Reimagining the Christian School Sacrifice

“We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.” – Psalm 78:4.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

 

For at least five generations, my family has been committed to supporting the mission and vision of Christian education. More than a century ago, my great-grandparents believed that enrolling my grandparents in a Christian school to receive a Christian education was an essential piece in their children’s development. As adults, my grandparents shared the same belief and repeated the same practice with my parents. Likewise, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my parents chose to send my siblings and me to the local Christian school. Again, along with Christian modeling at home and regular attendance and participation at church, my parents understood that a distinctively Christian education was an essential component to the next generation’s growth and maturity. Because the Christian school community nurtures and challenges our daughter’s heart and mind in ways no other primary and secondary school can, my wife and I have made the decision to enroll our daughter in the Christian school in which I currently serve. This generational story, I’m sure, is not unique within Christian circles, though I suspect it is unfortunately becoming more and more an exception.

What, then, is truly valuable? What is truly being sacrificed?

During my youth, I’m not sure I could have clearly articulated the importance of Christian education to my personal development. I simply trusted my parents’ decision to enroll me in the Christian school instead of the local public school. Looking back, I know that I received a quality education delivered by talented, committed teachers and that my Christian education was an essential component to my faith formation. Today, because of the Christian education I received from preschool through college and the influences of my Christian school colleagues during the past 20 years, I believe I’ve developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Christian-school community.

As a Christian school teacher and administrator, I’ve often been asked, “Is a Christian education worth it?” Often hidden within that question, I believe, are many unarticulated thoughts such as “Do I really want to afford tuition when a decent public education is offered just down the road or across the street?” or “The Christian school doesn’t offer all of the elective programs that the local public school does, so my children aren’t able to maximize their potential” or “Having my students enrolled in the Christian school probably means that I’ll have to get involved with some committee, and I’m not sure I am able to afford the time for that.”

SUCH A SACRIFICE?

The question of worth is often accompanied with this statement: Christian education is such a sacrifice! It has been my experience that most people who are uncertain of the value and worth of Christian education limit their definitions of value, worth and sacrifice to a simple monetary construct. For many years, I’m ashamed to admit, most if not all of these discussions ended awkwardly with me not really knowing where to carry the conversation and ultimately yielding to the seemingly indefensible argument of cost.

However, I’ve recently begun to think about these assertions more critically, particularly the characterization that choosing Christian education is a sacrificial act. What if the questions and answers about value and sacrifice were considered in a slightly different way – outside the context of financial commitments? What, then, is truly valuable? What is truly being sacrificed?

Undoubtedly, Christian and public education share some common characteristics and goals (implementation of excellent teaching methods by excellent teachers; developing specific skills and capacities of students; having students learn and understand commonly accepted curricular information). In fact, any Christian school ought to be offering quality programs and services comparable or superior to those of the local public school. However, the philosophy in relation to the “how” and the “why” of teaching and learning is fundamentally and profoundly different. In an article titled “Schooling for the Service of Love” in the book Christian Schooling: Education for Freedom, educational philosopher Stuart Fowler claims secular schooling’s primarily concern is equipping students with mastery of and power over their environment. Carried further, this approach to teaching and learning assumes the students become the centers of their own universe and that they are in an inescapable competition with everyone who crosses their paths. With the absence of faith-based practice of any kind in the public school, this opportunist way of thinking becomes the standard mode of operation and expectation. Clearly, this way of thinking falls outside a Christian framework. Fowler goes on to explain that in Christian schools “power is used rightly only as it is used to advance the interests of love as revealed by the God who is love.” Nurturing hearts and developing minds that give expression to the biblical fruits of the spirit is the ultimate goal of Christian education. A public school by its very nature is not able to provide the education that makes Christian education distinctively different – an education I consider to be of remarkable value and extraordinary worth.

TRUTHS WE EMBRACE

For more than a century, Christian schools rooted in the Reformed tradition have held to certain truths. Perhaps most important is the idea that God is the author and creator of all things. Theologian Abraham Kuyper claimed, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” This conviction, of course, takes into account every aspect of education, including teaching methods specific to curricular content. Whether it is the process of teaching the intricacy and revelations in science, the beauty and eloquence of language or the precision and complexity of mathematics, Christian school teachers hold firm to the understanding that all instruction has its origins in this basic truth.

In his authority, God is not detached from his creation; he is not an impersonal God. Rather, as a loving God, he cultivates a deep and intimate relationship with his creation, particularly his crowning creation – humankind. Simply put, he is our God, and we are his people; he calls us his own. Because of God’s love for us, he has established a framework of life and living outlined in his Word and revealed through his creation that establishes a relationship – a covenant of grace through Christ. The Christian school is one instrument within God’s kingdom through which covenantal children, under the guidance of their teachers, can develop their kingdom identity and purpose while coming to know their creator in deeper and more meaningful ways.

In a 1960 address delivered at Trinity Christian College, Reformed theologian and philosopher Calvin Seerveld summarized these two basic truths this way:

We study everything because man does live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and since God has spoken and speaks here, there, and everywhere in the world and its development, his sustained creation, it is man’s privilege, it is God’s command to those who are qualified; to search through all the areas of creation and all the varied aspects of human activity – nothing of God’s playground is off limits – it is our task to seek out everywhere the wonders of God Almighty’s work and enjoy the discoveries with childlike surprise day in and day out forever.

While it is not impossible for children to develop Christian understanding and identity in their absence, Christian school communities serve as key components to creating and cultivating vibrant Christian identities and flourishing faith in young people by training them to live out Christian spiritual fruits, Christian practices and ultimately the gospel message. That Christian school students are surrounded by and learning from Christian teachers and mentors who have been called to articulate and demonstrate a like-minded set of Christian core values upholds the likelihood that students will “learn to give expression to their heavenly citizenship,” says Cornelius Jaarsma in the book Toward a Philosophy of Christian Education. The Christian school immerses its members – students, parents, grandparents, faculty, support staff, coaches, friends, pastors, volunteers – in a culture in which everyone acts in concert to carry out the Christian school’s mission. In a 1979 speech at the Curriculum Development Center in Woodbridge, Ontario, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff described the purpose of a distinctively Christian education as “a project of the Christian community. And its goal is to induct the child into the life of that community, not just into its thought – into the life of discipleship.”

INVESTMENT IN GOD’S KINGDOM

Unquestionably, Christian education does more than merely acknowledging Christ’s lordship, identifying with the covenant concept, upholding the objective of Christian community, and fulfilling a mission and vision that in the words of John DeBeer in Toward a Philosophy of Education is “inextricably linked to the redemptive process.” Yet these are four foundational distinctives that Christian school communities have held dear for decades, and they continue to play an integral role in the Christian narrative as schools chart their courses in contemporary culture.

These are concepts that a government-sponsored educational system cannot by law endorse or promote. Moreover, it can be argued that a public educational system articulates a mission that is contrary, if not hostile, to the work and advancement of a distinctively Christian education. Although public-school districts might employ many sincere and committed Christian people, at best their Christian witness is stifled and suppressed because of the systemic educational philosophy inherent in the public sector. According to the United States Department of Education’s website, the “mission [of education] is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access” (http://www2.ed.gov/about/landing.jhtml). While a public educational system might provide some type of noble service to society, the outcomes of teaching and learning should be much more than being able to flaunt high standardized test scores or produce well-mannered, taxpaying citizens who become active consumers in the global marketplace.

To a Christian community that understands the meaning and implications of raising covenantal children, joining a Christian school community is of the utmost value and worth. Rather than viewing the choice of Christian education as a sacrifice, members of the Christian community should consider it an investment that can bring into being a host of earthly blessings and eternal dividends. “Christian education is an intentional, intensive, formative curriculum bent on shaping young people as agents and ambassadors of God’s coming kingdom – the investment proves to be wise stewardship,” says James K.A. Smith in a 2011 article in The Banner. So when families don’t unite with Christian-school communities, what is truly being sacrificed is the faith formation of young people.

In the last few verses of Matthew, Jesus issues the Great Commission to his followers. Like the disciples of the New Testament, today’s faithful followers of Christ seek to be agents of renewal, restoration and reclamation in this broken, sinful world. The charge of the Christian school reflects Jesus’ command in that it prepares and equips students to act counterculturally. Discipleship entails tapping into the transforming power of the gospel in order to cast the light and love of Christ into the darkened corners of creation. “In essence, discipleship is loving service expressed in stewardship and reconciliation,” says John Van Dyke in a 1987 article in Christian Educators’ Journal.  Simply put, there may be no better training ground than the Christian school for children to understand discipleship and apply it to their society and culture.

Dirk Walhout is superintendent of Northern Michigan Christian School, McBain, Michigan.

Photo: Mount Zion Christian School, Manchester, N.H, by John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons