In my previous post, I discussed the emerging research on Millennials and their impact on the current—and future—realities of Christian schools (you just graduated the last of them, and most of their children are just beginning to hit your kindergartens). Much of what I shared came from “Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Choices in a Changing Market,” a joint Barna and ACSI study of Christian school parents performed this past year. The research indicates that fewer Millennials identify as Christian. However, those who do have described their faith and values as the most important indicator of the schools they choose for their own children, and they are more likely to choose a Christian school if such schooling is in their background—and they are more likely to have Christian schooling their background than any previous generation.
These tendencies, coupled with these young parents’ desire for authentic biblical community, create tremendous opportunities for Christian schools. In this final post, I outline seven such opportunities.
Millennials can challenge us to be more mission true and Christ-centered.
Most millennial parents who will be attracted to our schools will care deeply about their faith and will want a school that values what they value—meaning we have to think even more deeply about why we do what we do: What does our faith really mean if it is the underlying framework through which we view all of reality? How do we help kids actively engage a culture that is no longer Judeo-Christian, and how can we be “full of grace and truth” in a world where Christians, their core beliefs, and their sexual ethic are viewed as quirky at best and dangerous at worst? How do we cultivate lovers of Christ—not just knowers or even thinkers in Christ? How can we create redemptive community and authentic worship in our schools, as James K. Smith called for in his Desiring the Kingdom series? What do a redemptive community and authentic worship even look like in the context of a school? How can we best equip our young people with a strong ecclesiology—a right understanding of the church’s ancient role in history and their role in the church?
These are just some of the questions we should be seeking God’s wisdom in answering as we prepare the children of Millennials to engage the world. Answering these questions requires us to dive even more deeply into our Christian distinctiveness and think more profoundly on how it impacts every aspect of our schools.
Millennial parents can teach us to be better schools.
We need to excel not only in Christian formation, but also in academics. Millennial parents are school-smart, with a number of school alternatives in their backgrounds. Their parents shopped them around; they will shop, too. There probably won’t be a great deal of year-to-year brand loyalty to our schools; parents will be constantly reevaluating. (I am sure you see this now in your schools.) Therefore, we have to be constantly articulating and communicating our value proposition to both current and prospective parents. Hiring the best teachers and coaches, aligning our curriculum, using assessments to improve instruction, and tracking student performance throughout the course of study are best practices. They are also sustainability measures, things that help keep good schools in business. Most importantly, they are our act of worship of Jesus. If, as Romans 12:1 indicates, our lives are living sacrifices, acts of worship, then our educational product is our act of worship. Why would we, like Cain, bring God something mediocre? God is worthy of our very best. We have to give Him our best and make the case for why parents need to have their students in our schools.
Millennial parents can teach us to be more diverse.
Millennial family structure and diversity makeup is changing, and so focusing on making our school communities more closely resemble the body of Christ is more important now than ever. For this, hope is not a strategy. Neither is prayer alone.
In our school this is a real area of growth. We are praying and hoping but also owning it ourselves. It seems that a commitment to growing and maintaining diversity includes, among other initiatives:
- developing a theology of diversity and unity for your school family;
- fostering a cross-culturally welcoming environment;
- seeding diversity proposals with school funding;
- providing cultural, academic, and economic “on-ramping” opportunities for culturally diverse families;
- actively recruiting culturally diverse families;
- becoming involved in the school choice movement within your state. Vernard Gant at ACSI has spoken winsomely, wisely, and well on these issues.
But, given what I think we’re seeing, as well as the demographic data in our state and others, remaining an all-white or overwhelmingly white school over the next few decades not only doesn’t reflect God’s kingdom; it seems to be a recipe for slow death as the world around us changes.
Millennials can challenge us to be more affordable.
Millennial family income, at least for now, is lower than that of other generations. There are tremendous opportunities for schools who are creative with their funding models (through third income sources, fundraising, school choice initiatives, congregational funding, and other mechanisms). Several schools, like Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii and Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico, generate income from real estate holdings. Elmwood Franklin School in New York runs a tutorial center for students outside its school community. Other schools run dyslexia training or college counseling services for the broader community. Many of our schools are running extensive systems of summer camps or have facility rental agreements with partners in our local community. Given ACSI|Barna’s research, a good guiding question might be, “How do we operate our school so a family with a combined income of $60,000–$75,000 can afford us?” All of these and others are ways to generate income that don’t rely on the typical funding models.
Millennial parents can challenge us to create new opportunities for Christian schooling.
Given the tendency of Millennials to choose homeschooling as an option, working to partner with homeschooling families could provide additional opportunities for long-term sustainability and additional sources of school income, as well as giving our schools an opportunity to partner with a broader constituency of parents within our communities. The ACSI|Barna Report says such opportunities are most prevalent in high school, where parents feel less competent to provide what their children need. Partnering might include providing limited course menus, university-modeled schedules (with correspondingly reduced pricing structures) for homeschool students, and access to co-curricular offerings where possible.
Millennial parents can challenge us to build and sustain relationships with alumni parents and grandparents, as well as alumni.
Millennials are looking to their parents to help guide their education decisions more than prior generations did. They will most likely also look to their parents to help them with educational expenses; therefore, we need to be strategic in developing these relationships, cultivating potential referral and revenue sources.
They are also looking to their pastors, which should challenge us to educate local pastors about the value of Christian education in their communities. Research such as the Cardus study demonstrates that Christian school graduates are more likely than other graduates to engage in church attendance, giving, and other healthy practices that make for good church membership.
Millennial parents can challenge us to create authentic Christian communities that truly care for each other.
We have learned that many Millennials feel disconnected from past church experiences, yet still maintain their faith in Christ. God has woven that yearning for community, part of the imago Dei, into each of us as humans, so the research showing that these young adults are yearning for authentic Christian community makes sense. As Christian schools, are we really places where people genuinely care for each other, provide for one another’s needs, and serve each other? Schools that are communities of care live out the gospel within the context of the school environment, provide pastoral care for each other within the community, and equip members of the school community to care for each other—not only to glorify God, but to provide safe environments where kids try harder, teachers collaborate more, and great learning happens. They are also very “sticky” places, places where people are drawn and not anxious to leave because of their connection to the community.
The Christian school should most assuredly not take the place of the church. However, if tasting this community makes younger parents hungry for what a church community has to offer them (and what they have to offer it), we’ve honored God with our work.
Let Us Be Faithful to Them
It is easy for us to view this new parent generation with trepidation. Several of my colleagues who are my age or older say now is the time to get out of the business. But I distinctly remember that older lawyer and others like him saying my own generation—the one currently building and sustaining Christian schools—were nihilists who stood for nothing, and that Christian institutions would die at the hands of parachute pants and Def Leppard, or flannel shirts and Soundgarden. And yet here we are. God is on His throne, and Christian education lives. Perhaps God will once again use the next parent generation to challenge us.
My friend Charlie Phillips of the Maclellan Foundation has said that Christian schools are the only ones with the light still on—the hope for the Church in the U.S. Whether that is true or not, these are the families God has given us, so let us be faithful with them.
How can you respond to this post?
- Download the Barna/ACSI research report.
- Work together as a team to utilize this research. For example, consider developing a concrete plan to address each of the seven opportunities offered by Millennials. Be sure to include key school areas like marketing, admissions, curricula, teaching methods, discipleship programs, and instructional technology.
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, The Head and the Heart. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.