Service Learning: One Christian School’s Key to Discipling Leaders

As Mike Chen, Head of School for Pacific Bay Christian in Pacifica, California, works to build strong Christian leaders for today’s world, he’s particularly focused in an area of education that is often overlooked — service learning.

Service learning is not just an occasional volunteer opportunity or community service day. It’s an approach that’s woven into everything — it’s both integrated with academic curriculum and planned with intentionality to help meet community needs. As defined by the Corporation for National and Community Service, service learning is a way to let students use their skills and knowledge in real life situations that also provides time for critical reflection on what they’ve learned.

Today, Chen is in the Bugallon region of the Philippines, making lumpia — a savory spring roll that can be fresh or fried — with local Filipinos, some of whom are World Vision staff or volunteers. He and Pacific Bay teacher William Duncan are here with World Vision to learn more about how the organization’s work throughout the country. They’re especially excited to visit Pangasinan and Camarines Norte, the two communities their school has partnered with through World Vision Ignite.

Pacific Bay, or “PacBay” as it’s known, doesn’t just sponsor students from Pangasinan and Camarines Norte. Through World Vision Ignite, they partner with these communities for the long term as World Vision equips them to combat poverty. Chen believes that relationships, particularly relationships with people who have different backgrounds and experiences than us — is essential for leaders to be effective in today’s world. Ignite provides a way for Chen’s students to develop relationships with friends a world away, along with lessons from Ignite curriculum that integrate and reinforce this learning in the classroom.

Chen’s focus on service learning doesn’t mean he places less value on academics. PacBay graduates often attend competitive and prestigious universities. Yet after more than 20 years in education, Chen has come to realize that individual character and academic achievement alone are not enough to produce graduates who will impact the world in a meaningful way.

For Chen, service learning is an important way students for students to engage in discipleship. He prioritizes finding opportunities for his students to be mentored and grow in their faith through community. Chen has witnessed the impact of service learning in his students’ lives and the powerful difference it’s made in their faith and spiritual development. In a video filmed for his Pacific Bay community back home, Chen recalls the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, 

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, 

I was a stranger and you invited me in, 

I needed clothes and you clothed me, 

I was sick and you looked after me, 

I was in prison and you came to visit me …

Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Chen tells his students, “This is an invitation. God is calling us to enter into relationships with people who are so different than us.”

He wants his students to consider:

  • Who are the people we would usually write off?
  • Who does our world tell us is less valuable?
  • What would it look like to build real, authentic friendships with people who are different from us?

“My understanding of the biblical concept of love requires two things: one is a deep knowledge of that person; two is a commitment to that person,” he explains.

As representatives of PacBay, Chen and Duncan visited several communities, visited multiple schools, met local children — including their own school’s sponsored children — and saw some of the technologies, like computer labs and tablets for classrooms, that World Vision is helping implement in schools. They also saw some of the various health, safety, education, and income-focused initiatives in action.

For Duncan, it was an eye-opening experience.

“It can be easy to see child sponsorship as us doing something for other people,” he says. Being in the Philippines showed him the crucial role of local Filipinos in caring for sponsored children and giving them access to the education and resources they need.

“We can’t be in the lives of people on the other side of the world in an incarnational way, like how Jesus comes and lives in people’s lives,” Duncan says. “But the Filipinos are here every day, every hour. We’re just coming alongside them as partners.”

Through World Vision Ignite, Duncan and Chen’s students are forming relationships with their sponsored children through email, photos, and video. They also learn about their friends’ community and the realities of their world through Ignite curriculum.

Duncan tells his students, “There’s a whole world out there that, if you’re ready, you can step into. You can engage with your love, your care, with your talents. With your time, with your wealth, with your knowledge, and with your skills.”

High school is full of pressures. Get top grades. Cultivate a long list of extracurriculars. Invest in sports or other activities that could lead to college scholarships. With all of these expectations, it can be difficult for students to find the time to engage in something as basic or seemingly “unimportant” as cultivating deep and meaningful friendships.

Service learning can be a deeply meaningful way to do this, but it must be done with careful planning and intentionality. It’s much more than checking off a couple hours of community service. It’s taking the time to learn more about the world, and to form relationships with people who come from different places. It’s taking the challenge to live like Christ seriously, and allowing this commitment to make a real impact on our priorities and how we spend our time.

Duncan believes Ignite helps students care more about their neighbors in the world — both near and far. He encourages students to stop, take the time to see the people around them, and look for ways to love their neighbor as Christ would. “If you don’t slow down,” he says, “you’re going to miss the opportunities.”