conservative arenas — successful business people who remember fondly their days at their alma mater. In a denominational school, any movement toward the culture was seen as capitulation to “worldliness”. One step outside the line brings an outcry from sponsoring churches and/or bad press in the local paper: neither fits well on a board agenda. (I remember that one of my institutions created an uproar in the churches by having a late-night “air guitar” concert!)

Third, there’s Harvard. I’ve heard this story since I first started working in Christian higher education. Harvard was founded as a Christian school but today the capital-V “Veritas” is replaced by a small-v “veritas”. No longer committed to absolute truth, there is a stereotype that anything goes and that personal convictions are outmoded. I heard this story told this fall at a gathering celebrating the unique spiritual role of the Christian college as the only defense against the inexorable decline. David McKenna, former president of Spring Arbor, Seattle Pacific, and Asbury Seminary recently wrote a book on the modern history of Christian higher education. He points out that many of the changes at Harvard were not the result of some slippery slope but the result of conscious decisions about positioning the university in a key role within the higher education universe. He offers several correctives that can allow the Christian university to hold its mission over time.

James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World identifies three stances the church (and, by extension, its universities) have taken in response to the broader culture. He defines these as “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”. The first sees the broader culture as hostile. I fear that too much of the “Christian Worldview” rhetoric arises out of this perspective (faith and science issues provide one of the best examples). The second adopts the issues of contemporary culture but attempts to “Christianize” them. The third focuses inward on the behaviors or values that set folks apart from the broader culture. This may reflect a focus on chapel services or purity standards (I once had a church official tell me how great it was that a survey showed that Christian institutions showed a significantly lower level of sexual behavior than what he imagined at secular schools even though the figure seemed shockingly high to me).

Hunter pleads for something he calls “Faithful Presence Within”. I take this to mean that there is a unique voice for the Christian university within the cacophony of voices in the culture. But that requires the university’s voice to be affirmatively stated, willing to engage those who are different, and above all, fearless.

Which brings me back to this generation of students. It’s these students who are driving conversations about human trafficking. It is these students who are asking questions about intentional community. It is these students who are trying the force the dialogue on LGBTQ issues on Christian university campuses.

If Christian universities can be the places I believe they can be, they will play a role of faithful presence. They will speak to important issues of contemporary society without defensiveness, because they recognize that they owe it to their students to engage the questions.

Make no mistake — the students will engage these questions. If they don’t find ways of engaging at the Christian university, they’ll do it outside of the faithful presence we should be providing. We may think we’re glad that we prevented those hard conversations from happening on our campuses to have them happen elsewhere. But that elsewhere may be in a bar after graduation or in a Wall Street boardroom or in divorce court. Where then will our faithful presence be?

Sometimes I think that we act like we’re protecting the church and maybe even God Himself from these harder conversations. This has always struck me as sociologically and theologically naive — the Church has been plenty resilient over the last two millennia. The idea that God can’t handle big questions and so we must protect him is nothing short of idolatry.

We’re in no danger of following Harvard off the slippery slope. We’re in danger of being so safe that we can’t adequately explain why we exist.