The Future of Christian Schooling

When I think about the future of Christian schools, I am conflicted. I look at the American political and theological landscape and wonder where we will be ten years from now. Over the past decade we have seen more than 25% of all Christian schools in the United States close their doors and shutter their windows, never to open again. In some cases, this is a good thing. Our two largest Christian school organizations admit and understand that we are at a crossroads and must consider not only our future, but also our past.

More than a century and a half ago, protestant Christian schooling began as Dutch immigrants desired to have schools for their children that would incorporate the Gospel of Jesus Christ into every area of their children’s lives and learning. From Michigan to California, Reformed Dutch believers, along with their church communities, built schools meant to do just that and for more than a hundred years, many of those schools thrived.

In the middle part of the 20th Century, other evangelical believers followed their Dutch predecessors in the founding of Christian schools, thousands of them! Often, such schools were established to provide an escape from the increasing secularism of the local public schools and to provide a place for students to receive an education from wholly integrated Christian men and women who had a solid theology and an understanding of the Gospel narrative that runs from Genesis to Revelation.

So, who cares and what does this have to do with Christian schools today? Sadly, many Christian school leaders and teachers no longer understand the wholeness of scripture. In my time as a professor at Wheaton College, the biblical literacy of our Christian college students – including those who had graduated from Christian schools – was often lamented. Many students, simply put, could not even tell us the stories from Scripture so many generations before had learned; and even worse, they did not understand the biblical narrative laid out throughout Scripture. As such, today we see that too often the education offered at Christian schools is fragmented, the pedagogy is often flawed, and our product (curriculum, teaching, and ultimately the learning of our students) that is both internally displayed and externally produced is inadequate.  This is both a church and a school issue.

It is my belief that we will see a continued downsizing of the Christian school movement in the next ten years for this primary reason. Sure, finances may play a role (which speaks to institutional excellence) and the political leanings of states and the federal government may seek to obstruct our work too; but in reality, the real reason that Christian schools will diminish in numbers of institutions, in size of institutions, and in their effectiveness and impact has more to do with the training and education of our students than any other factor.

When we as schools fail to provide a Gospel-centric education that enables students to think broadly, to understand their place in this world, and to engage the world of ideas, we fail to provide a legitimate reason for our alumni to send their children to our schools years later, let alone prepare them to lead Christianly as civic leaders, business men and women, and future educators tomorrow. When we refuse to teach about evolution (I am not suggesting that anyone must believe it, though many Christo-centric believers do subscribe to an old earth or to a theistic evolutionary perspective on creation), when we fail to provide a deep understanding of literature (Dante to Shakespeare to Angelou), when we fail to ensure our students have a proper understanding of history (both Christian and secular historians have improperly rewritten history), and when we fail to ensure our students understand that Christ is woven into the warp and woof of all learning (there can therefore be no separation of the sacred and the secular!), we fail to prepare them to find truth and beauty in the written word, in the winsome and loving disagreement with a fellow learner, and in the wonder of all of God’s creation.

Herein lies the fate of the Christian school. I believe that those who can engage the life of the mind and provide an education that enables students to become fully integrated Christians stand a better chance of survival – finances and government notwithstanding.

 

 

3 comments

  1. Jonathan Ekeland says:

    “the real reason that Christian schools will diminish in numbers of institutions, in size of institutions, and in their effectiveness and impact has more to do with the training and education of our students than any other factor.”

    Having spent 20 years as admissions director in a Christian school, I would have to say that the “fault” does not lie with the institution (“training and education…”), as mentioned above, but with the absolute failure of marriage and the lack of direction from the church as in, “train them up as they should go.”

    Our school, like many Christian schools, but certainly not all, have a high college matriculation rate, good SAT scores (much higher than county numbers), and excellent standardized test scores for K-8. However, we have decreased in enrollment over the past 20-30 years not because of our lack of a quality education or preparedness, but because the family and the church are letting the children down by not realizing the need for “wholeness” in a child’s education. The church is getting watered down and our families are crumbling before our very eyes.

    We need to pray and work together to try and reestablish the need for a whole education. Pray for parents. Pray for pastors to teach truth. Pray for the Spirit to move across the nation and effectively change and grow Christian education!

    • Thanks, Jonathan. I appreciate your comments and passion for the future of Christian education. And, thank you for your investment of twenty years as an administrator in Christian schools. I know you did not reply to receive these compliments but I would hate to miss the opportunity to honor your task and calling. We certainly know and appreciate the impact and influence of our Christian school leaders.

      Let me start by simply agreeing with your response. I think the context of Christian education has changed so significantly from when you and I started our careers in Christian education. Families, on the whole, have disintegrated. Churches, on the whole, do not see the Christian school as a partner. Paul Neal, one of the CACE Fellows, has used the analogy of a condominium in several instances and I am going to steal that one in my reply. Christian schools and supporting churches might “share a wall” and say “hello” to one another as they leave for work, but that might be the extent of the relationship.

      One of the original goals of CACE is to advocate for Christian schools. Initially, we thought this advocacy would be at the political level. Your reply reminds me that advocating for Christian education is even more needed at the family and church level. If you have some strategies for doing this well, please share!

      Let me offer one practice that almost seems too good to be true. It is found in northwest Iowa, called Fair Share. The concept is that each church contributes a percentage of the tuition for each child at their church who attends Christian schools. While parents are always welcome to choose the learning environment that best meets the needs of their child (Christian school, public school, homesechool or some combination), as a member of the church body, each is called to support those who choose Christian schools. It is part of the covenant education plan (along with Sunday School, Youth Group, Catechism classes…) of each church and a very tangible partnership or practice of living together to provide a holistic education for each child. A beautiful thing…probably won’t work everywhere but offered for consideration or re-modeling.

      Finally, in response to Tim’s quote that you highlight. I also agree with Tim because the context of Christian schooling has changed so significantly. Parents are becoming wise consumers of education. I can remember the day when we would count the baptisms in our churches and know the class size for kindergarten in five years. Unfortunately, for those planning the budget and facility, those days are over. Christian schools need to deliver, in measurable ways, on their mission, which is that holistic approach to education. Those Christian schools that create such flourishing learning environments will be around for a long time.

      Thanks, Jonathan!

  2. Jonathan Ekeland says:

    Thanks for your kind response Tim! Re: “strategies…” Our school started discoverchristianschools.com about 10 years ago now. Paul Neal is very versed with this project as he know helps maintain its presence.

    It’s a response to my reasons for declining school enrollment — a challenge to take a test, “Should you send your child to a Christian school?” We just want parents to think about and pray about that as an option, and not have public school as the default. We continue to get about 200-400 hits per day, day after day. I believe it to be the country’s only real apologetic for Christian schooling.

    We raised money to get advertising — to get commercials on the air. (Great commercials by the way). It took up too much time and the finances were hard to come by. So, the annual $1,000-$2,000 maintenance of the site is bare bones, but still effective.

    Anyway… We tried to replicate our work around the country but couldn’t find like-minded folks to help with the cause, as I understand everyone’s overworked and underpaid as it is.

    ACSI was not interested in taking it up so iy sits there pretty quiet. I’ve been shopping the idea around for Christian colleges (discoverchristiancolleges.com) and I think Paul and Cairn may be doing something in that area.

    I’ve also started a PEER Roundtable Discussion event at Cairn for admissions people and now we’ere opening it up another one for principals, where peers are Prayed with, Encouraged, Educated, and Reflection. It was free and held it at Cairn with 30 people in attendance representing 20 schools. Most folk stated that it was probably one of the best events they went to because it was not a seminar, just peers sharing, praying, encouraging and learning from one another. We had 18 questions to review, and our table made it to only the first 3! Hence, the next round table.

    Sorry for the rambling here. I could go on, but you did ask for strategies!!!!

    God bless you in your work!

    Jonathan Ekeland

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