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Saving Christian Education

In their important book, Mission Drift, authors Peter Greer and Chris Horst describe numerous organizations that have veered from their Christian roots into a secularism that undermines their founding ideals. The stories are sad: non-profits, ministries, foundations, and even businesses that once started with the passion of the gospel have often ended up betraying the very ideals that inspired them in the first place.

The saddest stories for me are those of Christian schools, which always began with high ideals but have often ended up joining the myriad of secular institutions that seem more interested in maintaining the institution than in changing the world.

The exceptions, Greer and Horst say, are those schools where courageous leaders fight for the Christian values of their founders. These leaders, they note, “have stood unwaveringly upon the Truth of the Gospel. In all areas, they have demonstrated intentionality and clarity in retaining Christian distinctiveness. They are committed to Christ, first and foremost” (pp. 180-181).

With secularism pressing upon us in twenty-first century America, I want to issue a challenge to those of us who work for Christian schools, send our children there, or merely have an interest in their mission:

Rise up and courageously stand for the core mission of Christ in your school. Do this, and He will use you to change the world.[1]

I’ll draw my thoughts from Philippians 1:9-11.

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11 NIV). 

In this text Paul uses a beautiful constellation of terms: abounding love; knowledge, depth of insight, discernment of the good, purity, rightness, and glory to God. These virtues are the foundations of a Christian life. Shouldn’t they also be the very merits that distinguish a Christian education?

Of course, every school employs such high-minded terms: “for God and country,” “let there be light,” “as an eagle towards the sky,” and so forth. One could be forgiven for feeling that such mottos, often written in the sacred Latin of the church, are misapplied in a day where education is profoundly secular and utilitarian—designed to achieve scores and resumes far more than Veritas et Virtus.[2]

But the promise of a Christian education is more than platitudes and jobs. The promise of the Christian school is a way of life fully ennobled by God Himself.

The promise of the Christian school is that it will demonstrate to its students and to the world that all truth is God’s truth and that Jesus is king over every corner of the universe. The Christian school takes captive every thought and presents it to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Some years back, I attended a lunch that my church had prepared for returning students in our college ministry. I sat next to a young woman who had just graduated from a Christian university with a degree in fashion merchandizing. Trying to make conversation, I said, “So, how did your school teach you a Christian view of fashion merchandizing?” Not knowing that I can be profoundly clumsy at small talk, she looked at me as though I had asked her a trick question. “There is not a Christian view of fashion merchandizing,” she replied. “There’s just fashion merchandizing.” The subject moved on, and the brief exchange was over.

But through the years, I have thought a lot about her comments. Is there such a thing as a Christian view of fashion merchandizing? Or, more to my point, is there such a thing as Christian education? What makes a school Christian? How is a Christian approach to mathematics, graphic design, biochemistry, athletics, or European history any different from a secular approach to these same disciplines over at the public school?

Simply put, what exactly is Christian about a Christian education?

In his book, Models for Christian Higher Education, Richard Hughes suggests that there are three distinct ways we use the term “Christian University.” Though specifically addressing the university, Hughes’s analysis applies to all Christian schools. Using Hughes’s categories for the university, let’s think about what we might mean when we use the term “Christian education.”

The first, which Hughes terms the historical model, describes a university that began as Christian, but which, through mission drift, has now largely become a secular school. This school may still have a department of religion, and reminders of its Christian past still appear on campus. But any effort to think Christianly has long since vanished. Consider Harvard here, or a hundred other legacy schools.

In the second model, which Hughes describes as the value-added model, a Christian university offers what is largely a secular curriculum but then adds Christian elements to it, such as Bible classes, chapel, and the occasional religious program. The faculty is generally Christian, and the school likely has a faith statement. But the curriculum is thoroughly secular and is indistinguishable from that of the state school. In this sense, no matter what its motto, the school remains deeply utilitarian. The value-added model is well-intentioned and safe. But it unconsciously teaches students that Christ is an afterthought to an otherwise secular life.

In the third model, which Hughes calls the integrated model, everything is conceived and taught from a Christian worldview. The purpose of this university is to demonstrate, using the magisterial treasures of the church, the Lordship of Jesus in every area of life. In this university, every effort is made to see the whole world as Christ sees it and to engage every discipline as followers of Jesus.

So history is the unfolding of God’s story. Math is the rational language of an orderly God. Technology is a tool for Christian service. Science is the how of all of God’s why’s. This integrated worldview is the hardest model to maintain, and, truth be told, not all of us want it. It must be fought for.

It is my belief that Christian education, like so many other Christian endeavors in the U.S., is at risk of losing its way in the twenty-first century.

The pressures of secularism, the shrinking pool of Christian students from which to draw, the constant strains of finances and administrative urgencies, and the simple drag of mission drift all put Christian education in America at risk. Is there a way to remain fully Christian in twenty-first century America?

The answer is yes, and I want to suggest that a Christian school rises fully to its vision when it vigorously does three things: first, when it discerns Christ beneath, within, and above all it does; second, when it deploys all that it does for the glory of Christ; and third, when it deliberately creates a community immersed in of the love of Christ.

Let me comment on each of these.

First, fully convinced that all truth is God’s truth, an integrated Christian school constantly discerns the truth of Christ in all it does, including in every course it teaches.

An integrated Christian school knows a wide variety of perspectives, but discerns that which is distinctly Christian, and it promotes that viewpoint. A Christian school claims every discipline for Christ, whose light shines in every corner of the universe.

Now this doesn’t mean that only perspectives approved by ill-informed preachers are admitted in the Christian school. Rather, it means that participants in any given field of study understand the array of perspectives in their field, but promote that which is distinctly Christian. It means that teachers profess the truth of Christ that is found in all disciplines.

This matters. In a world where secularism projects totalitarian ambitions, any institution that bears the name of Christ cannot remain neutral, but must instead demonstrate how all truth springs from Christ.

You are the defenders of the truth of Christ in education. If you don’t embrace a Christian worldview, literally nobody will.

When my daughter was preparing to graduate high school, we visited a number of Christian universities. One promoted itself as having a fully integrated Christian worldview. At the time, Rachel was interested in biology, so I was curious to see how a Christian worldview played out in the biology department.

We met with the head of the department, a very God-like man who made a great impression on me. My first question had to do with the subject of evolution. Let me say that I do not consider myself a science-denier, so my question was not a challenge. It was sincere: what makes Christian biology different from secular biology?

I was delighted at his response. He stated that his students know more about secular biology, including evolution, than do the students at the state schools. “After all,” he pointed out, “they will work with secular biologists. What makes our approach Christian,” he explained, “is that we teach the difference between empirical science on the one hand and secular ideology masquerading as science, on the other. Our students know the difference between the two. They learn to see Christ even in the sciences.” He then took my daughter’s hands and prayed over her, before the conversation ended. I’ll never forget it.

A fully integrated Christian school constantly seeks to discern and promote the truth of Christ in every field of study–indeed, in all it does. It’s holistically Christian.

Second, an integrated Christian school relentlessly asks how any course of study can be used for the kingdom of God.

Back to Philippians one. Paul prays that we may discern what is best “to the glory of God.” An integrated Christian education not only presents the truth of Christ in all of its curriculum, but it deploys that truth in all its endeavors for the glory of God.

Two professors recently published a textbook named Mathematics for Social Justice, in which they argue that even mathematics must be used to overthrow oppressive systems. And you thought that math is, well, just math.

But these professors are on to something, for there is nothing that “just is.” Quite the opposite. Everything is done from a point of view, and everything is done for some purpose. This is true for the secular school, but it’s also true for the Christian school. We Christians must recognize that math is not just math: it’s grounded in the rational, dependable, and immutable character of God, and it was given to us by God to be used for His glory.

A Christian school knows this, and trains its students to deploy engineering, technology, statistics, and all the rest for the glory of God.

In the very least, a Christian school shows its students that careers in math can become access ministries into the lives of others for the sake of God. And if something so formal as math can be used for God’s glory, it shouldn’t be difficult for us to see how literature, the arts, social sciences, professional studies, kinesiology and every other discipline can be purposed for His glory.

In the middle of his career, fabled basketball coach Don Meyer, who once served at a Christian university, suffered a near-fatal automobile accident and a cancer diagnosis—at the same time. These forever changed his life. While lying in the hospital bed, Coach Meyer decided to use the rest of his life for the glory of God. Soon his players came to know him not only as a winning coach, but as someone who promoted the cause of Christ in all he did, including in basketball. And nobody who played for him left ignorant of the gospel. Indeed, as best as I can tell, toward the end of his career, basketball ceased to be Coach Meyer’s goal, and instead became his tool. His goal was the formation of students into the image of Christ. Basketball is just how he did it. He had an integrated Christian view of basketball.

This is what a Christian school can offer, and it’s something that no other school can provide. This is what you can do. Purpose your work for the glory of God.

Third, in our Philippians text, Paul prays that “our love may abound more and more.” His point is that love is the context in which humans flourish. An integrated Christian school is about more than research, scores, and resumes.

Put another way, a Christian school is about spiritual formation, which can only be done in a community of love—real love.

This is the kind of love that invests heavily in the lives of one another, now encouraging, now disciplining, for the purpose of taking the kingdom of God to the four corners of the world.

It is a loving community that makes its graduates the best church members I have: the graduates of Christian schools are the backbones of many of our churches. But there’s so much more. When you personally invest in one another’s lives—having each other into your homes, praying with others in their struggles, loving one another by name—you set the course of people’s lives, leaven the city, and, eventually, change the world.

Your love for one another sets you apart from the secular school. They teach the courses; you teach the human. God has entrusted you with real-life, flesh-and-blood students for the most formative years they’ll ever have. In an integrated Christian school, this fabulous opportunity is never squandered.

Some years after the fashion merchandizing conversation I mentioned above, I was introduced to another college student from a different Christian university. She had developed a heart for women in deep poverty in Central America. She didn’t know how to help them, but she was determined to try. After some time, she began to ask her friends to give her their old clothes. She turned these clothes inside out, redesigned them, and now sells them, giving the proceeds to the poor women whom she loves. Her fashion has helped reclaim the lives of hundreds.

I am sure there is a lot she doesn’t know about fashion merchandizing, but she most certainly has a Christian view of fashion: every thread comes from Jesus and can therefore be used for the glory of God.

And she learned this in the loving context of a Christian school. To quote from another of Paul’s texts, she has taken captive every thought and presented it to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Many of us work for Christian schools and universities. Many more of us send our children to such institutions. All of us have a stake in the future of Christian education. We must understand that Christian education in America is at a crossroads. We are making decisions today that will forever shape the destinies of our schools and, more importantly, the destinies of our students.

Whatever else you do, I pray that you will continue to embrace the Christian part of Christian education. It is, after all, why you exist. It’s what you do.

Rise up and courageously stand for the core mission of Christ in your school. Do this, and He will use you to change the world.

[1] Adapted from David Young, “Every Thought Captive,” presented as the inaugural address for the appointment of Dr. Scott McDowell as seventh president of Lubbock Christian University, Lubbock, Texas, October 1, 2020.

[2] Translated “Truth and Virtue.” 

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