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.

From and Toward: STEAM-Style

Biblical integration means teaching all things from and toward the glory of God. These two directions—from and toward—are both important. In STEAM subjects like science, and all other subjects, we need build on strong foundations (from) and aim for healthy goals (toward). Sadly, some of the work done in scientific fields has recently been marred by an uncritical acceptance of two beliefs: naturalism and cultural relativism.

From: Foundations of Science

Naturalism is “the philosophical belief that reality is composed solely of matter and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes (e.g., law of gravity).” In other words, there is no supernatural.

John A. Bloom helpfully noted, in The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide, that “contemporary science has chosen to restrict itself to giving naturalistic explanations no matter what,” (21) and this leads to perceived conflict between between science and Christianity. Bloom helps us understand that there is no real conflict between science and the Christian faith. No, he helpfully illustrates that the real conflict is between naturalistic and Christian commitments. Therefore, the science vs. faith narrative that is often conveyed in popular culture is not accurate to real life. Instead, the faith commitments of naturalism and Christianity provide differing perspectives on the foundations of scientific study.  

Naturalism and Christianity are both faith commitments. The question is: which is more scientific? And which provides a better foundation? Naturalism assumes materialism (the belief that all things are composed of matter, energy, or ideas). Christianity, on the other hand, holds that there is a God who works in and above the material world. God is able to do this because He is not a part of creation; He is the Creator.

Christianity offers a stronger foundation to build upon because it can engage all the laws of nature, and it gives reasonable support by demonstrating that the laws of the natural world were decreed by a Law-maker. Naturalism assumes laws of nature, but can give no account for the origin or enforcement of these laws. Instead of limiting the study and understanding of the world to the natural, Christians can study the natural universe and investigate natural causes most accurately and confidently because we understand that God is the Originator, Designer, and Sustainer. We have a foundation to build on. Those committed to a secular worldview are looking for a “God-particle,” a theory of everything, and other unifying ideas, but they are searching for what Christians have already found—God.

Toward: Right Aims of STEAM-Subjects

While science is invested in investigating the what of various phenomena, engineering and technology is working with the how and why. Tech companies want to design, enhance, and engineer items to make the world better. And, in many ways, they have succeeded. We have devices that can clean water, perform accurate surgeries, preserve food, and much more. However, the big question that needs to be asked is: What is the definition of better?

Is cheaper, more accessible food better? Are GMOs good or bad? Are fossil-fuels good because of all the advances that they provide? Or are they a problem because of the pollutants they emit?

STEAM subjects must wrestle with ethics because engineering and technology are ethically guided. Many technologies have made things easier for the developed world, but easier doesn’t always mean better. The prevailing moral construct of secularism is cultural relativism—“the belief that truth and morals are relative to (or defined by) one’s culture.” This is a shaky concept. It would mean that the will of the people (the culture) is what determines what is good. In other words, what we want is what we should get. On its face, this is a dangerous way to live. Every one of us wants things that are not good. There are numerous historical examples of cultures gone wrong—think about slavery, greed, discrimination, and other evils that have marked era after era. Why would a rational person (like a scientist) want to live according to a hypothesis that has already been tested and been found disastrous?

Christians have a vision of the good life. We have a reason to believe in innate human rights. We have an understanding of the brokenness of mankind. We have a commitment to follow Christ in helping those in need.

Christian engineers and technologists have concrete aims and standards. This is a major advantage when it comes to inventing, designing, or improving. We can wrestle with whether or not our work is honoring to God. We can choose projects that do more than make things easy—we can work on projects that meet needs, advance the gospel, support equity, and explore God’s creation.

In my next post, we will examine the aim of the scientific method and how that relates to biblical integration.

Sin, Satan, and Biblical Integration: Our Arguments Matter

Here is a very small sampling of the messages that our students hear regularly:

“Follow your heart!”
“You just do you.”
“Struggle is bad.”
“You’ll never be any good. There is just no point.”
“More is better than less.”
“You are the captain of your fate.”
“The most important thing about you is what others think.”
“You would be happy… if only you were taller/smarter/better/etc.”
“Just do it. No one is watching. No one will know.”
“The only person you have to please is yourself.”
“The most important thing about you is your grades/happiness/sports/popularity/mentions.”
“Things will just work themselves out in the end.”
“You are on your own.”
“Only you can give your life meaning.”
“You’ll have time later. Put it off.”
“If you have less than me, you are less than me.”
“Whiter teeth, newer cars, trendier clothes… these are the building blocks of happiness.”

Satan and the world argue that these things are true. And they argue ferociously. There is no better advertiser than the devil. He pretends to be an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). Satan pretends to be something that he is not to sell something he doesn’t have. Couple his work with the what the world uses — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16) — and we have an even more difficult situation. The sinful nature uses the power of love to lead us astray by aiming hearts designed for pleasure in God toward pleasure in the flesh, the eyes, and in this life (1 John 2:15). Satan and sinfulness are always arguing to convince our students to buy into a lie. They are making their cases without rest. And their cases lead to destruction. This is why the teacher must enter the fray too. We have been tapped to represent God, his ways, and his truth. We have been chosen to combat the lies of the enemy with better arguments.

Thankfully, our Lord has not left us here to fight for Him on our own. He has given us his Spirit. He is working through us. John didn’t just describe the power of worldliness, but also of God in us, saying, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4). And God is not interested in fighting to a draw. Our God never ties a match; much less loses. He cannot be stopped. And He chose us to accomplish his unstoppable plan. We were chosen for his work, “having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,” (Eph 1:11) we know that He will do it.

So, make his case. Argue, argue, argue with your students on behalf of God. (Remember that arguing is not about an ugly exchange, but making a logical case.) Lovingly argue. Compellingly argue. Consistently argue. Biblically argue. That is what integration is all about. You are arguing from math, science, English, and art that God is God. You are using the evidence of your subject to show your students the truth. Truth. The world doesn’t have that. Satan doesn’t have that either. But you do. You do. The enemies of God are making their case. Are you giving your life to making God’s case? Does your classroom reflect that?

 

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.

What Do Words Mean?: Literature, Government, and the Bible

Merriam-Webster defines a word as “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use.” One key element of this definition is that words communicate a meaning. Every word means something. But who gets to assign that meaning? Now, the answer may seem obvious, but it has been anything but settled in education for decades.

Steve Cornell of Summit Ministries states, “In a postmodern world, truth and reality are understood to be individually shaped by personal history, social class, gender, culture, and religion.” For postmoderns, the meaning in words is shaped by individuals. This means that a phrase could have as many unique meanings as there are people in the world–upwards of 7 billion.

Christians often seem to think that postmodernism does not affect them, but they are wrong. We see it in our Bible studies every time someone says, “To me, this verse means…” Those who use this phrase are implicitly stating that the text of the Bible legitimately has different meanings to different people. However, this is not the case. None of the Bible or its meaning is determined by the reader. The reader only gets to recognize, understand, and apply what God says. 2 Peter 1:21 is helpful in that it states that the prophets were carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote words from God. God has decided what his Book will say and what it will mean. I’ll leave this paragraph at that (though much more could be said) so that we can move toward integration in literature and government.

Literature, by nature, relates to words. Its business is words. Government is possibly just as word-driven. Why? Because laws, treaties, constitutions, and orders are all made up of… you guessed it: words.

In literature, reader-response criticism is a theory that basically says that the meaning of a text is the responsibility of the reader; not the writer. It doesn’t really matter what the poet was writing about. The real meaning is in what the reader understands, feels, or thinks. In government, we can see people try to interpret constitutions as if they are “living,” evolving documents. Instead of trying to hold to what the document originally meant to those who developed it, people try to find out what it should have meant or what it should mean today.

Both reader-response theory and the idea of a living Constitution are related to postmodernism. They are both related to individualism. They are both related to human pride. They say, “I get to decide. My will should be done. My preference is key. My understanding is best. I am in control.” However, as Christians, we understand that words have been endowed with meaning. Yes, we are embedded in culture and time. Yes, authors and framers were embedded in their limited culture too. However, God is above and beyond those things. And, as people made in his image, He has invited us to participate in the use of language with Him.

So what do words mean? They mean what the author intended them to mean. God authored the Bible so He determined its meaning. Harper Lee penned To Kill a Mockingbird so she determined what its words mean. Our founders crafted the US Constitution and, therefore, they determined its meaning.

So what are we after when we read? We want to get to the author’s original intent. Why that word? Why that phrase? It might take work to get to the meaning, but it is fruitless to assign our own meaning. We might enjoy the control, but we are sacrificing the truth. Our task as believers and Christian educators is to understand the Author’s original meaning and then respond rightly to it. Literature and government have been battered by postmodern theories of understanding for a long time. What a wonderful battlefield to help our students see why it is necessary to fight to hear God’s voice. It will require us to humble ourselves and submit to his words, but, while difficult, his words are sweeter than honey to the taste (Ps 119:103).

Here are some concepts for future integration.

In literature: What is the role of an author? What are the consequences when we misunderstand a word or message? If the reader/listener defines the meaning of words/messages, can a promise have any value? What is reader-response criticism? How does our understanding of authorship and meaning affect our understanding of the Bible?

In government: What role do words play in laws, treaties, or orders? Can society function if we cannot agree on meanings of the words in governing documents? What is originalism? What is textualism? What is a living document? How does our understanding of governing documents affect our understanding of the Bible?

The Aim of Christian Education: Biblical Integration Around the Country and in Your Classroom

Christian education and biblical integration are diverse topics because Christianity is made up of diverse people and groups. While Christian schools (should) all want to be successful in their missions, not all Christian schools have the same mission. Take a moment to think about the Christian schools in your area: do they all seem to be targeting the same goals?

To illustrate and engage this idea, I have taken short quotes from some well known Christian colleges in the US (feel free to click on the links to see the context that surrounds each quote). I have added emphasis (bold type) and summarized the aim of each one to highlight some key differences.

As you read, please thoughtfully consider which concepts resonate best with you and your understanding of Christian education. (Note: I do not intend to put these schools in competition so that we can decide which ones are better. The goal is simply to engage with many excellent, but different, ideas.)

Biola University

“Learning the art of pursuing truth is, indeed, at the center of a Biola University education. Our faculty teach and model this pursuit in order to develop in our students patterns of thought that are rigorous, intellectually coherent and thoroughly biblical.

The aim: shaping how students think in biblical ways.

Charleston Southern University

“Charleston Southern University has developed a leadership center to build Christian men and women who will lead our businesses, government, education, media, arts and entertainment, churches and families from the foundation of a distinctively biblical worldview; a center that would equip Christian leaders to integrate their faith into every area of life and culture; that would reach into the marketplace locally and globally to engage and challenge men and women whom God has placed there to live out their calling as Ambassadors for Christ.”

The aim: developing Christian leaders who live undivided lives.

Colorado Christian University

“Our undergraduate and graduate curriculum integrates faith and learning in a scholarly environment that fosters critical and creative thinking, academic excellence, and professional competence.”

The aim: creating an environment where Christian growth occurs.

Columbia International University

“Yes, we want students to excel academically, but we also want to help you yield to Christ unconditionally while enriching your spiritual life, achieve your personal and career goals, and practice your vocational skills wherever God leads you.”

The aim: cultivating excellent students who desire to follow Christ.

Gordon College

“Our primary responsibility is to prepare students for the long haul, to make them spiritually, intellectually, relationally and professionally ready for a lifetime of growth—from the first job out of college and beyond, into fields not yet existing.”

The aim: preparing students for a life of Christian growth and service.

Houston Baptist University

“HBU endeavors to bring together Athens, the world of academic learning, and Jerusalem, the world of faith and Christian practice. Faith and learning, so often seen as separate, and indeed as contraries, are deeply embedded in each other at HBU. In fact, instead of two different worlds, they are part of the same world – twin gifts given to humanity by the Creator and Redeemer. Since the book of nature and the book of scripture have the same author, the rigorous study of nature, what otherwise might be called “secular” learning symbolized by Athens, is a unique act of worship.”

The aim: restoring the relationship between faith and academics.

The King’s College

“We educate young leaders to seamlessly integrate their faith, ethics, and morality into their lives and careers. Students are immersed in challenging academic and spiritual study that demands thinking, communicating, and problem-solving with the mind, heart, and soul.”

The aim: educating leaders to practice integration themselves.

Liberty University

[Liberty] understands “education as the process of teaching and learning, involves the whole person, by developing the knowledge, values, and skills which enable each individual to change freely. Thus it occurs most effectively when both instructor and student are properly related to God and each other through Christ.

The aim: developing gospel-partnership between teacher and student.

Clearly, these Christian educational institutions have their own unique goals and character. Each practices biblical integration in its own way. Each is aiming for a slightly different end through a slightly different process. Which ones seem to fit you best? Which ones seem to fit your school? Self-knowledge and understanding is immensely valuable. We need to know what we are aiming toward in our classrooms.

“Truth Isn’t Truth:” Biblical Integration and Telling Truth

One of the prime reasons for biblically integrated teaching is to help students see the world as it is: the real world. Biblical integrators are invested in telling truth. These truths include the following facts: 1) God is the Creator and Owner of all, 2) Jesus is Lord, 3) People are created in the image of God, 4) Our actions matter, 5) There is right and there is wrong, 6) Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, and 7) We are created for his glory. This list of facts could continue to fill volumes, but I simply want to illustrate that we are in the truth business. And we do not want the One who is the way, truth, and life left out of the teaching of his world. However, the wider culture often has a different view of what truth is. Take a moment to watch the following video where a well-known politician states vehemently, “Truth isn’t truth!” (Note: the purpose of posting this video is not related to political ideology, but a more foundational set of beliefs.)

Integrators need to note two things: we are on the side of truth and of the truth. First,  truth is a concrete thing. It is not relative or variable. Truth actually is truth. Second, the Bible is clear that we must be honest and tell the truth. Those who are on the side of truth do not need to take time to get their story straight. They are free to just tell it like it is.

In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey says that biblical worldview is “the imprint of God’s objective truth on our inner life.” Objective is defined as “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” Objective truth is the way things actually are. It is reality. And, as Pearcey points out, objective truth belongs to God because He is the Author and Sustainer of all things. He is the prime reality. He is the realest of real. He is the foundation of everything. A culture that chips away at the concept of truth is chipping away at an accurate understanding of God, ourselves, the world, the meaning of life, true pleasure and joy, relationships, and everything else.

Think about it. If there is no truth, there is no right or wrong. There are no laws of physics or mathematics. There is no true love. Therefore, biblical integrators must contend for truth. It is what we do. We want God’s objective truth imprinted on the lives of our students. When culture-shapers (like the politician in the video) make a case against truth, they are making a case against God and godliness.

In addition to contending for truth as a concept, we contend for the truth in real-world situations. This means that we teach and model honesty to our students. Honesty means aligning our words with the way things really are in the world: telling it like it is. For example, when we share the gospel, we are being honest because the truth is that mankind is dead in sin, but Christ came to save sinners. We are spreading the Good, true News.  Proverbs 14:25 says, “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful.” Truth is life-giving because it rightly represents God, and He is a life-giver.

So in our world that maligns the idea of truth and says that many options could be “truths,” we need to stand up and say that truth is truth. Then we must demonstrate the truth of that statement by living lives of honesty.