This is the third in a series of reflections on student vocation. I began in February by dipping into Protestant theologies of vocation and noting that the Christian’s basic calling to love God and neighbor in Christ is to be worked out in whatever provisional, specific calling they find themselves in. I pointed out that this suggests that students’ calling is not just something in the future for which we prepare them. At the present moment, one of their callings is to work out the basic vocation to love God and neighbor in and through the practices that make up their life as a student. They are called to be Christian students.
In March, I added the observation that when we do turn our attention to how students live out their faith, we too quickly turn to behavior easily identifiable as religious – chapel attendance, prayer, mission trips, and the like. I offered several examples of students applying their faith to their studies that did not fit this pattern. Students spoke of how they engaged with campus employees, how they managed their attention in class, how they applied their learning to the needs of the world. If we seek to assess students’ spiritual growth only by asking them about their overtly religious practices or counting chapel attendance, such examples are likely to remain invisible.
In this third post I will offer a framework for thinking more broadly about student vocation. This framework emerged out of a project aimed at designing a new tool that might enable Christian secondary schools to assess their contribution to their students’ faith formation. (This tool can be explored here). The early phases of work on this project included a year spent with a group of faculty, student life professionals, students, and high school teachers reading what the Christian tradition had to say about how students should learn. We started with recent paperbacks on how to be a Christian in college, and worked our way back through sources such as Bonhoeffer, Weil, Comenius, Calvin, the monastics, Augustine, and Evagrius. Out of our reading and discussions emerged a loose taxonomy of areas of intentional practice that together might offer a broad picture of the vocation of the Christian student. It later formed the basis of a validated assessment tool developed by myself, Albert Cheng, and Elizabeth Green.1
As is the way of taxonomies, this one could be sliced differently and is a simplification of the reality that it represents. If it is useful, it will be because it helps us remember the big picture while drawing our attention to elements that we might miss when thinking only in wholes. The idea that drove it, and that continued to inform work on the assessment project, was that looking at students’ investment in Christian learning practices might open a fresh window into the interface between education and faith formation. Such practices are an important part of how students can live out their vocation as students. They are also part of what educators specifically can help develop in and among students through their teaching. Christian education is not just about beliefs: practices matter. Perhaps one useful way to think about what makes teaching Christian is to look at the degree to which it helps students discover and sustain the practices that give shape to the vocation of being a Christian student.
What kinds of practices, then, might enact the vocation of a Christian student? I suggest the following as a workable map of Christian learning practices:
Intellectual practices focus on intentional discipling of the mind. This includes direct reflection on the relationship between faith and ideas. It includes drawing upon resources (literature, discussion partners, mentors) that engage the intellectual implications of and challenges to faith. It also includes intentional truth-seeking practices, such as fact-checking, questioning, and working to refine understanding. A focus on understanding a Christian worldview or developing a Christian mind would fit here.
Introspective practices focus on self-examination and discerning one’s own motives. This may include reflecting on motives for pursuing projects or seeking academic success. It may include intentional strategies for clarifying one’s sense of one’s own gifts and contribution. It may include fostering gratitude or wonder or seeking to discern God’s voice. A focus on discernment and repentance fits here, in acknowledgement of the mixed motives, virtues, and vices that drive learning.
Relational practices focus on attentiveness to the well-being of others in the immediate learning community. This may include working to encourage, support, or include other students, especially those who are marginal, and being aware of their needs. It may include learning to navigate cultural differences that may impede the enactment of care. It may include working to help another student learn. A focus on caring for and building connection with others fits here, contributing to the formation of a hospitable community.
Beneficent practices focus on the well-being of the wider world. This may include projects focused on justice-seeking, service-learning, creation care, community engagement, civic action, professional service, etc. It may include various practical ways of applying what is learned in one’s studies to wider needs and constructive change. A focus on “seeking the welfare of the city” though a commitment to service, justice, and shalom fits here.
Formational Practices focus on the intentional cultivation of the faith and virtue that might enable and sustain engagement in the other areas of practice, which may lose their Christian quality if not rooted in grace and belonging. As well as specifically devotional practices, this may include other intentional investments in specific forms of growth that are rooted in the desire to grow as a Christian, such as working to become a better listener in order to treat one’s neighbor better. Explicitly devotional practices such as engagement in worship, devotions, or personal prayer fit here, as do intentional strategies for building capacity for engagement in the other areas of practice.
The goal here is not to describe the whole of the Christian life. The focus is on the vocation of being a student, and so we are looking for ways in which faith might generate practices that touch upon the act of studying. Each of the five areas names a facet of Christian engagement that is relevant to learning environments. They do not necessarily denote separate activities—a particular class project may draw from several at once. They are not offered as buckets to sort things into, but more as a way of thinking more broadly about what might be involved in being a Christian student and what might need to be on the horizon of the educator who wishes to support students in that calling.
Drawing as it does from a range of sources, this map of Christian learning practices can serve as a reminder of neglected areas. It is quite common for casual conversations about faith and learning to cast aspersions on the inadequate approaches of some third party who is too focused on theory, not intellectual enough, too fixated on chapel, not invested enough in worship, and so on. A broad take on the Christian tradition finds plenty of ways for us to fall short and plenty of areas in which we could grow. Those who experience the outworking of their faith predominantly in the care expressed in a warm web of relationships, those who invest their Christian energies primarily in the seeking of intellectual gains, and those who just love chapel can all find here both affirmation and scope for growth.
Where do our students find the impetus and support needed for seeking that growth? What if our calling as Christian educators involves a quest for ways of teaching that might encourage and sustain students in Christian learning practices, supporting in turn their vocation as Christian students?
- For more detail on the research related to the assessment tool and the ideas in this series of blog posts, see Albert Cheng, Beth Green, and David I. Smith, The development and validation of the Practicing Faith Survey. EDRE Working Paper No. 2019-20, 2019. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=3486440 (accessed 9 March 2020). doi:10.2139/ssrn.3486440; David I. Smith, Beth Green, Mia Kurkechian, and Albert Cheng, Assessing Christian learning: Towards a practices-based approach to faith, vocation, and assessment. International Journal of Christianity and Education 25 (2), 2021, in press.