Innovation in Christian SchoolsIn Schools at Risk: An Analysis of Factors Endangering the Evangelical Christian School Movement in America (Nichols 2016), I investigated the nature, causes, and contributing factors to Christian school closures in the U.S. since 2006. A goal of the study was to identify implications for practice that these factors held for the future, as well as develop a set of recommendations to address this issue of school closure.

Ongoing Threats

The findings revealed that a confluence of significant factors combined, converged, and intersected to contribute to the closure of Christian schools, with a number of these indicators appearing two full years prior to the recession of 2008. These ongoing threats to our schools include:

  • financial stresses;
  • changing parental expectations;
  • cultural shifts;
  • failure of schools to detect and effectively deal with danger signs;
  • repetitive inaction or failure to act in a timely manner in the face of threats (or what I termed “repetitive inaction disorder”);
  • resistance to change at the school site level (e.g., lack of innovation, reinvention, and retooling for 21st -century educational challenges);
  • changing patterns of evangelical church attendance;
  • failure of leadership at the school site level (especially school boards and unsupportive pastors); and
  • failure of schools to effectively market themselves.

These are exacerbated by additional factors related to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession such as: the continuing rise of charter schools, homeschooling, and online K–12 schools; challenges to sustaining school mission; loss of homogeneity of vision and culture at the school site level; and competition from other Christian schools.

Getting to the Root Cause of School Failure

A major overarching finding across the research was that nearly all factors identified by participants invariably intersected with and were related to either: (1) leadership failure at the school site level; (2) cultural changes; or both.

Key to both leadership failure and cultural change was the seeming inability—or unwillingness—of Christian schools to adapt and change to the shifting social and educational landscape in the U.S. In fact, the study’s respondents saw this as a greater problem for schools now than it was a decade earlier, underscoring the degree to which many of our Christian schools have dug in their institutional heels and refused to change. But why?

Marsh (2007) and Wilson (1989) pointed out that when the conditions of an educational environment change, schools are faced with a dilemma. They can retrench themselves in longstanding and familiar ways of behaving, or they can soberly examine their own organizational behaviors and make the changes necessary for institutional success. Failure to do either can have negative effects throughout a school system.

This failure was evident in the research as a contributing cause to the closures of Christian schools. Ritzema (2013) stated in prophetic-sounding terms that unless Christian schools—meaning Christian school leaders—take note of the changing cultural, educational, and technological landscape of the 21st century and take action by innovating, retooling, and reinventing themselves, he predicted more schools would continue to close. He further asserted that it cannot continue to be educational business as usual; Christian schools can no longer simply open their doors and expect people to flock to them in huge numbers as happened three and four decades ago. For good or for naught, a new day has come. New methods are required.

Underscoring this reality, Frost (2015) found that one of the problems endangering Christian schools is the stubborn determination to perpetuate the status quo, rather than using inspiration to build the future by being creative and innovative while staying true to core Christian beliefs. He asserted that resisting educational innovation by hiding behind the misguided notion that remaining the same will preserve a school’s values only hastens decline. Failure to embrace new educational practices that can stimulate progress will prevent growth that is essential (Frost 2015, 2014).

Change, Innovate, Think Entrepreneurially—Now

The findings of the study led to several crucial implications for practice. Not surprisingly, one of those implications was directly tied to leadership’s ability to innovate: Christian schools must be willing to change, innovate, and think entrepreneurially, and then follow through with effective, timely action. This includes embracing technology, innovation, and instructional techniques to develop 21st-century skills in both students and staff members.

But it also means re-envisioning, reinventing, and retooling everything we do as Christian schools, eliminating silos and collaborating as we lean into the Holy Spirit and press into the future together. It means being willing to try new things, being willing to fail and then re-attempt. It means being “all in.” It means having a growth mindset as schools and as an entire movement, re-creating an educational culture that desires to be at the leading edge of not simply 21st-century learning, but rather biblically permeated 21st-century learning—with an unquestioned and unsurpassed commitment to excellence for the glory of Christ and the good of our kids.

Learning From One School’s Experience 

At Alta Loma Christian School, that has meant the following:

  • inhaling new God-honoring research (e.g., the 2017 ACSI-Barna Group study: Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Options in a Changing Market; the joint Impact 360 Institute-Barna Group study: Who is Gen Z);
  • embracing new instructional approaches and embodying a new pedagogy;
  • modifying our vision statement and our Expected Learning Outcomes;
  • changing how we conduct an open house, redesigning our website and all of our promotional materials, and rewriting our advertising copy to retarget both millennial parents and Generation Z students; and
  • broadening our collaborative network of like-minded educators and sharing what we’re discovering in dialogue with the movement at large.

By engaging in these efforts, we’ve essentially transformed our entire school culture. We have been working the fields, and now God is bringing the rain: as we opened a new school year in August, we have experienced an 11.7 percent increase in enrollment compared to last year. In a marketplace with 44 private schools within nine miles of our campus, we consider that miraculous. But it also underscores to our school how truly non-negotiable change and innovation are right now.

To be clear, the urgent necessity to innovate and embrace change is not about the integration of educational technology or developing flashy new programs; it is about a return to institutional creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, empowered by God, that once marked the Christian school movement decades ago when it experienced remarkable, unmatched, meteoric growth. Now in a culture and global community marked by rapid change and post-Christian drift, we must rekindle and reignite our passion as Christian schools for change and innovation, especially in light of our divine mandate to be transformational change agents in the world.

Editor’s Notes:

  • This post is co-published by the ACSI blog and the CACE blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.
  • Interested in learning about innovation in Christian schools with colleagues from all over the world? Consider attending the 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) in San Antonio, January 30–February 1, 2019.


Frost, G. 2015. Does your school have a future? Christian School Educator 18(3): 6.

Frost, G. 2014. Learning from the best, volume two: Growing greatness that endures in the Christian school. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI.

Marsh, J. A. 2007. Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nichols, V. E. 2016. Schools at risk: An analysis of factors endangering the evangelical Christian school movement in America. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (UMI No. 10160167).

Ritzema, R. 2013, October. Regional director’s report. Presentation delivered in Temecula, CA, to the Southern California District 4 meeting of the California/Hawaii region of the Association of Christian Schools International.

Wilson, J. Q. 1989. Bureaucracy: What government agencies do and why they do it. New York: Basic Books. In J. A. Marsh Democratic dilemmas: Joint work, educational politics, and community, 101. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


About the Author

Vance Nichols - ACSI Guest BloggerDr. Vance Nichols is the head of school at Alta Loma Christian School (Rancho Cucamonga, California). He concurrently serves as adjunct professor of education at California Baptist University, and was an educational researcher, organizational leadership theorist, and 2015 Innovation Scholar at the University of Southern California, where he earned his EdD. Now in his 36th year as an educator, he co-authored Purposeful Design’s Elementary Bible curriculum, serves on the ACSI Southern California Regional Accreditation Commission, and speaks, writes, and collaborates to help reignite the Christian school movement in America. His school was recently honored by state, county, and local officials for educational innovation, including teaching computer coding to every student in their school system—starting in preschool. He can be reached via email at


Maria Varlet

This is an insightful and excellent article. Christian schools need to stop tweaking around the edges of the status quo but rather be prepared to disrupt antiquated thinking and practice and re-envision Christian education for the 21st century. Maybe it is also time for the pioneer generation of leaders to truly engage and include Gen Ys and Millenials in shaping the future of Christian education.

Dr. Vance Nichols

Thank you for your comments, Maria. I think you are right on the money. Our current and forthcoming Christian school leaders MUST truly engage Millennial parents and emerging Gen Z students in shaping the future of Christian education, or Christian education will not have much of a future, at least not as a robust and vibrant movement in America. I know that the concept of disruptive innovation (e.g., Christensen, Dyer, and Gregersen’s work at Harvard; see The Innovator’s DNA [2011], etc.) seems uncomfortable to many seasoned Christian school leaders; however, the most disruptive Innovator of all time was Jesus Christ— He radically changed everything as the times and circumstances required, and nothing less than the salvation of our souls and the establishing of His Church was the result. Should we do anything less? Thanks again, Maria!

Phillip Nash

Thank you so much Dr Nichols for this thought-provoking article. We are facing similar challenges in Indonesia and your summary of the reasons why Christian schools fail to keep moving forward is timely and accurate. As we look to innovate and move our schools forward while retain the essence of who we are and our vision and mission, we look to do so in fellowship with like-minded schools.

Dr. Vance Nichols

Thank you so much for your comments, Phillip. It is interesting that you mention facing similar challenges in Indonesia; it would be fascinating to discuss that further. Our school would most certainly like to fellowship and stay in touch with your school. Immediately to that end, were you impacted by the earthquake and tsunami? If so, what are your needs? Prayers and blessings to you.

Phillip Nash

Dear Dr Nichols. Thanks for your response. We are very far from he earthquakes and Tsunamis in Indonesia – it is a big country but thanks for asking.

Happy to keep corresponding via email

Michael E. Norris MS, MA

Dr. Nichols:

I can imagine that you are spot on. Although having no experience with Christian schools, my experience with churches, private industry, public safety, and post-secondary schools reflect the same issues and needed changes to survive in the 21st century. In a complex world filled with wicked problems, no organization can continue an operational or management approach utilized in yesteryear. Nor can they ignore the impending doom that awaits them by deciding that inaction solves every problem encountered in today’s society.

Three aspects of every school needs to heed your warning: the political arena (boards and commissions), administrative staffs (principals, etc.), and operational staffs (teachers). Should any leg on this three-legged stool fail to innovate, reinvent, and retool, the organization will fail at a precipitous rate. Since schools are open organizations subject to their environments, all three legs must be conscious of and interacting with said environments within the confines of the school mission, vision, and values. Staff must be well aware of politics, environmental concerns, sociological issues, technological advances, legal mandates, and economics. In addition to being aware, they must be ready to act along a single aligning narrative when these environmental factors change, and the rate of change in the 21st century is volatile in most, if not all of these areas.

The old adage of “adapt or die” is more of a reality today than ever before in the past. George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable”. Prepare our children, our employees, our friends to handle whatever may come because we can’t control what will occur in the future.

Jeffrey Caulfeild-James

I definitely agree with what you have said and would be very interested in hearing the specifics of what your school decided needed to be changed to better meet the needs of millenial parents and Gen Z students.

Dr. Vance Nichols

Thank you for your comment, Jeffrey. Our changes have resulted in a fairly long list, filled with many nuanced adjustments, many of which are still in progress. It is definitely an ongoing effort, often in phases, often trying new things we’ve not attempted before, more so than in past eras when cultural change was not so rapid or widespread or with such post-Christian implications. Clearly, a re-envisioning process and re-shaped school culture are at the heart of fueling our changes, and allowing for future changes, as God directs. Please feel free to email me or call, and we can continue our discussion (there’s not enough room here, to be sure!). Blessings!

Dr. Vance Nichols

For those of you who can make it, I will be speaking at two ACSI PD Forums this year, in October and November, respectively, and would consider it a privilege to meet and continue our conversations face-to-face. First, I will be co-presenting a two-day track on October 11-12, 2018 in Winston-Salem, NC with Brooke Hempell, Vice President of Research for Barna Group. Our track is called “From Surviving to Thriving: Developing Strategic School Actions to Grow and Thrive in the Midst of Cultural Change.” We combine recent research to engage participants in forming plans for changes that they can take back to their schools. Then on November 19-20, 2018, I will be leading a three-session track titled “Re-envisioning, Reinventing, and Retooling: Creating a School Culture for the Common Good” at the ACSI PD Forum in Anaheim, CA. Participants will be led to look at the research, consider the irreplaceable role of school culture, and work collaboratively to plan how to create a school culture for the common good in and for our schools and communities, thus setting the stage for substantive, necessary change. It would be great to see any of you there (at either venue) to dive even deeper into the God-honoring changes we need to make as Christian schools in the 21st century. Please, keep the conversation going!


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