Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (February 2012)

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STMs and the "Missional" University

Earl Lavender

What should distinguish a Christian university from any other institution of higher learning? Does it merely provide a Christian setting for secular vocational training, or should it be something entirely different from a secular institution? Scripture gives us the answer: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Colossians 2:3 informs us that all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. Is this hyperbole? Not if one considers the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. Christ is the center of God’s activity to bring into being and then redeem his creation. Christ is over all, in all, and holds everything together (continuing presence). Genesis projects the theme of creation as that which brings glory to God. All was created according to the will of God and it so functioned in the beginning. It was very good. Humankind was created to continue the creative work of God: tending, developing, and filling God’s garden. When sin is introduced into the story in Genesis 3, the consequences are devastating—both to human life and work as well as creation itself. It is the truth of God, the wisdom of God, the word of God becoming flesh that brings back the possibility of creation functioning according to the will of God—another way of describing the inbreaking of God’s kingdom with the coming of Jesus.

So, yes, we may say that all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ. Without him at the center of our worldview, all knowledge is skewed in some way. Knowledge, in and of itself, cannot be of true and full value outside of God’s creative and redemptive activity. Those of us who are believers pursue further knowledge for the sole purpose of making ourselves more fully available to the purposes of the Holy Spirit in all facets of our lives. As Jesus came to demonstrate a life of godly power and direction, he came proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick, reprimanding those who lived falsely under God’s name, giving sight to the blind, casting out demons, and modeling a life of complete service for the good of “the other.” To follow him, we must deny ourselves and daily pick up our cross. This was not only his teaching, it was the essence of his life. He trusted God to lead him to help others through the gifts he was given for that very purpose.

It is this fundamental teaching that ought to make a Christian school at any level remarkably different than any other institution of learning. Every discipline should be taught as the potential expression of God’s continuing creative activity. Unfortunately, all vocations and disciplines (including ministry, perhaps especially ministry) have been badly twisted by idolatry. Christian schools should be training their students to be God’s redemptive response and creative activity in the world, healing its brokenness through the actions and words of the believer. The kingdom, or life under the direction of Jesus Christ, is proclaimed and demonstrated through every “word and deed” (Col 3:17).

It is clear that if Christian schools are to be involved in such extensive and radical life training, the classroom will not suffice. “Life labs” in their various forms are essential. Lipscomb University requires each of its students to have at least two SALT (serving and learning together) experiences as requirements of graduation in any discipline. This involves some form of ministry to others, either domestic or foreign. There are different tiers that are required, meaning one of the credits must come from an entire course which involves ministry activity or a short term mission trip that meets the experiential and study requirements of our SALT program. The idea is clear: no student can claim a “complete” education experience in the absence of applied, intentional ministry.

Lipscomb continues to expand its involvement in STMs. Well over 40 trips are planned every year with more than 500 students participating. The numbers continue to grow as the missional call grows more deeply into the curriculum of each of our schools. The vision is to give each of our students an opportunity to hear the call of God to a life of service for the sake of the world to the glory of God. STMs are a critical part of this experience. The leaders of most groups are volunteer faculty and staff. The majority of these mission efforts are geared towards a particular vocation—medical clinics in various developing nations; working with youth in the UK, Australia, and many other places; teaching opportunities in India, China, the Bronx, and other inner cities; athletic camps for the underprivileged, and countless other missional activities. Their overarching purpose is to introduce or encourage a deeper participation in God’s call of giving of one’s life for the benefit of others. We boldly inform and model that only the life that is lost for the sake of the gospel of Christ (good news of the redeeming of God’s creation through Jesus Christ) will provide true meaning and purpose.

What we hoped would occur in the lives of the participating students has exceeded our goals. While recorded results at this point are mostly anecdotal, we are beginning a quantitative and qualitative statistical study including longitudinal samplings that will provide us with more reliable information. Many of our graduates (some with degrees other than Bible or missions) have continued in their lives of ministry as a result of their STM participation. Others have developed or are developing new programs for identifying needs in the world and recruiting professionals in their field of study to meet those needs (such as engineering, medicine, or teaching). It is particularly encouraging that a growing number of our graduates are choosing to live in mission fields using their vocations—not to support their ministry but as an expression of their kingdom proclamation. STMs are vital to this process.

I understand the negative reaction of some to STMs. They are expensive and sometimes of little value. My wife and I, while doing mission work in Italy, have been on the receiving end of student groups that were less than helpful. One group actually set us back in our community because of the poor attitudes of the students and their lack of desire to work. We, at Lipscomb, have had our share of negative stories and painful experiences. But such issues can and should be directly addressed. Obligatory training for both leaders and students is crucial. Such preparatory experiences should be intentional and creative. Debriefing after a mission experience is critical. We are attempting to do more follow up with our students, helping them embed missional learning experiences into the “DNA” of their lives. STMs as an end in themselves have little value. But as a means to developing in our students a missional understanding of life they are irreplaceable. The sending out of the seventy in Luke 10 was not a one-time kingdom event. We are a sent people – sent out to where Jesus would go with a message of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

The question of funding is another issue raised in this debate. I understand the concern of many that the money for STMs could be used in more “profitable” ways in long-term missions. I would argue that such reasoning is not valid. Very little of our STM funding comes from churches or sources that would otherwise be used for missions. This is not a zero sum game. The list of those contributing to our students is amazing and heart-warming. It consists of cousins, friends, grandparents, the participating students, their fellow students, their places of employment—the list goes on and on. I would suggest this is another benefit of STMs; it is an opportunity for individuals and organizations who would in no other way be involved in kingdom work to participate. Some have continued to contribute to our efforts even after their friend or family member graduated.

I am presently preparing a small group of students and another faculty leader to join me in a week’s work in Dundee, Scotland. I have been there multiple times, both with groups and without. The church is small, but growing and doing some marvelous works. We will have the opportunity to walk into six different high schools in that area and, with the help of the young people of that church, tell the story of Jesus in relevant and meaningful ways. We “older folks” have specific teaching and training opportunities with various groups, some of whom have never heard the gospel. It is a week of intense and meaningful activity. It will be followed up with our students maintaining new relationships via Skype and e-mail. The church will be strengthened, we will be encouraged, and I will have the opportunity to mentor in ways I would never have in the classroom.

The negativity sometimes associated with STMs is not due to their inherent ineffectiveness. In my view, it is a lack of clarity of purpose, or of planning for meaningful activity, or of preparation by those who participate or receive the group. Do STMs ultimately prove valuable in the expansion of the kingdom? After over 20 years of experience, I can say with confidence, yes. Lives have been changed for good on both the sending and receiving sides. Can we do this work more effectively? Absolutely – as stewards of God’s blessings, we must constantly evaluate and improve our work. At Lipscomb, we continually evaluate the results of our mission efforts. Some have been shelved due to ineffectiveness. But new groups spring up every year, many initiated by students, and most continue to expand and improve. The gospel is proclaimed and experienced in vibrant ways, God is glorified, the kingdom borders continue to grow. May God continue to give us wisdom to be faithful stewards of all we have been given. May the call of God’s mission to redeem creation be the purpose of our lives.

Earl Lavender is executive director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality and director of missional studies at Lipscomb University. Born to missionary parents in Italy, he returned there with his wife Rebecca for six years, planting a church in north eastern Italy. They have also been involved in domestic church planting. Earl has worked in mission efforts throughout Europe, as well as Australia, India, Russia, Brazil, Ghana, and China. Earl completed his undergraduate and masters work at David Lipscomb College and received a PhD in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University in 1991. He has written multiple books and published articles as well as contributing encyclopedia entries in several published volumes concerning patristics or ancient history. He can be contacted at earl.lavender@lipscomb.edu.