Masterful Living: Characteristics of Effective Faith Integration

My son asked me, “What will it be like?”  He was just learning how to drive and was quite interested in cars. I had told him it was time to have some mechanical work done on the old car we had.  He wanted to know why I wanted to have the mechanic work on it.  He wanted to know what the mechanic would do.  But mostly, he wanted to know what the car would be like AFTER the mechanic did his work.  “What will it be like after he’s done?”  

            I told him, “The car will run more smoothly; it will get better gas mileage; it will be quieter; it will be easier to start; and it will accelerate better and go faster.  He liked that part.  Knowing the outcome of the mechanic’s work gave value to it in my son’s mind. The outcome was good and desirable so he accepted more easily the fact that we would be without the car for the time it would be with the mechanic.  

            We usually want to know what the outcome will be when engaging in behaviors and plans that are new or out of the ordinary.  It is a motivating factor and it serves to provide assurance that what we’re doing will be worth our while.  Even educational standards have begun to ask for “outcomes oriented education.”  Some struggle with the idea based upon the belief that learning itself is a valuable experience whether measurable outcomes are met or not.  However, outcomes have their benefits.  We give students the expected outcomes for courses as a way to hold ourselves to account for keeping the classes focused.  And it motivates students to engage in the learning process.

            So perhaps it is only natural that we should ask the question, “What would someone look like who is influenced by a collegiate faith integration process?”  We can only describe principles and concepts. But in doing so, we may help to guide the administrative tasks of designing curriculum, budgets, facilities, and degrees. 

            At the outset, however, may I issue a very important warning?  I must admit that I struggle with the very idea of creating intentional faith integration offices, positions, or seminars.  To do so runs the risk of establishing faith integration as its own discipline to be mastered – like biology, communications, business, philosophy etc.  As such, it may become irrelevant and undermine the very thing it is intended to accomplish.  The Academy has a propensity to think, intellectualize, to codify, learn, and to compartmentalize.  Allowing faith integration to become an academic enterprise – just another discipline – misses the whole point.  Faith integration is all about intertwining academic disciplines with the Way of Christ and with real living.  All the seminars, courses, and papers on the subject are vain if they fail to be centered on the vibrancy and realness of Jesus Christ spiritually permeating learning and living.  Faith is not synonymous with theology.  It is the fundamental disposition of the will to recognize the primacy of God and God’s investment in creation – as source — prevenience, and as lord — preeminence.  So, without a spiritual center point, faith integration is just another academic pursuit that can be mastered by the Academy.  Be careful and be on guard.

            That having been said let me suggest 10 characteristics that may increasingly become evident in the life of someone who is walking through one of our Christian schools and is being influenced by your efforts at integrating faith and learning. This priority is very consistent with the general shifts of mindset in the world and in the Church to a more post modern and mosaic approach to life and learning.  The non-sequential and holistic emphasis that young people are embracing today provides a perfect seedbed for the ideas of integrating a faith-filled life with learning.

            Lest I fall into the easy trap of a mid-20th Century behavioral legalism, I remind myself that these are descriptive, not prescriptive. Each is rooted in a Scriptural theme and most have a negative result if taken singularly or to an extreme.  First in the list of ten is:

1.  Transformed Character

            Transformation implies the possibility of multiple options.  Transportation is moving from one location to another; transformation is moving from one condition to another.  The “trans” part of the word implies that there must be options from which we may choose.  So the relevant question is, “What will be the condition of my life and character?”  A transformed character is based upon the Scriptural theme of God’s otherness and of course Romans 12 is a good point of reference.  God is wholly other and invites us to become like Him.  With a transformation in the inner character of our identity through a willful act of surrender to God, we become different, set apart, holy – other, just as God is other.  From this we get our general emphasis on Christian piety which manifests itself in the tendency among Christians to behave in ways that are different from the world.  

            If this characteristic is taken to an extreme or developed in isolation of the others, however, the result can be hurtful.  You can become legalistic and sectarian in attitude.  If all we do is to tell our students that their character must be transformed, they will assume that their behaviors should be different from non-Christians.  So they become obsessed with behavioral differences and eventually they can become fundamentalistic at best and obnoxious at worst.  They will retreat into an enclave of spiritual superiority that isolates itself from the world simply waiting for the day when Jesus will rapture them from this unholy place.  That is not a complete picture of faith integration.

2.  Responsible Engagement

            This characteristic balances the first.  It is based upon the Scriptural theme of God’s incarnation.  Many places in Scripture speak to this theme, but my favorites in this respect are found in John 1, “…and the Word became flesh…” as well as Philippians 2 “…who though He was in the form of God, emptied Himself….”  I have chosen these two words carefully and intentionally.  By “responsible” I mean that people with a faith that is integrated take responsibility for initiating engagement.  Not simply that engagement is thoughtful, mature, or responsible in nature, but that the onus of responsibility for engagement lies with us. 

            When God saw the predicament humanity was in, He took responsibility to initiate a way for redemption and reconciliation.  He took the initiative for engaging with humanity for salvation. Likewise, faith integration at a healthy college or university will increasingly compel students to action.  They will be burdened with the responsibility to initiate engagement with the world in ways that bring good news, hope, and wholeness.  They will not just be set apart and remain in an enclave of spirituality.  They will get their hands dirty in the world.  They will reach out and help.  They will engage in messy situations in an effort to bring Christ and holiness there.  And they don’t wait to be asked.  They take initiative.  They are transformed inside and they take responsibility to engage culture and the world, and make a difference.  They see their faith as more than a set of propositions.  They experience it in relational terms and it affects their relationships with others and the world.

            If taken alone and apart from the other characteristics, this one can easily find an extreme in issue oriented Christianity and mere social action that might just as easily be the task of any charitable organization.

3.  Healthy Relationships

            One of the greatest gifts you can give to your students is an environment where they can develop healthy relationships.  In a world of materialism, secularism, and success, with climbing divorce rates, and self-centered consumerism, young people are predisposed to broken, dysfunctional relationships when they arrive on your campus.  Where Christ is truly integrated into a community, however, they will have a chance to see and develop healthy relationships.  

            This characteristic is based upon the Kingdom principle of mutuality.  The Scripture that comes to mind is in Ephesians 5, “…be mutually submitted to one another as to the Lord….”  Often used for rationalizing roles in marriage, I think this passage is more about mutuality.  The archetype is the theological construct of the Trinity.  One essence, three persons.  Differences yet one.  The three persons of the Trinity seem to find Kingdom roles that are complete only in mutuality.  Likewise the key to relationships that are healthy is “being mutually submitted to one another.”  In that principle there are important points to note.  Humility becomes a virtue; as does honoring others – Christians or not – and treating them with dignity as a bearer of the imago Dei.  And the result is a healthy community that becomes more fully a reflection of Christ.

            The danger in taking this principle to an extreme, however, is the possibility of devolving into group relativism without a center or an absolute.

4. Wise Decisions

            This is one of the top 11 major issues graduate students say they deal with during their graduate career.  This as much as anything motivated Chip Anderson’s efforts with Strengths Finder among undergraduate students in his final years. This characteristic is built on the Scriptural principle of free choice.  It rejects the idea of blindly waiting for God to “do something to us.”  Some folks assume that a good Christian will simply pray about a tough choice, and then sit back and wait for God to act.  That’s blind passivity.  On the other hand, some think that after prayer, they should proceed on the assumption that “God will get His will no matter what we do.”  

            As people are helped to integrate their faith in learning and in living, they take on increasingly mature responsibility.  They recognize that they have to assume responsibility for their choices and there are consequences.  They see that they are walking a journey in partnership with God.  Decisions are not the result of determinism, but of exercising free will in a dynamic relationship with God whom they have invited into active partnership on the way.

            As a result, the decisions they make will not be determined apart from themselves, but they will be informed by the mutuality of the relationship they have with God through Jesus.  It’s like having your best friend always at your side and influencing your choices.  Since God is all wise, when you allow God access and partnership in your decisions, those decisions will be wise.  They will bring life and they will represent good stewardship for the Kingdom.  Wise decisions are the result of partnering with God not abdication.  

5.  Wholisitic Faith  

            You probably know people, as I do, who go to church every week, but live like the devil during the week.  You may see some students like that on your campus.  Somewhere in their life, their faith in Christ has not been integrated.  This characteristic is based upon the completeness of God.  Wholistic faith is completely integrated into every dimension of a person’s life.  It’s not compartmental.

            Imagine a bowl of plain yogurt.  You want to make it strawberry yogurt.  So you put a handful of strawberries in it.  Do you have strawberry yogurt?  No.  All you have is yogurt with strawberries in it.  It isn’t until the strawberries are crushed and the juice and color permeate the yogurt changing it completely that you have strawberry yogurt.  Integrating faith into learning and living is more than adding a few Christian components to daily activity.

            John Wesley’s early methodology seems to indicate an understanding of how this integration process occurs within the growing life of a Christ-follower.  Whether intentionally or by necessity, he designed ways to ensure that faith affected every dimension of a person’s life.  He preached from the pulpit to affect the person cognitively.  He created time for “knee to knee,” “eyeball to eyeball” conversations between people to address the affective/emotional dimension of people.  He spoke to the behavioral dimension by emphasizing the need to live differently in business and day to day activity.  Faith integration results in wholistic living.  The business graduate, or the musician, or the education major will still work hard at being competent in their field along with millions of others.  But the guiding framework that mitigates excesses, and fuels the vocation is faith that has been integrated into all areas of the student’s life.

6.  Purposeful Hearts

            This characteristic is based upon the love of God.  God is love.  The epistles of John lead us to believe that that may be the greatest Divine attribute.  Love is all consuming.  It is a motive, not a result.  Love defines the very core of God’s heart and shapes His purpose for all of His actions in redeeming people.  So when we integrate our faith – our priority on a relationship with God – into the learning environment, we help people to find purpose.  They discover that their heart is transformed and motivated by love.  Not because they have learned it.  But because faith has become integrated into their life and hence God’s love has reformed their hearts with a new purpose consistent with His own. Love.  

            This love is not based upon performance.  It is not an emotion that responds to a job well-done, or a nice gesture on the part of someone else.  It isn’t a reaction – “I love that painting, or that computer, or that car.”  It is a motive; it is love that is based upon seeing others as God has created them – valuable in their own right because they carry the image of God upon them.  Unity amid diversity springs from a purposeful heart of love.

7.  Servant Leadership

            The Scriptural theme here is servanthood.  Again, I usually go to Philippians 2 as a basis of understanding servant leadership.  I had a student come into a class on Servant Leadership and say, “I can’t wait to take this class, because I have heard that Servant Leadership really, really works.”  I knew I had a challenge.  She was seeing servant leadership as a style of leadership to be applied so that she would be a more effective leader.  Sorry to say that is how most of the world is talking about servant leadership.  However, servant leadership is not a style to be learned.  It is a condition of being.  

            The best example is Christ.  He was a servant of God so that He could minister to people.  As a servant, he emptied Himself, and humbled Himself so that the agenda and purpose of His Father could become His.  A servant leader lays down her own agendas and ambitions and takes up the agendas and desires of the master.  Remember, Scriptural servanthood is not slavery.  It is voluntary servitude and fealty to the one to whom you have surrendered.  So the best question you can ask your students throughout their career with you is this:  “Who’s your master?”  Their answer will determine the kind of life they lead since the master will shape the life of the servant. If the master is money – they will become greedy.  If the master is power – they will become abusive.  If the master is position – they will become manipulative.  If the master is self – they will become egotistical.  If the master is God – they will become Christ like.  This in turn will affect the environment and condition of the many positions they will take among other leaders who influence and shape the world.  Their competence will be salted with the agendas and nature of the one whom they serve.

8.  Meaningful Work

            This is another frustration cited frequently by upper division students and graduate students.  They want to find meaning in their work and know that what they do has value.  Those who experience effective integration of faith in their learning process will experience meaningful work.  Not because of a particular job, but because the work they do – any work – will be made valuable and meaningful as they find it to be the result of the call of God.  This is a big concept that we don’t have time to unpack completely here, however the theme in Scripture is God’s call.  It is a matter of people being well deployed in fulfilling what God has best designed them to do.  It is closely tied with understanding vocation as a call.

           Vocation is not just for those who are entering the church world or religious work.  It is for everyone who recognizes that God has made them unique – with personality, talents, gifts, passions, and relationships.  Behind every vocation is the “vocalist” – the one who calls.  When someone enters a vocation, they find meaning by virtue of the One who called them to it.  The outcomes may be varied, but meaning comes from the Caller.  People who integrate their faith into life understand that and embrace work as meaningful – no matter how mundane – because God has called them to it. The results of their efforts may be excellent.  They may even be world impacting, or not.  But meaning and value come from the Caller.

9.  Curious Thinking  

            I particularly like this characteristic because it is so full of life and so epitomizes what our universities and colleges should be about.  This one is based upon the Scriptural principle of the mystery of God.  There is always more to discover about who God is.  He is so great, so unknowable, yet so imminent and vulnerable to us.  This curiosity fuels the troth between the known and the knower.  It drives the very foundations of our educational premise, and especially defines the importance of the liberal arts.  

The person who is allowing faith into their learning process will explore, search, and investigate wherever they can in hopes of finding God there.  These are innately curious people because they know how valuable the One whom they seek really is.  And they understand that they will find God in those places of curiosity.  Curiosity is a gift from God’s DNA upon us.  To follow that inner urge is to become more and more spiritual and more like what God intends for a wholly transformed life.  Shutting down that curiosity out of fear or a fortress mentality causes one to succumb to the pressures of doctrinal thinking and formulaic Christianity that quickly becomes flat lined.

People who live in curiosity approach their discipline and life itself with an innocent wonderment that anticipates finding God’s fingerprints in the most unexpected places, and rejoices in the ecstasy of that great find.

10.  Restored Self

            Ultimately the goal of God’s intervention and involvement in the world was to the end that humanity be restored – personally and corporately.  When God created us, He imprinted us with His image.  That is what makes humanity unique.  And He smiled and said, “It is very good!”  However, because part of that image included free will, humanity chose to abandon that image and go its own way.  God wants to walk with students as persons, on a journey of healing wherein that marred image is once again restored to reflect the very image of God in them.  That is the whole definition of salvation – to restore the image of God in us.  

We are like a mirror.  When God looked in the mirror and saw the Divine reflection, He was satisfied.  Our selfish action of sin was like throwing mud on the mirror so God could no longer see His image when He looked in the mirror.  Salvation is that journey, that dynamic relationship with the Creator through Christ, wherein the mud is wiped off to once again reveal the image of God.  

What greater desire could we ever have for students than to provide an environment where they can walk their path in dynamic relationship with God, and their self is made whole again – so they reflect Christ well.


            When you visit an art museum, you see paintings from great artists of the past.  You may admire them for hours.  Perhaps you admire them for the fact that they are very difficult to paint and you consider them a masterpiece because of the fine strokes and nuanced hues you see.  Or perhaps because of the skill required in painting them.  But the ones that have the greatest value are the ones where you can see some of the traits and characteristics of the painter coming through in the work.  These are the ones that give some clue as to what kind of person the painter was.  It gives you insight into the heart, mind, and life of the painter.  These are the masterful pieces of art.  They are masterful not because they are skillful, but they are masterful because you see the passion and life of the master who painted them coming through. They are master-full — full of the master. The value is not simply in the product, but in the life that is seen in the work.

Likewise, faith integration is the environment you can create in your programs and communities that will help each student to become a masterful piece of art that allows the characteristics of Christ to be seen in them.  They learn Masterful Living.  The evidences of God can be seen in the subtle hues of attitude; in the simple but profound strokes of priorities; and the quiet but confident design of identity.  The distinctive may not be flashy, but deeply evident and gently noticeable if not magnetic to the world.  They are full of the Master, and it’s seen in the artwork of their life.

            Given our propensity to order or codify big ideas, especially at academic centers, perhaps the greatest danger is in assuming that somehow this can be packaged and replicated in a programmatic way.  However, the relational nature of faith integration works against that tendency.  It is not a skill to be imported but a principle that is contextualized.  Students may be on the road to evidencing these characteristics at many different levels of development.  Encouraging them on the way through environment, teaching, modeling, expectations, and behaviors is, perhaps, the most significant contribution we can make.  Progress may be slow and the flowering of these characteristics may not come to full bloom within your tenure with them.  But it’s the hope of a student’s uncharted future as well as faith in God’s nature to find fuller expression in their lives that provides a reasoned motivation to be creative and imaginative in bringing faith into the learning context.  In that synergy, holiness finds meaning and life finds wholeness.  Life and learning were opportunities to become more because it all represented movement toward being a masterpiece – living full of the Master. 

            I pray for 

  • creative thinking in your own life;
  • vibrancy of the life of Christ to propel you to Masterful Living;
  • commitment to these outcomes as a desired future for your students;
  • openness to the dynamic process of integrating faith with learning and living;
  • receptive hearts in your board, faculty, staff, and student body;
  • grace and passion from God to persevere.

            May God bless you on your journey of Masterful Living and especially in leading students into the same!           

Kevin Mannoia