Community Engagement for Student Faith Development: Service-Learning in the Pentecostal Tradition

Carolyn Dirksen

Community engagement through service-learning has been a mainstay of higher education for the past 20 years and has increasingly proven successfill in grounding academic knowledge in community experience (Clayton, Bringle, & Hatcher, 2013; Hatcher, Bringle, & Hahn, 2016). These scholars noted that service-learning programs generally have three goals—to impact the community, to provide hands-on applications of academic knowledge, and to shape students’ vision of their responsibility to the common good (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996)—a program’s theoretical underpinnings often rest on one of those goals as primary. This chapter explores how service-learning programs designed to shape students’ sense of responsibility for the common good can also foster their faith development. In particular, it examines natural connections between servicelearning and the Pentecostal tradition, and details how service-learning has been implemented at Lee University, an evangelical university sponsored by the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). After considering the academic, theological, and cultural tensions often encountered when implementing a service-learning program in the evangelical postsecondary context, the chapter concludes by offering a scries of implications for community engagement as a learning strategy for Christian higher education.

Service-Learning and Faith Development among Emerging Adults

As the body of service-learning literature suggests, community engagement has the potential of enhancing the college experience in a variety of ways. In 1995, scholars Stanton, Giles, and Cruz invited 33 “pioneers” of the service-learning movement to reflect on its origins. In the preface to that work, the authors indicated that, when it was first conceived, community-engaged learning had two primary purposes: (a) the pioneers saw it as a way of addressing social and economic injustice, and (b) they believed that the experiential pedagogy would transform educational institutions. Further, those early adopters believed that these two strands, taken together, would strengthen democracy (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz,

1999). Even with these lofty goals, early service-learning proposals faced opposition from traditional professors who feared that the time spent on community engagement detracted from the serious business of classroom learning. To counter those arguments, Eylcr and Giles (1999) presented convincing research that service-learning positively impacted the learning process and brought about significant cognitive gains. Their work also showed that cognitive learning is closely connected to affective learning, and that an affective gain in one’s perception of service includes a significant cognitive dimension. Their findings bolstered the vision of transforming pedagogy and added enhanced learning as a goal of community engagement. Their validation of the cognitive gains achieved through service-learning helped launch a new wave of service programs that emerged on campuses across the country in the early 2000s.

In addition to the goals of improving communities and enhancing content mastery, moral and ethical development is a prominent goal of service-learning across a variety of college types, especially faith-based institutions. In the foreword to Where’s the learning in service-learning? Astin stated, “Many of us who are enthusiastic advocates of service-learning ... see it as a powerful means of preparing students to become more caring and responsible parents and citizens” (1999, p. xi). In particular, service-learning initiatives that focus on developing a sense of responsibility for the common good can provide a useful mechanism for shepherding students through the developmental stages found in Sharon Daloz Parks’s theory of faith development (Parks, 1986, 2000, 2011). Parks posited through her collective research that emerging adults transcend the beliefs of the authority figures in their lives and create their own beliefs and commitments in a world that is increasingly ambiguous, divided, and complex. Parks (2000, 2011) suggested that a purposeful mentoring community can aid in this difficult process and guide young people to create meaning that is personally healthy and that is beneficial to society. Traditional college-aged students often are at the stage she described as “probing commitment” (Parks, 2011, p. 102). Students at this age are no longer bound to the thinking of authority figures; rather their own commitments are vaguely formed and transitory. Breaking away from dependence on authoritative voices, traditional-aged college students are moving toward dependence on their own interior voice, but they often lack confidence, and their inner dependence is “fragile” (Parks, 2011, p. 120). Servicelearning experiences within a university setting can help individual students move from “probing commitment” toward “tested commitment” (Parks, 2011, p. 100) and from “fragile inner dependence” to “confident inner dependence” (Parks, 2011, p. 120).

In sum, Parks contended in each iteration of her theory on faith development (Parks, 1986, 2000, 2011) that young adults construct new meanings to replace the beliefs they have been taught by authority figures. This development is best cultivated in the context of a community of mentors who can purposefully guide emerging adults through the meaning-making process, so they can become confident in their own personal commitments. Faith-based colleges and universities offer natural sites for empowering emerging adults to pursue this developmental task because they present a moral vision of the world, provide an opportunity to explore various ideas and values, and bring together faculty members who care about mentoring students. Although many religious communities can cultivate a fertile environment for faith development, the Pentecostal tradition offers social and theological resources that are especially helpful for constructing such a mentoring community.

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