Christian education can be an incredibly transformative force. It can take a life in its infancy—as the life is establishing its understanding, expectation, and perspective of the world—and bring hope, in a world that is increasingly seeming hopeless. It can help a young person understand that success is not about who dies with the most toys, rather it is about how many others one person can help—not just here on earth, but for eternity. It can help a young person understand that they are not the center of the universe; rather, fulfillment comes when we learn to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and learn to love our neighbor as ourselves.
While there is much to celebrate about how Christian schools develop Christian thinking in our students, we also need to be aware that Christian schools can contribute to students’ developing bad Christian habits—or practices and mindsets that are less like the ones Jesus taught, and more like the religious behaviors the Pharisees would be proud of.
For example, many Christian educators likely have a shared vision for spiritual formation when it comes to prayer (as an ongoing conversation with their Creator), learning Scripture (as students’ “hiding His Word” in their hearts so they might not sin against God), and loving one’s neighbor (having “next level” empathy and being outward looking, to not only “love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and strength” but to also authentically “love their neighbor as themselves”). But without intentionality, these visions that we have for our students in Christian education can become religious activities—things that students do because they “have to” do them, versus because they truly desire to do them.
Examining Our Schools—and Ourselves
We are encouraged in Scripture to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). Take a moment to consider the following spiritual formation practices that will be visible in most Christian schools. In your school, does what you “do” really lead to the objectives that you intend?
Scripture Memorization: Does Scripture memorization look more like students hiding God’s Word in their hearts, or is it just another homework assignment—where students memorize 40 random verses throughout the year, are tested on the verses each Friday, and the verses have no “life” at all in the classroom? If the latter, then Scripture memorization becomes a compliance activity. Instead, verses should not just be given as homework, but also serve as a living part of the classroom for the week—and intentionally revisited over the year so that the verses become “sticky.”
Biblical Literacy: The key objectives of a Bible program should be the development of a lifelong love of the scriptures and conviction that the Bible is authentic and relevant to our students’ lives. But if Bible classes center on learning tools of interpretation, with the preferred delivery being preaching or an exegesis of the scriptures—and worst of all, a place where the students’ questions are pushed aside to make sure the teacher gets through a preset curriculum—we will end up turning students off to God’s Word. Yes, students need the tools to understand and unpack the scriptures, but these tools are only relevant if the students want to engage with His Word after they leave school.
Prayer: I don’t know of a teacher in a Christian school who does not want their students to learn that prayer is an integral part of everyday life. Prayer is full of power, promise, and potential. It is a direct line that we have with our Creator and there is not a prayer too big or too small that is not important to Him. But how is prayer modeled in our schools? Do we just pray at the beginning of the day, before lunch, and at the end of the day? If so, students are persuaded that prayer is something that happens certain times of the day, usually following a specific pattern, rather than a direct line of communication that Scripture tells us to utilize constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We need to model the prayer life that we want students to develop.
Worship Through Song: Most Christian schools include worship through song in their assembly of meeting times. There is something incredibly powerful about being in a room full of young people truly worshipping our Savior. However, done poorly, it is worrisome. You can see in it the way students slouch or the way the song lyrics go in their eyes and out their mouths without touching anything on the way through. In every Christian school, there are young Christians and usually even non-Christians who are on a journey. Again, modeling by teachers, leaders, and staff is key to helping them on that journey. When the powerful words that are in most Christian songs are sung (think meditated on) with reverence, it sends a message about the importance of that message to everyone.
Relationships: Teacher and student relationships in Christian schools absolutely must be different than at the school down the road. Grounded in our call for transforming young people, at the heart of Christian education is a Christ-centered educator who desires that students will be equipped for their future. The educational and discipleship process is built on strong relationship and must be defined by one word: love. Though it is a high calling, there is no room in Christian education for teachers who do not have a genuine love for each student in their care.
Discipleship (and Discipline): Flowing out of the importance of discipling relationships between teachers and students, Christian schools should be places of discipleship, not punishment. Yes, there is a need for consequences, but at the heart of the discipline process should be an absolute commitment to each student’s growth. At the heart of the discipline process is a balance of acting justly and loving mercy, which with God’s help will lead to the student walking humbly with our God. This is difficult, as obviously we cannot promote lawlessness in our Christian schools; however, each school and educator must maintain a balance of law and grace. Consider “backward design” related to this issue; ask yourself, what would it take for a graduate of your Christian school to comment, “I was shown what grace was at my school”? As educators, we certainly know how to teach about grace—but in keeping with the emphasis of this essay, what’s important is not just what we tell our students, but rather what we do.
Asking the Central Question
There are many aspects of our Christian schools which are intended for good. However, if unexamined, and if done without intentionality, these aspects can actually have the opposite effect—they can turn our students away from Christ. The overriding question to prevent this is straightforward: Is the way your students experience the “Christian things” you do aligned with the purpose for which you do them? And in answering this question, we need to consider what students learn about the principles of Scripture through our actions, not just our words.
Ultimately, we pray that as students graduate from our schools, they will know without a doubt that each of the above spiritual practices are important to the Christian walk. And, that they did not just learn about their importance through our teaching, but rather that they experienced it through intentional opportunities for spiritual formation and through modeling by their teachers. It’s not an easy calling, but it is a hugely satisfying one.
Note: This article was originally published in December 2019 and republished in June 2021 and January 2023 due to continued relevance.
About the Author
Shaun Brooker is the principal of Hamilton Christian School and the chairman of the New Zealand Association for Christian Schools. He has taught and led in Christian and state schools in England, the Cayman Islands, and New Zealand. His passion for authentic Christian Education has resulted in a blog and his desire for innovation has him serving on an education advisory board for Apple. The New Zealand Association for Christian Schools has signed an MOU with ACSI this year, and looks forward to the closer sharing of ideas and resources to further the cause of Christian globally. Mr. Brooker can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.