Institutional Mission in Action
It has been argued that humans need one another for both social and emotional connection, as well as material necessities and financial wellness
(Hollenbach, 2002). Because of this reliance on one another, a commitment to the common good is necessary to achieve a suitable and just life for all while addressing the large-scale social and public problems of the world, such as poverty (Hollenbach, 2002). In addition, it is a commonly held belief of the Christian tradition that contributing to the common good, or the well-being of the world at large, is a crucial activity (Heffner & Beversluis, 2002; Hellwig, 1997; Ray, 2017). Across the diverse denominations within American Christianity, sacred texts as well as modern-day writings indicate that service, justice, and charity are worthwhile and commendable pursuits. Moreover, religions cultivate cultures of benevolence that “orien[t] human awareness and action toward values such as generosity, fairness, and community [and] arc fertile ground for the cultivation of civic-mindedness and engagement” (Ray, 2017, p. 43). In this sense, a Christian perspective is profoundly mindful of God’s creation, recognizing and valuing all individuals’ dignity as well as that of the nonhuman world, striving for wisdom and responsible stewardship of not only self and community, but also of nature and the world at large (Curry, 2002).
In modern Christian universities, the previously mentioned philosophical and theological aspects of the Christian tradition not only enhance the transformational mission of the institution, but also often serve as the driving force for interest in and commitment to social responsibility and justice (Heffner & Beversluis, 2002; Mobley et al., 2018). On campuses across America, many Christian institutions’ civic engagement, community service, service-learning, and volunteerism programs grew from religious convictions and mission-related initiatives that responded to critical conversations surrounding the role of faith and universities in community development (Heffner & Beversluis, 2002; Ray, 2015).
Social responsibility and the biblical call to action are prioritized, while unique theological identities are considered in order to develop programs, policies, and initiatives that appropriately respond to said call, as Christian institutions work not only to educate and motivate students to understand the world, but also to better it (Heffner, 2002; Mouw, 1997). Engaged programming often manifests in a binary model of charity or justice, with charity serving to cultivate feelings of community and benevolence, and justice challenging students to recognize their role in society and determine the gifts and skills they bring to work for the common good (Brigham, 2019). Another key difference between charity and justice is that the latter responds to long-term needs and considers structural injustices while the former primarily addresses immediate needs. However, there are programs and initiatives which foster a spectrum of engagement, both answering direct service needs while subsequently gathering information and advancing collective action with a goal of determining and resolving the root causes of social injustice. Regardless of program design, service is arguably “morally provocative” (Dalton, 2007, p. 1), challenging students to confront and grapple with public problems in the context of their individual faith identity and moral reflection, serving as the root to putting Christian thought into action and/or practice (Dalton, 2007; Schaffer, 2004).
Moreover, when embedded in the academic plan, community engagement becomes a way for Christian institutions to foster authentic partnerships, responding to the needs of communities and individuals while simultaneously encouraging student learning and the development of students’ civic identity. By institutionalizing community engagement, Christian educators arc able to effectively teach for justice, as they provide opportunities for students to understand the world in which they live and the challenges and/or public problems that exist. Therefore, Christian institutions offer a unique contribution to the communities of which they are a part as they are able to draw upon and build on religious social capital (Heffner & Beversluis, 2002; Maselko, Hughes, & Cheney, 2011; Smidt, 1999). By capitalizing on this benefit, Christian institutions arc able to not only positively impact communities, but also ensure their own success and survival in decades to come as they fill the role of good neighbors, working with communities and empowering individuals to tackle society’s most wicked problems in the name of faith and out of an enduring commitment to the common good (Mobley et al., 2018; Trentaz, 2020).
When taking the institutional exemplars of this chapter into consideration, it becomes apparent that Christian higher education—as represented by evangelical Christian and Catholic colleges and universities—is uniquely constituted and therefore positioned for community engaged work. The combination of Christian ethics, a focus on the common good, and the Gospel call to justice makes community engagement a logical pedagogical and programmatic approach, as well as an institutional strategy for developing a sense of Christian citizenship among students. By cultivating this mindset across campus, Christian institutions are able to foster commitments among students that connect to the Christian ideals of service, benevolence, virtue, and social justice.
Through this approach to community engagement, Christian colleges and universities are developing young adults who understand their professional and personal roles as citizens of the world and are able to thoughtfully serve others in ways that consider the meaning and impact of action for all stakeholders. In this sense, the Christian higher education approach to community engagement can and should serve as an example to the field at large for how to contribute to the community in ways that exemplify both mission animation and mutual benefit.