Guiding Students’ Spiritual Formation

Twelve of my fourteen years of childhood schooling (PK-12) were spent in Christian schools. Both of my parents were involved in Christian schooling and education since my birth. In addition, I have been a Christian school teacher (both domestically and internationally) and a trainer of Christian school teachers for most of my career.  Some might say that this gives me an “insider’s view” of what happens in Christian schools. However, we know that no two schools are identical, and thus, my view has been tainted by my experiences. Those experiences impact how I view spiritual formation as one aim of Christian schooling.

Spiritual formation is an essential part of Christian education because it recognizes that education is not just about acquiring knowledge but is holistic in nature. Christian schools seek to integrate faith into every aspect of their curriculum in a way that helps students understand how their faith and learning are interconnected.

Spiritual formation is relational, by nature. We have a relational God (Genesis 1:26) and, created in His image, we are “hard-wired” to connect relationally. Both school leaders and teachers must become aware of not only the “what to do” of spiritual formation but the relational side as well. When the spiritual disciplines are practised in a school setting, it can become a formulaic way to know God. But God does not reach us through formula; He reaches us through relationships, wooing us by His Spirit.

My experiences in Christian schools help me to unpack this. I remember how the spiritual disciplines were presented to me as a means to become more like Christ. Unfortunately, this was presented to me by a non-relational teacher. I began to think that if I just prayed more, read God’s Word more, and meditated on it more, then I would necessarily have to become more like Jesus. I began to relate to God in an unhealthy way. It was a transactional relationship. If I read God’s Word faithfully, then God must do something for me.

Spiritual formation should be a transformational relationship. The Holy Spirit, working in a student, transforms the way a student thinks, the way a student feels, and the way a student serves. Two questions we must ask ourselves as we work in Christian schools is “What is my role in helping students to become more like Christ?” and “What is the Holy Spirit’s role?”

Our Role

I believe several foci would be beneficial for us to consider as we work to help our students become more like Christ. First, our own relationship with Jesus Christ. How can we expect our students to improve in spiritual formation if we are not being shaped by Christ? When we model godly relationships, undergirded by love and grace, we give more space for the Holy Spirit to work in our students.

Second, we need to be attuned to the Spirit’s leading as we teach. I can think of many moments in my teaching where I was prompted by the Spirit to share a particular story or to stop to pray for the students. Sometimes, I would later find out how God used that moment in a specific student’s life. Many times, I did not understand why, but someday I will.

Third, we can make sure that we are teaching our students to think from a biblical worldview about all they are learning and experiencing. This means overtly asking our students questions and using God’s Word to find the biblical answers to their questions. ACSI has several resources to help you improve in this area.

Fourth, we can take the time to teach spiritual disciplines, but we must be careful to not make it either a duty or a formula. So often in a chapel service, we might refer to our “worship time.” What we mean is that we are going to sing in worship. Let’s try to use vocabulary that matches what we are truly doing. We might pray in a formulaic way, too. Why not try writing out a prayer before a chapel to bring in Scripture and avoid the typical “prayer cliches?”

Lastly, we can focus on acts of service with our students. Early in my teaching career, I had an illness that took some time from which to recover. My substitute teacher and the middle school principal did a wonderful thing for my students and me. They took the time to show middle school students how to share in Christian love. The students brought in small things to put in a basket that would help me as I recovered and then delivered the basket to my home. I could tell my students had put such great thought into the gifts. But what a gift the substitute and principal gave my students, as well!

The Holy Spirit’s Role

What is the Holy Spirit’s role in spiritual formation? I believe that God’s Word makes it clear that it is our job to “walk in step with the Holy Spirit.” (The apostle Paul has much to write about this in Galatians 5.) We then allow the Spirit to do the inner work. In 2006, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about “tipping points.” His main concept was that change occurs radically in dramatic, unpredictable moments after many small, seemingly insignificant moments. It is often this way in our relationship with Christ. We do small things day in and day out. Then a particular context occurs, and there is a “tipping point,” and a change occurs as we move forward and grow to be more like Christ. Our work in the Christian school is to focus on the seemingly insignificant moments, walking in step with the Spirit. It is the Spirit’s work to create that tipping point.

A great tipping point happened for me between my eighth and ninth years of teaching. Up to this point, the spiritual formation learning of my early years in Christian school continued to impact my relationship with Christ. My life was about the transaction in my relationship with Christ. I did something for Him, He would do something for me. In my mind, I came to a crucial crossroads. I had become a missionary for Christ, I taught at a Christian school, I attended church faithfully, I read my Bible every morning, and I even attempted to help my students understand mathematics from a biblical worldview! But I did not feel like God was keeping up His side of the transaction. I was not getting from God what I thought He deserved to give me. I am forever grateful that God used loving Christians around me to intervene and challenge my thinking about God. As I began to better understand God’s grace, I reached a tipping point and was able to see my relationship with God become transformational, not transactional.

As you work with students (and faculty, too) are you providing the grace and love needed for the Holy Spirit to work to transform the lives of those around you?

“The entire law is summed up in a single command, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14)


Editor’s Note:  Dr. Debbie MacCullough is a member of the faculty for ACSI’s Flourishing Schools Institute (FSi), where she speaks on the flourishing construct of Spiritual Formation. The next FSi will be in Phoenix, Arizona on November 7-9, 2023. Register your team today!


About the Author

Debbie MacCulloughDr. Debbie MacCullough has taught at the elementary, middle, high school, and university level for over 30 years in both the U.S. and in the Philippines. A graduate of Cairn University (B.S. in Bible, B.S. in Education), Arcadia University (M.A. in Mathematics Education) and Penn State University (Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction), she has studied education and how to train others to teach. She loves teaching mathematics, particularly to those who do not find mathematics easy. In addition, Debbie enjoys refining how to train others to help students think from a biblical worldview. Currently, Debbie works with the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) as Director of Global Core Standards. It is her desire to see education that is authentically Christian expand and improve.


Peter John Worrall

Thank you for this. I teach students at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and have recently published a book on teaching the Bible in K-12 schools. Spiritual Formation is a major objective that I do not think is thought through well. Worldview is a component of that and I have written a couple of papers recently on how worldview teaching needs to be reviewed in K-12 schools because it is too propositional and not dialogical enough. I know Marthi MacCullough through Mary Martin, do you know her well? She has been doing a lot of thinking in these areas.


Very educative and transformational information. I’m blessed by it.


Love this focus. So glad the Lord has called you to work in Christian schools globally with ACSI. Your perspective is greatly needed!


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