Schools Leaning Out

In part one of this two-part essay appearing on CACE this week, school principal Matthew Beimers makes the case that opening doors to strangers might make Christian education even more Christian, not less.

“The primary goal of Christian education is the formation of a peculiar people, a people who desire the kingdom of God and thus undertake their life’s expression of that desire.”

-James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

Rather than inquiring about our school over the phone, a mother and her two sons showed up in our office area one day. The mother quickly explained that while the family did not identify as Christian, she hoped I might entertain a conversation about her interest in our school. She shared how she had attended Catholic school all her life in India and that she looked back fondly on the Sisters who made a significant impact on her life in a rigorous, academic setting by instilling in her Christian virtues and values through daily, formational practices. While she now described her family as “more spiritual than religious,” she could clearly articulate how her time in that school shaped the way she walked in the world, and she wondered if we might consider extending her children an invitation into the same story that was so pivotal in her younger years.

Within months of meeting this family, a group of Christian educational leaders from Australia visited our school. Many Christian schools in Australia have a long history of having missional or open enrolment, meaning children from any or no faith background are welcome in their hallways and classrooms. I explained our own enrolment policy that required at least one parent to be an active member of a church, which led to some people being told we could not proceed with their application. One of my new friends from down-under countered this with a vigorous and passionate rebuttal that revealed his personal sadness, frustration, and even anger about our current practice. Another wondered out loud how, in a post-Christian culture where sharing the gospel in most forms is met with a level of scorn, how could we in good conscience say “no” to a non-Christian family who had a deep desire to have their child in a classroom where the Biblical narrative touched every aspect of the curriculum and, through God’s grace, their life. That we had policies that clearly delineated who was and was not welcome in our classroom and hallways was inhospitable and unfathomable to him. He could not reconcile our policy with the gospel’s call to make disciples of all the nations, and was unsure how we could rationalize that this mandate did not apply to our local Christian school.

Although these conversations took place a number of years ago, I thought of that family and my Australian friends once more while wrestling through Dr. Christine Edmundson’s Comment article entitled “Hospitality in Higher Education: Is There Room for All?” Edmundson’s insight led me to reflect on my own personal transformation in thinking about the historical, covenantal enrolment policies that I staunchly supported for many years and have continued to be a hallmark of many Christian schools rooted in the Reformed tradition and what such policies communicate about Christian hospitality. To be clear: my goal here is not to convince readers to abandon covenantal enrolment policies in favor of open, missional policies. Instead, I want to explore the possibility of an enrolment policy that is both covenantal and missional, a policy that would allow schools to remain faithful to a covenantal vision while still creating place and space for all those who desired to have their children educated in an institution whose core practices and beliefs are rooted in God’s unfolding story of redemption.

Going out or protecting the flock?

Christian schools often wrestle with their mission and vision statements, and so they should. These statements should always be at the forefront of any board, administrative, staff, or parent meeting since they guide school communities in both their daily and long-term strategic work. Yet while these statements often address the what and how and why of a school’s existence, they often forget one important question: “For whom does the school exist?”

When Edmundson writes that “our preference for our own culture makes us less discerning about it and at the same time causes us to over‐scrutinize those of others,” she is, in a way, offering Christian school communities—at whatever level—an important caution about how they answer this for whom question and craft their enrolment policy. Traditionally, however, there are two options: an open enrolment policy, often described as “missional”; or a closed” enrolment policy, often described as “covenantal.”

When I asked Dr. Tim Van Soelen, the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education about the rationale some schools have given for shifting their enrolment policies, he stated a few common themes have emerged: “To have a greater evangelical impact in their local community, to maintain or increase enrollment, and more closely align programs and policies with the school’s mission and vision.” A Christian school with such a missional, or open, approach might understand their mandate somewhat differently than a covenantal school with a closed enrolment. For them, enrollment is closed to unbelievers in order to protect and maintain the distinct Christian ethos of the school community, which is more difficult to do if the student body and the parental community do not have the same beliefs.

Covenantal schools worry that moving towards a missional enrolment policy might inevitably shift their institution (and their children) from their core beliefs and identity. Yet this fear may be unfounded. For example, in most Christian schools, regardless of enrollment policy, every aspect of the school day— whether that be the daily formational practices, the curriculum and pedagogy, the chapel services, the extracurricular offerings—all point students towards Christ and help them understand how the whole world belongs to God.

Because a missional school welcomes all members of the neighborhood, assumptions are not made that students are involved in a local church or that the spiritual development of the student happens primarily through school. Therefore, the primary reasons the school exists is to help students come to know Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. As someone in school leadership in a missional school once said to me when asked about what motivated him to keep pressing on in the hard work of Christian education, he simply said “I want to win souls for Christ.” We should applaud schools who understand that, for many students, school is the only place students will be exposed to the good news of Jesus. Such schools are intentionally inviting students to make that Story their own. Many of these schools provide excellent, Christ-centered education for the neighborhood that has the potential to transform lives and communities.

One clear delineation between missional and covenantal Christian schools is that covenantal schools do not exist to help students into an initial relationship with Jesus Christ, but rather to deepen that which presumably already exists. While such schools know that parents will always be the primary educators of their children, covenantal Christian schools keep their baptismal promises by seeing themselves as co-parents in the formation of each child’s mind and heart. Teachers are understood to act in loco parentis. This co-parenting happens when teachers build on the shared faith foundation of the home and the church.

There is a strength to this approach that I did not always realize. When I was transitioning out of our local Christian elementary school and was preparing to attend the Christian secondary school further away, I let my dad know that now was probably the best time for me to move to the closer, bigger, shinier public school. I was ignorant to the fact that my parents had made significant sacrifices for me to attend a Christian school and, although my dad did not show it, I am sure my declaration led to a mixture of emotions ranging from sadness to anger.  In retrospect, my dad’s response was beautiful in its simplicity: he simply reminded me of the hard work that many who came before me put into starting these schools, and then pointed to Psalm 78, reminding me that one reason Christian education was so important to him was because school was an integral, partnering institution for “the next generation to hear the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.”

In hindsight, my dad knew in his bones the value of a supportive covenantal community. My parents, no different than many others, wanted me to be part of a community that was bonded together through shared beliefs and the knowledge that there was a communal responsibility to train children to become responsive disciples of Jesus Christ. Today, the data from the Cardus Education Study indicates clearly that Protestant Christian Schools, many of which have covenantal enrolment policies, have a “distinct impact” on student’s long-term religious beliefs and practices, and this gives parents a sense of peace and hope.

Part 2 – On Opening Christian School Doors

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

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