Service-Learning in the Pentecostal Tradition: Lee University
Founded in 1918 as a Bible training school for the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), Lee University has a strongly Pentecostal heritage. For the first 70 years, the university’s faculty and student body came almost entirely from the Church of God. However, since the mid-1980s, that picture has changed significantly to include faculty and students from a wide spectrum of denominations and faith traditions. Over the past 50 years, Lee University has transitioned from a sectarian Bible school to a diverse, comprehensive university granting bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Today, the university enrolls 5,300 students in two colleges (Arts and Sciences and Education), four schools (Business, Music, Nursing, and Religion), and a Division of Adult Learning. It has a Carnegie Classification of Master’s Colleges and Universities—Medium Programs and offers graduate studies in business, education, music, nursing, religion, and counseling. The university’s first doctoral degree, a Doctor of Nursing Practice, was implemented in 2018. It is primarily a residential institution with 800 students in online programs.
Although Lee University has grown away from its original status as a Bible school, Pentecostal theology has left its imprint on the institution and on the service-learning program. As an institution situated in the theological context of the Pentecostal movement, the university is often in a productive tension with the denomination and with the behaviors and perspectives of its students. These tensions will be discussed in more detail in a subsequent section of this chapter, but the service-learning program reflects both the Pentecostal heritage and the institution’s tension with it. Pentecostals arc historically willing to engage with the community and with the wider world. They attempt to maintain “holiness” within the context of the wider culture and not through isolation or separatism; the ethos of Pentecostalism is extroverted and other directed. This propensity to engage has fueled both the service-learning program and the cross-cultural curricular requirement at Lee University. The primacy of emotions also propels students to embrace ideas such as serving “the least of these” without an over-analysis of the cost-benefit ratio. Students who live by the “direction of the Spirit” are easily persuaded to perform acts of benevolence.
However, the belief that a conversion experience literally means the difference between heaven and hell, and that the coming of the Lord is imminent, makes evangelism the spoken or unspoken goal of every encounter for the most devout students and faculty. Furthermore, because Pentecostals believe in instantaneous and miraculous life changes at the point of conversion, sanctification, and Holy Spirit baptism, tension develops between these ideas and the insistence on a model of faith development that takes place over time and through life experience such as Parks (2011) described.
In Lee University’s earliest days, its students engaged with the community as a natural outflow of their commitment to evangelism. They held street services and were regular visitors to the local jail. For many years, the largest and most active group on campus was Pioneers for Christ, an evangelistic outreach organization that traveled on weekends throughout the region preaching on street corners, passing out tracts, and “witnessing” door-to-door. For decades, Lee University students have also taken
Community Engagement 97 sonic interest in the needs of the immediate surrounding community. The university is located in a transitional neighborhood, and students have always been aware of the poverty' at its back door. Prior to the university’s formal service-learning program, students frequently’ took food and clothes to these neighbors, and they provided tutoring and after-school programs for latch-key children.