“That’s far too many topics. If you limit the scope of your essay, you’ll probably get a higher mark.” These were the words I said to a student recently as they were struggling to refine the issues to be addressed in an essay they were writing.
“I’d like to explore mission in Europe from the reformation to the present day with a particular focus on family worship, gender and theologies of culture. Is that OK?”
“No”, was my stock response, “that’s too much material. You can’t hope to do justice to the topics you’ve mentioned in only 4,000 words.”
And that is correct. If you’re going to do what higher education requires these days, then the nature of such education is to explore a relatively small range of subjects in great depth. Such an exercise has a lot of virtue. It teaches you skills of research, critical analysis, understanding and appreciation of the complexity and specificity of topics and contexts.
For that reason, students who do appropriately narrow their topic and who do research such specific issues often end up getting higher marks. But here’s the point.
Since when has getting higher marks been our sole purpose as agents of the kingdom?
It is times like this that I’m reminded of where our fundamental identity lies as a training college.
ForMission exists to equip missional leaders – first and foremost. That is why we get out of bed in the morning. It is because we want to see Christ’s kingdom grow; we want to see God’s people participating in God’s mission to God’s glory.
And while the primary vehicle we use to drive that activity is validated degrees – undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, alongside our other non-validated qualifications – what is important to keep hold of as a mission agency is that while the engine in our car might be the validated programmes, where we are headed is the mission of God. The engine exists to serve the destination, not the other way round.
Which brings me back to getting higher marks. For what struck me after that conversation with the student was what if their main goal in life, or even in this essay, was not to get higher marks? What if their main purpose was to serve the kingdom of God as an agent of mission? And the reason they were studying this course was not to get as good a qualification as they can, but rather to learn as much as they can for the purposes of serving God’s mission. If that is the case, then maybe their approach to their essay is the one that will achieve that purpose. It may not get the highest marks it could – but it might just enable them to more effectively serve the Kingdom. And if that is the case, then who am I to say they are wrong?