Big Tent Fears
I recognize the many challenges Christian schools face. The pressures are immense. There are concerns over accreditation, test scores, college placement, class sizes, and an ever changing technological world of which the administration and teachers probably never feel up to date. Teacher's salaries are low, general operating expenses only seem in inflate—monthly, and the financial burden is ever met by a lot of creative fund-raising. And what of the world of sports and the Christian school? Who can forget Barbara Hershey’s line in Hoosiers, “A basketball player is treated like a god around here.” Losing athletic teams and unsuccessful coaches are a quick recipe to have a lot of discontented society members who think the answer is just better facilities (where is that money going to come from?) This isn’t all. What of living in a pluralistic, narcissistic culture in which the parents expect the Christian school to be all things for every dream and aspiration a parent has for his or her child? These are real pressures and real problems.
In the midst of all these very real struggles, it’s extremely easy for the Christian school to simply become a kind of big business conglomerate, forgetting the very purpose for its existence. But regardless of the struggles, there are two important questions that have never changed. Why do we do this? And whose approval are we seeking?
As a pastor, these are questions to which I constantly have to return. I face all the same kind of pressures to be “successful”. Today the church is obsessed with cultural relevance. We have a plethora of churches merely blocks from one another, each doing their own thing in the ministry, and whoever is the most culturally relevant for the moment, gets the greatest draw. Who wants to be told to turn from their wickedness, flee idolatry, and become debased before the risen Christ, when down the street you can have practical messages that are relevant for your life, and a youth barn center for the kids? What pressures do pastors face! It should go without saying that for a pastor to stay sane today, he will have to be reminded that what he does is called "foolishness" by the Holy Spirit himself (1 Cor. 1). The kingdom of heaven is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep—he does not know how the seed grows. The results are not part of the pastor’s job responsibility—they belong solely to the Lord.
So I am constantly brought back to the basic purpose for which I labor as a pastor: if my purpose is to save sinners from death, then I preach as a dying man to dying men. If my purpose is to teach people have to have their Best Life Now, then my ministry is all about techniques for positive thinking and living. I’m glad I don’t decide what the purpose of ministry is, it has always been the same; God has told me that it is the preaching of the cross to save sinners from their sins. That may sound old and archaic, but it’s the very thing God has said he loves to bless
This mirrors the challenges for the Christian school. Take the first question, why do we do Christian education? If the answer is different now than what was the original philosophy of Christian education when our schools were formed, then one should recognize the dilemma, the whole philosophy for Christian education must be redefined. The why of Christian education was always driven by the conviction that there is a vital connection between what we believe and what is communicated to our children, and that we have a particular theological basis for doing this in the Reformed faith. The what of Christian education is vitally connected to how it is implemented. In other words, it makes no sense to pursue the principle of Christian education without the proper corresponding practice of it.
But if the Christian school has made a conscious choice to move away from that particular theological basis, most likely because of the above named challenges and as a big tent operation appeasing so many different Christian groups, still the important question cannot be evaded: What will your particular theological basis for Christian education be? Christian education only works because it is theologically motivated, and that motivation will be expressed in its application.
I recognize many would answer the above question by saying the theological basis for Christian education is the Bible, but so would, for instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. And I think we know today, in a post-modern, tolerant world how people read the Bible. We have all heard it, “What does that passage mean to you?” But truth is not subjective, it’s objective. And the very point of Christian education, and leadership for that matter, is that we present the faith objectively, presenting the truth as a matter of fact and with clarity.
As our forefathers expressed, there has always been a vital link between what we believe and how that truth is communicated to our children. There is a certain goal in the establishing of Christian schools, a purpose; in other words, there was a theology that drove the practice of it in honor of the Lord’s command to train our children in his works and ways. What drove the training of our children was a certain understanding of God’s attributes and how he has revealed himself to his creatures. Our view of God informs everything that we do. What makes Christian education unique is what it is, namely, Christian; but not Christian in the assimilated, conventional way the name is used today, but as Protestants have historically defined it. The Reformed faith was the theology behind the formation of our Christian schools.
For instance, when considering the attributes of God, Reformed theologians have always recognized that the whole of God’s essence is in each one of his attributes, that his essence and perfections are all one. But what might the consequences be of misunderstanding this basic principle, in this case, for Christian education? Would it not be extremely easy to take the one attribute that we like about God and exalt it to the expense of all the rest? Would it not be easy to make an attribute of God into an idol?
This is no mere academic exercise; how might this error play itself out in the Christian school? What is the attribute of God today that is exalted over all the rest? Unequivocally, we can say that that attribute is love. A disregard of the attribute of God’s righteousness or justice will directly influence how, for instance, chapels are planned and implemented. A wrong view of God’s sovereignty and the human will, will affect how the gospel is presented. A disregard of his holiness will affect how sin in dealt with in students. And, a wrong view of sin will inevitably challenge how a teacher deals with a child’s need.
Is the child’s ultimate problem a bad day, or a bad heart? Where is our starting point? One’s view of sin has a direct bearing on how children will be nurtured. If the teacher believes the student’s problem is merely a bad day, the corrective will be appropriate to the perceived problem. If the student’s problem is a bad heart, no manner of treating symptoms will ever be the proper corrective. The teacher must discern the child’s greatest need—and when it comes to a corrupt heart, the child’s need is Jesus Christ and his gospel. In other words, the cure will only be as radical as the disease. If these categories are missing, so goes the distinct Christian nature of Christian schooling.
The Neutral Myth
Most CSI Christian schools at one time consciously maintained a distinctly Reformed vision with committment to Reformed standards. Today, under the pressures of being under a big tent with so many different backgrounds represented, even Roman Catholic, it has been assumed that neutrality is the best path forward (though this would not be explicitly stated in any current Christian philosophy of education). Thus many Christian schools have removed the formal commitment to the Reformed standards as once required in their charters or bylaws. But this is by no means a small shift in the philosophy of Christian education. It has been correctly observed that what pretends to be neutral is in fact a smokescreen to advance some other faith commitment. The myth today is that Christian education can be neutral; that if you boil things down to the least denominator, because you are under a big tent with all these other “faiths”, you will create an environment that has proper openness, and one that is not confined to the rigidity and strictness of what has been perceived in the past to be a hindrance to the learning environment. But we should learn from history. Any time institutions, whether churches or Christians schools, break their particulars down to a place of supposed neutrality, succumbing to the assumption of impartiality, they actually end up promoting complete indifference to the truth. There is nothing distinctively Christian in this environment; what has instead been promoted is a commitment to the removal of theological particulars, the consequence of which is ignorance to the truth.
In other words, the lowest common denominator approach is actually a guise of some other commitment, and if it’s not going to be a Reformed commitment, then what committment will it be? A broadly evangelical commitment is another committment. There has been a drastic attempt in American Evangelicalism to remove the particulars of the Protestant faith to accommodate an assimilated American culture that allows for the tolerance of every viewpoint without consequence.
There are certainly consequences when we chip away at those things that make us distinctively Christian, and, sadly, we see how detrimental this can be in Christian education. Down at the public school, they are telling their students that man came from ape. That’s pretty back and white if you are a Christian. No problem de-programming our children with teachings like that. In fact, Christian parents wouldn’t want some pagan teacher pushing those teachings on their child. So we have our own schools. But what happens when, over at the Christian school, things aren’t so black and white and the particulars are removed?
Think of what begins to happen in this kind of assimilated Christian environment. Johnny comes home and tells his parents that Mrs. Johnson, the science teacher, said that God created the cosmic egg and from there the big bang happened. What’s difficult is that Mrs. Johnson attends Johnny’s church. Are the parents equipped to deal with this? Matthew has been reading the Christian ethics book which has a chapter on human sexuality. Matthew came home today with the impression from the teacher that homosexuality is something people are born with, and, therefore, the pratice shouldn't be condemned. Mr. Smith told Isaac today at school that he spoke in tongues last night, and saw a vision of God. All the students seemed really fascinated by the story. Isaac is troubled because he was made to feel that unless those things are happening in his life, something is wrong with his Christianity. We could go on and on. Things are a bit easier to de-program when they are black and white, but this big tent “neutrality” has created quite a problem; things are now excepted as mainstream that never have been in school’s history, and the child is thoroughly confused because he is without theological boundaries.
Do we really think this environment is safe for our “little ones”? And we wonder why so many of our Christian students today struggle with the question of truth? What standards are upheld to keep our students in the truth? We should open our eyes. Do we see stronger spirituality in Christian students today? Do we really see a love for theology, and deep pursuit for the knowledge of God? Has our supposed neutrality really produced in our students a deeper love for the Word of God than in previous generations? Sadly, we live in one of the most Biblically illiterate ages ever. And we have Bibles, in whatever color leather and whatever kind of study edition we want—and few are reading it. The perennial cry rings through the voices of those who have gone before us, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6).” Whose people?
The responsibility with the training of children ultimately lies with the parents. Therefore, parents should have a vested interest in what their particular Christian school's theological basis for Christian education is, and whether that is showing itself in practice. Once we establish what the theological basis is for Christian eduction, and the application of it, it is then that the question of whom we are pleasing becomes real clear.
So what is a way forward? Christian schools talk a lot about vision. A vision could go something like this: We need a commitment to getting our classes larger, we need a commitment to raising money to deal with the financial burden, we need a vision for better test scores and technology, and campaigns for better sporting facilities, et al. Or there could be a vision for a renewed commitment in understanding the theological basis that has historically motivated Christian education—the Reformed faith. It was this vision that, at one point in the history of our Christian schools, built a world and life view in the hearts of our children that was Spirit filled and Christ glorifying.
God never wanted Gideon to bring three-thousand men to battle, he wanted three-hundred weak men with unconventional “weapons” to defeat Israel’s enemies. Why? Because the Lord didn’t want Israel to think the battle was won by their own power. The same is true today. Christ has promised to bless that which conforms to his Word and not that which adapts to the consumerism of our culture. As a pastor, he wants me to use to “foolishness” of the message to save those who believe. For the Christian school, he wants the wonderful knowledge of him and his works to be taught to our children in all areas of life, and I believe with all my heart the Reformed faith provides a beautiful basis from which to accomplish this—we should treasure it.
Christ told us to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these other things will be added; the simple faith to believe that promise is probably the greatest need of the hour for our Christian schools.