Why The Church Should Be More Like a Liberal Arts Education

Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications

This past June, I traveled to Princeton for a conference and brought along my thirteen year old daughter and my seventeen year old niece. While there, we went on a campus tour, and though admittedly I’m already a die-hard fan of liberal arts education, and Princeton is one of my favorite places, the campus tour only solidified my adoration. It also made me think about spiritual formation and education, and how we could learn a thing or two from bastions of learning like Princeton. Here are 3 reflections as they pertain both to education and faith:

Broaden your purpose. Our tour guide was a young man who was studying engineering primarily, but also drama, because, he said, Princeton really encourages you to study what you love and what you are interested in, even if it doesn’t relate to the career or job you think you might have later. He probably wasn’t meaning to provide a street-level definition of a liberal arts education, but that’s what he did. The difference between vocational/technical school and liberal arts is that one teaches you specific tools to do a specific job, and the other teaches you how to become a certain kind of person- inquisitive, engaged, logical, well-rounded, wise. Certainly, some people thrive at vocational schools, and I’m grateful for them. The problem, as I have noticed, is that nowadays most parents I know speak about all universities in vocational school terms. “He’s looking at X because they have internships set up with Y company,” or “graduates of X make more money.” I’m sure that’s all true; it’s just not the point of going there. Or, at least it shouldn’t be, if it’s a university and not a vocational school. The goal of a university degree is to make you a more learned person, not a more employable one. By becoming a more learned person, you should by default also become employable, but if we switch the two in priority, we lose something deeply valuable. We have exchanged the virtues of learning and truth-seeking and beauty-appreciating for income-earning potential.

The church, too, has slowly been sliding toward vocational school sensibilities. Many churches focus on teaching specific tools or making sure people believe certain things. They spend the vast majority of their energy and time on tools that teach people to do X or not to do Y. Again, this all has its place, but the purpose of a community of faith is so much bigger than that. The purpose of church is to teach you how to become a certain kind of person- wise, gracious, prophetic, forgiving, patient, loving, just, principled, centered. By becoming this kind of person, you will by default also learn specific tools (and need them), but if we switch the two, we lose something deeply valuable. We lose our own center as people of faith. We lose the wholeness of the thing. (And yes, I know the church is meant to bear witness in the world, but you cannot bear witness to anything unless you are actually becoming that thing, so again, focus on forming people. Go ahead and use actions to do that, though, obviously.)

The church is intended to be more like a university than a technical school. If you look at the life of your church, which one is yours?

There is a way to be both deep and wide. As our tour guide came upon Firestone Library (11 million books on campus…swoon), he explained the Princeton senior thesis, which is a capstone project each student must complete before graduation. Basically, every Princeton student graduates having done a shortened version of a PhD thesis. (years of classwork, your thesis idea, research, thesis organization, thesis writing, defense of thesis.) What this means, when it all comes down to it, is that Princeton graduates are smart, agile, inquisitive learners who also know how to take an idea from a stage of inquiry to a finished paper, with heft. They are both widely read and educated, and deeply knowledgeable in one or two areas and one specific thesis topic. Education that is both deep and wide: that’s a worthy goal. Too often, we sacrifice one for the other, and let’s be honest- we sacrifice depth for width nearly to exclusion. And when we choose width, we often do it randomly, or subconsciously, which is the same thing. We just zip from this thing to that thing to that article to…squirrel! It’s no wonder we have a preponderance of spiritual infants and toddlers running around throwing tantrums on Facebook. There is a difference between believing five things and believing five things that actually make sense and relate to one another.

Again, this is an issue of wholeness. When we teach width, we can find our way toward depth if we teach it in view of our bigger purpose. We do so on the way to something, not as an end in itself, or as, God forbid, something to be checked off the list. That’s why Princeton doesn’t much care what exactly you’re learning, as long as you’re learning well. It will all move toward the end goal if, as you go, you are learning logic and ethics and reason and imagination and connecting the dots across disciplines. Case in point: I have never in my life met someone who is widely read who is not also sufficiently deep. Never once in my life.

As this pertains specifically to the life of the church, it might again behoove you to take a gander at your calendar, and your multi-year vision, if you have one. Are you moving with purpose toward the higher goal? Is your width intentional, so that it moves people toward depth? To put it another way: if someone comes to your church for 5 years, is there a way for her to grow beyond where she was in the first year? (Also: what about you, pastor?!)

Learning Takes Time… There is no mentor in the history of ever who has looked at his apprentice and said, “Just take this test and do this project and we’ll be done here.” Learning takes time, just like discipleship takes time. It’s slow and arduous. It’s inefficient, which is a cardinal sin to most Americans. When one of my children asks why they have to learn this math concept or learn about the Spanish-Indian War, I tell them it is not about the specific thing but about a much bigger thing, which is being a broadly educated person. Complain all you want, I say, but these foundational classes and topics are prerequisites for being truly educated. Liberal arts is not an industrial factory line. It’s more like an art studio, where there’s just no way to rush that sculpture to completion. There are no shortcuts, and if there were, I’d strongly advise not taking them.

…and money. Consider the question being asked most often of college today: is it worth the investment for what we get out of it? (To be fair, this is a justifiable question to ask with skyrocketing student debt and admittedly so many sub-par college experiences. I’m not going to delve into that here, but I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t ask that at all.) The thing is, as I was strolling around Princeton, I knew it would cost 100K/year to send my child there, and I knew there was no sure-fire way to say it would be paid back in my child’s eventual income earnings, even if we could somehow miraculously afford it. But when push comes to shove, if you ask me if that type of education is WORTH that amount of money? I’d turn into a MasterCard commercial and emphatically say, “priceless.” Living with a diverse set of peers, learning from that many top-notch professors in one community, focused on a small classroom environment (30-40 people is considered a big class at Princeton), engaged in interdisciplinary excellence for four formative years in young adulthood? How do you even put a price tag on that? 

I get asked on occasion what I think about seminary education as an emerging church person, and people are often surprised to hear me so vehemently advocate for seminary. I know it’s costly- both of money and time. But there’s just no way I’d be in favor of short-circuiting the kind of rigorous, community-centered education I think is imperative to forming good pastors. Yes, it takes time. Yeah, it also takes a lot of money. But that’s because it does something that online courses and reading on your own just will. not. do, no matter how much we want them to. I realize this creates all kinds of problems, from student debt to institutional financial insecurity. I admit I have no answers for that. But I don’t think we should KID ourselves by saying other forms of education produce the same results. They don’t. Not yet, anyway. We should look at revamping some aspects of seminary education. But whatever answer we devise, if it’s worth anything, is still going to take time and money, because you can’t rush formation. 

I realize this is the crux of the issue for many churches today: what we do doesn’t really “make” money. Look, I get that. But I don’t think the answer is to imitate churches that make money by being overly committed to width over depth. Because if we’re just going to use that money for bad spiritual formation, what’s the point? I think faith comes in here, where we trust that doing what we feel God asks and aligning ourselves with the highest values will somehow, some way, allow us to continue the work. Maybe the biggest shift there is in reminding people of the value of this slow, deep spiritual work, so that we all give toward it because we know it is so centrally important. It’s priceless.

Size DOES Matter. And smaller is better. One of my favorite contributions Princeton has given to us is the precept. (And yes, I know, it was loosely based on the tutorial system in Oxford/Cambridge, so yet another reason to tip our hat to them, too.) You might be interested to know that former Princeton President and US President Woodrow Wilson came up with the precept format in 1905 to make the learning process more engaging and provide more depth to the material. Here’s how it works: a student attends a lecture once a week (again, 30-40 students max), and then attends a smaller group that same week to discuss the material more in depth. The smaller group is your precept, and it’s where you deeply engage concepts. Princeton Seminary follows the precept system also, and I found them to be a great place to process all the quickly-amassed new knowledge alongside my peers. Of course, nowadays most educators have recognized the value of interaction and discussion and have done away with the strict lecture format. When students engage meaningfully with ideas, they remember it, and make connections.

This is actually great news for those of you who pastor smaller churches, which, by the way, is the vast majority of people. If you have 30-40 people in your worship gathering, and weekly small groups deeply engaging in study and/or spiritual formation, you are in the formation ZONE. I know many of you small church people compare yourselves to our big church siblings sheepishly, but hear this: you have what you need to do your job well. You have the most important thing, which is space and size that allows deeply engaging spiritual formation. Smaller churches have so many more opportunities to engage people in worship. In my church, there’s hardly a Sunday where someone in my family isn’t doing a reading or serving communion or taking up the offering. Good church is always participatory (I wrote more about that here), and the more participatory the better. That consistent participation is deeply formative, and it’s one of the biggest gifts small churches have to offer. Of course this makes perfect sense. When I compare my 100+ person college classes with my 10+ college classes, guess which one has content I remember?


It’s unlikely my children will be Ivy League students, and that’s fine. Princeton excels at what it does, and it has to turn away a lot of students to keep the environment and size that allows it to do so. The good news for us is that Princeton is not the only place with liberal arts sensibilities. Here’s what I do know: If my goal as a parent is to help my children become principled, centered, learned, wise people, I’m committed to finding environments that are mindful of the whole person. That is true of their schools, and it’s true of their church.

In this sense, maybe the biggest goal of the church in this time of great uncertainty isn’t reinventing much of anything as much as returning to the roots of what has always produced another generation of disciples: healthy, holistic spiritual formation. I’m not sure why or when we decided to put our efforts anywhere else in the first place, but it’s high time we find our way there again.






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