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: Mission Animation: Christian Higher Education, the Common Good, and Community Engagement

Jessica Mann

Religion informs the development of the moral codes, belief systems, and communities that shape individuals’ understanding of the world and their subsequent desire to transform it. Religion, in this sense, not only provides a framework or lens for individuals to make sense of the world as they know it, but also offers messages of hope and action for change toward the common good (Ray, 2017). It is unsurprising, therefore, that religion is a driving motivator for service and engagement and that religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning often mobilize their institutional missions and visions through the pursuit of social justice, philanthropy, and service. Christian institutions of higher education—particularly evangelical Christian and Catholic colleges and universities—traditionally adopt missions and institutional strategies that are mindful of justice and the common good, while subsequently prioritizing student learning and positive community impact. I argue, therefore, that Christian higher education can serve as an exemplar of authentic and thoughtful institutionalization of community engagement for the field at large. The purpose of this chapter, consequently, is to map the landscape of community engagement in Christian higher education by exploring its history, associated professional support networks, philosophical foundations, and theological and theoretical traditions in the context of academic and co-curricular community engagement.

Christian Higher Education

According to Collins and Clanton (2018), the current landscape of American higher education is comprised of over 4,500 institutions enrolling almost 20 million students, with around 5-10% of these students receiving their education at one of roughly 1,000 religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Christian institutions have been founded on a diverse set of historical and theological backgrounds and can be nonde-nominational, interdenominational, or affiliated with a particular denomination (Glanzer, Rinc, & Davignon, 2013). Regardless of their associations, these institutions arc often open to students of all faith traditions; many of those who identify as non-religious are still open to learning in a faithcentered institutional culture (Muntz & Crabtree, 2006). Although each institution has its own unique mission and faith identity, Keller (1988) argues that there arc four essential characteristics of Christian colleges and universities:

  • • The Christian Bible is the foundation for campus life and culture;
  • • There is an awareness and celebration of each individual’s unique sacred being;
  • • There is a sense of community and fellowship that resonates across campus; and
  • • There is a focus on and commitment to positive social change.
  • (pp.117-119)

Christian institutions of all types integrate faith, learning, and living in a way that holistically develops students while simultaneously working toward the common good. The common good, in the Christian view, refers to a collection of factors that support the growth and success of all individuals (Guthrie, 2018). Christian colleges are often “deliberate” in challenging students to develop positive traits and skills such as integrity, reliability, and intentionality in addition to their spiritual and faith identity development (Muntz & Crabtree, 2006). Therefore, Christian institutions are unique in their focus on “theological knowledge, values clarification, and spiritual development” which affords them the opportunity to offer potential students “something finer, more holistic, and more inclusive” (Sandin, 1982, p. 44) than that of their non-religious peer institutions. By offering a curriculum that includes disciplinary knowledge alongside the cultivation of social and emotional skills—inclusive of love and compassion for others—the contribution of Christian universities in the landscape of higher education is distinctive.

Although Christian higher education’s essential function is to educate students in a manner distinctly informed by faith, it is important to note that this process looks different at each institution based on a variety of factors, including university size, type, and denomination (Collins & Clanton, 2018). These nuances of mission mobilization and campus culture arc discussed within the following subsections.

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