The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

You may think that Christian schools—whose missions can often be boiled down to “Serve God, Serve Others”—may be leading the way in implementing service-learning. However, in their new book, Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, authors Lynn Swaner and Roger Erdvig say that often the power of service-learning is unrealized in Christian schools. Instead, it’s more likely that Christian schools have been doing some service activities, instead of genuine service-learning.

Serving or Service-Learning—What’s the Difference?

I am convinced that the phrase service-learning needs redemption—a basic reboot! When I mention service-learning to others, I hear the same mixed and often-confused responses that I mentally conjure up in response to those words. To this end, Swaner and Erdvig draw some helpful distinctions between what is serving versus service-learning. Service-learning is not any of the following service activities:

  • Service hours with no link to the curriculum;
  • Service limited to the inside four walls of the school community;
  • An activity or project that does not provide direct contact with those being served;
  • A one-time event instead of ongoing service (which helps facilitate relationships); and
  • Service that is done from a “charity” perspective, as opposed to community-minded.

 If these kinds of activities—though potentially valuable for students, teachers, and the community—are not service-learning, then what is? According to Swaner and Erdvig, it is “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school.” They explain that service-learning:

  • Connects community service or outreach with classroom learning and the curriculum;
  • Takes students outside of the school setting and into the local community, to address real community needs;
  • Creates authentic, meaningful relationships between students and those being served; and
  • Increases and enhances student learning, as well as students’ desire and ability to serve others.

 They further suggest that the true purpose of service-learning is “to address real needs of the community partner” (bold emphasis mine).

They also provide two key questions for administrators to help us differentiate and further develop our understanding of service-learning:

  • The first question is, “Are the service opportunities offered by the school also available to students in other settings, such as their churches, youth groups, or families? (Food and clothing drives are good examples of fairly universal service activities.)” If the answer is yes, then what’s being offered might not be genuine service-learning, as it does not harness the educational power of the school.
  • Conversely, and second, “Is there a meaningful connection between current service opportunities at the school and ‘real work’ of learning in the classroom?” If the answer to this question is yes, then the odds are that true service-learning is happening.

If as faith-based schools this is a critical outcome of our missions, we need to redeem the term service-learning and do it right.

The Promise of Service-Learning

With this clearer picture of service-learning in mind, we can better answer the question of why exert the effort of engaging in service-learning (which the authors do not shy away from saying is resource- and time-intensive). Swaner and Erdvig present research that points to multiple benefits to students who engage in service-learning, such as positive gains in: 1) academic achievement, 2) civic engagement, 3) beliefs and values, and 4) leadership, spiritual, and personal development. All of these are in line with the mission statements and desired student outcomes of Christian schools.

Along those lines, I appreciate that, in the section on national service-learning standards, the authors have also formulated supplemental standards appropriate for Christian education. These standards articulate four additional areas: 1) Christlikeness, 2) worldview development, 3) servant-leadership, and 4) lifelong service. While service-learning is well-practiced in many different educational settings, it not only can find a place in Christian schools, but also is well-suited to what we wish to see in students’ learning and spiritual formation.

Ultimately, service-learning can help students to grow in their identity in Christ, and in their ability to be His agents of restoration in a broken world. They can learn about how they are uniquely created for good works (Ephesians 2:10) and can gain practical experience in walking in those works, with Christian school teachers as helpful mentors and guide.

In fact, I will take the risk to suggest that genuine service-learning exemplifies the best aspects of deeper learning—learning through real work—the endpoints of project-based learning and what is called FLEX (Formational Learning Experiences) in the TfT (Teaching for Transformation) model. Christian schools serious about increasing student engagement and mission distinctiveness through deeper learning for their students would be well served by this book, in shaping and re-shaping service-learning at their schools.

[Editor’s Note: This post is co-published by the CACE blog and the ACSI blog in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]

About the Author

Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting DB Consulting in May 2010, he served as vice president of Learning Services and director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. Dan regularly presents on teacher evaluation and professional growth, curriculum design, school improvement, technology integration, faith integrated learning, and student faith development at regional, national, and international conferences. He is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning published by Corwin Press. He can be reached via email at

“Now or Never” – The Research Basis for Innovation in Christian Schools

“Now or Never” – The Research Basis for Innovation in Christian Schools

In Schools at Risk: An Analysis of Factors Endangering the Evangelical Christian School Movement in America (Nichols 2016), I investigated the nature, causes, and contributing factors to Christian school closures in the U.S. since 2006. A goal of the study was to identify implications for practice that these factors held for the future, as well as develop a set of recommendations to address this issue of school closure.

Ongoing Threats

The findings revealed that a confluence of significant factors combined, converged, and intersected to contribute to the closure of Christian schools, with a number of these indicators appearing two full years prior to the recession of 2008. These ongoing threats to our schools include:

  • financial stresses;
  • changing parental expectations;
  • cultural shifts;
  • failure of schools to detect and effectively deal with danger signs;
  • repetitive inaction or failure to act in a timely manner in the face of threats (or what I termed “repetitive inaction disorder”);
  • resistance to change at the school site level (e.g., lack of innovation, reinvention, and retooling for 21st -century educational challenges);
  • changing patterns of evangelical church attendance;
  • failure of leadership at the school site level (especially school boards and unsupportive pastors); and
  • failure of schools to effectively market themselves.

These are exacerbated by additional factors related to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession such as: the continuing rise of charter schools, homeschooling, and online K–12 schools; challenges to sustaining school mission; loss of homogeneity of vision and culture at the school site level; and competition from other Christian schools.

Getting to the Root Cause of School Failure

A major overarching finding across the research was that nearly all factors identified by participants invariably intersected with and were related to either: (1) leadership failure at the school site level; (2) cultural changes; or both.

Key to both leadership failure and cultural change was the seeming inability—or unwillingness—of Christian schools to adapt and change to the shifting social and educational landscape in the U.S. In fact, the study’s respondents saw this as a greater problem for schools now than it was a decade earlier, underscoring the degree to which many of our Christian schools have dug in their institutional heels and refused to change. But why?

Marsh (2007) and Wilson (1989) pointed out that when the conditions of an educational environment change, schools are faced with a dilemma. They can retrench themselves in longstanding and familiar ways of behaving, or they can soberly examine their own organizational behaviors and make the changes necessary for institutional success. Failure to do either can have negative effects throughout a school system.

This failure was evident in the research as a contributing cause to the closures of Christian schools. Ritzema (2013) stated in prophetic-sounding terms that unless Christian schools—meaning Christian school leaders—take note of the changing cultural, educational, and technological landscape of the 21st century and take action by innovating, retooling, and reinventing themselves, he predicted more schools would continue to close. He further asserted that it cannot continue to be educational business as usual; Christian schools can no longer simply open their doors and expect people to flock to them in huge numbers as happened three and four decades ago. For good or for naught, a new day has come. New methods are required.

Underscoring this reality, Frost (2015) found that one of the problems endangering Christian schools is the stubborn determination to perpetuate the status quo, rather than using inspiration to build the future by being creative and innovative while staying true to core Christian beliefs. He asserted that resisting educational innovation by hiding behind the misguided notion that remaining the same will preserve a school’s values only hastens decline. Failure to embrace new educational practices that can stimulate progress will prevent growth that is essential (Frost 2015, 2014).

Change, Innovate, Think Entrepreneurially—Now

The findings of the study led to several crucial implications for practice. Not surprisingly, one of those implications was directly tied to leadership’s ability to innovate: Christian schools must be willing to change, innovate, and think entrepreneurially, and then follow through with effective, timely action. This includes embracing technology, innovation, and instructional techniques to develop 21st-century skills in both students and staff members.

But it also means re-envisioning, reinventing, and retooling everything we do as Christian schools, eliminating silos and collaborating as we lean into the Holy Spirit and press into the future together. It means being willing to try new things, being willing to fail and then re-attempt. It means being “all in.” It means having a growth mindset as schools and as an entire movement, re-creating an educational culture that desires to be at the leading edge of not simply 21st-century learning, but rather biblically permeated 21st-century learning—with an unquestioned and unsurpassed commitment to excellence for the glory of Christ and the good of our kids.

Learning From One School’s Experience

At Alta Loma Christian School, that has meant the following:

  • inhaling new God-honouring research (e.g., the 2017 ACSI-Barna Group study: Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Options in a Changing Market; the joint Impact 360 Institute-Barna Group study: Who is Gen Z);
  • embracing new instructional approaches and embodying a new pedagogy;
  • modifying our vision statement and our Expected Learning Outcomes;
  • changing how we conduct an open house, redesigning our website and all of our promotional materials, and rewriting our advertising copy to retarget both millennial parents and Generation Z students; and
  • broadening our collaborative network of like-minded educators and sharing what we’re discovering in dialogue with the movement at large.

By engaging in these efforts, we’ve essentially transformed our entire school culture. We have been working the fields, and now God is bringing the rain: as we opened a new school year in August, we have experienced an 11.7 percent increase in enrollment compared to last year. In a marketplace with 44 private schools within nine miles of our campus, we consider that miraculous. But it also underscores to our school how truly non-negotiable change and innovation are right now.

To be clear, the urgent necessity to innovate and embrace change is not about the integration of educational technology or developing flashy new programs; it is about a return to institutional creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, empowered by God, that once marked the Christian school movement decades ago when it experienced remarkable, unmatched, meteoric growth. Now in a culture and global community marked by rapid change and post-Christian drift, we must rekindle and reignite our passion as Christian schools for change and innovation, especially in light of our divine mandate to be transformational change agents in the world.

Editor’s Notes:

This post is co-published by the ACSI blog and the CACE blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.

Interested in learning about innovation in Christian schools with colleagues from all over the world? Consider attending the 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) in San Antonio, January 30–February 1, 2019.


Frost, G. 2015. Does your school have a future? Christian School Educator 18(3): 6.

Frost, G. 2014. Learning from the best, volume two: Growing greatness that endures in the Christian school. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI.

Marsh, J. A. 2007. Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nichols, V. E. 2016. Schools at risk: An analysis of factors endangering the evangelical Christian school movement in America.ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (UMI No. 10160167).

Ritzema, R. 2013, October. Regional director’s report. Presentation delivered in Temecula, CA, to the Southern California District 4 meeting of the California/Hawaii region of the Association of Christian Schools International.

Wilson, J. Q. 1989. Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it. New York: Basic Books. In J. A. Marsh Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community, 101. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

About the Author

Dr. Vance Nichols is the head of school at Alta Loma Christian School (Rancho Cucamonga, California). He concurrently serves as adjunct professor of education at California Baptist University, and was an educational researcher, organizational leadership theorist, and 2015 Innovation Scholar at the University of Southern California, where he earned his EdD. Now in his 36th year as an educator, he co-authored Purposeful Design’s Elementary Bible curriculum, serves on the ACSI Southern California Regional Accreditation Commission, and speaks, writes, and collaborates to help reignite the Christian school movement in America. His school was recently honored by state, county, and local officials for educational innovation, including teaching computer coding to every student in their school system—starting in preschool. He can be reached via email at