Just before the end of 2021, I read several retrospectives of the year. You know them: top 10 events of 2021, photos capturing the spirit of the past year, and the like. These reviews all had one thing in common—they focused on the negative aspects of the year gone by, what all of us would agree was bad news: riots and disease, tornadoes and ice storms, political strife and morbidity rates.
As at the end of a year, I often find myself reflecting on our natural human negativity bias, and how we often see the times we live in as the hardest ever. It is easy to find ourselves drifting into the idea that these are the worst of days, and that it is harder than ever to be a Christian in this particular culture. At times like these, I am grateful for a liberal arts education, and specifically for my undergraduate days in the history department at Baylor University. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman provides a sobering perspective on our negativity bias in the context of history:
It is truly very hard for any competent historian to be nostalgic. What past times were better than the present? An era before antibiotics when childbirth or even minor cuts might lead to septicemia and death? The great days of the 19th century when the church was culturally powerful and marriage was between one man and one woman for life, but little children worked in factories and swept chimneys? Perhaps the Great Depression? The Second World War? The Vietnam Era? Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives, but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.
And, as Christian educators, to train young followers of Jesus to do the same.
As a matter of fact, if you were going to identify an era in the past 2,000 years in which to live—one where technology and transportation and communication and prosperity and religious liberty most favored the ability of the Church and followers of Jesus to fulfill their mission—could you possibly choose a more favorable era than late 20th- and early 21st-century United States? I can find no other credible period in history that competes for the era in which we now live in its ripeness for the gospel. That’s not to say there are not challenges, but we have to face our challenges in the context of our opportunities, and to realize the second thing that’s always been true about the Church through the ages: that no matter the opposition, no matter what evil the Church faces, God’s people move forward, doing their work and advancing the gospel, age after age, advancing toward Jesus’ return.
This pandemic, and its recurring debates over treatment, prevention, and vaccination, have furthered tremendous divisiveness in our culture. Shutdowns, quarantine, and separation have damaged our cultural psyche, contributing to anxiety, depression, and other mental health crises, as well as additional (and I would say correlated) division over racial and political issues during this same time period. These factors have led to the most significant discord any of us have seen in our lifetimes. And, the church has not been immune. While COVID-19 might not end in 2022, the good thing about the illness becoming increasingly endemic is that, in all likelihood, its stranglehold on the cultural consciousness will. And, when it does, the Church, we Christians, and Christian education will have a tremendous opportunity as uniters and reconcilers.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5). Likewise, Christ calls us to unity. In John 17, Christ prayed for unity among His people, unity that would testify to His ministry, that He was who He claimed to be. He staked His witness on our unity. Being agents of reconciliation and unity allow us to testify to the curative power of the gospel, and to make much of Jesus’ name. As we near what we can see as the end of COVID-19’s hold on our culture, we need to be equipping our school communities’ collective hearts and minds to be messengers of unity and reconciliation for the gospel of Christ. As I’ve been praying through it, I see a couple of ways to prepare our hearts, and those of our students and families, to be uniters and reconcilers.
Reclaiming Our Commitments
First, we have to reclaim our commitment to the Word of God, and recommit to a biblical vision for the common good. Biblical illiteracy in the Church, coupled with the liturgizing effect of various forms of media, are substituting counterfeit ideologies as the new orthodoxy in the minds of many Christians. I know many Christian educators have read either James K. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love, or the various works of Augustine. Both say (correctly, I believe) that we are not primarily thinkers and doers, but lovers. We truly are what we love. Our affections, our loves are shaped by what Smith (and the Church for millennia) call liturgies—repetitive practices that, when repetitively engaged, shape our hearts and incline our affections a certain way, which ultimately mold our behaviors. Examples of these include the spiritual disciplines: prayer, study, silence and solitude, lectio divina, worship, and others.
Now, think of it all in the context of social media and digital technology, and the way most of us use and misuse these tools. Day after day, hour after hour, being fed an echo chamber of things we already think we believe, all designed by the algorithms of artificial intelligence to provide us content geared toward our own political and ideological preferences, a constant drip of pessimism (because that’s what sells), reinforcing our natural proclivity toward negative biases, including many things that may or may not actually be objectively true. And, over time, we are inadvertently liturgized to these things, our hearts shaped and molded in ways we never intended. Before we know it, we’ve become different people, people that, from a gospel-centric perspective, we never actually wanted to be. We think differently. Our politics and ideologies are no longer shaped by our views of Scripture, but rather our views of Scripture are now shaped by our politics and ideologies.
Haven’t we seen this happening often? Didn’t we see this in 2021? As Christian schools, so many of us faced attacks in this whole critical race theory controversy. Somehow, an obscure sociolegal theory that no one but a fringe of college academics truly understood became a K–12 boogeyman characterized by some as the most dangerous attack on Christianity, mostly through the liturgizing, politicizing effect of media. People were outraged without really understanding or being able to articulate what they were outraged about. I know a lot of Christian school leaders from all my travels and affiliations, and I don’t know any of them who, once they actually understood the totality of what CRT was, could not dismiss its more controversial tenets easily as biblically unsound and inconsistent with what was actually happening in their schools. And, yet, most of us felt ourselves placed on the defensive and forced to prove our biblical, conservative bona fides in what was, in many sense
s, a kind of Christianesque ideological McCarthyism played out in the media and visited upon our schools. The real tragedy is that much of it was a subterfuge and a big distraction to avoid real, substantive gospel-centered discussions that matter about biblical love and racial reconciliation and redemption.
I’m not saying we should not be biblically sound; we absolutely should. We should always be on guard to not be taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit (Colossians 2:8). But, as J.D. Greear noted in a 2021 podcast, Christ condemned the Pharisees for “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel,” for ignoring hurting people ultimately important to God in a quest for what was really only partial truth. And, they did so I believe in a mostly well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt not to preserve God’s truth, but to hang onto a way of life they had grown to love more. We’ve got to do so much better than this. We have to reclaim God’s Word and His truth as the cornerstone of our worldview, of our perspective, even when a changing culture challenges our traditions and past ways of life.
Christian school leadership in this or any era is about transformational change; about taking the timeless truths of God’s Word and ensuring that they are made relevant to a new kind of student in a new kind of culture. This means some old ways will have to die, as they always must, and walking people through the mourning and transition of allowing those things to go is a leader’s greatest challenge. In order to remain sharp and focused throug
h this process, we need a steady diet of God’s Word, to steep ourselves in the scriptures and in prayer, at least as much as those other things that liturgize us. We have to encourage our students to discern the times, and that takes being steeped and liturgized in the truth more than being liturgized in the culture around us.
At the beginning of 2021, I committed to several of these focusing disciplines: of practicing Sabbath, of setting aside one day a month to be still and quiet before the Lord and listen to Him, of praying through St. Ignatius’s Examen several times a week, of seeking out a spiritual guide and mentor, and of creating space for the Lord to liturgize my heart. I’ve done so very, very imperfectly, but God is so generous to convict and draw me back to Him, calling me to again and again: “Sit still. Listen. Wait. Rest.” I’m pressing deeply back into Him, and letting His love and truth spill over me and speak to me, and allowing His Spirit to break my heart and empower me once again. God’s mercies are there for the taking. We have to spend time with our Lord and in His truth, and let His truth be the source of our perspective on life, and lead our schools and our students and families to reclaiming that deep relationship, as well: to be disciples and make disciples.
Restoring Gospel Community
Finally, we have to restore gospel community in our own schools, and give our people a vision for community. As Christians, and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to community. God is a God of community, existing for all eternity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in perfect community, one with another. As God’s children, and His image bearers, we are called to live in community. We are not meant to be alone: we need each other, we are responsible for each other, and God holds us accountable for each other’s well-being.
A few key points about Christian community, including in our schools:
- The predominant virtue of community, the glue that holds it together is love. Paul, giving us the inspired Word of God in 1 Corinthians 13, guides us in what love is in the context of community. Paul tells us this about love (and, please, think about this in the context of what’s going on around us right now, even among recent debates over vaccines or masks or race or politics): love is patient and kind; it doesn’t envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing (and certainly doesn’t DO wrong itself) but love rejoices with the truth. Love is full of hope and perseverance. In a world that seems to be looking for a fight, for a reason to be outraged and offended, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. And, love never ends. Community is rooted in love. And, because it is rooted in love, it is built around seeking to understand each other. Love doesn’t mean absence of conflict, because conflict always exists in strong community—whether a church, a school, a family, or a nation. But, when conflict exists, those committed to community strive for reconciliation, activating love.
- Community doesn’t just happen. Because of our sin nature, it is always in jeopardy. Biblical community particularly is subject to satanic attack, as well as the pushback from our sin, our 21st century American bent toward hyper-individualism, and so community has to be fought for, contended for, prayed over, and advocated for. That’s one of the ways we advance His Kingdom here on earth.
- Community in the Body should be made up of people who are very different from one another, yet are joined in a purpose more important and larger than any individual, and that doesn’t eradicate differences, but transcends them. Communities embrace outsiders, the “other,” and seek to persuade others to join them. At the same time, they don’t force membership, nor do they attack those who are not part of the community for not being a part.
- There is a difference between community and tribalism. Satan, the king of the world, always devises a counterfeit to what God has created and calls good, substituting lust for love, abusive power for protective power, and tribalism for community. Tribalism is counterfeit community. It has some of the characteristics of community, in that it is about people getting together, fulfilling a very human need. Yet, as author Alan Weiss notes, tribes are homogenous and exclusionary. They see their own members’ similarities and glorify those, and see others as enemies at worst, and as inferior at best. One tribe is condescending and derogatory, and in some cases violent, toward the other. Tribes are typically insecure, mistrustful of others not their own, and highly threatened by what they perceive as attacks on their beliefs and behaviors. The “other” is not to be persuaded or even co-opted, but eliminated. New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that we’ve lost common concepts of truth and community as a nation, and so individuals have been pushed deeper and deeper into tribalism. “The deeper the tribalism, and the darker the ‘us v. them’ becomes, the chances for transformational discussion around disagreements become fewer and farther between.”
We have to show a better way. We have to encourage the principles of biblical community in our schools and among the adults and students in our building, modeling them for our students. We have to pull together in the wake of COVID-19 and reestablish the basic building blocks of this community, and recommit ourselves to biblical truth and unity. This will be a deliberate and explicit focus of Converge 2022, where the theme of “bridging divides” shapes not only many of the speakers and workshops, but also time set aside for corporate discussion and practice around reconciliation, restoration, and rebuilding in our communities.
As we emerge from COVID-19’s chokehold, we face several critical cultural issues of our day. But, as has always been true, each of these issues only have one solution. As David Platt once said, the Church is God’s Plan A for the salvation of the world. And, there is no Plan B. God doesn’t need one. His people, empowered by His Spirit, are all He has ever needed. The Church is the hope of the world, and our schools prepare God’s people to be His disciples and make disciples, uniters, and reconcilers. We have to help equip them to be deeply steeped in God’s truth, rather than the narratives and ideologies of the age, and encourage them into authentic biblical community, love which has always captivated the world and drawn it to Christ.
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, JaysBlog. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.