Wheaton logo 2020 color version also for mobile

On Vocation Blog

Posted January 29, 2018 by Center for Faith and Innovation
Tags: Spiritual Formation

From Worldview to Way of Life: Forming Student Dispositions Toward Human Flourishing

David Setran (CFM) is well-known for his acute understanding and clear communication of the life of emerging adults – that is, our students. A regular speaker in the Opus Staff & Faculty Vocation Seminar, David is also an Opus Vocation Scholar – part of a group of faculty who have written white papers on vocation and human flourishing to spur discussion of those topics among their colleagues. David’s recent paper, “From Worldview to Way of Life: Forming Student Dispositions Toward Human Flourishing,” explores practical ways we can help our students toward vocational lives that will bless many. What do the classic spiritual disciplines have to do with students becoming the sorts of people who will work hard and well to help others flourish? And how can we – their teachers and mentors – help them in the process; in the classroom, on the practice field, in hallway hellos and cafeteria conversations? Check out the excerpts from David's paper we’ve selected for this edition of On Vocation.


“Emerging adults are bombarded on a regular basis with images of the good life that run counter to the pursuit of others' flourishing. Daily exposure to social media sites, stores. . . television shows and movies, popular music, and various forms of entertainment provide visions of the good life—material prosperity, sexual gratification, security, family safety and intimacy—that can coopt the moral imagination.

“The Kingdom vision of human flourishing taught in the classroom can easily be obscured as imaginations are captured and redirected by these practices. While love of God and neighbor may serve as students’ professed ultimate life purpose, these deeply rooted, self-oriented visions of the good life may actually drive the majority of life choices and commitments.

“Emerging adults internalize clear messages communicated by family, institutions, and the media about the meaning of adulthood. Fifty years ago, perceptions of adult status were most often linked to sociological role markers such as marriage, parenting, and career. These represented milestones in which emerging adults gained a desire and an ability to take responsibility for others.

“In more recent years, however, adult status is perceived more in terms of personal interior factors: taking responsibility for oneself, making independent (“self-authored”) decisions, and becoming financially independent."[1] “Becoming an adult today,” Jeffrey Arnett comments, “means becoming self-sufficient, learning to stand alone as an independent person.”[2] Rather than attaching adult status to a sense of “responsibility for” others, adulthood is more often connected to a “freedom from” others.

“[Students] need . . . to be formed as the kind of people who are inclined to live for others’ flourishing. . . . [I]t may not be enough to simply ask students to “decide” and “choose” to follow the kingdom agenda they receive in their courses. So many of their long-enculturated dispositions and pictures of flourishing are moving in opposing directions, shaping desires that can slow or block these cognitive commitments.

“As Christian educators, of course, we hope that our students develop a potent love for the Kingdom of God, a vision of personal and social flourishing under the gracious rule of Christ. The alarming reality, however, is that they may develop a particular worldview, even the kind absorbed through a Christian education, and yet their loves may be oriented in very different directions. As educators . . . we may develop students who “talk the Christian mind and live the mind of the world.”[3]

“If the deforming of the heart’s loves takes place through practices, then the re-forming of loves will typically require counterformational practices (not just ideas) that foreground the narrative of the Kingdom in the heart’s affections. . . . [These] may include disciplines of abstinence (e.g., fasting, secrecy, solitude, silence, frugality, simplicity, and Sabbath-keeping) and disciplines of engagement (e.g., worship, Bible reading, meditation, prayer, service, giving, confession, fellowship, guidance, hospitality, and celebration).[4]

“To take part in spiritual practices is to draw near in intimacy with God, but this is inseparable from the development of a concern for the things (and people) God cares about as well.

“The spiritual discipline of guidance speaks to the importance of adult mentors, models, or spiritual directors who can offer students a concrete visualization of lives devoted to these ideals. . . . . Altruistic behavior is fostered by living in the presence of mentors committed to an other-directed way of life, especially if those mentors are loved and admired.[5] As adolescents move into adulthood, they need to see the ideals of social flourishing modeled by adults whose lives are overflowing with purpose. . . . As imitative beings, students need models to beckon forth their loves and dreams.

“In addition to guidance from a mentor, the discipline of fellowship (spiritual friendship) also looms large when it comes to forming dispositions toward other’s flourishing. Garber suggests that those who form a way of life consistent with their Christian worldview are able to do so in large part because of their ability to live in close relationship with those who continually confirm, reinforce, and support them in these ideals.[6]

“Fasting . . . can loosen the grip of continual self-indulgence in ways that leave students more open and responsive to God and others.

“Giving and hospitality serve similar purposes through active, others-focused engagement. By releasing possessions and freeing them for others’ use, students can begin to recognize and practice their roles as stewards rather than owners of God’s good gifts.

“Likewise, the practice of Sabbath can serve important purposes in resisting the anxious productivity of the “rat race” that highlights personal advancement while diminishing care and concern for one’s neighbor….

“Worldview is absolutely essential, but desires must also be shaped through habitual practices that invite the Spirit to transform the heart’s loves. This is one critical means by which Christian colleges can confront the gap between worldview and way of life.

“Faculty can work to develop counterformational classroom practices consistent with their particular fields. I know a professor who has students keep a prayer journal as part of the class, designed to document both praises (for signs of flourishing) and laments (for the absences of flourishing). Another integrates service projects into the course, placing students into direct contact with marginalized populations as they read about their social challenges. Yet another invites students to engage voluntarily in practices of simplicity and fasting in a course on global poverty.

“Each class will have a different rhythm, but all professors can raise the relevant question: “Can we be more intentional about our academic liturgies and the loves that are shaped through them?” If we really believe that practices shape dispositions and that dispositions shape ways of life, we will be more attentive to the rituals, not just the content, of our shared academic work.

“Our students are in class a very small percentage of the time and yet disposition formation is taking place in all settings: in the dining hall, on the athletic fields, and in the dorms. . . . Faculty and staff must collaborate to think hard about the larger campus curriculum of student learning.

“Finally, we must also highlight for our students the ways in which they can integrate formational vocational practices in their work lives after college. . . . For those in medicine, law, education, ministry, homemaking, and a host of other occupations, the practices mentioned here can serve to sustain godly intentions when typical occupational practices may lead in other directions. As former students seek mentors, cultivate spiritual friendships inside and outside the local church, take part in service activities, and engage in fasting, simplicity, Sabbath-keeping, hospitality, celebration and lament, they can continue to form dispositions aimed at social flourishing, resisting the pull of self-actualization, material success, and family insularity that is so common to the Christian American dream.”


[1] Arnett, Emerging Adulthood, 208-213; Arnett, “Learning to Stand Alone: The Contemporary American Transition to Adulthood in Cultural and Historical Context,” Human Development 41 (1998): 295-315. See also Arnett, “Are College Students Adults? Their Conceptions of the Transition to Adulthood,” Journal of Adult Development 1 (1994): 231-224; Arnett, “Young People’s Conceptions of the Transition to Adulthood,” Youth and Society 29 (1997): 3-23.

[2] Arnett, Emerging Adulthood, 209.  Arnett suggests that a good number of emerging adults do mention “becoming less self-oriented” as a helpful factor in achieving adult status. However, he is quick to note that, “emerging adults who place concern for others at the center of their conceptions of adulthood are relatively rare.” When they speak of “taking responsibility,” this generally means responsibility for themselves rather than for others (214).

[3] Wolterstorff, Educating for Life, 82.

[4] Various authors have attempted to generate lists of spiritual disciplines, culled both from Scripture and the history of the church. See, for example, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978); Dallas Willard, The Spiritual of the Disciplines; Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997).

[5] Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom, 150; Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness, 141.

[6] Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness, 142-146.