Effective Service-Learning and Biblical Integration

Service-learning is a trending topic in education today. We obviously love working in the lab of life, getting the students to apply their thinking to real-world issues, and engage in teamwork. And service-learning is especially valuable for Christian schools because it is a form of biblical integration. Jesus said, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mark 10:45). Therefore, Christians have an extra motivation to engage in service-learning—serving is an essential part of following Jesus. If we don’t graduate servants, we are not fully accomplishing our goals.

In fact, as academic disciple-makers, teachers are called to “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up,” (Eph 4:12). Part of our mission to to develop our students into able servants who build up the body. So, how do we go about this? I believe that the inductive Bible study provides a good model for moving forward. The three steps are 1) information, 2) understanding, and 3) action.

1) Gather Information about the Need

When choosing a service project (missions trip, local project, etc.), the students should have ample time to understand the need. For example, if they are going to collect cans for a food bank, they should take time to grasp why there are food shortages, what the food bank does, and how they can help. Just as a doctor should not prescribe medication until he understands the sickness, students should not start working to solve a problem until they have an excellent grasp on the issues. (Activity ideas could be: research, field visits, interviews, etc.)

2) Understand and Invest in the Solution

Once students have the investigated, they should make a plan for how they can invest. It is okay for students to collect cans just because someone has asked them to do so. But it is much better if they can be a part of planning the service project. If the food bank needs cans, they could decide if they should 1) ask their parents to donate cans, 2) contact local grocery stores to ask for donations, 3) contact local businesses to ask for donations that can be used to buy cans, 4) contact the canned-food companies directly to ask for help, 5) connect with local churches and youth groups to create a community-wide initiative, 6) use a crowdfunding site to raise money. And the list could go on for a long time. The point is that students need to be a part of making the plan to solve the problem. Service learning must engage the mind; not just the hands and heart. (Activity ideas: brainstorming, mind-mapping, researching what others have done)

3) Take Action Sacrificially

Once the students have developed their own plan, they need to enact it. This should mean that they give up their time, energy, money, or other resources to help. If everything they need is given to them (free of cost), they are missing out on much of the benefit and blessing. When Araunah offered to give David land for his altar, David replied, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing,” (1 Chron 20:24). We must teach our students to give what they have—not what someone else might have. When they give, it helps them understand the the process (mission trip, local project, etc.) is not about them; it is not for them. (Activity ideas: Counting the cost, enacting the actual project)

These steps will help students learn and grow. The process will be stretching. And it will also help the students to remain invested in these projects over time. If they get the information, they will be better informed. If they gain understanding, they will be more able to help and encourage others in the future. And if they act sacrificially, they will remember what they invested in making a difference.

Biblical Integration, God’s Word, and Assessing Our Work

Christian education is academic discipleship. We are using our courses to help students grow to know and follow Jesus well in every area of their lives. So how can we assess if we are actually helping them grow in faith? As teachers, we work in a world of quizzes, tests, and formative assessments. We are always trying to find out if our work is making a difference in the minds and hearts of our students. 1 John 2:3-6 gives us strong place to start:

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

There are some sweeping and clear statements here: 1) We know that we have come to know Christ if we keep his commands, 2) If we don’t follow his teachings, we are not believers, 3) Those who obey the Word of God have been made complete, 4) The measure of Christianity is Christ.

Now, we must be careful not to go beyond the Bible when we read it. Obviously, no person can perfectly follow Christ in this life. The standard here is not perfection, but progression: Are we rightly teaching our material from and toward a biblical worldview? Are our students (and are we) becoming more like Christ? Are they conforming to Jesus as He shows Himself in his Word?

Therefore, the key for assessing our progress is the Word of God. We must constantly deliver the Bible and its ideas to our classes. As the students learn God’s Word in our classes, we need to know if they are really ingesting it, wrestling with it, and being changed by it. God is faithful and powerful to do the work of transforming lives. He is the One who does the work. But we do have a role to play. Our job is to deliver the powerful Word of God to our students in ways that challenge, encourage, instruct, correct, and inspire them. Hebrews 13:7 calls believers to “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Do you see what Christian leaders do? They speak the Word of God to those they lead, and they show the power of that Word in their own lives. As John said, we are to live as Jesus did.

So here are some assessment questions to see if you are accomplishing Bible-centered biblical integration in your class. Don’t be discouraged if you find areas to grow. Rejoice at the progress you have made and praise God that you can continue to grow in effectiveness.

1) Are you regularly using Scripture to shine light on your academic content? Are you giving your students the chance to grasp the biblical worldview as it is actually expressed by God in the Bible? (This is the key question because it is the one that you can directly control.)

2) Are your students learning to notice, point out, and celebrate the biblical truths that they encounter in your classes? Do you ever hear them say things like, “Wow! This science/math/history/language/art lesson makes me think of what the Bible says.”?

3) Are you seeing Christian students growing in biblical character? Are they becoming more honest, fair, empathetic, etc.?

4) Are you seeing non-Christian students wrestling with biblical ideas? Are they learning to wrestle with the ideas of Scripture?

We can’t change our students’ lives, but we do have something that can. The gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who believe it (Rom 1:16). God’s Word is the food we need for life (Deut 8:3, Matt 4:4). It is a lamp that lights our path (Ps 119:105). As biblical integrators, we need to regularly check in and assess: Are we delivering God’s Word in our classes? If not, we need to adjust.

Note: I am not saying that you should turn your class into a Bible class. However, I am saying that if you are not bringing God’s Word to bear on your material, you are missing out on much of what it means to teach from and toward the glory of God.

 

5 Strategies for the Middle-of-the-Year Struggles

As schools enter the middle of the third quarter, things can seem to slow down. We are nowhere near the start of the year, but we aren’t near the finish either. Paperwork, grading, meetings, and other time-consuming tasks keep piling up. In times like this, it can be easy to become frustrated, worn down, or disenchanted. However, the middle of the race is just as important as the start or finish. Here are five steps to take to fight well in the long middle:

1) Remember your purpose. You are serving in a Christian school to point students to Christ. The students have just as many needs in now as they did in September. The newness of the year is gone, but the needs are the same. You are here to love them, point them to Jesus, and show them an example. Don’t get tired of doing good (Gal 6:9).

2) Wait on the Lord. You may have had big plans for the year. And many of those plans may have never gotten off the ground. Others may have not worked the way you wanted. But remember, God does not operate according to our schedules. While teachers love to manage our time well—with bells, quarters, periods, etc.—we must remember that, ultimately, time is not ours; it belongs to God. And He is not messing things up. He is not wasting this year. So be patient. Wait on the Lord (Ps 27:14).  

3) Seek his face (Ps 27:8). Prayer and Bible reading are keys to a vibrant relationship with God. Have you let these essentials slip as the year has continued on. Find a colleague to pray with. Lock into a meaningful Bible-reading plan. You can’t give the students something that you don’t have. We all need to be filled so that we can fill others.

4) Reflect on God’s grace. We are not successful because of our ingenuity or systems or effort. We are successful in ministry when God moves. Revival is when God uses ordinary means to bring about extraordinary results. Salvation is when God uses his gospel to bring dead hearts to life. Transformation is God applying his perfect power to our imperfect lives. Do you notice the theme of all these things? They are all the gracious work of God. Remember that.

Remember. Wait. Seek. Reflect. And finally, expect.

5) Expect that God will do a mighty work for his name and for his glory. As Asaph prayed in Psalm 79:9:

Help us, God our Savior
  for the glory of your name.

Pray Inadequate Prayers for Your Class

Prayer is powerful because God is powerful. Prayer accomplishes much because God accomplishes much. As teachers, we might plan, organize, and work hard, but we must still go to God and pray that He would stoop down and use us for his glory. In his grace, He loves to use his people—even broken, confused, struggling people like us—to do his work in the classroom. But we must remember the truth: He is the One who is doing the work… and if He doesn’t work, our effort is in vain. This is why we must pray.

We must pray that God will use our planning, our words, our assignments and assessments, and our example to show our students the truth about Him. We desire that they would see that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7). We want them to see that He is real. We want them to know that He is good. We are desperate that they understand that He cares for them.

We are compelled to pray because we need God to work, but we also need Him to hear, understand, and graciously improve our imperfect prayers. So often, we don’t know how to pray. We are so ignorant of what is happening in the minds and hearts of the young people in our classrooms. And even if we did know, we are not equipped to prescribe solutions. So why pray if our prayers are so inadequate and we are so ignorant? Because God graciously lends his loving wisdom and power to our ignorance and weakness. John Newton wrestled with this saying,

“When Satan points out to me the [incoherence and weakness of my prayer], and asks, ‘Is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God?’ I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace,—that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus.”

Yes, our prayers might be disasters, but God loves to succeed through our failures. Jesus prays perfect prayers, and He prays for us. Therefore, our poor prayer should not keep us from praying. Instead, our inadequacy should drive us to our knees, to his throne, to his grace. Jesus said it like this, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Prayer is like every other area of our lives—apart from Christ our prayers are ineffective.  

The reality of my own inadequacy has been impressed on me lately. I can do nothing good on my own. But thank God: He does all things well (Mark 7:37). Let’s seek his face. Let’s ask Him to work. Let’s plead with Him. And let’s remember that Christ makes our inadequate pleas into powerful, persuasive, perfect prayers that please the Father. Pray inadequate prayers for your class; Christ will take them and make them right.

 

Christmas Confidence for the Struggling Teacher

Teaching in a Christian school can be hard. There are all the usual challenges of teaching (discipline, time-management, grading, communication, etc.), but there is something else too: the heavy weight of hard-hearted students. One of my most persistent struggles as a classroom teacher has been with lost students who see the gospel as old, boring, played-out, and dry. They think that, because they have heard the story often, it is normal for them to be innoculated to its worship-inducing effects. It crushes me that those who are quickest to yawn at the gospel are those who have never grasped the goodness of the gracious God who has offered Himself to a lost and needy world. It is hard to watch a starving soul push away the nourishing meal that is so desperately needed.

However, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” (Rev 7:10). His ways are perfect and He is in control. 

David’s words in Psalm 18:28-30 are some of the most encouraging in the Bible:

You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
   my God turns my darkness into light.
With your help I can advance against a troop;
   with my God I can scale a wall.
As for God, his way is perfect:
   The Lord’s word is flawless.

Our hope is in God. His ways are perfect. They may not always seem perfect to me, but that simply means that I am not rightly or fully understanding what He is doing or how He is doing it. Isaiah 55:9 reminds me that his thoughts are infinitely higher than mine. So, when we see a student not grasping the goodness of the gospel, we must remember that God is working out his perfect plans. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16) and the Lord knows how to wield his power. He is not limited by our inadequacies. 

The Lord’s ways are not only good and right — they are unstoppable. Listen to the words of God:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
   I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
   from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, “My purpose will stand,
   and I will do all that I please,” (Is 46-9-10).

He cannot be stopped! He never tries to save a student, but then fails to do so. God never fails. His word is power. For God to attempt something is to accomplish that thing. John Piper helpfully elaborates, saying,

The risen, reigning, King of kings and Lord of lords reigns over this world and over his mission with absolute sovereignty. Nothing is outside his sovereign will. If he meets with resistance, he either allows it for his purposes, or he overcomes it for his purposes. His sovereign purposes are never thwarted.

We see this in the Christmas story when the angel speaks to Joseph with these words: “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21). Do you see the promise here? “He will save his people from their sins.” There is no maybe or might. He will save his people.

But who are his people? The angel again answers — this time speaking to the shepherds — “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” (Luke 2:14). He brings peace to those He graciously favors. There is no stopping God from keeping his promise to save his people. There is no way for his favored ones to get away from his kindness. Remember David’s words?

Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
  for darkness is as light to you, (Ps 139:7-12).

Of course, knowing that God is a gracious and powerful Savior does not make hard-heartedness easy to handle. But it does bring confidence to the situation. I can’t save my kids. But God can. And He can use any elements He wants to bring about that salvation. If He can use a census, a stable, and some shepherds, He can use the situations in my students’ lives too. 

It is a horrible injustice for his gospel to go unappreciated in the classroom (or anywhere else). However, I take joy in knowing that He is a God who has planned to use even the worst evils to accomplish his good plan. Think back on the crucifixion of Jesus. Acts 4:27-28 shows us that even the conspiracy of evil leaders to kill the Christ was God’s perfect plan: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

It was his plan from the beginning that his unjust death would justly save his people from their sins. This is what the angel meant when he spoke to Joseph. Even the most heinous crime against the Holy One was to be a part of God’s saving mission. He is so good! He is so strong! And just as the Lord planned to die for the world before He breathed it into existence, He chose to save his sons and daughters. Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:4-6,

He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

God saves his people. The Christmas story is clear: his name is Jesus and He will save his people from their sins. Those who belong to Him will believe in Him. We can be confident of that. And we can rejoice in the role He has given us in his saving mission. But why don’t all believe? If God’s missions never fail, why do some people fail to follow Him? In John 10, some skeptics came to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. They didn’t believe in Him, and the Lord explains why some people believe and some people don’t:

Jesus answered, “I did tell you [that I am the Messiah], but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one,” (John 10:25-30).

I am so encouraged by the Messiah’s words here. His sheep listen to his voice. His sheep will have eternal life. His sheep can never be taken out of his hand. And the Shepherd made no mistakes in assembling his flock. Further, He makes no mistakes in using us to declare his truth.

God has placed us in the lives of students to be his voice. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15) We have have been sent to preach to them in and through the classroom.

So, if you are discouraged at the hard-hearts (as I am at times), keep telling your students the Good News. People are included in Christ when they hear the message of truth (Eph 1:13). Preach, preach, preach. God can replace the stone heart and bring life (Ez 36:26). And He can use you to do it.

And keep praying. John tells us, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him,” (1 John 5:14-15). Pray, pray, pray. Pray that God would save your students because only He can do it. We can’t save our students. Our students cannot save themselves. Only Jesus saves. Ask Him to exercise his sovereign power and bring dead hearts to life.

Christmas lifts up my heart when I am discouraged because my lost students sit un-enamoured by the gospel. God’s ways are perfect. God cannot be stopped. God will save his people from their sins. Glory to God, He brings peace to those He favors. And He uses his people to share his Good News. Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), but who knows but that you have come to your [teaching] position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14).

Worship Music and Wolves: Biblical Integration and Critical Thinking

Some of the most popular Christians teachers and theologians are musicians. As Christians, we might listen to a sermon podcast. We might study a book by a professor. But we sing and memorize the theology of musicians. This means that they must be held to the highest standard. Songs are in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts. James 3:1 says that not many should desire to be teachers because teachers will be judged more strictly than others.

One of the large issues facing the believers today is that our most popular worship musicians are often not from churches with a strong, biblical theology. For example, I believe that “Living Hope” by Phil Wickham and Brian Johnson is one of the best worship songs released recently. It has excellent, moving, and accurate words that poetically express the gospel. However, Brian Johnson’s church, Bethel, is known for errant theology and practice . Likewise, Hillsong pastor Joel Houston stated that “evolution is undeniable,” in reference to a questions about the popular song “So Will I.” (I wrote about that song a few months ago in light of their lyric on evolution.) Hillsong produces many of the most popular worship songs sung today. The list continues. “Death Was Arrested” is a fantastic and valuable worship song. It came out of North Point Church where Andy Stanley is the pastor. He recently made waves by saying that we should “unhitch” from the Old Testament. Let me repeat: many of the most popular Christian, worship songs are coming out of churches that are not teaching in accordance with the historic, Christian faith.

As biblical integrators, we must be working hard to develop the critical-thinking skills of our students. I am not contending that we should stop singing all the songs from churches like Bethel, Hillsong, or North Point. However, I do think that we need to stop singing them uncritically. We don’t want to raise up a generation that trusts a church or band simply because they are  able to write catchy songs. We want our students to develop into young Bereans who test every teaching against the Word (Acts 17:10-12).

This is where we come in. Yes, Bible class and chapel should assist in helping students trust the Bible and navigate its ideas, but much of the work is done in other classes. An English teacher helps students discover which sources are credible. A math teacher assists students in sniffing out faulty logic. A science teacher shows students how to measure and understand reality. A history teacher helps students learn from the mistakes of the past. An art teacher equips students to note the ideas conveyed in various styles and forms. A speech teacher shows brings to light the art of arguments and persuasive techniques.

We are not trying to shield our students from the ideas that these churches and church leaders are promoting. But we must be investing extreme effort to help our students develop the skills needed to assess the situation themselves. They will face dangerous and errant theology throughout their lives. We must prepare them. They need to know what to do when the most popular teachers are peddling attractive heresies. We all know that devil can attack from the outside, but he is even more dangerous when the attack comes from within. As Jesus warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt 7:15). Let’s teach our students to critically apply the Word of God to detect falsehood. Souls are on the line.

Biblical Integration Requires a Good Bible (or Two)

I have written previously about the importance of careful Bible reading. For many reasons, it can be easy to misunderstand what the text is saying. For that reason, I recommend that believers (especially teachers) take these five steps as they read. However, I need to state the obvious here: If you are reading a bad version of the Bible, your interpretation of the Bible will be bad too. The person who listens to the news on a static-filled, choppy radio station will likely miss out or misunderstand. With so many accurate and helpful translations of the Bible in English, there is no reason for us to settle for static. Here are two types of Bibles to avoid using for biblical integration followed by a quick recommendation:

1) Sectarian Versions

Some Bibles have been edited to promote a certain theological standpoint. They are not as interested in accurately transmitting the ancient text to the modern world as they are in promoting a certain type of belief. In essence, those behind these books alter the Bible to be what they want instead of what God wants. Two examples of these Bibles come immediately to mind: The Passion Translation and The New World Translation.

The Passion Translation was written/translated by Brian Simmons to help English speakers experience the passion and fire of the Bible. However, as Andrew G. Shead notes,

He achieves this by abandoning all interest in textual accuracy, playing fast and loose with the original languages, and inserting so much new material into the text that it is at least 50% longer than the original. The result is a strongly sectarian translation that no longer counts as Scripture; by masquerading as a Bible it threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god.”

There are many issues with this book, but among the most serious is that the author adds his own content and re-words the Bible to promote a certain type of theology.  

The New World Translation is put out by the Watchtower Society and is the “translation” used by Jehovah’s Witnesses. This version exists to promote an errant theology. Famously, undermining the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s deity, there are many changes made to what the text has stated historically. If a version of the Bible tries to change what the Bible says, we should avoid it.

2) Paraphrases

Some versions of the Bible are not translations, but paraphrases. There is nothing wrong with a paraphrase as a devotional aid. But there is a problem if we use a paraphrase in place of a translation. Why? When we go to the Bible, we want to hear God’s words. When we go to a paraphrase, we are getting a person’s version of God’s words. “The primary problem of any paraphrase of the Bible is that it inputs far too much of a person’s opinion of what the Bible says, instead of simply stating what the Bible says.” The most popular paraphrase is The Message by Eugene Peterson. I am a fan of this book and have learned much from Peterson, but The Message should not be used as a version of the Bible. Another popular paraphrase is The Living Bible.

So what Bible should you use? Well, there is a great book on the topic. This is a complex question, but I would quickly recommend that teachers use an easy-to-understand, but credible version with their classes. The NIV, CSB, or NLT could be good options. However, in your own study, it can be very helpful to compare one of these easy-to-read (dynamic) versions with more formal versions like the ESV, NASB, or KJV. You can often gain helpful insight and accuracy by comparing two different translations.

To sum up: If we want to have accurate biblical integration, let’s use accurate translations of the Bible.