God Loveth Adverbs: Teaching (and Living) “Christianly”

April 4, 2016

One morning in May of 2015, I had the opportunity to sit in on a conversation with a hero-of-sorts for me: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff. He was in the area for some other speaking engagements, and arrangements were made to have him on campus to share some of his thoughts on Christian higher education in an informal session. It was fascinating for me to hear from Dr. Wolterstorff firsthand; I’ve been reading things he has written since I was an undergraduate Elementary Education major 20 years ago.

Photo by David Mulder ccbysa 2.0

Photo by David Mulder ccbysa 2.0

There were so many things that came up in this short session that I cannot recall all of them, but on stood out for me. Almost in passing, Dr. Wolterstorff mentioned an old Puritan adage (thus within the Reformed tradition…):

God loveth adverbs.”

I was struck by this quote because I have heard it said before that “Christian” is great as a noun, but pretty lousy as an adjective. The idea that there is one singular “Christian” perspective on… pick your topic… is challenging. All too often, I think there are multiple “Christian” ways of looking at things, because the umbrella of Christendom is wide, to say the least!

I love the idea of describing our approach to thinking about our work as “Christianly.” Using the adverb instead of the adjective here may be helpful. The idea of a Christian college preparing young adults to conduct their work in this world “Christianly”—in harmony with biblical truths, in consonance with faith, following the example of Christ—rings true for me.

In my current role as a teacher educator, I strive to help my students (pre-service teachers) understand what it means to “teach Christianly.”1 If I’m honest about it, I am still striving to fully understand what this means in my own teaching practice.

In one of the very first college courses I taught, we were talking about how our perspective matters for how we teach, and our classroom conversation turned to whether or not there is such a thing as “Christian teaching.” I brought up this topic and hoped we would have some real discussion about it, but my students were slow to get started. Many of them seemed to assume—as I had, when I was in their shoes, I am sure—“I am a Christian and going to be a teacher… I suppose that means I will be a ‘Christian teacher.’” I was intrigued, however, by one student who was affronted by the idea—as if there was such a thing as a “Christian” way to teach!

I clearly remember him asking, “Is there a ‘Christian’ way to do anything? Is there a ‘Christian’ way to smoke a cigarette?”

(Hmmm… good question, there.)

That got the rest of the class thinking pretty critically about what we really mean by “Christian teaching” or “Christian education.” Our class consensus was that there is such a thing as “teaching Christianly,” but no one could really articulate exactly what that meant.

We clearly said what it isn’t:
– It’s not just having devotions, chapel, Bible class, and the like.
– It’s not just quoting scripture every few minutes.
– It’s not just taking prayer breaks throughout the school day.
– It’s not just using a sprinkling of “God talk” in the lessons you present.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong or un-Christian about these things; in fact, we agreed that we would expect that these things should happen in Christian schools!

But then, my insightful student who had stirred the pot so perfectly asked the magic question: “Can you ‘teach Christianly’ in a public school?” So, of course, I turned the question back to the class. And again, there was strong consensus that you can, in fact, “teach Christianly” in a public school setting, but no one was entirely clear how that might happen.

After quite a lot of debate and discussion, I suggested we might think of it as a matter of perspective: perhaps “teaching Christianly” has more to do with our intent, our approach, our heart. If we are striving to be Christ-like in our approach to classroom management, to unit plans and lesson plans, to instructional strategies, to assessment and evaluation instruments, to our interactions with students/parents/colleagues/administrators, and to our entire teaching practice, perhaps this is what “teaching Christianly” might look like.2

I am the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly do not do this perfectly in my own teaching practice. But I strive to help my students think through big questions: What does it really look like to teach Christianly? Will my classroom look different or feel different from the classroom next door if that teacher is not also striving to teach Christianly? How does my identity in Christ affect how I approach my task as an educator? How can I submit my will to the will of Christ in all parts of my teaching practice? And, more broadly than just teaching… How can I live Christianly in the fullest, most authentic sense of discipleship?

I welcome you to wrestle with these questions along with us!

About the Author
  • Dave Mulder serves as Professor of Education at Dordt University, where he teaches pre-service teachers in the undergrad program and works with practicing teachers in the Master of Education program. His interests in education are varied, but include educational technology, online learning, STEM education, faith formation, and teaching Christianly. 

  1. In full disclosure, this is not an idea I have developed myself; I had the joy of learning from Dr. John Van Dyk in both my undergraduate and graduate studies, and his work has had a profound influence on my own thinking about teaching Christianly in an authentic way. See his books, Letters to Lisa and The Craft of Christian Teaching: A Classroom Journey for his thoughts on what this might look like. 

  2. Again, I am indebted to John Van Dyk for this conception of teaching Christianly, which he discusses at length in The Craft of Christian Teaching: A Classroom Journey. If you are a Christian educator, you owe it to yourself—and your students—to read this book. 

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  1. Thanks, Dave! This is a complicated and yet very necessary issue to address. Thanks for raising the important and essential questions with which we and our Christian teachers need to struggle.

    1. I’m glad to start the conversation, but as I say above, I know I’m not “there” yet in my own teaching practice. I’ve been wrestling with how to do this for 18 years now…there is part of me that thinks I should be better at this by now. 🙂 I definitely think that learning to teach Christianly is a journey, not a destination. I think I am learning (more and more) to teach Christianly as part of my growth as a disciple of Jesus: I am continually learning to bend my will more to the will of Christ, and this–I hope!–comes out in my teaching practice as well.

      I am grateful that I have the opportunity to continue to wrestle with these challenging questions along with you all!

  2. Thank goodness for students who ask penetrating questions and get all of us thinking deeply about these issues. We’ll be discussing this for years to come. Thanks for adding some excellent insights to this important topic.

    1. I’m right with you, Mark! I could not have set this discussion up in class any better than the way it unfolded through my students’ questioning and wondering together. I am grateful that I have the chance to work with students who are already thinking so much more deeply about these important questions than I was at their age!

  3. Thanks for “stirring” the pot Dave! I like all the comments submitted by you and others and would add another. We continue to need Christian teachers in our government schools, however they are limited in many of the schools to teach “Christianly.” To teach “Christianly”, one must acknowledge the Bible as the basis for “all things.” Via court rulings, that cannot be done openly in government schools. Yet, Christians in government schools do teach in a Christian way by how they answer student questions and by the adage that “we teach more by what we do than by what we say!”

    1. It is not necessary to use words to proclaim the gospel, nor to cite a text to be a vessel of peace and love. The Word of God cannot be banned from a “government school,” He is present everywhere. What is difficult everywhere is to be suitably open, as patient, as present, and as loving as He is with all his children.