“Do it again” – my piano teacher, after playing Bach’s “Canon in D Minor” for the umpteenth time.
“Run it again” – my quarterback coach, after working through a pass progression multiple times during practice.
“Answer problems 11-20 on page 328. And show your work” – my calculus teacher after answering problems 1-10 on page 328 as a class on the white board.
None of these situations should seem strange to anyone familiar with a typical school experience. As educators, we inherently understand that “to truly learn is to do.” We also understand that “to do” requires practice and repetition. Thus, we experience situations described above.
Hidden in this understanding is the idea that our students (and we ourselves) are more than cognitive beings carried about in a shell of flesh or thinking things, in the words of James K. A. Smith. We are beings who do beyond think and know. Even modern theories of education, such as Bloom’s updated taxonomy get at this point by listing action verbs at the top of the hierarchy: create, synthesize, analyze. There is a doing that evidences full understanding of the content. As the chef says, “The proof is in the pudding.”
But how does that translate into the spiritual formation of our students? Do we diverge from common (and accepted) pedagogical practices of learn, practice, do? If so, why? Are we betraying a false, neo-platonic view of humanity where the spiritual realm and the physical realm of humanity operate in completely different spheres? Or is there another method to approaching spiritual formation that can move our students from a Christian life learned to a Christian life lived?
In the introductory essay to Teaching and Christian Practice: Reshaping Faith and Learning, Smith discusses how current Christian educational approaches tend to follow secular trends with a spiritual stamp. Sure, there is chapel time. There is prayer. There is the presentation of the gospel. There are mission opportunities. But he argues (and I generally agree) that the actual pedagogy presented is more secular than Christian, that the academic aspects consummate in the doing while matters of a spiritual nature stop at the learning.
The danger of this is that we run the risk of, in the words of Adam Neder in Theology as a Way of Life, confusing “believing in God with believing ideas about God” (p. 39). He argues that true belief in God will manifest itself in a life lived before God and for God. A life of obedience consists of “at peace with him [God], with our neighbors, and with ourselves” (p. 25). Scripture is full of similar calls: Follow me (Matthew 5:19); Go and do likewise (Luke 10:37); Feed my sheep (John 21:15); Whatever you do, do for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31); Prepared for good works (Ephesians 2:10); Be doers of the Word (James 1:22). The connection is clear: proper knowledge culminates in proper action.
Some of our difficulty stems from an educator’s natural tendency to quantify stuff. In the above scenarios, my piano teacher can tell me the number of notes I missed in various sections to determine weaknesses. My coach can tell me the percent of quality plays I made in either practice or game situation. My calculus teacher can tell me how many questions I missed on an exam. But that does not transition well when it comes to spiritual formation. It is not as simple as scoring well on a Bible knowledge test or testing well on some worldview survey. The ones Jesus references in Matthew 7:21-23 would probably do well on a test about biblical knowledge; however, in the final analysis, they never really knew Christ.
That passage should serve as a sobering warning for Christian educators. Rightly, we spend much effort instilling biblical truths into our students, but we should not stop there. How can we design our campus culture to foster spiritual formation? What if we had classrooms where students had purposeful opportunities to live out the Christian ideals they are learning in a subject-specific manner beyond posting high scores on various exams? What if we had athletic departments whose sole purpose was to teach student athletes how to love the Lord with all their strength beyond having a full trophy case and a rabid student section sandwiched between opening and closing prayers? What if we had fine arts departments that encourage students’ talents to tell the story of the gospel in a way that captures the imagination of what a flourishing life can look like beyond putting on Broadway-caliber shows and choirs that can sing in five-part harmony?
Care, Cure, Confront and Cultivate
One approach is to think of engagement in the four C’s: care, cure, confront, and cultivate. We are to care for what is broken, cure what is diseased, confront what is evil, and cultivate what is good. I’m no grammar expert, but those four words are all verbs. In other words, they are actions to be undertaken by all believers. All four of these elements can (should?) be integrated into the classrooms of every Christian school. Provide students with opportunities to take what they are learning about the Bible to its practical applications. As teachers, we need to capture the imaginations of our students about what a gospel-lived life can look like. In my own classroom, I tell stories of how through God’s grace, medical research has reduced disease (cure), bioengineers are designed prosthetics to enable amputees to increase function (care), bioethicists are working to protect the dignity of humanity (confront), and farmers are developing methods for growing food for impoverished areas (cultivate). There are countless examples of areas where Christians can engage in their communities; those examples need to be presented (and practiced when possible) in our classrooms.
In a recent post, John Stonestreet echoes these thoughts:
“But the goal isn’t just to think clearly: It’s also to live in an intentionally redemptive way. Nothing gets in the way of that more than a truncated view of the Gospel, a “two-chapter” worldview that focuses only on sin and salvation but fails to take seriously the biblical realities of creation and restoration. Creation helps us see God’s intent; restoration puts our personal salvation in the larger context of Christ’s work in history. A two-chapter Gospel simply isn’t big enough for this cultural moment. ”
Stonestreet often talks and writes about what Christians are saved “to” beyond what we are saved “from.” Our work is to participate in God’s Redemptive Plan for humanity. This is messy in educational settings simply because redemption is messy. Redemption required the Son of God to die a horrific death on a Roman cross; redemption requires us to engage with a broken culture to bring forth the beauty of a flourishing life. But, as Neder argues in his above-mentioned book, Christian educators must rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in this endeavor. He writes, “This is how the Spirit liberates us to become who we are—not by turning us into the kind of people who automatically know and do the good, but by granting us faith to entrust ourselves again and again to Christ, whose power is made perfect in our weakness” (p. 29).
Lived Christian Life
So, in our classrooms, we must strive to present options and opportunities of what a lived Christian life looks like. And then do it again. And again. And again. If we miss an opportunity, we turn to the Spirit and ask for the grace and guidance to lead our students faithfully. And then turn again. And again.
Teach it again.
Practice it again.
Do it again.
Editor’s Note: Join Dr. Mitch Evans at ACSI’s Flourishing Schools Institute (FSi), where he will be speaking on the topic of spiritual formation. The next FSi will be in Oak Brook, Illinois (just west of Chicago), on June 21-23, 2022. Register your team today!
About the Author
Dr. Mitch Evans has over 20 years of teaching experience in Kingdom Education schools. He currently serves as a high school AP Biology teacher at North Raleigh Christian Academy and as an instructor in Liberty University’s School of Education Doctoral Program. He holds a degree in microbiology and cell science from The University of Florida and earned his Doctor of Education from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he studied the relationship between biblical worldview and Christian education.