—Harro Van Brummelen, educator
The gym was too small, the bus ride too long, and the musty building too old. In my mind, those seemed like three good reasons for me to leave the Christian school I attended for the local public secondary school. Having just turned 13 and needing to assert my independence, I informed my parents of my decision.
Needless to say, after a long conversation that included references to the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 1), Psalm 78, and a visionary pastor named Rev. Van Andel, I began to understand that my parents’ vision for Christian education was much deeper and wider than a hardwood floor and Plexiglas backboards.
As parents consider home school, public school, or Christian school for their child’s education, what many hope to find is a place where their vision for their child and the school’s vision for learning overlap.
One of the privileges of my work as a Christian school principal is speaking with new parents who are exploring the possibility of enrolling their children in a Christian school for the first time. Areas such as athletics, ACT scores, formational practices, mission statements, music programs, science labs, service projects, and even a large gym might all be part of their vision for their child’s education. But what if a family was asked to strip that vision down to the core? Why might Christian education be the right fit?
Families considering Christian schools can expect that these schools will partner with them in helping their children understand that our whole world belongs to God. They can expect that, through experiences both in and out of the classroom, their children will better understand how to be responsive disciples of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of Christian teaching, according to educator John Van Dyk, is “to equip our students for works of service. That is, to enable them to function as knowledgeable and competent disciples of the Lord, exercising their kingdom tasks by hearing the will of the Lord and implementing it wherever they find themselves.” Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it this way: “The aim of Christian education must be to conduct education and scholarship from a Christian perspective.” Wolterstorff suggests that a robust Christian perspective must do much more than just point out the errors in secular thinking; rather it must offer an alternative that demonstrates to students what it means to be a peculiar people with particular practices.
The Context of Faith
When students and teachers engage learning from this perspective, everything in Christian schools becomes distinct because the core values and truths are framed through the biblical narrative. Student learning is nurtured in the context of faith. The pedagogy teachers use, the topics they choose to teach, and how a school implements its discipline policies must all reflect the story of salvation.
When this happens, the Christian school curriculum provides time and space for students to learn how mathematics, poetry, biology, sexuality, evolution, and the environment are part of God’s good creation. Tim Van Soelen, director of the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education at Dordt College, reminds us that “a biblical or Christian perspective informs all of these parts of the curriculum, helping us understand God’s creation and our participatory role in its restoration and reconciliation in a very special way. However, creation and curriculum also help us develop this biblical or Christian perspective or understanding of truth. It is a beautiful reciprocal relationship that recognizes the need to be lifelong learners.”
Parents should also expect that the Christian school classroom will be free of rhetoric, fear-mongering, and stereotypes as teachers walk and talk with their students through complex topics. In a Christian school children should never hear statements like “We don’t ask those questions around here!” Rather, Christian schools need to honor the questions that are raised as much as the answers. Christian schools must empower their teachers to avoid simple and trite answers to topics that are due much respect and thoughtfulness.
Christian education explores God’s hope for his world framed in the context of the story of creation, fall, and redemption leading to restoration. Christian schools remind students that there is a loving and good God who creates and upholds the universe and calls students, his human creatures, to live in and restore to goodness what is broken. A distinctly Christian curriculum will focus its attention on this good Creator and what he has made, on how it has gone wrong, and on how we might be called to help restore it to God’s original intent.
Opportunities to bring restoration and shalom can happen through curricular and extracurricular engagement. It could mean removing invasive species in a forest or participating in regular stream-cleaning. It could mean having the varsity basketball team spend an hour a week coaching at the local community center, initiating a “buddies” program at the local seniors care home, or providing tutoring and homework support for children who are marginalized.
The Christian school curriculum must always demonstrate to students how any topic is, in that moment, a small piece of something bigger. A skill such as reading is essential because it is foundational to learning, but literacy also matters because it is a good gift from God that can allow students to become co-creators in God’s kingdom. Jodie Bomhof, a kindergarten teacher, says that every aspect of the Christian school curriculum in every grade matters because “God’s rule extends over all creation and impacts all areas of the curriculum.”
A Role in God’s Kingdom
A Christian school curriculum and pedagogy cannot limit student learning to a transactional enterprise where knowledge is valued for the ultimate goal of high test scores or upward mobility. Of course, Christian schools must value a strong academic program. Nurturing learning in the context of faith means that Christian schools will not only prepare students to live faithfully as 6-, 8-, and 18-year-olds; it will also prepare them to enter fields such as law, medicine, plumbing, philosophy, engineering, and landscaping.
Christian schools need to remind students that vocation is, as Fredrick Buechner says, “the place where a person’s deep passions and the world’s deep needs meet.” Each student belongs to God’s story of redemption and each has a significant role to play, whether in preschool, elementary school, or secondary school. For example, the Teaching for Transformation curriculum model developed by the Prairie Center for Christian Education and used by various Christian schools around North America values the given topic as well as helps students understand how that topic is related to being a community builder, justice seeker, or God worshiper, both in the classroom and as students enter their everyday, walking-around life.
Within a Christian school, curriculum and pedagogy cannot be separated. Ed Noot, executive director of the Society of Christian Schools of British Columbia, points out that of equal importance to what we teach (the curriculum) is how we teach (our pedagogy). “I believe Christian educators need to become increasingly intentional about ensuring that our pedagogy is authentic, effective, and reflective of our foundational beliefs,” he says. Along with curriculum, pedagogy also shapes a student’s world-and-life view because how a teacher teaches communicates what the Christian school community values.
Both curriculum and pedagogy in a Christian school should foster curiosity and encourage students to delve deeper into the wonder and majesty of God’s creation. When I walk into a classroom at my school and see the learning outcomes on the board and observe how teachers and students gather around the topic and learn from each other, it is clear that the goal is not just to fill students with knowledge. Students are also learning deep truths about who God is and how he works in the world. And they learn to respond in gratitude as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Engaging the Stories of the Culture
Children are amazing. Really. Spend a day or two in any school and you will be in awe of the students who line the hallways and fill the classrooms. I disagree when people tell me that kids today have it so easy. While I don’t know if it’s harder or easier growing up today than it was when I was a kid, I do know that it is different.
Today children face a barrage of what Jamie Smith calls “cultural liturgies.” Whether in the form of Instagram or Twitter, the movie theatre, the mall, television, smartphones, texting, the supermarket magazine aisle, or any other idols of our time, children have never faced so many competing interests that desire a piece of their heart. These liturgies seductively and subversively tell our children that they will be fully alive and loved if they “own this” or “do this” or “look this way.” Sadly, many children and adults cannot resist the message.
Some parents believe that sending their kids to a Christian school will protect them from these competing stories. But it will not. A Christian school that does not engage the culture in which students live does its children and parents a disservice. Rather, Christian schools are to equip students with the tools to identify and respond to the idols of our time.
Engaging culture must go beyond identifying good and evil. Students must be able to understand and articulate how and where and why their desires are being shaped by the stories told by the culture—stories that wear down their hearts and minds. Christian schools must help kids see that they do not need to capitulate. They must offer students a better story—one that reorients their hearts and minds in a radical way. Our students need to see that that the story of Jesus boldly proclaims that there is nothing they can do to make Jesus love them more than he does, and there is nothing they can do to make Jesus love them less than he does.
But is talking about faith in a Christian school context enough? How do Christian schools help students desire this better story and live out their faith? Words are not enough.
It reminds me of trying to teach my daughter how to ice skate from the confines of our living room. We watched skating on TV. We walked on skates and worked on keeping our balance. I could not have explained it any better, I thought. She was ready. Then we went to the arena and got on the ice. What a shock for us both when she fell immediately and began to cry. So did I. I was foolish for thinking that explaining to my daughter how to skate without practicing on the ice would turn her into a skater. Perhaps Christian schools are equally foolish when they talk about teaching students how to be disciples of Jesus Christ without allowing them to be involved in Christian practices.
Christian schools know that students were created to love and to know, and they help students direct their love toward that of Jesus Christ through these unique practices. So, for example, when I walk through our elementary school in the morning, I hear children singing, reciting Scripture, and praying together. Kids pray for grandparents who are sick, for friends who are lonely, for dogs that are lost and fish that have died. What a wonderful response to the cultural stories that desire our children’s hearts!
Each morning these children are acknowledging that our whole world belongs to God. These are goose-bumpy reminders that “nothing matters but the kingdom of God, but because of the kingdom of God, everything, literally everything, matters.” And that includes a child’s concern for his dying fish. Christian schools offer students a chance to “re-story” their lives each day through such practices.
Perhaps these seem like simple practices—and they are. Yet I wonder how children’s hearts are being directed or redirected when they pray, sing, and read Scripture communally each day. In addition, these practices remind us to pause. Yes, mathematics equations and science experiments have deep value, and God calls us to be engaged in these academic pursuits. But in our busy lives, where many children go from one activity to the next, these practices remind us how we are called to be in the world.
This is why Christian schools must provide opportunities for students to practice creation care, to visit and sing with older saints at the care home down the road, and to hand out food at the local shelter. These practices connect us to God’s creation and they show students how they can bring hope, faith, and love to a broken world.
Christian schools engage in these activities because practicing them helps students become aware of how to be in a right relationship with God, with others, and with the creation we live in. In the words of Jamie Smith, “Christian education is not just about the transfer of information but also the task of formation—the formation of the kinds of persons that constitute a ‘peculiar people.’”
The Case for Christian Education (James K.A. Smith, The Banner)
- How can parents determine what kind of schooling best fits their expectations for their child’s education?
- Biemers says families considering Christian schools can expect these schools to help their children “better understand how to be responsive disciples of Jesus Christ.” How might the teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom accomplish this?
- Biemers points out that it is important for children to learn how to engage the issues of their culture. How might this play out in a public school? A Christian school?
- Beimers quotes Jamie Smith: “Christian education is not just about the transfer of information but also the task of formation.” Discuss.
- What role should faith play in the education of children? Is it possible for public schools to be faith-neutral? Why or why not?
- Do Christian school parents have a responsibility to support their local public schools? If so, how could they carry out their responsibility?
About the Author
Matthew Biemers is the principal of Surrey (British Columbia) Christian Elementary School. He is a member of The Bridge Community Church and is working on his Ph.D. in education at George Fox University.