On Opening Christian School Doors

In this second segment of his two-part essay, Matthew Beimers ponders whether the wider community would better know Christians by their love if greater diversity were fostered in Christian schools.

Growing up in a tradition where children were baptized as infants, I never fully grasped the beauty and importance of the congregation speaking their covenantal, baptismal promises over families until Bev and I stood up in front of the church with our oldest daughter a few weeks after she was born. I will never forget hearing that community promise that they were going to journey with us through the most mundane, rewarding and complex aspects of raising children, and they have followed through and covenanted with us in ways we could not even imagine many years ago. However, should the local Christian school’s understanding of covenant mean that excellent Christian education is solely for Christian students?

While the stated purpose of covenantal schools is to provide Christian education for children of believing parents, I wonder how hard these schools would have to look to find students and families who haven’t darkened the door of a local Christian church beyond Christmas and Easter, and perhaps some not even then. This is not an indictment on families or the policies that govern the school, but an inquiry about whether these schools need to revisit what they mean when they use the word covenantal.

If we insist on some form of letter that indicates a family is active in a local church, could or should schools not put some structure in place that allows for some form of accountability, not because we want to micro-manage a family’s spiritual practices, but because living in covenant requires the larger community, out of love, to pay attention to whether a family regularly habituates themselves in local faith community. I would suggest a more active partnership is one tangible way schools can keep covenant with their families.

This could mean something as simple as keeping an updated list of what church a family attends. The goal would be for the school to know how they could partner in times of crisis, which pastor they could invite to speak in classrooms or chapel, or who to invite for coffee or a pastor’s breakfast. Whatever a school community decides, the deep hope would be to strengthen the partnership between the school, the family, and the church for the sake of caring for the student and their family.

Conversely, I am not advocating that if a family is no longer active in a church they should then be ushered out of the school, but perhaps we can do better than a “once in-always in” approach where, after being accepted, many schools pay little attention to the trajectory of a family’s faith formation. If the idea of a covenantal school is that the church-home-school are partners with each other, which is ideally one way that covenantal communities should work, we need to question the authenticity of this concept if the relationships between church and school does not extend beyond a signed paper which allows a family to enroll their children.

While in a covenantal system there appears to be a clear marker about who is granted membership, in a missional approach, there is often little or no discernment about whether an enrolling family supports the mission and vision of the school. Again, in the name of “winning souls for Christ,” the school’s doors are open to any family, regardless of belief, who think the school is a good fit for their child.

But neither of these approaches is fully satisfactory. In the context of Christine Edmundson’s Comment article  “Hospitality in Higher Education: Is There Room for All?”, both approaches are problematic when it comes to hospitality. In the covenantal approach, for example, the question of hospitality exists because the governing body dictates what the parameters are for acceptance into the school, often checking boxes without taking the necessary time to understand the story that has shaped a family or individual.

Of course, the school board should set enrolment guidelines, but a more hospitable policy might allow decisions about enrolment to be made in the context of relationship. In a missional school, if we are not open with families that the primary goal is to lead their child into a relationship with Jesus, then we do not show hospitality because we are not being transparent about what our deep hope is for their children. We are also unfaithfully compromising the very nature of our institution. In addition, such schools run the risk of turning students into projects that need saving, a posture that is neither helpful nor hospitable.

As I’ve thought about the correlation between hospitality and enrolment practices in Christian schools, I often think back to the first time I read James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. Early on Smith asks an essential question that I have not been able to shake: “What is education for? And more specifically, what is at stake in a distinctly Christian education? What does the qualifier Christian mean when appended to education?” I thought about Smith’s questions as I sat in our small church last week and looked at the smattering of visitors from the neighborhood people sitting alongside those who attend weekly. As we worked our way through the opening songs, a time of confession and assurance, and then listened to a wonderfully constructed sermon followed by our weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper, it occurred to me that it was not simply the people in the pews that made the church a Christian church. Rather, it was every element of worship that was hopefully—and only through the grace of God—shaping us to be a peculiar community serving a peculiar God. Each week our motley crew gathers and lifts our hearts to the Lord, we allow the liturgy to do something to us.

In the same way, Christian schools gather students together and invite them to participate in the liturgies that mark our schools. I often wonder to what degree students or parents value those practices. At a previous school where I served, the weekly chapel service ended with a closing blessing. Students were invited to put a hand on the shoulder of a student next to them or open their hands in front of them as they received the blessing. I am not sure of the reason anymore, but one week we decided to forego this practice. After sitting through hundreds of chapels over the years and rarely having received student feedback, I was shocked to hear some students express disappointment that we did not end chapel with that weekly practice. While I understand the Christian school’s resistance to take on the role of the church, for some students, school is the only place where student participate in these distinctly, Christian practices, and, although a small sample size, the student responses that day suggest some students long for it.

However, students are not alone in this. In speaking with many parents, I often use a variation of Smith’s very question when speaking to inquiring parents—what do they believe is distinct about Christian education? Whether coming from a faith background or not, many of the parent responses are similar: they want their children to be valued for who they are; they want their children in a place where they belong; they want their children to learn how to be compassionate and to serve others; to love their neighbor; to know how to pray; to understand themselves and their world better. In sum, most parents want their children to be shaped by an educational story rooted in the Biblical narrative that not only shapes their intellect, but also their habits and virtues.

For those who might fear that moving to a more open enrolment policy might cause a school to lose their telos, I have found the opposite to be true. Since moving to a more open enrolment policy, I believe our mission and vision have taken on new life. While the reasons for this extend beyond just a shift in the enrolment policy, there is no doubt it has been part of the story for a very simple reason: as we have opened our doors and become exponentially more diverse, we have been forced to crystalize what we are on about as a school. As we come to a better understanding of who we are, there has been a unifying effect for our school community, which I believe has breathed new life into our institution.

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that “it is nothing but a pious wish and a grossly unwarranted hope that students trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly, upon graduation, actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture” To be clear, the Christian school should not be the only place students learn to contribute and shape culture. I trust that we want this to be happening in our backyards and cul-de-sacs, art galleries and bookstores, and churches and coffee shops. Yes, many of our schools give opportunity for this engagement through monthly field work or even missions trips—and they should be commended for this, but I would suggest that the classroom, the place where students do life together daily, might be the most appropriate place for students to learn how to do this together.

For example, teachers who are deeply rooted to the Biblical narrative and understand the mission of the school can act as a guide and facilitator in such a way that all members of the community practice hospitality by listening the voice and perspective of the other. Perhaps one way the Christian school can contribute to the common good is by rethinking an enrolment policy that would lead to a more diverse student body with a variety of belief structures. This would help all students understand that we have much more in common with those we think are different, and in exploring those differences, take a proper Christian posture where people feel less valued because they have divergent opinions. One read through David Smith’s outstanding book Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity to understand the far-reaching impact of learning and building relationship with those we have often labelled as “the other.”

In doing so, we help students understand self and others better in the context of Christian hospitality. While we hope the larger community will know we are Christians by our love, perhaps the outward demonstration of this is through providing a policy that invites more diversity into our schools. The classroom and hallways are the places where students come to know others in an intimate way, and it is through the process of knowing that presuppositions are cast off and misunderstanding clarified. As stated, the Christian school classroom should not be the only place this happens, but our communities should be discussing if our enrolment policies ensure that the Christian classroom is the one place this is not happening.

Perhaps a third way forward is for schools to not think of the missional-covenantal enrolment discussion as an either-or construct, but as both. I believe there are ways for schools with a covenantal approach that can protect the history and vision of the school while still considering a more robust approach to teaching those who have never heard the good news, let alone believed it. Before I do that, I want to name that it is understandable that some may have feelings of fear or anxiety that a covenantal, Christian school could suffer mission-drift by suddenly enrolling students who do not come from Christian homes. Others might feel that decades of history and the hard work of those who have come before will be dishonored. While some Christian schools are new, many have been around for generations and school boards and administrative teams can feel the pressure to stay the course. These are not easy decisions and it is probably easier to maintain what is tried-and-true. Central to the entire discussion is the importance of a transparent process that invites questions and dialogue from the community as shifts in policy are considered. I also believe there are practices that a school could adopt that might allow them to take a missional approach while protecting their covenantal understanding of school. This is not an exhaustive list, but perhaps these ideas could be used to nudge the discussion forward.

  • Schools that consider transitioning to a new enrolment model will need to clarify who can serve on the board or hold membership in the society. While finding qualified board members can already be exhaustive, it might need to be clearly stated that active involvement in a Christian church is one prerequisite needed a person to serve on the school board.
  • Schools might transition slowly to a new enrolment policy by articulating how many students from different faith or non-faith backgrounds will be accepted in each class. For those communities who believe clearly defining that number would be integral to this process, my one caveat would be that if there is concern that the direction of the school might collapse because a tiny percentage of the students come from different or no faith background, perhaps the more important discussion might center around the strength of the mission and vision rather than the enrolment policy.
  • No matter what enrolment policy a school adheres to, there should be significant time invested into each family before they apply and during the application process. Schools need to be explicit and unapologetic about how the vision of the school impacts every aspect of the community, whether that be the books in the library, the way technology is used as a learning tool, why Restorative practices is the culture shaping tool used throughout the school, the importance of Arts or Athletics, or why the school does or does not have uniforms.

I often think of that family I met in the office many years ago. At the time, our school had a covenantal enrolment policy and, unfortunately, we did not proceed with their application. And I grieve that because I am confident they would have fully supported the school’s mission to engage the world in the servant way of Jesus. I believe their children would have added a unique and rich perspective in our classrooms and hallways that would have given our students a better understanding of hospitality and how they might lean out to love their neighbour. Schools that are open to a discussion of a third way that honors the covenantal community while desiring to bring strangers in, might make space for those outside the Christian faith to grace the hallways of their schools. And they might even find that their Christian mission is tested, but also embodied more richly than ever before.

Part 1 – Schools Leaning Out

This essay first appeared at convivium.ca on September 14 and has been reprinted here with permission of the author. 

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