The Christian school movement is, in developmental terms, maturing—which is a polite way of saying that we’re aging! Christian schools in the United States opened at a frenetic pace in the last quarter of the twentieth century, accompanied by an explosion of resources, associations, and conferences specific to Christian education. It was during this period of growth and expansion that ACSI itself was founded. Some in Christian schooling refer to this as the movement’s “gilded age.”
However—and not uncommon for industries as they mature—it’s clear that a host of fresh challenges are being faced by Christian schools. These include the changing faith profile of parents and the proliferation of school options (e.g., public charter schools and online academies), which help to explain declining Christian school enrollments in the U.S. and a reverse trend of school closure (Barna and ACSI 2017). This is occurring against a larger backdrop of societal transformation, including rapid technological innovation, changes in family structure, demographic shifts in the U.S., and changes in students’ learning needs. Schools in all sectors are experiencing “the ‘Gutenberg to Google’ revolution [that] has generated a perfect storm of discontent, dysfunction, and disengagement in our traditional system of education” (4). And Christian schools are faced with an increasingly secular society that is hostile to Christianity and a biblical worldview, leaving them struggling with how to educate students within the context of what some have called a “post-Christian” culture.
Today’s Challenges Are Complex, Urgent, and Full of Opportunity
While certainly challenges have abounded in previous eras, what is unique about today’s challenges is their complexity. There are no silver bullets or panaceas (e.g., how-to guides, workbooks, or 10-step programs) to which we can easily turn. Rather, we need to develop systematic thinking, dialogue, and research that can yield best practices and adaptive strategies sufficient to addressing these challenges. This takes resources, intentionality, and time. Many sense that we’re in short supply with regard to the latter. There is an urgency for these challenges—which are interrelated in many ways—to be addressed if there is to be a flourishing future for Christian schools.
As a few school leaders have pointed out to me recently, while these challenges are complex and urgent, the sky is not falling. Every new challenge presents a companion opportunity for Christian schools to expand their influence and relevance to new generations of parents and students. And there are positive signs that the movement is rallying. These include global summits and conferences on the future of Christian education; collaboration between existing Christian school associations and establishment of new ones; innovation networks focused on developing educational “new wine” along with “new wineskins” (Matthew 9:17); wide-scale survey research on the Christian school sector, as well as increased focus on data-driven decision making among school leaders; and new strategic and entrepreneurial partnerships, such as those between Christian schools, across the K–16 spectrum, and with nonprofits, businesses, and government entities.
A Thought Leadership Space for Christian Education
Here at ACSI, we recognize the important responsibility of our role as a convener for the Christian school movement. Over the last few years we have heard educators from all sectors and from all corners of the globe calling for thought leadership—efforts to develop, test, and share the best approaches for addressing the challenges facing Christian schools. However, reflective of much of the Christian school movement, our channels and infrastructure at ACSI have not been nearly nimble enough to respond well to this call. But we recognize that while there are no easy answers, that is not an excuse for disengaging. In fact, Scripture makes clear that in such challenging times, the proper response is to “call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding … for the LORD gives wisdom” (Proverbs 2:3, 6). We desire to work with Christian educators to perceive what God is doing in this present generation (Isaiah 43:18–19), so that—together—we may find ways for deeper engagement and responsibility to this work to which God has called us. In short, this is why we are launching an ACSI blog—and why we are doing it right now. Our goal is to provide relevant and timely content that addresses real questions, concerns, and opportunities facing Christian schools.
Convening Leaders and Thinkers
To this end, we are launching with a post entitled Marked Urgent: Unity within Diversity in our Christian Schools, by Joel Gaines, assistant head of the upper school at Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. With faculty, staff, and students returning to school this year in the wake of August’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this post is truly both relevant and timely. As Christians we must unequivocally condemn bigotry, hatred, and violence, and pray for peace and comfort for the community and individuals affected. As Christian educators, however, this is not enough. We need to take intentional action to help our faculty and students grapple with and learn how to heal the breaches that divide us, which we see so vividly not only in our nation, but also in our own communities. Joel Gaines provides tangible strategies for beginning and sustaining this process on your campus by taking steps to create a culture of honoring, caring for, listening to, and appreciating each other as God’s image-bearers.
We hope you will join us over the coming months as we work to convene Christian school leaders and thinkers to seek God’s wisdom for the future of Christian education—in humble expectation of Him, who Scripture promises “gives generously to all” who so ask (James 1:5).
Barna Group and the Association of Christian Schools International. 2017. Multiple choice: How parents sort education options in a changing market. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI; Ventura, CA: Barna Group.
Miller, R., B. Latham, and B. Cahill. 2017. Humanizing the education machine: How to create schools that turn disengaged kids into inspired learners. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
About the Author
Dr. Lynn E. Swaner is the Director of Thought Leadership and Higher Education Initiatives at ACSI. Prior to ACSI, she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. A published scholar, her focus is on engaged pedagogy and creating cultures that foster student learning. She received her Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.