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At the Center of Life

Baylor hosts influential conference, promotes outreach

THE BAYLOR LINE: Baylor recently hosted "The Next Big Idea" conference, jointly sponsored by the Baylor School of Social Work, Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and the Leadership Network (see "What's the Big Idea?"). Along with prominent speakers, the conference featured workshops on a variety of topics, including addressing poverty at home and globally, caring for vulnerable children, reading the Bible with an external focus, and transforming communities. How did the event come to be, and was it successful?

INTERIM PRESIDENT DAVID GARLAND: We received a generous grant from the Christ Is Our Salvation foundation that enabled us to bring in a variety of dynamic speakers, from top to bottom, including Kay Warren, an HIV/AIDS activist and the co-founder with her husband, Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church, and Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw, co-authors of The Externally Focused Church and Living a Life on Loan. The idea for the conference came from the folks at the Leadership Network. They were interested in taking academic research, which tends to get lost in the ionosphere, and applying it to practical, everyday church life. My wife, Diana, who is dean of Baylor's School of Social Work, was approached to see if we could take present-day research and promulgate it to all the churches.

Those attending the conference included members of churches from the Waco area and from across the region, Baylor students, and social work practitioners. Overall, the conference was extremely successful, particularly in the workshops that focused on developing churches' outreach efforts. For example, one of the speakers, Lynne Hybels, a social activist who co-founded Willow Creek Community Church with her husband, Bill Hybels, discussed a survey they had conducted that investigated the spiritual development of their congregation. They were shocked that the people in their church had not grown spiritually, and they came to the conclusion—which my wife's research has also shown—that there is a one-to-one correspondence between community service and spiritual growth. The worst-case scenario of that correspondence is a church becoming irrelevant. As one of the pastors attending the conference asked, "Would anyone miss us if we closed, outside of a few die-hard members?"

What Willow Creek Community Church came to realize is that they needed to get their people doing things, in the manner of an externally focused church. This doesn't mean necessarily religious activities. It can encompass everything from coaching youth sports teams to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Ideally, the activities should tie into an individual's personal interests. In other words, a church's members shouldn't wait for a community crisis to reach out and help a community, but the church's members should be involved in the local community on a weekly or even a daily basis. Those attending some of the conference's workshops learned about these findings and were provided with a blueprint for creating this culture of community engagement among their members, both to strengthen the church and to aid in the church members' spiritual growth.

BAYLOR LINE: How do such programs fit into Baylor's mission and vision?

GARLAND: The governing principle behind what we do at Baylor is our motto, "Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana"—for church, for state. This is our overarching vision, and we combine the two in our daily life. This conference was clearly an event that is pro-church, which agrees with our character as a faith-based institution. We are trying to bring our academic expertise forward in a way that benefits the church. You can't do that at a secular university.

In terms of the "Pro Texana" part of our motto, this event was a great example of what Baylor does in translating its faculty members' research into material that can be used to benefit the community. Several of the workshops dealt with poverty and homelessness, which are certainly issues that our local community, and the state at large, grapples with. An event like this bridges the academy and the community, and it also creates awareness of Baylor University with very significant people.

BAYLOR LINE: Before the conference, your wife, Diana, said that mission work as Americans once understood it isn't the approach that works best in today's post-postmodern church. What approach to missions did this conference promote?

GARLAND: What we have traditionally done, in the modern Christian church, is to outsource missions. We provide the money, and someone else does it—typically abroad. A lot of people don't understand how our lives as members of a congregation should include a type of mission work in our local community, every day and by our own hands. A church is not to be isolated in its own internal functioning, but it should be engaged in transforming its surrounding community. This conference was intended to help supply local churches with the tools to do exactly that.

BAYLOR LINE: How does Baylor, as a religiously affiliated institution of higher education, go about transforming communities as part of its Christian witness?

GARLAND: One of my goals is that Baylor will continue to have a dynamically positive effect on the local community. For example, Baylor was extremely involved in the recent Greater Waco Community Education Summit, whose purpose is to engage the entire community in increasing the education level of Waco's workforce. McLennan Community College, Texas State Technical College, and the Cooper Foundation were also major sponsors in that effort. If we are not helping to educate the youth in our own community, then in some ways we have failed to be all that we can be. If we want to be a tier-one school, we have to have a tier-one community, and so there is both a service component to our interaction with the local community and a self-interested part in helping to improve the place where we live.

There are so many different ways that we are affecting the life of the community in a positive manner, from researchers working on local water quality to education-oriented initiatives like GEAR UP Waco, which prepares at-risk students academically and socially for college. It's important that our professors' research and teaching ability not only serve our students, but that they radiate outward into our local community. And our students do the same thing. Our education students go out into the community's schools and make an impact, and a number of student clubs and organizations are service-oriented.

BAYLOR LINE: Can you describe the goals and programs of some of the vocation-specific missions trips that Baylor students have been involved in recently?

GARLAND: I've talked to many students who are not going to be vocational ministers, but they do have a vocation—a Christian calling. What we want to instill in our students is a sense of calling to the world in whatever professional field they go into. I am so impressed with the service mentality of our students. This past week, I talked with three students, brilliant young scholars, who are applying to Teach for America, which is an absolutely fabulous program. I also recently talked to our Fulbright finalists, and they all have that kind of service mentality.

Beyond this general orientation to find and pursue their vocation, our students go on a range of international mission trips, led by a Baylor faculty member, that are vocation-specific. To me, these activities contribute to our project of creating good citizens. We've seen the problems created in our country by greedy, grasping, selfish people. We want to counter that by fostering an attitude of serving others instead of just serving oneself.

A group from the School of Nursing has gone on a medical mission trip, the accounting team has gone to Uganda, and an engineering team has gone to Uganda. These are not just mission-vacation trips. The students are going to these places to apply what they've learned in the classroom to a community that desperately needs help. To be honest, I think the impact will be more profound on those students than the people they are serving, because it will at times radically change the way they see things. Those students will likely go on to become significant leaders in their professions and communities, and through these mission trips they are being exposed to something that will help them carry certain lessons and values with them as they go out into life. They will be oriented toward trying to address systemic societal problems in a variety of ways. These programs expand their consciousness.

This interview with Dr. David Garland, interim president of Baylor, was conducted on February 18, 2009, by Todd Copeland.

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