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Building a Culture of Faith: University-Wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation

Cary Balzer and Rod Reed, editors
Published by Abilene Christian University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Timothy J. Peck, Director of Chapel Programs and Lecturer, Azusa Pacific University

One of the endemic challenges of the modern university system is the fragmentation of university life. Cary Balzer and Rod Reed’s Building a Culture of Faith seeks to help Christian universities address this fragmentation as it relates to spiritual formation by proposing a wide range of collaborative university partnerships. Contributors include a retired college president, faculty members, chaplains, and student development professionals. Most contributors are affiliated with CCCU schools. Contributors range from Presbyterian to Mennonite, Wesleyan to Roman Catholic.

Section One focuses on institutional influences that impact a university’s commitment to spiritual formation. Here the case is made that in the Christian university spiritual formation is everyone’s business. In the first chapter, Bill Robinson, President Emeritus of Whitworth University, argues that the university president models the institutional vision for spiritual formation. Robinson warns presidents: “We are not the best judges of the tones we set, especially for spiritual formation” (24).

Executive Director and CEO of the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Steve Moore envisions spiritual formation as a “living curriculum” embodied in the trustees, faculty, and staff (36). Moore warns; “The road to becoming secular is well-traveled by Christian colleges and universities” (36), and encourages administrators to ask themselves: “What have we learned to insure a different trajectory?” (37). I would have appreciated more reflection on how Christian universities have traveled down this road.

In his contribution addressing different approaches to spiritual formation in the university, John Brown University chaplain Rod Reed explores four different historical approaches to student spiritual formation: institutionalized ethos of piety that characterized early American colleges, student enthusiasm and initiative that characterized the student movements of the nineteenth century, institutional pastoral leadership in a university chaplain movement, and institutionally integrative intentionality that characterizes most CCCU schools (46).

To conclude the first section on institutional influences, Balzer, Director of Faculty from John Brown University, presents JBU’s approach to faculty orientation as a model for how schools can prepare faculty to serve as spiritual mentors to students. Balzer explores the tension between the local congregation and the university in promoting faculty spiritual formation, arguing that it is in the best interest of students for universities to be actively involved in faculty spiritual formation.

Section Two unpacks university spiritual formation in a Christian university setting. In chapter 5, Steve Harper, Professor of Spiritual Formation and Wesley studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, sketches a brief theology of spiritual formation. Drawing from biblical texts and illumined by authors such as N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, E. Stanley Jones and others, Harper argues that spiritual formation cannot exist as an isolated discipline and that it belongs as an integral part of Christian higher education, reflecting what Reed calls “institutionally integrative intentionality.”

In his second contribution “The Power of Context,” Reed argues, “spiritual formation is also a contextual process that is shaped by the specific communities in which it is practiced” (93). Here Reed contrasts the Christian university’s spiritual formation with that of para-church ministries that target university students. Observing that such ministries can sometimes present a vision of formation that contradicts the university ethos, Reed makes the case that university-wide spiritual formation actually creates a “hub” in the university environment. This process encourages “students to explore and challenge the parameters of their faith in ways that many churches [and para-church ministries] are not willing to do” (95). Reed agrees that virtually every staff member, administrator and faculty member ought to be part of this process and calls for greater collaboration between student development and academic affairs.

In chapter 7, Perry Glanzer, Associate Professor of Educational Foundations at Baylor University, presents a historical and theological essay on how faculty can spiritually form students. Glanzer laments: “Higher education faculties have largely abandoned the souls of their students as well as the task of soul care” (121). Glanzer presents a vision for recovering a holistic vision for faculty-involved student development that includes spiritual formation.

Rounding out Section Two, Robert Mulholland, emeritus Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, invites readers on an academic journey of spiritual formation. Building largely upon his previous books,1 Mulholland poses the question: “What is the nature of a spiritual-academic or an academic-spiritual community? Where should the priority lie?” (127). Mulholland warns against bifurcating these dimensions, arguing instead for a holistic vision that locates both dimensions as part of the Hebrew idea of the “heart” (128).

In the final section, “Implementation, Praxis and Models,” contributors provide practical suggestions on how to implement university-wide spiritual formation. President of Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, Keith Anderson suggests insights about higher education that might be gleaned from Clement of Alexandria’s Christ the Educator. Like other contributors, Anderson laments how Christian universities have adopted the modern university system by “dissecting the world of the student into discrete and disparate pieces,” warning educators, “we are less effective when it comes to an integration or ‘re-membering’ of these now-separated parts” (144). Anderson concludes his essay by offering practical suggestions on how faculty members might help in this “re-membering” process. Anderson invites readers to consider applying the monastic vision of “prayer and learning, spirituality and education, piety and work” to the Christian university (148). Here Anderson echoes some of Jamie Smith’s observations of Christian higher education as a kind of monasticism.2 In “Conversation Creates Culture,” Susan Reese, Assistant Professor of English at Portland State University, reflects on how student development professionals contribute to student spiritual formation. Reese notes that these professionals engage with students in a variety of university contexts that lend themselves to spiritual formation: chapel, residence halls, student activities, and leadership development, to name a few (156, 158). Moreover, these professionals bring a unique contribution to the table: understanding of student development. This perspective is important for creating spiritual formation opportunities that are developmentally appropriate for students.

From a faculty perspective, Bob Yoder, Campus Pastor and Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry at Goshen College, presents his findings from original research at GC on faculty faith mentoring. Yoder concludes that students desire spiritual mentoring from faculty but that many faculty members feel insecure about providing this kind of mentoring to students. This leads Yoder to outline a variety of strategies GC has found helpful in preparing faculty to engage students in spiritual mentoring.

Also addressing faculty members, James Wilhoit, David Setran, Daniel Haase and Linda Rozema, all from Wheaton College, propose a typology for “soul projects” that faculty can integrate into their coursework to encourage spiritual formation. These contributors also note the divide between “the tasks deemed appropriate for collegiate curricular and co-curricular activities” that has characterized the university model (191). Utilizing MacIntyre’s definition of a “practice,” these authors argue that spiritual practices associated with soul projects can significantly contribute toward discipline-specific learning as well as student spiritual formation. Moreover, such soul projects appeal to multiple realms of intelligence, encouraging what the authors (citing Dewey) frame as “collateral learning” (194, 196). The authors offer a variety of these kinds of assignments, and suggest specific methods for evaluating these assignments.

In “Tour Guides, Translators and Traveling Companions,” Greg Carmer, Dean of Chapel at Gordon College, urges faculty to work collaboratively with student development professionals. As with previous contributors, Carmer laments the fragmentation of university life, characterizing many faculty members as believing that

if one attends faithfully to the accreditation requirements of one’s own department and to the acquisition of the discipline-specific content and skill by one’s own majors, that the general intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth objectives of the school will be met through other programming (218).

Carmer calls all faculty members to see spiritual formation of students as their responsibility. Carmer invites faculty to view themselves as tour guides who highlight the vast campus resources available to each student (221). He also invites faculty to see themselves as translators who interpret concepts and ideas within their discipline into cognitive habits and affective orientations that are rooted in the Christian understanding of self and world (223). Finally he invites faculty to view themselves as traveling companions, who walk alongside students “on their journey towards greater spiritual maturity” (230).

In the final chapter, Cynthia Toms-Smedley, Associate Director of the Center for Social Concerns at University of Notre Dame, discusses how a university’s partnership with other communities can impact spiritual formation. Toms-Smedley writes specifically of cross-cultural programs, presenting ND’s Migrant Experience Seminar as an example. She notes: “As students encounter otherness, they gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their faith and their world” (234). Drawing upon both Protestant and Catholic spiritual formation traditions, Toms-Smedley suggests that such experiences develop an experiential theology in students that aligns orthodoxy with orthopraxy. Toms-Smedley reminds readers:

For many students, the journey of spiritual formation begins the day they arrive to campus. However, some of the most transformative experience result from physical and intellectual emigration away from the comfortable dorm rooms, familiar methods of learning, and language and cultural constructs. (243)

Building a Culture of Faith provides readers with a multidisciplinary chorus of voices inviting Christian universities to greater collaboration and intentionality in the spiritual transformation of students. Geared slightly more toward faculty than chaplains and student development professionals, this anthology invites everyone in the university to see spiritual formation as their business. One specific topic that warranted more attention was the role of chapel. Although chapel was mentioned in passing by several authors, few paused to reflect deeply on what it means for a Christian university to be a worshipping community and what is lost when a campus ceases being a worshipping community. Although not the only (or even primary) place spiritual formation occurs, a liturgical rhythm of corporate worship provides an environment that continually reminds students, staff, faculty, administrators, and trustees that the university is a Christian worshipping community.

Cite this article
Timothy J. Peck, “Building a Culture of Faith: University-Wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:2 , 202-205


  1. Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996); and The Deeper Journey (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
  2. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Culture Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 223-230; James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013).

Timothy J. Peck

Azusa Pacific University
Timothy Peck is Professor of Practical Theology at Azusa Pacific University.