Spirit-Led Excellence, Pt. 1: A Better Quality of Quality

April 24, 2023

by Anthony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies; David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary, and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University; President, Sioux Falls Seminary


Today his license to practice medicine would likely be revoked. He would be subject to scorn and ridicule. He would be laughed out of the college of physicians.

Who? He’s a doctor in a story from David’s childhood, a doctor who had treated David’s brother for his serious asthma. When David’s brother had an attack, it would get harder and harder to get a deep breath. Sometimes, he had to work so hard to inhale that it was painful just watching and listening to him trying to breathe. One day David’s mother brought his brother home from the doctor after a very serious bout. The doctor had told her if they were away from home without his inhaler and he was really having difficulty breathing that she could give him a drag on her cigarette to help open up his lungs.

Seriously? Smoke a cigarette to treat an asthma attack? No doctor would do that today! We know now that smoking actually increases the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. But this story is set in a different context. It was in the 1960s, when the dangers of cigarette smoking weren’t medically acknowledged. For many people, cigarette smoking was a pretty normal part of life then. All cars came with ashtrays, as did all waiting rooms. Medical professionals would even sometimes advertise cigarettes! And so family doctors recommended what seemed like good wisdom in their context.

But over time, quality practices changed. The fact that something as important as medical practice can change so significantly calls into question some of our own assumptions about standards of excellence. There is a tendency in all parts of our lives, and particularly in higher education, to codify certain assumptions of what constitutes “quality”—the word used most often in the Academy—and insist that those standards and codes apply across all contexts. We assume that the way we’ve always done it is the right way to do it, the way it should always be done, by everyone, everywhere.

We run up against this assumption quite often in Kairos, because we challenge some of those assumptions and break some of those rules. People frequently question how we ensure the quality of learning when we do a lot of things differently than other, more traditional, higher education institutions do them. Tony remembers his excitement upon first hearing of the Kairos experiment five years ago but also wondering how the Kairos education was either accreditable or creditable, given that some of the usual “standards” were not always followed. He’s now a rather passionate interpreter of the Kairos way of doing things, particularly with others who come to us with the same question or concern. But it took some listening and, as we noted in our last blog series, some letting go of control.

This question of quality is actually one of the most important questions we can ask. And our answer is two-fold. First, yes, we passionately assert that quality is essential if the educational journey we provide is going to have the transforming impact on students, churches, communities, and nations, that we believe God desires it to have. God’s people deserve the best we can offer them, and God deserves the best they, too, can offer. So let us be clear on that from the start.

And yet, we have also taken the bold and provocative stance that, if we are to be a community of communities, led by the Spirit, an organization in motion that seeks to be communal, holistic, and transformational—all of the descriptions we offer in our last series of blog posts about what Kairos is called to be in the world—then we must also commit ourselves to some radically different assumptions of how quality is defined, and who gets to define it, and how it is measured, and how those definitions and measurements actually change from one context, and one community, to another.

So, in this series of posts, we’re going to explore that a bit. We’ll look into some of the standards that have traditionally shaped theological education, particularly in the Western world, and then how Kairos has challenged, augmented, or transformed them for the better. In other words, we believe we’ve been actually invited to live and lead toward a better quality of “quality!” In the process, we should be able to better understand why we do what we do, and perhaps even get glimpses and nudges of how we can improve on it as we walk forward together. Some of this may feel familiar; other aspects may feel troubling at first. But we will trust that the whisper of the Spirit will lead us toward what is good and true, what reflects the quality of character of the excellent God who has called Kairos into existence.

By the way, we’re not the first to reflect on such matters. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre initiated some aspects of this conversation a generation ago with his influential works After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the latter of which is an assigned reading in our own PhD program. We tap into some of his thinking in this series, along with some additional theological and epistemological reflections that David wrote in a Kairos white paper on standards of excellence. Next week we’ll see how Jesus broke quality control rules in his context, and when he invites us to do the same.

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