Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is Christian Education, Well, Christian?

A few preliminaries. First, I have been involved, at some personal cost, in the starting up of a Christian school, had many dealings with a Christian school board, and watched the products of Christian education from my youth up.

We have also, briefly, home schooled our children. Now, they are in public schools. Some of you will cry "Ichabod," I know. More on that to follow.

I have also been, in the past, a total Christian and home school partisan. But, life is rarely simple, and God mercifully does not leave us with unexamined prejudices, if we are his children.

My contention is this: the modern Christian education movement, for its many strengths, remains, at this point in its young history, sub-Christian.

This is not a curricular matter, necessarily, though it can be. It is not a matter as to whether one adopts the classical model or not --which is a good model, after all.

It is not so much about content as it is about ethos, and ethos is a slippery thing to critique, because it is often a matter of unspoken, unexamined presuppositions. My purpose in this is to help advocates of Christian schools examine their presuppositions, and right the ship. This nation would be enormously benefited in perhaps no greater way than to have real, robust Christian schools.

The first thing Christian schools need to do is forget about vouchers. Vouchers are bad news. The experience (and probably the precedent) of Grove City College v. Bell (of which my alma mater Hillsdale College was also a victim) means that any money that passes through federal hands is federal money, and that comes with federal mandates. Private schools do not want to kowtow to federal mandates. God will supply all the money to do all that he intends for us to do, if we are faithful to ask him, and trusting him ourselves by our sacrificial giving.

The second thing Christian schools need to do is to endeavor to cease being the province of rich Caucasians. Christ's kingdom did not consist only of those people who could afford to breathe the rarefied air. If the Christian school is at all like Christ, should it not be reaching out to the least of these --raising money to pull kids out of failing inner city public schools? The objections inevitably are, "Where does the money come from?" "But, 'they' don't know how to behave, have the home life, etc etc." That is racist code, in case you don't speak White. Do we sound like a bunch of pre-resurrection disciples or what? Faith endeavors require faith --surprise, surprise.

If Christian schools are comfortably the province only of the wealthy and white, they aren't Christian, quite simply because they aren't ministering like Christ did.

The third thing Christian schools need to do is to stop simply ministering to the academically excellent. How often do Christian school boards say, "We need to make a choice: minister to the academically gifted, or the academically challenged. We choose the gifted." Who would Jesus have chose? I think we know the answer to that. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. It is excused by shortage of resources, etc, to which Jesus may just say, "Why are you discussing among yourselves that you have no bread? have not because you do not ask, and when you ask, you ask wrongly." Faith moves mountains; it can certainly fund schools. Where is the faith?

The fourth thing Christian schools need to do is to ask themselves what percentage of their graduates are actually vibrant, productive Christians. How often schools protest that this is not their job. But, if they claim to be a Christian school, then of course it is their job to make every effort to see that their graduates are living for Christ; if they don't see this as their job, then why take the name Christian? It is not exclusively their job: parents and church share the responsibility. But, if Christian schools are not graduating Christians, then the school ought to do some real soul-searching, and examination of priorities. If our goal is to graduate Christians, and we are not, why not? Now, of course, only God can change the heart. But, this in no way lessens the school's responsibility to gear its entire ethos towards the conversion of its pupils.

The fifth thing Christian schools need to do is to abandon the covenantal model. That's right. You heard me, loud and clear. The alternatives are not just "Covenantal" or "no standards." The third way is the evangelistic model: where it is clearly set before parents and pupils: this is what is taught, this is the discipline that is practiced. If you are willing to abide by these standards, and submit to this discipline, then we will take you, regardless of belief.

The covenantal model fails because it is simply flawed theology. The fact that one parent can give a testimony does not at all indicate that the family is living for Christ, only that one parent believes him or herself to be a Christian. It does not at all judge whether the child is a Christian or whether the parent is bringing that child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It teaches us that the New Covenant is an externalized thing, which is a lie that destroys entire denominations. If the school keeps the gospel at the center, establishes prayer as a fundamental feature of its community life among faculty, board, and parents, it could be a powerful force for the gospel. But, to do this, it must seek people outside "the covenant." This, after all, is what Jesus did. If a school is to be Christ-ian, should it not be like Christ?

So, our children are in public schools. I would not put them in public schools everywhere. But, in our situation, the public schools are excellent and Christian friendly. We have had teachers and administrators freely share their faith. Our son came home and announced, "'Jingle Bells' is not a Christmas song. It is a winter song. It is secular, not sacred. He is quite adamant, now, about our choice of Christmas music." He learned this in music class. Our daughter's class read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Our eldest has had significant learning challenges due to a recalcitrant form of epilepsy. We had her in Christian schools in our previous charge. They tried their best (well, at least one teacher and one aide (both dear family friends) did), but were inadequate to address all her needs (and we did not know the full extent of her problems, either). In our public school, she has received the best of personal care and attention from loving teachers, many (if not all) of whom are outspoken Christians. She has received occupational therapy, speech therapy, and educational help. She has been loved and ministered unto. We suggested an educational aid to them (phonetic reading by the Barton method), and they got it approved and now use it throughout the district. They have been most responsive to parental concerns.

I am not naive enough to think that this is not an exception to the rule. But, praise God for the exceptions. I also realize full well that this is not the same as a comprehensive world-and-life-view curriculum. But, that, after all, is the responsibility of the parents. And, one is left to ask, if the Christian schools are sub-Christian in significant ways, and the local public school is at least Christian friendly, which choice may be better for my children?

The school of the wealthy and white that bears the name Christian may lead my children to think that being Christian is the same as being wealthy and white. At least in the public school, the battle lines are clearly drawn. My children know and challenge things they are taught that don't comport with what they believe. And, they do this at 11 and 8 years of age. My eight year old son has non-churchgoing friends to whom he speaks, fearlessly, about God, the Bible, and Jesus, who he invites to church, and for whom he prays regularly. I pray he doesn't lose that heart for his lost friends. I think he would, were he in a "covenantal" situation, where "everyone" is a "Christian."



  1. I like the comments about the Covenantal model. It's not that Covenant is bad, just that the Covenantal model basically says we'll only minister to you if you meet a few qualifying standards. And there has to be a way to keep the emphasis on families rearing kids in the fear and nurture of the Lord AND reaching out and, dare I say, even rescuing kids from places where the fear of the Lord is absent.

    Also, I just read the book (after seeing the movie) The Blind Side. Amidst many things I could say about that story, the saddest part to me came out in the book (not the movie): Basically, after the success story of Michael Oher, Sean Tuohy, his adopted dad, was ready, willing and able to pay tuition for more kids from the wrong side of Memphis who wanted to come to Briarcrest (aka, Wingate, in the movie). The school, in so many words, said no to the majority of them.

  2. If Michael Oher had not been an athlete, and not had the love of the Tuohy's, what would his chances at the school have been? Would all that extra effort have been made to help him learn? An open question, to be sure. But, we likely know the answer.

    The Tuohy's and Michael are heroes. Sean has a heart for the underprivileged --always did, even before Michael came along-- because he himself came from a destitute background.

    BTW, the church they helped found is an independent Reformed church pastored by an RTS graduate.

  3. I am a homeschooler, but I agree that Christian schools should be evangelistic in model. Just like our Sunday Schools, Christian academics should be available to anyone who is willing to submit to the teachings. I once heard of a Christian school that operated on that principle, and they were privileged to have some Muslim families choose their school for education! What an opportunity! (And, it gives our kids that chance to mingle with non-Christians in an environment which still supports their faith.)

  4. As a homeschooler, I would not argue for nor against a Christian or public school. Each will have its own problems (as does homeschooling). I think the significant element for a child who is evangelistically minded is the parents. You can have Christian homeschoolers who are isolationistic, Christians in public school who end up looking like the world, etc., etc. "What are the parents teaching the children?" That is the question that must be answered in each case.

    Geoff Gleason

  5. Boy, pastor, you really know how to pick the controversial affairs... :)

    I agree with a lot of what you said, though I don't know about all Christian education. I did grow up in the Jackson area private schools, though, so I see where you're coming from -- especially with the disguised racist talk. It drives me nuts. I do know that FPDS gives a scholarship application to everyone enrolled in the school. Scholarships are income-based, so there is opportunity for those with less to attend. I ESPECIALLY agree with you on the covenantal approach. It seems to me to be a misguided step to protecting kids against what's "out there" which says to me that somehow the profession of faith puts one a step above someone who does not profess the faith. Really, even if one parent professes Christianity, they may have kids who are just as horribly behaved as the horribly-behaved child whose parents don't profess, and vice versa. There are varied styles of parenting even amongst Christians. So, I don't see a covenantal approach as any sort of a good idea. And I think at the root of the issue, as Geoff said, what the parents teach is most important. I think the Christian schools are having an increasingly tough time because parents are assuming the schools will teach what the children need to know instead of stepping up to the plate themselves. We see this in the church as well. Many parents think that in choosing private school, they're choosing protection. That is a very dangerous thought. Your run-of-the-mill white child from a middle class to wealthy family can be quite dangerous and profane. And that's not every parent who chooses private school. We chose it. And now we're going the homeschooling route because it's where we feel led. I'm just thankful we have the freedom to make the choice -- private, public, or home.

  6. I also meant to throw in there that I haven't seen that Christian education is geared toward the super smart. It seems to me to be more geared toward the average mainstream, but that's only through a small amount of observation and some input I've had from friends who have children at other Christian schools. One positive aspect for the public schools is the insane amount of funding they get. Private schools operate on tuition and private donations spend much less per student, so there's not funding for a lot of extras. I wasn't aware of any that took vouchers -- I thought the whole point of being a private school was not having to follow government mandates. Although, faith should come into play on that, I agree.

    Also, as far as parents protecting their children -- I don't mean that in a way that points a finger at parents (the verdict is still out on my own children). I think it's basic human nature to protect our young but we have to be careful in protecting them that we don't pull the wool over our own eyes, something I have been guilty of myself.

  7. Christian education: P R I C K L Y subject! No easy answers, no one paradigm to fit all. Costly in many ways that go beyond but include the almighty dollar.

    By the way, is there any other issue regarding our children where we observe such a disconnect between priciple and practice than the "Christian community's" choices in education? Prickly subject indeed.

    Although there are other issues regarding Christian ed. to be dealt with, you've touched on some good ones. Though we agree on most of the points you raise I offer, I hope, some interesting thoughts that add to the conversation.

    We agree completely on financing via vouchers. There are always strings attached and often those strings are anathema to the good of the Christian school.

    Financing is a good segue to the issue you address as the province of rich Caucasians. True, in Jackson, MS (as many other places) almost every private school begun since the integration of the 60's has its establishment in racial predudice. (It is interesting to note that many of these entities have faded from existence!) Yet, there are reasons beyond racial prejucice that perpetuate a mostly affluent and caucasian student body. Chiefly, economics. Just as God gave us time and laws of nature for our use and benefit, he also gave us laws of economics (see Adam Smith).

    True, God will supply. Yet sacrificial giving amoung the faithful is more often directed toward favored university athletic programs than it is to providing for poverty stricken families and their manifold needs (education chief amoung them). This isn't a racial problem but an idolatry problem.

    Many Chistians that are proponents of and involved with (can you really be one and not the other?) Christian schools endeavor to include the whole community. (Endeavor hard and at gret costs to themselves.) But economics prevail against those efforts. And the laws of economics are brutal and unforgiving. So while we often desire and labor to include the whole community, success in doing so can be quite beyond our control. We'd like nothing more than to offer a low tuition, richly featured school with plenty of scholarship funding for the financially qualified but the cost for doing so climbs to terrific heights and those in community who have the ability to makeup the difference could care less for an institution of this type especially when all their "Christian" friends are getting along quite nicely at the other private schools.

    From real and current experience, I know that a secondary educational product easily costs upwards of $10,000 per student. Note that $10 grand buys only an adequately featured secondary educational product; a Chevy or Buick but far from an Audi or Lexus. Economics plays an enormous role in what can and can't be accomplished and more specifically which students can and can not attend a privately funded Christian school regardless of race or ability.

    The racist codes are there but are fading and being replaced by prevailing predjudices of social elitism and the striving of parents to place their kids with only the right kind of people. I pray that my obsevation that race predudices are fading is not simply a fanatic defense of the area I've been raised in.

    more to follow ... mhenry

  8. following ...

    If a Christian school is to keep its "eye on the ball", then we agree that that ball is primarily the graduating young adult - one whose faith has been richly nourished and strenuously prepared for adult life. If the Christian school misses this point, it need not attend to the others.

    Abondon the Covenantal model? Hmmm. I don't disagree with your observations especially the leading to of externalizing and cultural Christianity (that is, no Christianity at all). But I don't believe that dismissing the covenantal model is required to address these and other errors.

    Seeking those outside the covenant is another matter. I'm not sure that the administration of the educational insitution is the appropriate sphere for evangelism but on the other hand what sphere is not appropriate for evangelism. It may be best left to say that elementary and secondary schools are not principally focused on evangelism by way of enrollment. And, a chief end of a proper Christian would be to encourage reaching out to those not in the fold and instructing on how to winsomely and propery articulate a life lived evangelistically.

    I strongly encourage anyone interested in Christian education and especially those in Jackson, MS to visit and view three short videos expaning the Veritas Virtues. One of these videos is PCA Pastor Joseph Wheat expaning how the Veritas School edeavors toward Christian Culture.

    Thank you, Ken, for encouraging proper thinking of Christian Education. MHenry

  9. Great thoughts, Mr. Henry. The covenantal model is worthy of further discussion, to be sure.

    Like anything, it can be worn as a badge of pride.

    I am not sure it is the wisest course, since there are great models of evangelistic private scholos (Jubilee School in Phila, inner city parochial schools, etc).

    If our financial priorities were right, then providing education for the working poor would not be a problem. I've seen this work among the Dutch Reformed remarkably well, because the churches have a vision for it.

    I think, in the case of a young school like Veritas, it is not so much about where you are, but where you want to head. In short, the vision for the future --is it missional? What are things you would like to do, missionally, that you can't right now? Then commit those things to prayer.

    You could ask for few better advisors than Joey Wheat. It puts you a far step beyond a certain seminary that is famous for NEVER including a pastor on its board. True story.

    I wonder if a board of ministerial advisors would serve the purpose even better. But, alas, it may become like presbytery, and that would be good for nobody!

    Anyway, the point of provocative posts is to provoke thinking.

    I do, however, think that one cannot parcel out evangelism from Christian education --and I sense you agree.

  10. You sense correctly. Evangelism is part and parcel of Christian ed! Quoting from the purpose statement of the Veritas School's Micah 6:8 Project: "As a Christian school, we belive we are commanded to serve others. Throughout their academic careers, Veritas tries to teach students to live out the Micah 6:8 mandate ... Our prayer is that, in some small way, we as a school can get out in our community and express His love through our words and actions."
    The Veritas School is indebted to JWheat for his abundant and gracious contributions. As it is to this blog's author for his own contributions.

  11. how is the covenantal model any different from home schooling? the one evangelical presbyterian elementary school in our city seems to be more heavily influenced by the popluation they are attempting to evangelize than the other way around.
    why is it such a touchy subject? sometimes i think we put way too many eggs in the education basket. the best teachers, the best environment. the best sports or extracurricular activities, the best special ed programs, the best model (classical, covenant) all at the expense of losing our children's souls. homeschooled children's souls can be lost and inner city public school children's souls can be redeemed. as if we think their education plays a role in this? of course, the lord uses different conduits to call his redeemed souls, a parent's choice of education could certainly be one of them, but it certainly doesn't guarantee salvation or gurantee producing a mature Christian adult who contributes to society and serves the lord. all forms of education listed above are damaging if parents are not sheperding the child's heart in biblical kingdom principles. i agree with mr. gleason. maybe the reason we get so defensive about our education choices is because it labels us too heavily. we rely on our educational choices too heavily to redeem or sanctify our children. what if we lived in a culture that was brutally non christian and it was against the law to not send your children to government run schools? the holy spirit would still move, maybe more so than he does now.