There has been much written recently on the changing attitudes towards church in American culture. It is doubtful that many of us are surprised at what the data is showing; a shrinking percentage of people feel church involvement is a priority. The data is particularly concerning for Gen Xers (ages 48-30) and Millennials (29 and younger). A March 25, 2014 study by the Barna group found here reports that more than half of those surveyed 48 and younger have not been to church in the last 6 months. According to the same report, 59% of Millennials who were in church, have dropped out at some point. The reasons cited for no longer attending are:
- Moral failures of leadership
- God is missing in the Church
- Legitimate doubt is prohibited starting at the front door
Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that while Barna cites a general cultural epidemic of loneliness in America, only 1 in 10 attend church to find community.
While there are many pathways of discourse that could be taken in light of this data, the purpose of this article is to consider the impact of these trends on Christian schooling.
As a starting point, it is important to be clear that the Christian school is not the church. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession states “the true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes us of the pure adminsitration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; and it practices church discipline for correcting faults.” Christian schools certainly ought to teach the gospel and often engage in discipline, but not with the same authority, or in the same way as the church.
At the same time, the Christian school should support the church, and as such, there is great value in the church and school acting as partners where they share families and students. These trends should be concerning to all who are committed to participating in the advance of the gospel.
With this in mind, the data and corresponding trends should cause Christian schools to consider the following:
- As Christian schools endeavor to equip students to represent Christ and seek his kingdom in all areas of home, church, society and culture, they should be intentional about instructing and modeling students towards the grace-giving value and sustenance of heart-filled engagement and involvement in a local church. There is no replacement for the means of grace God imparts through the local dispensation of the body of Christ on earth. Christian schools should examine their curriculum and practice to determine where the distinctive value of the local church is intentionally taught and modeled within school programs and by faculty, staff and administration. We can’t help our students understand the vital importance of their participation in church if they don’t see and hear of it from those that lead them in Christian schools.
- Christian schools should be careful not to respond to perceived weaknesses in the church by taking on more and more of the role of the local church. Among other things, this risks students who see faith as only personal and miss the role and value of the covenant community of the church. Joel J. Miller has a great article about this found here. In addition, students who believe the role of the church is fulfilled by the school during their formative years could develop habits that falsely lead to the perception that there is little need for the church as adults.
- Christian schools whose philosophical foundations are, in part, based on a home/church/school church partnership must consider how these shifts are influencing that partnership, including how the potential breakdown of this partnership influences governance structures and potentially the implementation of the mission of their schools. The trends would indicate that the expectations and priorities of Millennial and Gen X families who send their children to Christian schools are very different than generations prior. This is not to suggest the changes in expectations are appropriate or inappropriate, only that care should be given to evaluate how those changes may affect the programs and sustainability of Christian schools as they are currently structured.
- Christian schools should consider the reasons Millennials and Gen Xers are leaving the church and examine their own cultures and programs to see where they may exhibit some of the same detrimental patterns. It is not only the church that struggles with issues of irrelevance, hypocrisy and moral failure. While we would all likely agree that no person or institution is immune from any of these things, Christian schools must authentically examine where they may represent these same concerns and respond with gospel humility, transparency and accountability. Where the process of school life is inconsistent with the content taught, the resulting consequences can have a long lasting, negative impact on everyone within the school community.
While these trends in and of themselves can be discouraging, there is much to be gained from a careful study of the data and an open dialogue in Christian school communities with an eye towards improvement. It is much easier to look outside of our own scope of influence to find the core causes of data and trends that concern us. Thankfully, the gospel frees us to look inside first and God’s covenant faithfulness enables us to work together as home, church and school to provide the best environments for our children to be embraced by redemption’s firm and loving grip.
Chad Dirkse has served in Christian education for 25 years in roles that include, math and science teacher, coach, athletic director, principal, head of school and board member. He is currently the President of Chattanooga Christian School where he serves more 1,100 students and 130 faculty and staff. Prior to his current position he served as the Superintendent at Westminster Christian School in Elgin, Illinois. Chad has an undergraduate degree in education from Covenant College and and MBA with a specialization in school leadership from LeTourneau University. Chad speaks regularly to groups about the school sustainability and the importance of consistency in the process and content of Christian schooling.