In celebrations such as the Engage gathering (Fall 2021), it would be easy for attendees to slip into a self-congratulatory mode around the accomplishments of the last 150 years arising from the Calvinist Christian day school tradition (sometimes referred to as the Reformed or Dutch Reformed tradition). Yet, if the education offered through this movement is to stay vital and connected, we must hear from trusted friends outside the tradition who can objectively affirm and and also challenge us.
Dr. Lynn Swaner is one such trusted friend who was invited to speak at Engage. While referring to herself as a “perennial houseguest,” she has become a respected, loved, and ingrafted part of our family. In her role as Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer for ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International), she connects us to the wider Christian education world and has recently published important research around what constitutes flourishing Christian education.
In her session at Engage (see video below), Swaner shared that she has found intellectual kinship in the rich tradition of Calvinist Christian education thought leaders. Her vision of flourishing has been deeply formed by Reformed authors such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Cornelius Plantinga, and others. While the “Big Story” narrative arc of Scripture (creation, fall, redemption, restoration) is well known in our schools as a way to teach students about one’s meaning and purpose in life, the construct was unfamiliar and mind-blowing to her when she encountered it as a Christian school educator some 20 years ago. She reminded us that it has become a major contribution of our theological tradition to Christian education. From her visits to Calvinist Christian day schools, she shared impactful evidence that this world and worldview is very much alive and evident throughout the educational process. But is this narrative life-giving and vital for student flourishing?
Swaner has done unprecedented and comprehensive research on flourishing in Christian education. In her speech, she made strong connections between the “Big Story” and student flourishing. She discovered three aspects of spiritual formation happening in Christian schools that highly correlated with Christian school alumni continuing to walk with God: community engagement, Christ-like teachers, and responsiveness to special needs. She gave encouraging examples of how she has seen these aspects practiced in our schools.
Swaner closed her keynote with a loving challenge: How do you as a group of Calvinist Christian educators maintain distinctives in your school and pass them on without depending on cultural homogeneity? She acknowledged that many Calvinist Christian day schools were already wrestling with this question and seeking new ways to engage meaningfully with their community. She suggested that because the three-legged stool metaphor (the partnership between home, school, and church) is not as viable as it once was (families are more disconnected from the local church than in previous generations, and churches do not provide much, if any, financial support to Christian schools), it might be better to lean into the metaphor of the school being a welcoming table for the surrounding community—one that draws in our neighbors to experience the love of God and the hope of the Gospel.
Here are helpful questions she suggests for further discussion:
- Who gets to flourish in our schools? Who doesn’t? Who might be missing?
- How can we engage our communities in redemptive ways?
- How do we create school communities where all can belong?