Faith as Foundational: A Holistic Approach to Faith and Learning Integration
Jeremy Osborn, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication, Cornerstone University
Keywords: Holistic Faith Integration, Becoming, Application in Action.
Cite as: Jeremy Osborn, “Faith as Foundational: A Holistic Approach to Faith and Learning Integration,” Journal of Christian Teaching Practice, 5(1), 2018, https://www.theccsn.com/faith-as-foundational-a-holistic-approach-to-faith-and-learning-integration/
Most of my life in academia has been spent at institutions in which faith integration was not encouraged. For over 15 years (including graduate school), I worked to become the best Communication Studies subject-matter expert, scholar, and teacher I could be. During that same period, I spent each weekend actively serving, teaching, and leading small groups in evangelical Christian churches. Monday through Friday I sought to guide students in understanding and applying the knowledge of my academic discipline, and Sunday I sought to guide my Christian brothers and sisters in understanding and applying the knowledge of the Scriptures. In short, my life was fragmented into the “Christian” component on weekends and the “academic” component during the week.
In 2015 I accepted a position at Cornerstone University, a Christian liberal arts university. That move from an environment in which integration of faith and learning (as well as all other aspects of my job) was not allowed to an environment in which integration was required necessitated a shift in my thinking. As I began considering how to redesign the courses I had taught in a non-integrated way for years, my first instinct was to simply add a Bible verse and some Christian rhetoric to the disciplinary content I had been thoroughly trained to understand and teach. Parallel to the structure of my life at the time, my ideas about integration reflected a fragmentation of faith and disciplinary content.
Fortunately, before I ever actually taught a class at Cornerstone, I sought the counsel of peers with experience teaching at mission-driven institutions. Specifically, I was able to attend a small Faith and Communication “un-conference” in which a group of 31 Christian Communication professors spent three days discussing integration. That experience allowed me to learn from scholars such as Quentin Schultze, Mark Fackler, and Em Griffin. I also studied books such as Schultze’s Communicating for Life and the broader new faculty text Joining the Mission by Susan VanZanten. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to attend several workshops by David I. Smith and found his book, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, particularly influential.
As I soaked in this new information and reflected on what it all meant, the primary insight I gleaned was that integration for these scholars was not an add-on or afterthought—it was infused in the frame used to understand and discuss all elements of both the discipline and of life as a Christian faculty member. For them, integration did not seem to be something they had to consciously “figure out how to do”—it emerged in their work naturally as part of a holistic life in which their faith truly was foundational and not simply one of several “compartments.”
That realization shifted my fundamental thinking about integration and about the various elements of my life in general, ultimately producing an approach to integration rooted in two core ideas: faith as foundational and application in action. From a fragmented perspective, critical aspects of the Christian professor’s life such as teaching, scholarship, and faith are treated as separate domains that exist largely parallel to one another. While they sometimes intersect and influence each other, they primarily involve different frames, assumptions, and behaviors. Adopting a view in which faith is the foundation with all other elements interdependently built on that foundation changes both what one does and how one does it in critical ways.
Two Pillars: Faith as Foundational and Application in Action
Faith as foundational refers to the idea that as Christians, identity in Christ is not one aspect of who we are that stands alongside other equally weighted aspects. Identity in Christ is the foundation on which everything we think and do is built. Applied to the teaching and learning process, this means that faith and Christian worldview are not things we simply place into lessons as equal elements alongside disciplinary content. Faith and Christian worldview form the foundation that frames the presentation of disciplinary content. This framing encompasses all aspects of the learning environment including how particular concepts are discussed, how pedagogical choices are made, how language is used in discussion and written materials, and even how the classroom is physically situated. For example, if I believe a Christian virtue such as hospitality is important for my students to both know and practice, then my class should be structured in such a way that hospitality is not only discussed but also modeled in interactions, examples, language on assignment sheets, et cetera. In much the same way that God is present in all aspects of our lives, faith and Christian worldview should permeate all aspects of our classes.
The second element, application, is one that is present in some form in many classrooms. It is common for instructors to bring theoretical concepts to life by helping students apply them to practical decision-making and analysis. The difference in an integrated classroom in which faith is foundational is in the type and content of the application. In traditional classrooms, application tends to reflect common “secular” cultural values and practices. In the United States this often takes the form of a focus on achievement of individual goals and pursuits. For example, a public relations class may analyze case studies on how a corporation can preserve profits and customers after a scandal. In an integrated classroom, the focus might shift to discussing how that for-profit corporation can act in an ethical and morally-responsible manner during the scandal, or perhaps the example shifts entirely and examines how a non-profit that combats human trafficking can improve fundraising efforts.
Applying the Ideas to the Classroom
Applying these ideas does not require faculty to develop a broad toolbox of new pedagogical techniques. Integration from this perspective is more about simply being perpetually mindful of the overarching goals you are attempting to accomplish as well as how your own identity as a Christian is reflected in the “what” and “how” of your teaching. This does, however, take different forms in each class, and the exact strategies that might be effective and appropriate should be driven by class content and class level, among other factors. In addition, the curriculum in a given program should be intentionally designed so that courses build on one another in a planned way, both for disciplinary content and for areas such as application and spiritual development.
In concert with this, the remainder of this essay presents two specific courses I currently teach as examples of these ideas. One is a first-year, 100-level core course required for all students (Communication in Culture) and the second is a 400-level senior seminar completed by students majoring in Communication (The Aversive Side of Communication). The 100-level course focuses on a mix of public-speaking content and discussion of how we communicate as Christians in our society. The 400-level seminar focuses on the negative, and often destructive, ways humans use communication. Some example topics include gossip, social aggression, psychological abuse, and obsessive relational intrusion (including stalking). In discussing these courses, I have organized the integration strategies into three overarching areas that can be examined for any class: content, examples and assignments, and environment.
The overarching question: Who are students becoming?
In spite of the significant differences between the two courses, both of them are connected by a common thread—who students are becoming. Central to the idea of faith as foundational is the core truth that our identity as Christians is first and foremost as followers of Jesus. Since I teach at a Christian university, this is reflected formally at the institutional level in our mission statement and values. Regardless of the type of institution in which you teach, however, the question of who students are becoming is critical. All elements of your classes should support the knowledge, values, and behaviors that answer that question. In all my classes, my core aim is to help students become fully devoted followers of Jesus and to become influencers in the world for Christ. I want them to possess the disciplinary knowledge and skills needed to flourish in various communication professions, but I also want them to exhibit Christian virtues and habits in those professions (and all areas of their lives). When faith as foundational drives the answer to the central question of who and what you want your students to become, holistic faith integration in the areas of content, examples, and environment is a natural byproduct; your intentionality in design and delivery gives it life. (but it still requires intentionality in design and delivery).
Integration in the Lower Level Core Course
When considering what faith as foundational and application in action might look like in the 100-level Communication in Culture course, there are several key aspects of the course to take into account. The students are primarily first-year students who have minimal experience with college-level coursework and minimal prior exposure to our institutional values and mission. Since the course is required of all students, the range of majors, interests, and experiences is much broader than it would be in a course within the Communication program. These factors influence how the course is designed and delivered and thus also impact the exact integration strategies used in the three overarching areas of content, examples, and environment.
In the first area, content and framing, integration takes two primary forms: integration of specific topics central to Christian worldview and applying a Christian worldview lens to disciplinary content. In Communication and Culture, one of our primary goals is introducing first-year students to core virtues and ideas central to our institutional mission. As a result, there is a very intentional focus on explicit coverage of Christian worldview topics. Specifically, time in class is devoted to discussing topics such as how words have the power of life and death, the role of virtues in guiding communication, and how to navigate difficult conversations with grace and truth. These topics help establish a frame through which students from all disciplines can view communication with others. In other words, these topics not only contribute to the shaping of who the students are becoming, but they reflect the idea of faith as foundational in practice.
The second aspect of integration in the area of content, applying Christian worldview to coverage of disciplinary content, occurs through covering the basic principles of public speaking. As is the case in public-speaking courses at other universities, students are taught how to design and deliver effective informative, special occasion, and persuasive speeches. From the fragmented perspective discussed previously, it would be easy to bifurcate Communication in Culture into the “Christian units” and the “public speaking units,” and this was the practice in the past. In previous iterations of the course, the public speaking chapters and material formed the core of the class schedule with students reading and completing assignments from a separate book that applied Christian worldview to communication. From a faith as foundational standpoint, though, the public speaking components are as important in shaping who students are becoming and reinforcing the centrality of identity in Christ as the more “explicitly Christian” units are. Consistent with that belief, in my Communication in Culture sections the different explicit Christian worldview units are woven together with the public-speaking material, and the public-speaking material is framed differently when it is presented. For example, when covering the basics of persuasion we discuss not only how we might be effective at persuasion but how we might do so in an ethical, other-focused manner. In other words, the traditional disciplinary content is approached in a way that is consistent with the Christian call to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Similarly, that focus on holistic integration is reflected in the specific examples and assignments used in the course. The assignments that accompany the material on virtuous communication are all designed around personal reflection in different areas (faith as foundational/identity in Christ) and applying concepts to one’s life in concrete ways (application in action). Some examples include a week-long gratitude journal, tracking words of life and words of death in conversations for 24-hours, and writing a personal “virtue story.” In their final papers for the semester, students must explain their top five takeaways from the course. These assignments are often cited as an influence on the way students see themselves and treat others. This suggests these assignments are impacting identity and leading to actual changes in habits and behavior. (For example, some students continue with the gratitude journal as a daily practice.)
The problem, however, is that assignments like a gratitude journal may not be appropriate in other disciplines or for faculty in non-faith-based institutions. This is where the critical aspect of framing comes into play. Aside from these explicit integration assignments, Communication in Culture students complete speech assignments with criteria that are virtually identical to those one would see at non-faith-based institutions. When discussing the assignments in class and providing examples, though, I reinforce ideas about virtues and identity. By discussing examples of persuasive speeches that focus on things like spreading the gospel to unreached people groups and promoting pro-social causes, I am shaping the way they think about persuasion and the positive possibilities for applying what they have learned. As a result, I tend to see speech topics that reflect that orientation and reflect the sense of holistic integration that is integral to how the class is taught.
The final aspect of this more holistic approach to integration involves the class environment. One of the primary markers of a fragmented approach to integration is classes where classroom practices are inconsistent with the Christian content being presented. In Communication in Culture, for example, if I am presenting content on gratitude but am doing so in a classroom that is marked by complaining, competition, criticisms, and negativity, those concrete course elements will likely leave a deeper impression than the material in the class notes. In designing around faith and application, the specific practices chosen are, once again, a function of how I want to answer the core question of who are students becoming. Since we are trying at an institutional level to help students become fully devoted followers of Jesus, virtuous communicators, and influencers in the world, I try to design my classes toward those ends.
In the 100-level course, a core discipleship focus is establishing some baseline understanding of core Christian principles, primarily through content; this is established through environment, within a community of other believers). In terms of physical layout, my Communication in Culture classroom is organized into tables grouped to accommodate 5-6 students. Tables are organized into small groupings because this fosters a sense of community and helps students form connections with their peers. Coffee and ceramic mugs are provided each day. This models hospitality and further contributes to the development of community. It also seems to impact students’ comfort level, both with me as instructor and with classmates. Class also always begins with a short time of prayer requests and prayer. This practice, once again, reinforces a sense of Christian community. If I want students to love their neighbors well and to pray for and support one another, they have to first know one another and know what is happening in the lives of those around them. The opening prayer time also reflects the holistic understanding that students have important elements of their lives outside the classroom that impact them, and it is helpful for me as an instructor to be reminded of that. Finally, the opening prayer serves as a daily reminder of the centrality of Christ to everything we do and say, so it sets that tone for the remainder of class. After the opening prayer, the class proceeds with a format that reflects a mix of lecture, whole-class discussion, table discussion, and application activities. This structure, like the other elements, is designed to further foster that sense of community by creating multiple opportunities for collaborative learning and discussion throughout the semester.
When these environmental elements are combined with the content, framing, assignments, and examples discussed previously, the result is a class in which faith integration is holistically woven throughout all components of the course. Everything Communication in Culture students see, hear, experience, and do in the course is informed by and reflects a focus on faith as foundational and application in action.
Integration in the Upper Level Seminar Course
The 400-level Aversive Side of Communication seminar differs from the 100-level course in several important ways that impact integration strategy choice. The students in this class are primarily seniors majoring in either Communication, Strategic Communication, or Broadcast Communication. In contrast to the 100-level students, these students have multiple years of experience in the Cornerstone environment, have more advanced analytical skills, and all share a common base of disciplinary knowledge. As a seminar, the class is primarily discussion-based and has a smaller class size (around 12 students). My specific integration strategies in this course reflect not only these differences, but they also reflect a common concern with helping students become fully devoted followers of Jesus and influencers in their world.
In the area of content, the course addresses a variety of topics centered on the negative and often destructive ways humans use communication. Some example topics include gossip, social aggression, psychological abuse, and obsessive relational intrusion (including stalking). The basic idea that communication has both the power of life and if death is introduced in the 100-level Communication in Culture course, and this seminar allows them to dig more deeply into that truth as they complete their studies at Cornerstone. From an integration standpoint, the focus in the area of content in this seminar is much more on framing than explicit Christian worldview content. This is due to the fact that the senior-level seminar students already have the knowledge base that is not yet established for first-year students and have also been taught to view content through a Christian lens during their time at Cornerstone. As a result, the readings in the seminar class are virtually all scholarly chapters and articles from secular journals and books. Consistent with the faith as foundational frame, though, the content of these topics is discussed through a Christian lens.
One example of this is the use of creation-fall-redemption as an overarching frame for discussions of theories and concepts. When approaching theories in class, I always begin by explaining how theories are tools we can use to explain and predict aspects of our world. Theories do not cause humans to behave a particular way, they simply explain what is already occurring and predict what is likely to occur in the future. Using this as a springboard, I push students to consider how each theory we study reflects both God’s original design for creation in the area the theory explains and the effects of the fall on that area. After establishing those components, students must consider the application-in-action question of how they might act as God’s redemptive agents in that area. In terms of a specific example, if the topic for the day were psychological abuse, students would read relevant literature on psychological abuse, then discuss it using a combination of their thoughts and my pre-determined questions. This discussion would focus on how God’s original design for relationships is one of unity, love, and selflessness, and how the behaviors and statistics discussed in the literature on psychological abuse reflect the fallen, distorted, selfish, divisive nature of relationships in our fallen world. The discussion would then shift to how our choices and communication might serve to restore that sense of unity, love, and selflessness in relationships.
This approach, as in the 100-level course, carries naturally through the assignments and examples in the seminar. The best example of this is the final “guidebook” assignment in the seminar course. In this assignment students create a guidebook that explains each dark side behavior, identifies the effects of those behaviors on individuals and relationships, and presents some redemptive guidelines for Christians as they navigate each area in their own lives. The assignment is designed very intentionally around the ideas of faith as foundational and application in action, as it requires students to examine course topics through a Christian frame and then use their knowledge and perspective to offer concrete, applied guidelines. While the assignment and approach in the 400-level course are different from those in the 100-level course, the fundamental ideas of faith as foundational and application in action still drive what is done and how it is done in the course, with an eye toward who students are becoming.
As with the 100-level course, this all occurs within an environment that is intentionally designed to foster faith as foundational and application in action, albeit in a manner consistent with the unique features and purpose of a 400-level seminar. Class still begins with prayer time, coffee is still provided, and the room consists of tables in a circle or half-circle where students can see all their classmates. There is a focus on Christian community, but since this is a senior-level course for Communication majors who have shared classes for several years already, there is generally a strong sense of pre-established community that simply needs support. Given the sensitive nature of many of the topics and the varied personal experiences students have, the framing of content actually plays an integral role in establishing an environment that fosters faith as foundational and application in action. Beyond utilizing things such as the creation-fall-redemption frame, I am also careful to emphasize grace, sensitivity, and an other-focused orientation in class discussions. In a fragmented class, it is easy to cover the scholarly articles in an almost clinical manner in which findings and theories are simply presented as accurately as possible. In an integrated classroom where love for neighbor and concern for the other is embedded, sensitivity should be higher. There are students in virtually every class with personal experiences in areas such as sexual coercion and psychological abuse. Those experiences are likely associated with a wide range of emotions, some which could be quite painful, and if I am truly concerned with their holistic development and identity in Christ, I need to consider how to frame and guide discussion on that day in a way that allows for nurturing, healing, and answers for those students, all while explaining the findings and theories accurately. Establishing an environment in which each student’s story matters and condemnation, shame, and blame are absent is as core to a faith-as-foundational approach as any particular piece of content. Focusing on the redemption piece discussed earlier embeds an application focus into the class structure as well.
Synthesis and Conclusion
The ideas I have outlined here are, at one level, inherently simple. They do not require faculty to learn new pedagogies, adopt new technology tools, or take courses in systematic theology. Effective faith integration begins with the realization that the place of faith in the classroom ultimately reflects the place of faith in our daily lives as Christians. Faith in Christ is not simply an “add on” to a life we already have. It is the foundational component of our identity as both instructors and students, and it is the core frame for everything we think and do. As discussed in this essay, the integration of faith and learning can be approached from the same standpoint. Christian worldview is not simply an “add-on” to the content already associated with a discipline; it should be the foundational core that shapes and frames the design and delivery of each class. Intentionally focusing on a holistic, applied approach to integration through practices like those described here allows us to embrace our vocation and calling as Christian scholars and teachers and to engage faithfully with our students as we shepherd them through a small portion of their lifelong discipleship journeys.
 Quentin J. Schultze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).
 Susan VanZanten, Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011).
 David I. Smith & James K. A. Smith, eds., Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011).
 The text used was Joseph M. Stowell, The Weight of Your Words (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1998).
 This assignment reflects a focus at Cornerstone on developing Christian virtues in students (specifically justice, gratitude, hospitality, faith, courage, wisdom, self-control, hope, and love). This endeavor is called the Cornerstone Virtue Project. As part of this project, our website contains a “virtue story” written by a former or current Cornerstone student for each of the nine virtues. More information can be found at https://www.cornerstone.edu/why-cornerstone-university/identity-mission-and-vision/the-cornerstone-virtue-project/.
 A good discussion of this approach can be found in Emmanuel S. A. Ayee, “Human Communication Revisited—A Biblical Perspective,” Koers: Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 78, no. 1 (2013), doi: 10.4102/koers.v78i1.549.