Is Christian Education Worth It?
by Ed Noot, Outgoing SCSBC Executive Director ◊
Christian education comes at a cost, a tremendous cost. It can be measured in countless hours of volunteerism from board, committee, and staff members, millions of dollars in capital funds raised, and hard-earned income paid in tuition by parents. It can be measured in dedicated staff working at wages that usually do not match the public sector, and countless hours of leaders and teachers deliberating carefully over innumerable decisions.
I’ve spent my entire professional career, some 37 years, working in and for Christian education, so you may find this article’s title somewhat discomforting. However, the proof is in the pudding. Doesn’t the fact that I’ve toiled diligently to make Christian education “the best it can be” speak to my ongoing commitment to the cause?
Yes, it certainly does. Rest assured, I remain fiercely committed to the cause of Christian education. But this question is essential and, from time to time, needs to be asked, helping Christian schools reflect on mission relevance, sustainability, and drift. Organizations that go from year to year and decade to decade without asking this important existential question court the danger of existing not for their intended purpose, but for merely perpetuating the organization itself.
Organizational literature portrays a consistent model of corporate life that looks something like this graphic found at Organizational Life Cycle: Definition, Models, and Stages – AIHR.
Most models include a crisis event or declining factor precipitating a renewal process. SCSBC schools are between 30 – 70 years old. They are generally mature organizations that risk falling into decline, apathy, or mediocrity if they dare not ask hard questions that require an honest and penetrating look at organizational well-being. In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins illustrates a potential organizational decline like this.
Wherever your school might be in its organizational life cycle, taking organizational stock is a healthy exercise. One simple and effective way to do this is to reflect using the categories of celebrate, lament, and hope (CLH). As I approach the end of a 37-year career in Christian education, I find this protocol a useful reflective tool.
CLH – Vision
As highlighted by the thinking of 19th-century Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, I celebrate our vision, a vision that emphasizes the essential role parents have in the education of their children. I celebrate that our vision balances protection and impact, an inward and outward focus. Most of our mission statements highlight our need to harbour students to educate, nurture, and disciple them on the foundation of God’s word, with the stated goal of impacting/transforming/shaping the world for Christ. This is a bold, ambitious, and gospel-centred vision.
I lament that our vision is often stifled by a lack of resources, shunted by parental expectations, diminished by financial hardship, and hindered by low biblical literacy. I lament that in this cultural moment some parents want our schools to shift away from our compelling vision and to a diminished vision of isolation where our focus is to shelter and protect our students as we withdraw from a hostile culture. Or conversely, to adopt an aggressive and assertive posture of antagonism towards our culture, essentially engaging in a culture war.
I hope our schools can build on our foundational vision, discerning intent, meaning and relevance in the 21st century – for where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). I hope that we resist the pressure to adopt the extremes of isolation or culture war, finding legitimate ways to be a faithful presence (cf. James Davison Hunter: To Change the World) in our communities. I hope we can live the gospel in compelling ways that erect signposts to the Kingdom of God, thereby subtlety but subversively challenging the dominate narratives of our day. I hope for Joshua 1-inspired courageous leaders. I hope for Biblical literacy that is profound, deep and faithful, developing wisdom that is both deeply insightful and large-hearted (1 Kings 4:29 MSG). Along with sons of Issachar-like discernment that helps our leaders understand the times and know what they are to do (1 Chronicles 12:32).
CLH – Committed Supporters
I celebrate our founders. Founding scholars like Nick Wolterstorff, Harro Van Brummelen, Gordon Spykman, and so many more helped Christian schools understand mission, vision, curriculum, and pedagogy. Founding parents who gave sacrificially to start Christian schools in their communities, often being recent immigrants themselves with very limited financial security or resources. Founding boards who forged ahead establishing societies, securing facilities, writing policy, and hiring staff. And founding staff members who toiled diligently for a cause they believed in, often underpaid and under-resourced. I celebrate those deeply invested in Christian education and committed to the cause.
I lament that as our schools have matured, our commitment to the cause has changed. I lament that, for some, Christian education is not an investment, but a transaction. I lament that a consumer mindset has beset Christian education, causing some parents to assess the cost of their tuition payment against the value presented by the school and causing some staff to increasingly compare salaries and benefits to other sectors.
I hope our schools can cultivate a profound commitment by all stakeholders to the cause of Christian education so that our parents, students, board members, and staff show deep investment in our important work. I hope we can establish fair tuition and salary scales while embodying a deep commitment to the cause.
CLH – Support Organizations
I celebrate Christian school organizations like SCSBC. Supporting organizations play a key role in Christian education in BC, throughout Canada, and across the world. They provide service and advocacy, doing collectively what no school could or should do independently. They create community where ideas, policy, and practice are shared and sharpened, and they reduce isolation that can result in myopic leadership. Supporting organizations create national and international networks that enhance connection and nurture synergy. They also remind us of our core mission and vision, calling us to remain true and helping us discern our cultural moment.
I lament that some Christian schools choose to operate without joining a larger network, gaining support and enriching the community by their presence. I deeply lament that in British Columbia we have two separate, and sometimes competing, Christian school support organizations. I lament our inability to live into what St. Augustine is purported to have said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”. Finally, I lament an increasingly prevalent spirit of disagreement and acrimony in Christian schooling.
My enduring hope is for greater unity among Christians in the Christian school movement. In John 17 Jesus prayed fervently for the unity of his followers, and I pray that we, as leaders in Christian education, heed this desire. I hope that we can break out of our bubbles to build bridges one to another, increasing unity as we move forward, thereby enhancing our witness to politicians, bureaucrats, and the culture in which we live. I hope we can cultivate civil discourse when we disagree, modelling a more excellent way. I hope we can demonstrate profound respect for one another even if we disagree.
CLH – Diversity
I celebrate the growing diversity of Christian education. Since our schools were founded, many have been joyfully and faithfully growing in diversity, adding parents and students from different denominations and ethnicities, demonstrating the unity of Christ across denominational or ethnic boundaries. I celebrate the excellent programs many of our schools have for diverse learners allowing students of varying abilities and exceptional abilities to be welcomed and educated in our schools, often proving to bless us for more than we bless them.
I lament that some families and students are not welcome in our schools. I lament fear that causes us to raise institutional barriers delineating who is in and who is out. I lament the increasing costs of Christian education that exclude some who cannot afford it, and I lament that so few schools find creative ways to remain affordable and accessible.
I hope for courageous leaders and boards grounded in discernment, wisdom, and deep desire to love our neighbours as ourselves who seek to make Christian schools places of unfettered welcome and profound belonging for all. I hope for Christian schools that can navigate questions of equity, diversity and inclusion, the work of this cultural moment, balancing grace and truth as Jesus modelled for us. I hope that schools will pour creative energy into tuition structures that increase and ensure accessibility for those who genuinely desire a Christian education.
I hope that we recognize the call of the Old Testament laws, prophets, and the gospel as a call to care for the marginalized. The Old Testament laws were revolutionary in their day because of their consistent focus on caring for the widow, orphan, and stranger and Jesus modelled for us how to engage the other authentically in grace and truth (John 1:14). I deeply hope that a faithful biblical vision allows the vulnerable and marginalized to find safety, care, and belonging our Christian Schools.
CLH – Growth and the Common Good
I celebrate growth and building. The increase in demand for Christian education is encouraging. I appreciate that more and more people see the need and value what Christian schools offer. This growth has required many Christian schools to expand and build, and I celebrate our new buildings’ innovative and God-honouring designs. While our founders necessarily constructed functional school buildings just to get things started, we now design buildings that facilitate 21st-century learning and honour God as aesthetically pleasing places, using wood, glass, steel and concrete to praise the God of line, space, and colour.
I lament that our primary measure of success far too often is enrolment growth. I lament that we rarely ask how Jesus would have us measure success. I lament that we focus on measuring growth rather than faithfulness. I lament that, at times, building and fundraising take more time and attention than cultivating a gospel-infused education that allows our students to imagine a beautiful way of living in a world mired in individualism, consumerism, and narcissism. And I lament that our amazing school programs and facilities are often reserved exclusively for the use of our students and restricted to being used for 6 to 8 hours a day, five days a week.
I hope we celebrate growth, building, and fundraising while developing more authentic and robust metrics to measure our faithfulness related to our core mission of educating students in a gospel-infused manner and preparing them to impact this world for Christ. I hope that we can embrace a posture of generosity and hospitality to those outside of our school. I hope we can envision sharing our facilities and programs (blessed to be a blessing a la Gen. 18:18 NIV) to bless our communities: offering ESL classes to immigrants, making our computers available to those in need, assisting with food and shelter insecurity, and sharing our facilities so that they are used far beyond the confines of our school and extracurricular schedule. I hope that schools would have the courage to take risks to bless the communities in which we reside, thereby modeling for our students the opportunity to take beautiful risks for love so that we collectively can be engaged in offering a cup of cold water to the least of these (Matt. 25). I hope that our school communities are profoundly committed to contributing the common good.
As I approach the end of my formal service in Christian education, I’ve asked school boards and leaders, “What would people in your town or city say if your school were to cease operations?” Would they notice? Would they respond with indifference or pleasure? Can you imagine them responding with outrage? Can you envision the citizens of your town or city rising up in support of your school – advocating for you to remain open because you are an integral part of the community in which you live? I believe this is the deep hope that God expresses for his people in their Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 29:4-9). As exiles in our pluralistic and increasingly secular culture, I pray that we can embody a Jeremiah 29 vision of cultural engagement.
I believe the path to realizing this deep hope lies in avoiding the extremes of accommodation or isolation while pointing towards a better story that moves from profit to service, from individualism to community, and from marginalization to love. A story grounded in hospitality and generosity, a story that overcomes fear through grounded wisdom and bold visions.
This inspiring, gospel-infused story rises above superficial, certainty-oriented, black-and-white thinking, acknowledging the pursuit of wisdom in an arduous and honourable journey. This story resists overly simplistic certainty while delving into the nuanced and complex work of discernment, comfortably leveraging doubt, embracing ambiguity, and allowing wonder in the pursuit of wisdom.
This story evades a triumphalist-despair dichotomy by pursuing authenticity, embodying humility, and inspiring hope while moving towards shalom for all. This story personifies grace and truth (John 1:14) as Jesus magnificently modelled.
This is the type of Christian education that has inspired me to serve for 37 years! The cost is high, perhaps higher than ever. And the need is great, perhaps greater than ever.
Blessings to those of you who continue to toil faithfully, seeking to make Christian education flourish. May you be blessed with ever-present shalom even as you seek to impart the same.