The Toughest Question about Christian Education

September 10, 2018

This fall I celebrated my 40th first day of school. Those 40 first days include 4 first days as a public high school teacher, 9 as a state university graduate student (including 4 as a graduate assistant), 6 as a public university adjunct instructor, 13 as a student at K-12 Christian schools (across 4 different schools), 1 as a community college enrollee, 4 more as a student at Christian colleges (2 of those), 5 as a professor at a Christian college, and this year, my 7th first day as a Christian college academic administrator.

Did you do the math? If you tallied the numbers and got to more than 40, you were right, because for many years, I was both a student and an educator.

Long story-problem short: I’ve done school a lot of different ways and in a lot of different places. Some things have changed a lot. Some haven’t. One of the constants has been a question that I’ve encountered again and again across these different settings. It’s a tough question, harder than most story problems I’ve worked through.

Sometimes this question has been asked with kindness or genuine curiosity, other times with a rough edge. Each time, the essence is the same: “Why do you want to be involved in Christian schools?”

My answer has developed over time (as you would hope, given all the years I’ve spent in school!). It’s matured as I’ve taught with joy in public schools, been educated by some outstanding (and caring) state university professors, and served in a national educational association on behalf of K-16 teachers in every type of school imaginable. My answer has grown stronger as I’ve experienced school through my role as a parent, and it has become more nuanced through my two years as a host mom for international high school exchange students. My answer has gained some depth and grounding, too, especially because of my daily work as an administrator in Christ-centered higher education, which often gives me the chance to say aloud why Christian education is so important.

Here’s how the conversation typically goes these days.

“Do staff and families in Christian schools think they are better than other people?” No. Christ-centered schools exist because a community of people admits that we are a mess. We have a daily need for the kind of help that only God can give. We look to Jesus Christ for saving grace. We want to learn about God, his word, and his world so that we can serve him better. We want to learn to love our neighbors. These things are difficult to learn and to take to heart. They call for formation and transformation daily, in everything we are learning and doing. When Christ-centered schools are at their best, they challenge us and hold us accountable for serving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

“Do you think Christian schools are safer for your children or for you as an employee?” No. Christ-centered schools equip students to be the kind of people who run toward trouble—to see the hurts of the world and try to heal, to see chaos and try to bring order, to see violence and try to bring peace. This kind of learning is vital, but I wouldn’t call it “safe.” Christian Schools International describes Christ-centered schools in this way: “In our schools, faith and learning are woven together as an inseparable web. We have no fear of questions, inquiry, and challenges to what we believe. Instead, our schools invite the tough questions and the challenges, as iron sharpens iron, because God is our rock and his Word is our guide.”

“So what are Christian schools for, then?” Thanks for asking. Christ-centered schools depend on a community of believers working deliberately together to educate young people to learn and grow in the Lord. But they are also for you and for me—they are meant to serve the common good. That’s the mission statement of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU): “Advancing faith and intellect for the common good.” The Association of Christian Schools International puts it like this: “Ultimately, a Christian education is for others—the common good of the communities in which we and our students live and serve.”

This idea about the common good isn’t just a trendy saying. In The Case for Christian Higher Education, the CCCU estimates that its institutions are responsible for contributing $60 billion in total economic output annually (through institutional expenditures, alumni employment, and institutional wages and taxes). Students at CCCU colleges and universities are more likely than those from other private institutions to be first-generation students and from lower-income families, and as graduates they are more likely to be employed in socially oriented fields such as human services, education, and business. CCCU institutions engage in their communities, too: 84% open their arts and cultural facilities to the public, 71% invest in neighborhood schools, 67% open their athletic facilities to the public, and 38% invest in neighborhood real estate projects.

Why do Christian schools, colleges, and universities care about the common good? The desire to advance the common good is a theme from the Bible. In Proverbs 11:10-11, for example, we read about a city that benefits from upstanding citizens and leaders: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy. Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.” No one wants a corrupt government! In Jeremiah 29, the prophet tells the followers of God to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

For Christ-centered schools, the desire to promote the common good is a way to make daily life better for everyone. It is also a way to share some good news. In the Old Testament, we read about the people of Israel setting up stones to tell the story of God’s faithfulness “so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God” (Joshua 4). It’s a theme that is echoed many times in Scripture, including in Solomon’s prayer as he dedicated the newly built temple (I Kings 8), in the Psalms (67, 145), and in the great commission that Jesus gave to his disciples and all who follow him (Matthew 28:16-20).

 “I haven’t previously heard or thought much about Christian education and the common good.” I hope that every Christ-centered school does a great job of educating students as Christ followers who live passionately, effectively, and visibly for the common good. I hope, too, that what I’ve been sharing rings true with what you see from our students, faculty, and communities. But I’m sure there are ways that we could do better. I hope you’ll be willing to talk with administrators from Christian schools, colleges, and universities, sharing what you notice so that we can try to improve the impact that we have locally, regionally, and globally. Most importantly, I hope you know that you are welcome to join us in the mission. If you are interested in learning more about how you can be part of a Christ-centered school, you can search for K-12 schools through the CSI or ACSI websites, and for colleges and universities through the CCCU site.

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  1. I love that my children got a Christian education for a time, I wish it could have continued, but financially it wasn’t possible. The sad thing was that when my children moved to public school and returned to their former Christian school to visit they were looked down upon, talked negatively about and essentially shunned. So we didn’t see the school being there for the good of the whole community.

    1. I am very sorry for the experience your children had when they returned to their former school, that is very unfortunate. This further demonstrates the need for our children to be taught to be loving, kind and inclusive of others. Jesus was the ultimate example and we should all be seeking to be more like Him each and every day. Unfortunately, it only takes one or two people within an organization (or school) to behave badly and turn people “off” toward that organization. My hope is that this is not the accepted culture of the school and that it was only one or two people, who clearly have more room for spiritual growth. After all, love of God and others is what its all about.

      My wife and I are so very thankful for the opportunity to send all three of our kids to The Cornerstone Christian School in Manchester, CT. It has been a true partnership in raising our kids to love God and to love others. The spiritual growth in them is so evident in them year after year. We only see our children for an hour in the morning, a couple of hours in the evenings and on weekends, but they spend seven hours a day at school. For this reason, I am very thankful for a school that works with me to reinforce the Christian values we instill in our children on a daily basis. We are training up our children in the way they should go so they can head out and impact the world for Christ!

  2. The Westminster Catechism defines the “chief end of man” as “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. Can someone explain to me how the verb “serve” sneaks in to replace “glorify and enjoy” as the main point?

    Both The Shema of the Old Testament and the New Covenant Command use the verb
    “Love” ….God and others and self. Why is the goal for Christian Education then changed to “serve”?

    1. That’s a good question. I appreciate your concern for ensuring that Christians’ priorities are aligned according to biblical mandates. I found the word “serve” to provide more concrete direction than “love,” especially considering how “love” is commonly used today. The Westminster Shorter Catechism goes on to clarify “man’s chief end” in question and answer 39 by stating, “The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.” Jesus summarizes God’s law (revealed will) by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and He further clarified what it means to love by telling the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. I think what Jesus demonstrates is that love is displayed through service (see also 1 John 4:19-21).

      In today’s world, the word “love” is often reduced to a positive feeling that one has towards a person, animal, object, or idea. When people say that they love others, they often mean that they wish others well or that they try not to harbor animosity towards others. While these concepts are part of love, Scripture challenges people to go beyond feelings to actions. This is where service comes in. To love an enemy means to serve the enemy (consider Matthew 5:41, which is likely referring to Roman soldiers conscripting people to carry their gear). I am not suggesting that society in general is a Christian’s enemy (though we are often at odds with it). I mention serving enemies to suggest that if love for enemies is expressed through service, then service is an appropriate expression of love when engaging in culture.

      So yes, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Yet glorifying God is expressed (at least in part) through serving those with whom we come into contact, our neighbors. Christian education teaches students how to serve, and therefore love, with their minds, hearts, and hands.

      1. Hi Ian,

        Thank you so much for responding to my question about whether not the differentiating factor for Christian Education should be service or something beyond service? If the “world” has cheapened the word “love” maybe Christians should teach and live the true definition of it so the difference is obvious.

        What Christians have you ever met that serve like The Good Samaritan on a daily basis? Isn’t that a story about perfection? “Be perfect therefore, as I am perfect” (from Matthew 5:48) …The way I read it, it seems like Jesus is showing the saucy expert in the law that the way he could “love a neighbor” would never even come close to what God requires which is the whole point. You don’t need the law, you can’t keep the law perfectly. Even a simplified law, you can’t keep perfectly. What you need, is a savior to do it for you. And through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that is exactly what God ultimately provides; a Savior who was perfect for us and now lives in us to help us be more like Him (which goes way beyond being nice to people you might not like…which is what I feel like too many Christians reduce the story of The Good Samaritan to being about) Also…the very next verses tell of when Jesus told Martha to chill out about serving so hard, and that her sister Mary got it right by just sitting and listening to Jesus.

        All this to say, The God of the Universe loves His people unconditionally…nothing we ever do will make Him love us any more than He already does. Through the power of His Holy Spirit in us, all things are possible; patience, forgiveness, a sense of worthiness…and yes, serving… yet on own, our very best attempts are as filthy rags so we need a savior. We have one! And That’s The Good News! We are broken, messed-up people who now know we are loved unconditionally by our Savior, Jesus, in a world where everyone else judges by what we do, achieve, earn etc. The gratitude that flows from students who know that, and live out of that knowledge; that their identity and value are found in Christ alone…forms an awesome foundation for a life whether that life is extraordinary or very, very ordinary, there is great value in that as the focus. While service to others is nice, I’m suggesting in this crazy, busy achievement oriented western culture of ours, the Good News of access to unconditional love through Jesus and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit seems a little more compelling these days.

        Thanks for indulging me. I’d love to hear your reaction to these thoughts. ?

        Warm Regards, Sue-Ann

  3. I just stumbled over this article. I am from Vienna, Austria, working in one of the very, very few Christian Schools in our country.
    For me, loving and serving need to go together. If I tell my husband, my children, my co-workers, our students, …. hundred times a day “I love you” and never help them, encourage them, serve them, go the extra mile – how will they know?
    God says:” Love … God and others” – He also says at the end hopefully: “Well done, my great and faithful SERVANT”.

    Just some thoughts from a country where loving and serving God and others is to many people a very foreign thing. – But our prayer is, that our little Christian schools, by Gods grace, would be able to make a difference and help the young generation to see Christ in a different way, to see love and serving in a different way. Blessings, Sylvia

    1. Sylvia –

      Thank you so much for responding. I’d really like to grapple more with this question. I’m from Chicago but live in Seattle now, a city widely known for it’s award-winning philanthropy. People “serve” and “give” like crazy here! It’s awesome! As far as anyone can tell, it has nothing to do with Christianity either; just nice, intelligent people doing nice things for others because they’ve learned that life feels more enjoyable and meaningful when lived beyond the self and there is social pressure to do so.

      I’m not suggesting Christian schools shouldn’t join in these community improvement projects or learn to better serve one-another, I think that would be great! As Mormons, the military, the Boy Scouts, Oprah-followers and many others have learned, it feels great to be of service! God actually designed us to feel most fulfilled when we live beyond ourselves.

      The question is more about why is LOVE not enough for Christian schools. Why isn’t it enough to teach students from Pre-k on that The God of the Universe is absolutely smitten with them just because they ARE…? What’s wrong with learning to GLORIFY God and ENJOY Him forever? Imagine young children understanding the power of being created in God’s image and learning to allow the Holy Spirit to help them cultivate patience, kindness, self-control etc…in order to better love themselves, love others and love and enjoy God and His creation. High school students that have learned to rely on the love God has for them and the guidance of the Holy Spirit with in them are automatically the kinds of students who will tend toward serving others out of the pure joy in doing so, not out of a sense of duty or wanting to “earn” God’s favor. And even if they don’t…even if for physical or mental reasons they can never do an act that looks to anyone else like service, they can know for sure that they are of great worth and value to the God who loves them without conditions just because He does.

      When Jesus was baptized, the dove descended and the voice of God was heard, he hadn’t even done one miracle…nothing…he was just born to Mary and Joseph and grew-up…ok maybe read scriptures with the priests…but no service to others is mentioned. So why was God “so well pleased” at that point? The carpentry maybe?

      It just seems like an article about “Why Christian Education” should at least mention the one thing that could actually set us apart. Anyone can serve. Christianity is not required for that. To “rely on the love God has for you”, to be “still and know” that God is God, to learn to glorify God and really, truly ENJOY Him…that’s only possible through Christ. Add a passion for learning about God’s world through math, science, language, history, art etc to THAT kind of grounded, confident student who knows he’s loved unconditionally and not because of what he achieves or even how well he serves and my guess is you’ll need to build bigger schools!

      Thank you for indulging me. It’s exciting to see God at work in Christian Education.

      Warm Regards, Sue-Ann