From 2016 -2020, my family and I served in ministry at Concordia International School in Shanghai, China. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experience there, we didn’t really enjoy the long flights from Los Angeles to Shanghai and back. Due to the winds, the flight from LAX was about 14 hours and 50 minutes long. The flight from Shanghai to LA was “only” 11 hours and 45 minutes long. A flight time reduced by 3 hours was much more pleasant! We learned to understand the effects of “headwinds and tailwinds” on our transpacific flights.
In aviation, business, and ministry, headwinds can increase costs, require more energy, and lengthen the time it takes to reach your goals. Tailwind conditions, on the other hand, can propel your ministry and help move it forward more quickly than expected. Skills at navigating both tailwinds and headwinds are necessary in ministry. Applying these concepts to Christian education is the topic of this article.
As you read this article, keep in mind that understanding the context for your ministry is critical. While I’ve tried to stay “above the horizon” on these categories, not all of them will apply to your setting. When they don’t apply, I’d encourage you to substitute something that does apply to get a broader picture of the effects of tailwinds and headwinds in your setting.
Tailwinds in Christian Education
Covid-19. During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, many public schools were closed much longer than private schools. In addition, parents had a daily opportunity to be “in the classroom” when their students were on Zoom or online. During the following 6–18 months this combination propelled families to “check out” private education and in parts of the world, declining enrollments changed course. Today, we find the overall number of students enrolled in Christian schools in the Pacific Southwest at the highest number seen in many years.
Multiple levels of Christian education. From infant care through doctoral education, we’ve got it covered. Some people are very happy to send their youngest learners to Christian schools but don’t want their kids to go to private high school or college. Others prefer to save money in public education so they are able to send their children to a Christian college. Christian colleges and universities come in many sizes and provide multiple levels of excellent education.
History of providing high quality education. Martin Luther and other theologians were no stranger to education. Their influence on education from the 1500s still impacts many denominational and nondenominational schools. Luther was especially vocal about the need for people to hear the Gospel every day as well as the importance of providing high quality education. With the combination of these experiences, Christian school graduates go on to outstanding high schools, colleges, universities and professions. They are critical thinkers and leaders who share a love of Jesus in what they do and who they are. There is quite a bit of data around the positive impact of a Christian school education.
Multiple models of education. Whether parents seek classical education, online, traditional, blended, HyFlex, career technical education, micro-schools, or international schools, Christian school have various models of education covered. While you will not find all of these options in your area, the worldwide system of educational options is something we should be proud of and keep in mind when discussing education with prospective families and employees. The world is very interconnected, and Christian schools seek to serve. During Covid-19 this interconnected system was a valuable resource for Concordia Shanghai. We were able to place families who had returned to the US in partner Lutheran schools across the US. What a blessing for the families and for the host schools!
Headwinds in Christian Education
Teacher burnout. While this problem is not specific to Christian education, it is a reality in the teaching profession today. Social media, along with 24/7 communication from parents and sometimes administrators, weighs on the very people we want to be filled with the Gospel message in the classroom. Traditionally, and unfortunately sometimes we even joke about it, the “Christian school way of pitching in” wears on our faculty members.
Yes, I have done my share of service in ministry by coaching all three seasons and then helping out at the plays, preparing the Easter kids program at our church, etc. and survived, so what’s changed? There is a difference between surviving and thriving. The generational differences between Baby Boomers and Millennials are evident in school ministry. The very hearts we look for when hiring teachers are the ones that break when they can’t impact the lives of their students and maintain their own lives outside of school.
This may not be true for all teachers but my perspective is that social media and 24/7 communication access adds to the negative narrative teachers are feeling, participating in, and experiencing today.
Lack of trained teachers. This issue is not new and doesn’t appear to be improving. I’ve been blessed to serve with many outstanding teachers in my career. Some of them were not trained in a specific faith tradition, and their contributions to the ministry were incredible! However, there is such a thing as “critical mass” within any organization. Christian schools continue to hire “non-Christian” people as teachers in their schools. Over time, this impacts the school culture in many and various ways. While sometimes a diversity of perspectives is positive, the potential to impact the theological underpinnings of Christian education is important to critique.
Demographic change. We see the impact of demographic change all around us. Across the globe, people are having fewer children. The average birth rate per woman in 2019 declined to 2.4. In 1964 the average was 5.6. The percentage of adults in the U.S. who hold a belief in God continues to decline. Church membership has gone off a cliff since Covid but was already on a decline before the pandemic.
Tailwinds and headwinds impact flights, business, and ministry, but don’t stop them. God is always at work in our Christian schools. Remember, Jesus calmed the storms with the disciples. So, too, he calms our storms as we go about each day, connecting people to Jesus! May our good and gracious God mightily bless you today and every day in school ministry!