At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, April 29, 2013

An Open Letter to the World of Christian Education

This post is one that has been brewing within me for sixteen years.

If that doesn't intrigue some and frighten others, I don't know what else will.

I am not writing this to pose an either-or situation and force people into a false choice. I am not here to utilize inflammatory rhetoric. I am not here as an expert in such matters. I am simply one voice among many with a burden on my heart. Maybe I'm a lone voice on the frozen tundra of the universe; maybe I'm the C.M. Punk of this discussion and I happen to be the voice of the voiceless. The second possibility is unlikely, but here we go nonetheless.

I have spent fourteen years in Christian education, ever since the day Mickey Bowdon said "Son, you're my man for this position." I realize that Christian education a very nebulous term. It might conjure up all sorts of images, from white-flight evangelical-ish academies in the Deep South to parochial Catholic schools to Lutheran schools (from which my younger brothers were privileged to have graduated) even to religiously-based boarding schools like Welton Academy in Dead Poets Society or St. Matthew's in School Ties. To define our terms--and because it's my blog and I control this "open letter"--I'm sheep-penning the definition as follows: Christian education is accomplished in a school environment where students are spurred to academic excellence under the sovereignty of God and are encouraged to connect, love, and apply the intersection of subject matter to the journey of faith.

An additional caveat: I don't like the practice of exclusion (as readers will discover further on) but due to the pedagogical waters in which I have been swimming--some would say dog paddling--over my career, I am limiting my "open letter" to a particular vein of Christian education. My remarks are largely addressed to secondary (grades 7-12) or unified (K-12) schools within the evangelical and broadly Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, so if my Catholic and Lutheran educator friends feel left out, I apologize.

So are we all clear on the addressees? Good. Read on if you desire.

In a world of curriculum, of advancing and improving our existing programs, of constructing new initiatives (not always advisable), and of carpet-bombing ineffective programs, one might think this open letter is about what we teach and how we teach. Well, that might come up later, but it's not my primary focus. I am not here to discuss scope and sequence, the nature of tests, quizzes, and projects (Oh for the love of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes...let's STOP calling them "assessments"). This is not about the "what" we teach, the "how" we teach, or the "where" we teach. It will touch on why we teach, but my issue is the community of learners.

We need to think about who we teach.

Specifically, the admissions policy question...which I think is the eight-hundred pound moose on anabolic steroids sitting in the middle of the room.

There are two primary schools of thought on admissions policy in the Christian school world. One is the covenantal model. In a nutshell, this philosophy means that admission is granted to a student whose parents/guardians (or perhaps at least one of them) make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ and regularly attend church. The students may primarily come from the specific faith tradition upheld by the school (e.g., majority of Baptists in a Baptist school) or the student body might be more diverse, but the main thing is that the parent/parents must be Christians, and this discovery is part of the admission process. The school where I presently serve holds to a covenantal model of admissions, and it works for them (meaning there is no shortage of parents making professions of faith that affects enrollment).

The second stream of thought is the open enrollment model. Here, the school in question may be located in evangelical soil or it may not be. Regardless, the policy here is that (a) students do not necessarily have to make a profession of Christian faith and (b) the parents/guardians do not have to make a credible profession of Christian faith, yet (c) clearly outlined in the admissions process is the reality that this institution is a Christian school, with a particular model and expectation for the instruction of the student. This is the "you need to understand what you're signing up for" moment, in which parents recognize and affirm worldview and behavioral parameters therein. The student body in this model tends to be a highly diverse melting pot of all faiths or none. Different strata will include (1) young, serious and growing believers, (2) immature members of the barely faithful, (3) skeptics yet genuine seekers of meaningful belief, (4) cynics and scoffers, and (5) outright agnostics and atheists. There may be others but those layers will suffice for now. And also, this does not mean Christian schools are obligated to take everyone who applies. As private schools, they have the right and the duty to be choosy and selective, basing their process on a variety of factors, not the least of which is academic potential and chance for future success and enrichment.

Now to answer your next question: The first three Christian schools where I worked? All open enrollment.

So what's my point?

First, I am not here to tell covenantal admission policy schools to change their minds or their approach to whom they select. This is especially the case for Christian elementary schools that are part of a local church's ministry. A covenantal policy could well be the most effective at this level. I would also say that a number of other schools find the covenantal model workable and best. Whether they are more comprehensive schools or ones based on the classical and blended (traditional-homeschool) model, this can be the most effective policy.

Secondly, both policies can yield highly diverse, academically precocious student bodies. All of my academic employers oversaw school populations that were ethnically wide-ranging. At least two of them had a wide swing in socio-economic levels represented. All of them have been centers where scholarship is valued, where struggling students are assisted in their quest to learn, and where achievement is celebrated. Two of these schools I consider to be outstanding models of faculty professionalism and diversity.

But my third point--and the one I've been driving at--is this: I would strongly make the case that an open enrollment policy does in fact result in a Christian educational environment which reflects the community God desires, that properly responds to the Great Commission of Christ, and that can create more effective teaching and witness.

The community God desires: It is my firm belief that God wants us to be engagers of the world around us and not engagers-in-waiting. Yes, Christian schools can exist for children of Christian parents and train the kids well, and upon graduation the students are prepared to take their scholarship, wisdom, and devotion to a waiting world. But what if that world didn't have to wait? What if among us there would be atheists, skeptics, and other not-yet-believers who were part of our community? How cool would that be? What if Christian schools became intuitively seeker-understanding (note: this is different from seeker-driven)? What if we sent the message to all who desired an excellent education with moral foundations that our credo was Even if you don't believe what we do yet, if ever, may you still come among us and be part of our community. Belonging can precede believing, and in this place, it will.

I get goosebumps at the idea of such a school family.

Responding to the Great Commission of Christ: In Matthew 28, Jesus says, "Go and make disciples of all nations." What if part of our 'going' was in fact welcoming people of all faiths or none as students and school community members? Atheists? Welcomed. Buddhists? Welcomed. Hindus? Welcomed. Jews? Welcomed. Postmodern fans of Jacques Derrida (look him up)? Welcomed. Christian students would in a sense have on-the-job training in how to respond to objections to faith because conversations would take place at lunch, in the locker room before soccer practice, in the hallways after chapel, and wherever else such talks might crop up.

I smile broadly at the idea of such a school family.

More effective teaching and witness: At Christian schools in Louisiana, Virginia, and Florida, there was one common thread in my teaching assignments. I taught eleventh-grade Bible, which had to do with apologetics, or the study of understanding the Christian faith and being able to make a credible case for it while responding to questions and objections of others with grace and respect (see I Peter 3:15). In all three schools, I had non-Christian students in my classrooms. In fact, in Virginia and Florida, I would say the majority of my students were not only non-Christian, they were unchurched. Now THAT makes for an interesting dynamic! Instead of teaching the Christian faith to those "on the inside", I had to think about teaching about faith to unbelievers. Instead of a lecture, it was more of a conversation where--to be honest and credible with my students--I welcomed questions and honest interrogation. What I found was this made me a better teacher. It made me a better communicator of spiritual truths because I had to package things in an understandable manner for people with no clue of religious jargon or "Christianese" language. I had to put the Gospel cookies on the bottom shelf. It opened up avenues with students for friendships and spiritual conversations that continue to this day. Many of my prized students were and continue to be atheists and skeptics. But we respect and value one another, and I continue to trust that God is at work behind the scenes in ways I can't imagine. But the point is this: Open enrollment made me a more understanding, conversationally-conscious, compassionate and spiritually sensitive teacher and communicator than I would have been otherwise. Yes, it was difficult and I didn't do it perfectly. It's a messy process. It's hard. But (to quote Tom Hanks' character in A League of Their Own) "it's supposed to be hard. The 'hard' is what makes it great." The view on the other side is incredible. If we as teachers are running from this opportunity rather than running to it, then my question is "Why?" The opportunities are downright endless and spiritually recharging!

I weep with joy at the idea of such a school family.

Again, I don't want this letter to be read as me being "anti-covenantal admissions". That would be like saying because I'm pro-American, therefore I'm anti-Canadian, or because I'm a Cubs fan I thus hate the Cardinals. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm not telling administrations to do this; I graciously submit to my present employer's admissions policy, which works well. I'm merely tossing a new ball into the conversation and saying this is a game that could be worth playing.

What I am saying is that Jesus gave us a grand opportunity that extends until his return to this planet for its renewal and cleansing. And opening the doors of Christian schools to members of all faiths or none could just be one of the exciting roller coaster rides he has granted us in fulfilling his vision and for bringing in his dream for this world.

Think about it. Pray about it. And dream about it.

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