This article originally appeared in the Ontario Christian School Administrators Association newsletter, The Rudder.
In June, I read Evangelism for “Normal” People by John Bowen. I expected that it might make me consider how I understand evangelism; I didn’t expect that it would make me reconsider how I understand the movement of Christian education.
Bowen shares the ideas of a missiologist named Paul Hiebert, who wrote about “bounded sets” and “centred sets” in terms of the church: “In this way of thinking, a bounded set is group of things or people that has a clear boundary… A centred set, on the other hand, is a group of things or people defined not by whether they are inside a particular boundary but by how they relate to a particular centre…. What is most important is whether people (or things) are moving toward the centre or away from the centre” (Bowen, Evangelism for “Normal” People, p. 46).
Whether or not this model can be applied without difficulty to faith and to the church is for another conversation. But bounded set vs. centred set as a concept is intriguing to me when it comes to the movement of Christian Education. In my experience, Christian Education is often seen as a bounded set by those devoted to it–and perhaps also by those who are perceived (or who perceive themselves) to be outside of it.
I have heard bounded set language through my years working in a Christian school. For example, if a family left the school before their youngest child graduated out, there might be murmurs in some quarters that “they weren’t really committed to Christian Education.” Their leaving would be explained by them being outside of the set, despite their having been part of the school. This in or out mentality can be and has been applied to staff, to students, to families, even to whole organizations.
At times, I have applied this in or out mentality to myself. I have considered with surprise the fact that my husband and I both find ourselves employed in Christian Education in Ontario. Neither one of us is of Dutch heritage, grew up in a Reformed tradition, nor attended Christian school. Because my history looks different than that of many of my colleagues, I often place myself outside of the culture and/or movement of Christian Education, even after working in it for nearly ten years.
I grew up in a family with a vibrant faith, a family that believed very strongly in Christian Education. In our tradition, though, we attended public school from Kindergarten through grade 12. Our Christian Education happened at home, at church, and at summer camp. My parents were both Christian educators working in public schools. They encouraged my siblings and I to spend some time at Bible college before heading on to other post-secondary education. If Christian Education in Ontario is a bounded set, then I ought to be surprised that I’m a part of it. But if it is a centred set — if it can be understood not by boundaries, but by movement towards a shared centre — then I can belong.
What centre, then, are its people and ideas moving towards? I am going to take liberties and suggest that there are two centres for Christian education: first, Christ; and second, Exceptional Learning.
Clearly, we are centred on Christ as a movement. Christian worldview is integrated into all our curriculum and pedagogy. We believe our mandate as Christian schools to teach our children from this perspective comes directly out of Scripture. But I think Christ-as-centre should be true of any profession or movement, education, construction, philosophy, ministry, the works. But Learning is distinctive to the field of education; this is why I believe that both centres are necessary.
If Christian Education is a centred set with centres of Christ and Exceptional Learning, then I, despite my “unorthodox” origin, can participate as a full member in this movement. I believe that we need Christ in our lives in order to flourish, and I believe that He can use our learning to accomplish his work in our characters and our hearts. I believe in the importance of exceptional learning; I believe that what we learn and how we learn it shapes who we are. I am grateful every day to be doing work that contributes to these goals, that moves towards these two centres.
I wonder what might change if we more often viewed Christian Education in Ontario as a centred set rather than a bounded one. What if people weren’t simply inside it or outside of it? What if people could move towards Christian education somewhat gradually, over time, as I did? What if we could belong by virtue of our movement towards the same centre, rather than by whether or not our boundaries align?
If Christian education is about moving towards these two centres, Christ and Learning, then we can be on this journey with so many more people — not just those who are “inside” already. We can connect with Christian educators in public, separate and independent schools, for example. We can learn with and from exceptional educators and institutions that may or may not be Christian. Anyone moving towards those two centres, or even one of the two, could be an important part of our growth and we could be an important part of theirs.
In some areas, we make such connections already. Many Christian school teachers complete their education training and/or continuing professional development through universities and programs that aren’t expressly Christian. The visits by Ontario administrators to High Tech High have been fruitful for many schools, HDCH included. In the same way, we can learn a lot from Christians and Christian organizations that aren’t expressly connected to education. The May OCSAA conference comes to mind as an example of this, where Christian small business owners had a lot to teach us about leading an organization.
I think there is one more important gain we make by considering Christian Education as a centred set rather than a bounded one: we remove from ourselves the responsibility of keeping a boundary that does not necessarily serve us, that in fact sometimes keeps out people, ideas, methods and organizations that could improve the growth and learning of our staff and our students.
Keeping a boundary takes a lot of energy. A movement that is fluid rather than fixed makes us flexible, and allows for the movement itself to grow and change, perhaps in ways we don’t expect. We might find unexpected allies. We might find unexpected commonalities. And we might be reminded, in a new way, that Christian education is not something we define and control.
Bowen, John P. (2002). Evangelism for “Normal” People. Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, MN.
Cheryl Webb never meant to be a Christian school administrator or live in Ontario. Even so, she is Director of Operations for Hamilton District Christian High. Cheryl loves great coffee, black; fierce conversation and witty repartee (equally and for different reasons); working with a great team to make an exceptional organization; her family; and the messy, beautiful way God shapes his people through community. She can sometimes be found on Twitter @hamontwebb.