Over many years of working in and with Christian Schools, I have come to recognise a generally linear pattern to how deeply authentic and intentional Christianity penetrates Christian Schools.
The stages that have been identified below are linear in nature. However, as with many general patterns, there will be exceptions. There will also be some aspects where small parts of the concepts are experienced early, but generally, the stages are very linear, and most Christian schools stop somewhere on the continuum the stages create.
The Five Stages of Deeper Authentic Christian Education
- Involving Christian Teachers - A school with Christians. (A Christian Educating)
- Isolated Christian Activities - Education with a side of Jesus. (Christian, then Education)
- Integrated Christian Curriculum - Let me tell you about Jesus. (An Educator Explaining Christian)
- Intentional Christian Pedagogy - Let me show you Jesus. (A Christian Educator)
- Invasive Christian Vision - Taking every ‘thought’ captive for Christ. (A Christian Education)
For some, this would be very obvious, but as it has taken me a while to articulate it so, I figured I might as well share it. Sometimes I can go into a Christian School and it is apparent that it has integrity and a deeply authentic Christianity. The language it uses has meaning, and there is something remarkable about both the students and the teachers.
Other times I have been into a Christian School and just haven’t felt much at all. The teachers are all Christian, and they do might do all the right Christian activities such as singing Christian songs, they pray and even do devotions together both as a staff and with the students. Despite this, some Christian schools are not easy to distinguish between that school and the school down the road.
An observation is that there are several stages of maturity that Christian Schools have that enables them to authentically operate as they prepare students for the next step on their walk with Christ. The stages move from doing prayer and devotions through to integrating worldview into the curriculum and finally to being intentional and reflective into the design of the school’s operation, policies and pedagogy.
Before I unpack the five stages, I need to step back just for a moment and consider every school that a community considers ‘Christian’. In doing so, there is a pre-stage to the continuum I am suggesting. This pre-stage is where a Christian School is Christian by name only. In such cases, the ‘by name only’ would not consider the importance of employing Christian teachers or staff, and definitely would not even explore the outworkings of an integrated Biblical worldview through it's curriculum. Such a school would have a ‘Christian’ reference in their name and they would likely have people, Christian or not, performing some Christian Activities such as reciting prayers or reading stories about God within their school.
The limitation of this reflective paper is about schools that the community would consider evangelical Christian Schools.
Stage One: INVOLVING CHRISTIAN TEACHERS (A school with Christian teachers.)
In stage one, the only intentional act towards being a Christian school is the intentional act of employing Christian teachers. There would be very few leaders of Christian schools who would desire for their school to be limited to this stage.
However, this stage does not signal a complete absence of actions from other stages. Rather it assumes the limitation of intentionality and school-wide design is restricted to simply employing Christians and letting them be ‘Christian’ in a classroom—a sense of students experiencing Christ through osmosis.
Students of schools in this stage have a potpourri experience of what Christian Education is and will receive conflicting messages about what living as a Christian is depending on the teachers they happen to have at school, rather than which school they attend.
Stage Two: ISOLATED CHRISTIAN ACTIVITIES (Education with a side of Jesus)
Stage Two is usually the beginning point for most Christian schools. At this stage, not only are Christian teachers employed, but there is also an intentionality to have students participate in some Christian activities such as prayer, worship and learning about the Bible.
Interestingly, this is also what many ‘new’ teachers think Christian Education is all about, and sadly it is what parents often tell other parents what Christian Education is.
It could be argued that praying in a school does not make it a Christian School and certainly does not reflect if a student will experience Christian Education. Sometimes the way our students experience prayer, stand in rooms with worship being performed, and the devotionals they patiently endure can be less than beneficial to their walking with Christ. If prayer, devotions and worship are done carelessly, a young Christian’s life could be better influenced in the long term by attending a public school with a Christian teacher who models Christlikeness to them.
While this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, isolated activities in a Christian School can include prayer, worship, Scripture memorisation, Bible lessons and devotions.
This approach to Christian Education is fragmented. Sometimes Christian and other times education. In this stage, students experience that Christianity requires you to ‘do’ some stuff that non-Christians do not do.
We must pray for Christian Schools that are stuck in this dualistic mode. They can genuinely do more damage than good for our Christian students. They inadvertently teach young people that a Christian life is one that does some religious things and gets on with the ‘real’ stuff.
I remember one year a school I was a part of participated in an ACSI ‘Schools that pray’ event. I met with the head students at that school to discuss how they would set out the day. They had many excellent ideas, but their underlying concept for the day meant that there would be limited positive outcomes for students and prayer.
During our planning for the day, one of the students commented, ‘Well, this will be more meaningful for the primary (elementary) students because the middle school and senior students will just see it as another day’.
This intrigued me, so when the time was right, I probed a little. And when I discovered the students had planned, I had to agree with them. Their design for the day did make it more meaningful for the younger students than the older students.
But is a prayer day only meaningful for young students?
We reshaped the objectives of the day.
Initially, the day was focused on ‘how’ to pray. The Head Students had planned to go into classes and teach the students a framework for how to pray. The issue with this is that all the school's students obviously already go to a Christian School. They would already have several prayer frameworks that they had learnt over the years. And secondly, when probed, the Head students reflected that it was already effortless at school assemblies to get junior school students to pray. However, middle and senior students were much more difficult to motivate to share prayer.
We decided we would shift the focus of the day from ‘how' to pray, to ‘why' we pray. Such a minor change, but suddenly we took the day from learning about prayer to motivating prayer—all in all, something that was much more relevant to not just our younger students, but to all students.
Schools at all stages should not just teach students ‘how’ to do Christian disciplines like prayer, worship or memorise Scripture; they plant seeds of curiosity and desire so that students will 'want' to do Christian practices such as prayer, worship and reading Scriptures.
Schools in this very dualistic stage could at best be defined as ‘education with a side of Jesus’.
A side of Jesus may sound confusing, but consider a steak meal with a side of salad. Some people will go into a restaurant and order a large steak and, in an attempt to be healthy, also order a side of salad. There are Christian schools that look and feel just like the school down the road with the exception that they have some moments of 'Christian' in them. The main meal is education, and the side is Christian. And just like with the restaurant salad, in such schools, the Christian bits are only consumed if there is room or time. No different to the side of salad after a giant juicy steak.
This approach to Christian Education could also be explained as ‘Christian, then Education’ or sadly, ‘Education, then Christian if there is time’.
Stage Three: INTEGRATED CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW (Do as I say, not as I do)
A deeper level of Christian Education within a Christian School is when they become authentic at helping their students find meaning in their curriculum through the authentic integration of a Biblical worldview. The curriculum is unpacked in a way that points to the Creator, what He created us for, how He desires us to live together, and the hope we have in Him.
Such integration of the Christian worldview, when done well, would be offensive at the school down the road. Not because of the offensive nature of the message. Conversely, it is the grace-filled, hope-filled message of redemption, design, purpose and living life to the full that is no longer allowed to echo in the walls of public education.
The timeless message of a Creator designing a life for purpose, the ever-present God, the love that cannot fail, and the hope that does not elevate me, but seeks to serve you that offends so many. A message of absolute truth, of the gift of eternal life and of sin and freedom that is no longer allowed. All messages that ultimately bring relevance to and ground the Health, Digital Citizenship, Maths, Science, Social Sciences curricula and more.
In a Christian School, the Christian teacher can help students see the Truths of Scripture and the design of God in what they experience across many curricula.
In this stage, the depth of Christian Education is limited to the Christian teacher ‘telling’ students about Truth and what it means to live a life sold out for Christ. But while it is talked about, this does not mean that a student will genuinely experience Christian Education.
For students, this stage of Christian Education is limited to doing some Christian things and hearing about Christian Truths. This alone can be detrimental to a young person’s journey to becoming more like Christ. For if in a Christian School, a student hears that God loves me but experiences a Christian teacher that does not, the message is neutralised through the experience.
For example, where a Christian teacher uses ‘embarrassment’ as a form of punishment, no message about hope and love will be strong enough to undo the damage that the actions the Christian teacher has done. The actions of the teacher always speak louder than the message they deliver.
Integrating Biblical truths into lessons is by far easier than modelling Jesus through actions. For many Christian schools, this will limit the depth of Christian education that students experience.
While it is difficult to like all of the students in a class the same, there is no denying that we are commanded to love each of them.
Christian schools that settle for education with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to Christian education is more aligned with an Old Covenant or even pharisaic representation of Christianity. They create a culture where the law is more important than love. Rules are more important than relationships.
In this environment, students are taught the Bible in a way that they will know about Jesus. There is an urgency to fill students' minds with knowledge about the Scripture and Biblical truths before graduation.
This goal is very different to schools that desire to show students Jesus.
Schools in Stage Three can be characterised by the terms ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ or ’let me tell you about Jesus’.
Stage Four: INTENTIONAL CHRISTIAN PEDAGOGY (Let me show you Jesus)
There are Christian schools that have that ‘feel’ to them. They are tangibly different to stage three and below schools and it can be challenging to explain why. In Stage four schools, what is taught is modelled. What is preached, is practised. Students not only understand that they are a son or daughter of the Most High God, but they are treated like they are a son or daughter of the Most High God. Even in the most trying of circumstances.
Without question, shifting the culture and practice of a Christian School from ‘talking about Jesus’ to ‘modelling Jesus’ requires a significant effort.
Often as teachers, we have our ‘teacher’ way of teaching, and loving the most broken student just as much as the most ‘normal’ student is not something we learn about through studying most educational books. It is, however, something learnt through studying the Scriptures and the life of Christ.
In these schools, we find a very authentic expression of Christianity for students. The unconditional sense of belonging and respect creates emotions and experiences of real Christianity that lead students to lifelong journeys with Christ.
On a side note. Ironically, the best Christian teachers in a secular education system personify this in their secular classrooms. They cannot talk about Jesus, but they can model Him. In such circumstances, they outwork St Francis’, ‘at all times preach the Gospel, and if you need to use words’.
Sadly though, in some Christian Schools, some Christian teachers will never transition from telling students about the law, rules and the Gospel to really modelling Jesus. Teachers who will never truly love each student, regardless of how much they like each of them, despite this being a command. For some Christian teachers, it is a great disappointment that there are so many students that do not fit the mould in their classroom. It is as if, in their mind the ever-present, all-knowing, Sovereign God was asleep when little Jonny was put onto their class list. Such an interesting thought that we can believe in a completely Sovereign God, but think that He is not interested in who is in our Christian School classrooms.
The contrast between a school that seeks that their students know Christ rather than know about Him is often best seen in matters of discipline. There is an intentional difference in the motivation and desired outcome of discipline when it comes to shaping students' character in the respective schools.
Where the motivation is the law over the love, schools engage in purely punitive manners. Discipline is determined as a science. If a child does this, the punishment is that. There are no variables, and this is seen as the only fair way. The desire is to shape a student through punitive matters. If we beat them enough, they will be good, or at least more like us. “You don’t do that in a Christian School” is common language. Students of these schools learn that rules are geographically bound. At Church and at a Christian School, you can not swear, punch or steal.
Such discipline encourages a student to learn the ‘rules’ of the place they find themselves. At university or college, what are the cultural rules? When I leave home, what are the new rules? When I am online, what can I say now?
The reality of the ‘you cannot do that at a Christian School’, line of discipline is that you cannot do such things at a bank, on a sports field or in most social settings. Imagine walking into a bank and swearing at the teller or calling a referee an idiot. In either example, you are not likely to get away without some form of consequence. Being civil is not a requirement just for Christian schools; it is still an expectation in much of society. We need to use language that reflects that.
Christian schools should aspire to have a discipleship mentality. So much more that just a discipline process. Discipleship can include disciple, but is certainly not limited to discipline. A punitive response to a student's behaviour. The end goal of discipleship is a changed heart and an internal motivation to live more like Christ. A punitive response seeks to correct a behaviour, whereas discipleship aims to change a person. A discipline process helps people know how to stay out of trouble ‘here’, where discipleship shapes an attitude to want to please their Creator wherever they are.
Many Christian schools will settle for a discipline model of character development because it is deemed fairer and is certainly easier than discipleship. And if the goal is to have a Christian School where students behave, then a robust punitive response will achieve that quickly. Where the school's hope is to shape a student for life, true discipleship is required.
Discipleship in a Christian school is always bespoke, often does not look fair, but is always journeyed through relationship. It can include both mercy and justice, law and love, rules and relationship. The goal is a changed life, not just a compliant action. It is both head and heart change, not just head change.
At the core of a Christian school or classroom where intentional Christian Pedagogy is present is a teacher whose desire is to ‘let me show you Jesus.’ Where a Stage Three school can be critised as hypocritical, a Stage Four school or classroom models an authentic Christianity.
Stage Five: INVASIVE CHRISTIAN VISION (Taking every thought captive for Christ)
The final and ultimate stage for a Christian School, where Christianity is transformational and deep, is where every aspect of the school is filtered through a Biblical worldview.
Not just are the first four of the stages present in a stage five school, but the policies, procedures, board functions and even the buildings are considered and influenced through this lens. Policies for enrolment, refunds, not to forget homework should all be assessed through a ‘what would Jesus do’ mentality.
An enrolment policy should reflect the body of Christ, the brokenness of the world and the power of the gospel. Sadly, some Christian schools' enrolment policies reflect that of an elite college, not the Church. They have enrolment procedures that accept those who are normal and nice. Those who ‘deserve’ to be there. The ones that are already sanctified. And those who are deemed difficult are discarded.
Sadly, there is often a great divide between those who need Christian Education and those that Christian Education want. However, it is a curious thought to consider who the students in our classes would be if Jesus was our enrolments officer.
PAUSE. That is a point worth considering.
And want about a refunds policy? At the core of refunds are money and families. If we as Christians have different beliefs about money and families, then it would follow that a policy about money and families would look different in a Christian School to another industry.
Furthermore, if as Christians we do have a different view of family to the world, it would stand to reason that we would hold a different view of family time. Therefore a Christian school would be well placed to consider the function and design of homework with this in mind.
Many students from Christian families have significant other commitments that, while they lead to a more holistic development, take time from their family. In NZ Christian schools, many students are involved in youth groups, serve in Sunday School, Church music teams, tech teams, service groups, weekly Bible studies, not to mention the usual sports teams and or music tuition.
It is easy to blindly have a homework policy that matches the school down the road, and in many ways, this is what our parents expect. However, we ignore our beliefs about families and the extra commitments our Christian students juggle at our students' cost. Eventually, we are left wondering why our young Christians struggle with mental health issues and early burnout.
When we take all thoughts captive to Christ, so much more than enrolments, refunds and homework should look different, but there is simply too much to explore in this reflection. The important provocation is that we all understand that all our policies and practices, from the most simplistic and the most complex, need reflecting on through our Christian beliefs.
Something to consider. I have always been challenged that if Jesus and a Pharisee were to write a set of policies for my Christian school, whose policies would most match what we have?
Too often our policies are stuck in the Old Testament, just as the Pharisees were. They can reflect ‘law’ and ‘easy’. Policies that make our job easier and keeps good Christian mums and dads happy because they children only have nice children around them.
Another thought about this stage. Some schools will try to ignore this stage and demand a New Testament (Stage Four) pedagogy from their teachers. However, when a school refuses to deeply inspect its policies through a Biblical worldview yet expect it’s teachers to practice an intentional Christian pedagogy, the school is no less hypocritical than a teacher who tells their students how to be like Christ but does not model Christ.
Now that we have explored the different stages of Authentic Christian Education it is essential to stop and reflect. There are many people within a school community and they all bring different perspectives. As Head of School/Principal, there will be a perspective on where the school stands in relation to the stages. That may or may not reflect what the teachers perceive. And students will also bring a different perspective based on what teachers they interact with, so too will it be different with our parents.
Consider the following questions with your leadership and governance teams:
- What stage do we what our school to operate from?
- What stage do our students, staff, parents, board experience from our school? Is it consistent?
- What needs to happen for the students, community and staff to experience this stage?
- How would our school look if Jesus was the enrolment officer?
- Are we expecting our teachers to express new covenant truths to students while they operate under old covenant policies?
- Does our school focus on creating a curiosity for the Scripture or just telling students about them?
- Do students see Christ in us, in us all? Or do they only hear about Him from us?
- Do families see Christ through us when things go bad?
The assumption I have is that schools who are looking for an authentic Christian education experience for their students and staff will want to ensure all five stages are present and experienced. And while there is a clear linear development as a school goes deeper, there will be pockets of any school where aspects of the full spectrum of the five stages are experienced. Some policies will be developed with an invasive biblical worldview, and in some spaces, it is possible that the only thing Christian about a space is the Christian that is present in that space.
Christian schools that stop short of all five stages risk students who find Christianity to be hypocritical, irrelevant, dualistic and all about rules. They will be schools that graduate young people that know how to look Christian but are not transformed; young people who know about Christ, but do not know Him.
Blessings to you as you explore the ministry that God has called you to steward for this season. May it be more authentic when your season ends than it was when you began.