As the head of a Christian school, one of my top goals is to graduate leaders of competence and character who will be compelling examples for Christ in today’s turbulent world. To achieve this, we strive to impart academic and spiritual knowledge that sharpen students’ minds and instill curiosity. We discuss pressing community and world issues as students engage in practical service opportunities, cultivating their compassion and empathy. These are core ingredients of a Christ-centered education. But, I’ve also come to recognize another often-overlooked, yet critical ingredient: learning to know and love people who are different from us through the development of authentic, committed relationships.

This concept is articulated by Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian and missionary:

Service-Learning in Christian Schools “But there is another kind of knowing…It is the kind of knowing that we seek in our relations with other people. In this kind of knowing we are not in full control. We may ask questions, but we must also answer the questions put by the other. We can only come to know others in the measure of which they are willing to share. The resulting knowledge is not simply our own achievement; it is also the gift of others” (Newbigin 1995, 10).

It’s this type of “knowing” that I see as crucial for my students to develop.

Our turbulent world is full of broken relationships. We are often surrounded by only the voices with which we already agree, making it easy to just ignore or write off people with different perspectives. Yet, Christ calls us to something different—to love our neighbors as ourselves. To be effective, Christ-centered leaders, we must equip our students to lovingly engage with people who come from communities, life experiences, and perspectives different from their own—without presumption or expectation, but rather with the desire to truly know them.

Learning to “Know”: Relationship-Based Service-Learning

There are many ways that I seek to integrate the practice of “knowing” others into both my school’s culture and curriculum. One approach I want to lift up is relationship-based service- learning. Service-learning is defined as “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school” (Swaner and Erdvig 2018). Studies identify several elements foundational to service-learning. These elements are: service participation of students; identified needs of the community; and integration of service and academic objectives (Shumer and Belbas 1996).

I have found that service-learning is most powerful when opportunities intentionally facilitate the development of meaningful connections and relationships to deepen “knowing” others in a lasting way. When I taught in Boston, our school took students to Nepal every summer for 10 years. On our trips, students shared meals with local families, organized community soccer tournaments, and threw birthday parties for children at the orphanage with which we partnered. Students and supporting teachers heard honest insights from local organizations, leaders, and community members on how we could best serve—and they shared these insights with us because they knew and trusted that we were with them for the long haul.

Some students went for repeat summers because of their relationships with individuals and organizations that they worked with and served. And, though only eight to 10 students went annually, our entire student body knew the names and stories of the people that we met and partnered with because we intentionally told their stories, raised money for them, remembered them in corporate prayer, and stayed connected with them until we met again.

This is the essence of relationship-based service-learning: building committed relationships with communities that we partner with and serve, not just during the service project, but in ongoing ways. When done well, the impact goes beyond the typical one-off service project that gets relegated into students’ memories as a “great experience.” Instead, students are more likely to meaningfully contribute to the communities they intend to serve; and, students’ empathic capacities are expanded as they connect with people during their service-learning experience and are also continually challenged to “know” those they meet—by remembering and standing in solidarity with them through relationship and justice action over time.

Avoiding Unintentional Harm

Relationship-based service-learning supports the development of young, resilient Christian leaders as they formulate their own understanding and empathy for the deep needs of the world. Yet, when the “relationship-based” aspect of service-learning is absent, it can unintentionally cause harm—both to communities being served, and in the discipleship of students. If service-learning is designed as a one-time experience without intentionally planning for continuity and relational commitment, it can be easy to lose sight of the real lives being impacted by our good intentions.

Students may come back from these experiences idealizing the people they met and overestimating the impact of their efforts without recognizing the complicated, lengthy, and iterative process of development work. Or, they may return discouraged because hoped-for change was not yet achieved, without recognizing that the impacts of service-learning might not be evident until years later. With relationship-based service-learning, schools can learn about and witness the non-linear development process and, with a long-term commitment, often see how seeds sown years before might begin to bear fruit.

Also, without relationship and trust, communities served by traditional service-learning efforts may feel reduced to “subjects” in a school project. I’ve heard many communities express that they feel “forgotten” by service and missionary organizations that bring volunteers to “serve” in the communities. They experience a constant churn of outsiders that enter their community but are never seen or heard from again once assigned projects are completed. When this happens, we miss the opportunity to share the fullness of Christ’s love, compassion, and justice to the people impacted through our service and actions. And, we miss the opportunity to grow in our own understanding of “knowing” others.

One Approach: Pacific Bay Christian School

As the new head of school at Pacific Bay Christian School in California’s Bay Area, I have explored new opportunities for relationship-based service-learning. One program that centers relationships in its service-learning philosophy is World Vision Ignite, which pairs schools in the U.S. with partner schools or partner communities in another country with the goal of mutual transformation. The program and curriculum work uphold the goal of combating global poverty, while supporting the development of globally and justice-minded students, school leaders, and staff through long-term relationships with friends around the globe.

In the coming years, we will partner with World Vision Ignite to integrate service-learning into our curriculum and school culture. Our focus will be in the Philippines, and our school community will connect with local communities in many ways. In sponsoring a group of children in a Filipino village, we read their stories, see their photos, and exchange letters with them to build relationships. Our students from kindergarten to 12th grade are taking ownership of this effort to know and care for the sponsored children, like sending birthday presents and taking the initiative to donate livestock to the village. In October 2019, our school will host a 6K run to raise additional funds for these children and raise awareness in our local community. We are also offering Advanced Placement Human Geography for our next school year where we will intentionally learn about our sponsored village and the surrounding community to connect academic learning to the real lives that we care about. Throughout, we are exploring opportunities to virtually build relationships with these children and our partner community through live-stream. And all of these efforts will prepare us for the launch of an annual service-learning and vision trip to the Philippines in summer 2020, where our students and the sponsored children and village will meet and engage in person.

This is just the beginning of our planning, and we know our approach will evolve over time as we learn more about how to serve and love our sponsored village more effectively. We as a school are committed to build this partnership over time, and not jump from issue to issue or community to community. We aim to cultivate a deep sense of “knowing” these brothers and sisters.

Questions to Consider

As your school explores relationship-based service-learning and consider programs, I encourage you to keep these key questions in mind:

  • Who are the partners (individual or organizations) that can invite you in and provide ongoing local perspectives to the communities that you will serve?
  • How do these partners engage local leaders and community members in collectively owned actions to address injustices, alleviate poverty, and promote overall well-being—whether economically, socially, spiritually, or physically?
  • How will you demonstrate commitment over time to a cause or community?
  • How will you remember the individuals and communities that you meet, continue to learn to “know” them, and practically stand in solidarity with them beyond the actual service-learning initiative?
  • How will you bring the whole student body into active partnership with partner communities and help them grow in their ability to “know” these communities?
  • How will we as educators address the fact that all of us still have blind spots when it comes to cultures and communities outside of our direct experience—and provide opportunity for self-reflection and truthful conversations that not only lead to our growth, but also model it for our students?

Additional Resources


Newbigin, L. 1995. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Rah, S. and G. VanderPol. 2016. Return to Justice: Six Movements That Reignited Our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press.

Shumer, R. and B. Belbas. 1996. “What We Know about Service Learning.” Education and Urban Society 28 (2): 208–23.

Swaner, L.E., and R.C.S. Erdvig. 2018. Bring It To Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Association of Christian Schools International.

About the Author

Dr. Michael Chen Dr. Michael Chen has been an educator for over 20 years in the San Francisco and Boston areas with experiences in urban education, international development, and organizational change. His experience includes serving as dean of faculty at Boston Trinity Academy, and the founding director of Trinity Institute for Leadership and Social Justice. Currently, he serves as the head of school at Pacific Bay Christian School. For his doctoral work, Michael developed a system-theory of resilience to further understand human development in the context of war-affected widows in Nepal. In addition, he also provided leadership and program evaluation consultative services to schools and organizations in South Korea, Nepal, and India. He can be reached via email at

Questions to Consider:

1. How does your school currently help students learn to know and love others who are different from them?


2. Could relationship-based service-learning be an avenue for you to explore or strengthen in accomplishing this goal?

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One Comment

J Hultberg

People around the PacBay campus are having our awareness raised through such learning, including a Caritas Class and projects.


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