It’s only been a couple of years since I made a job transition and moved, so I don’t have the contact with the other Christian school administrators who were my colleagues during the time I served at my previous school. I was looking at a couple of social media posts from some parents about their student athletes at the school and noticed one of the schools who used to be in the same athletic league was missing from the list. I got curious and checked their website and was shocked when the search engine turned up an article from a couple of the area daily newspapers about the school’s closing at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
There wasn’t anything I had observed when I was in the same area to indicate to me that they were experiencing any kind of difficulty. The school was an extension ministry of a local church and had been in existence for more than 30 years. It was located in a suburb of a nearby major city, an area where the population was stable and where there was some new business and housing development in recent years. The church had a stable pastorate and ministry staff. The school, which included Pre-K through 12th grade, graduated anywhere from 15-20 students per year, and enrolled over 230 students a year on average. Their tuition and fees were similar to ours. The administrative structure included a head of school who was the discipleship pastor of the church but they had an assistant administrator who was an educator, someone I knew well. From my observation, I could not see anything that would have caused them to close so suddenly.
According to the newspaper article describing the church’s decision to close the school, enrollment had been dwindling for at least five years, and the re-enrollment for the 18-19 school year was less than 130. That means they’ve lost 100 students in about a five year period. No specific internal problems were mentioned. Tuition and fees had increased, but not so high as to explain that kind of drop in enrollment and there were no new Christian schools that were started in their area, which can often have an effect on other schools. This was the second Christian school closing in the same metro area in a five year period, the other being an independent, foundation-operated school about 20 miles away that closed its doors three years ago for similar reasons.
Their story is not unusual. In fact, over 300 Christian schools who belonged to ACSI closed after the end of the last school year and that number of closures has been consistent now for over a decade. Of course, internal problems aren’t always visible from the outside. Schools sometimes struggle from circumstances which develop that are beyond their control and Christian schools can be victims of the same kinds of problems that cause churches to split or disband altogether. There are delicate balances in place in most Christian schools between operating costs and tuition and fee rates, between maintaining a competent, qualified faculty and budget restrains that keep teacher salaries and benefits well below market rates. Finding qualified, competent teachers who are also Christians and active church members is not easy when the top of your pay scale doesn’t come close to the bottom of the public school salary scale. For that, it takes prayer and dependence on God to send the right people through the door.
Every school has a core group of loyal parent support but unity in the school community depends on the size of the group and the strength of their influence. And since most Christian schools are funded by tuition, there is a balance between operating a school under sound educational principles and research-driven “best practices” and the kind of education parents think is going to be most beneficial for their own child. If any of those things gets out of balance, it can affect the enrollment. Not all of our parents have enrolled their children in our schools because of its Christian distinctiveness, nor are they as committed as others when it comes to providing a Biblical foundation for their child’s education. They are more interested in the school’s value as an “alternative” to the public school system and are more on the “consumer” side than on the commitment side of Christian education.
There are several main causes identified by recent research for the decline in Christian school enrollment that has led to school closures.
1. As tuition and fees increase, the ability of parents to afford Christian school for their children diminishes.
The average annual cost of a Christian school in the United States is somewhere around $9,000 per student per year. For a clear majority of Christian schools, tuition and additional fees are a primary source of funding. If you calculate a discount for a second student at 25%, a family with two school aged children needs to come up with $16,000 in tuition and fees at the average Christian school. That comes out to over $1,300 a month. If family income among church members is similar to that in the population at large, it means that 80% of the families who are worshipping together on Sunday in the typical church do not earn enough to put their children in a Christian school.
Christian Schools are not intended to serve only those wealthy enough to afford it, but our current system hasn’t been successful in generating income for schools beyond the tuition and fees parents pay. Part of the problem is that Evangelical churches have not yet caught a vision for working together to support a system of Christian schools that is considered a part of their discipleship ministry to children and families. Parents who desire to choose a Christian school for their children are left alone to provide support with no help from their fellow believers. Churches and pastors view Christian schools as competition for their church’s funds and time. And there are many church-operated Christian schools which must budget a portion of their tuition and fees to pay rental or building use fees to their sponsoring church, while receiving nothing in return from the church’s budget for their operating expenses. That is not consistent with a Biblical vision for a school which is an extension of a church’s discipleship ministry. Something needs to change. A vision similar to that found in Acts 2:42-47 is needed for churches to share resources from their budgets which will help provide a Christ-centered, Biblically directed education.
The Catholic and Lutheran churches both have established schools under a unified ministry that they call “Christian education.” It’s often hard to pin down what that means in a conservative, Evangelical church but to both of those groups, “Christian education” is synonymous with “children’s and youth discipleship ministry.” The Quakers take that a step further, with individual congregations bearing the full financial support for schools they have established. Parents who have the income and resources to pay tuition are asked to do so. The principle “To those who have been given much, much is required” is also literally practiced in that those who have more are expected to assist by giving what they can afford, not just what it might cost them, in order to provide equal ministry benefits to those who do not have as much, including full scholarships for students who come from families living below the poverty level.
There a few Evangelicals who have tried this approach with success. It should be successful, shouldn’t it, since it is Biblical? In communities as far apart and diverse as locations in Mississippi, Iowa and California, churches have formed associations which exist for the sole purpose of supporting an already-established, local Christian school. These “community” Christian schools are, for the most part, underwritten by the church contributions, so they must have a large group of churches signed up on board. While families who can afford it pay the full cost, tuition is on a sliding scale based on income. In each of these communities, more than a dozen churches are involved and the difference between what gets paid and what it costs is provided by the churches who share in the expense of providing this ministry without thinking of it as “competition” for their money or members.
One of the factors that has been identified by research as being a reason for Christian schools remaining open in spite of declining enrollment and revenue is the faithful support of a sponsoring church which has a Biblical vision for the kind of discipleship ministry and education that Christian schools provide. During the early years of the Christian education movement, many leaders had the vision of schools which would be completely underwritten by churches, meeting in buildings that previously were only occupied for a few hours one day of the week for the most part. Collectively, it would take less than one sixth of all the money collected by conservative, Evangelical churches in one year to operate all of the Christian schools that currently exist in this country. I believe that money, spent on its children and their future, is the best money that a church could ever spend.
Enrollment increases in Christian schools are inevitably tied to the school’s ability to become affordable to the 80% of conservative Evangelical church members who are currently unable to consider Christian school because their income is not adequate to afford it. That means conservative Evangelical churches are going to have to come together in cooperative ministry to support their schools.
2. The “Millennial Generation” now makes up 90% of the parents of school aged children in the United States.
The decline in attendance and membership that began to affect mainline denominations in America in the 1960’s has finally reached the conservative Evangelical movement. After decades of growth, much of it coming from those leaving liberal, mainline churches, membership and attendance among Evangelical churches and denominations began to plateau at the end of the 20th century. For most of its churches and virtually all of its denominations, the 21st century has been a nightmare.
The problem isn’t the low birth rate, as some researchers claim, nor is it something that “will just go away in time” as those who leave the church around the time they graduate from college will “come back as adults.” Not only have conservative Evangelicals seen a drop in the number of people baptized as new converts to Christ in their churches since the 1970’s, the baptism numbers do not even account for the number of children who are raised in a church by their parents who are members of it. The low birth rate, cited by some researchers as the main reason behind the decline of Evangelical Christian church membership, isn’t a factor because since the 1980’s more than 75% of those who are raised as children and youth in a conservative Evangelical church stop attending by the time they graduate from college. Most never return.
The “Millennial Generation”, of which we hear frequently regarding its unconventional social norms and customs, is the most educated in American history and it has also become the most non-Christian in history, at least, in modern history. More than half, 55% in fact, are “nones” when it comes to affiliation with a religious group of any kind but even among those who can identify some family connection with a Christian denomination, fewer than 15% of this generation attends a church service more than twice a month. This is the generation who are the parents of more than 85% of the current school-aged population.
It’s hard to convince parents who aren’t Christians to see the benefits of a school that is distinctively Christian in everything it does. We may see a few families come in because of our academics and because we are less expensive than schools which specialize in academic achievement and are selective in their enrollment. But those will be few and far between. The educational alternative to public school preferred by millennial parents is an academically oriented private or charter school based on an international model where students are separated according to aptitude and interest and are able to get into a specific “track” which appeals to whatever interests might have been uncovered in the testing. Charter schools with specific vocational and academic missions are becoming very popular, as are schools in public school districts aimed at a specific interest or aptitude, like technology, medicine, law enforcement and government or fine arts and creative expression. The idea of connecting a Biblical perspective to objectives in the core curriculum is nonsense to most millennials.
So how do we grow a Christian school in this kind of environment?
Currently, only 15% of the children whose families attend or are members of a conservative, Evangelical Christian church are enrolled in a Christian school. Even with a small number of millennial-age parents willing or interested in Christian faith, there are more than enough to fill all of the Christian school seats now available and create a need for more seats and schools. At its peak, the Catholic school system enrolled 80% of their member’s children, and financed the tuition and fees for over 50% of them. It will require commitment, a systematic effort to convince pastors and get them on board (which is a more difficult prospect than it should be) and continuing to present our schools and what they do as valuable and essential parts of a Christian discipleship ministry.
We may also need to change our thinking regarding the makeup of our student body. We are an alternative to the public school system, whether it is their educational philosophy or the level of academic achievement about which parents are concerned. Many Christian schools have restricted their enrollments in the past to students who come from families where at least one parent was an actively involved Christian. It might be time to consider changing our perspective and open our enrollments. We’re capable of evangelistic outreach and as long as we’re up front about what gets taught in our classrooms and the expectations we have for our students when it comes to learning, behavior and spiritual formation, why not?
3. The kind of unity of purpose and mission which unites other faith-based school systems doesn’t exist in Evangelical Christian churches.
I’ve already alluded to this problem which was discussed along with the tuition issues in the first section. Christian schools are not seen as extensions of local church ministries by pastors or church leadership in most conservative Evangelical churches. They are seen as competition for the funds of their own members who may have their children enrolled and as competition for the loyalty of some of their own members who may look favorably on a church that has a school where their children are enrolled. And many pastors don’t want to offend those who belong to their church who teach in and work for the public school system. Yes, that’s petty when you consider the consequences of the alternative, mainly, seeing the children and youth raised in our churches influenced by the idea that God is a fairy tale and human wisdom is the real power of the universe. But it has been a prevailing roadblock to the effective development of schools that are built to support and undergird the work of Christ’s church in the world and to prepare and train workers he’s calling to serve it.
The Catholic church built a system of schools to protect itself as an institution in just a couple of generations. They watched as the children of their membership converted to Protestant faiths in large numbers because of the influence of teachers in the public school system. So they put their resources together, trained scores of those committed to the vow of poverty as teachers as a means of helping operate the schools at church expense. They promoted Catholic education by telling parents that if they let the church educate their children, they’d be committed Catholics for life. And that wasn’t far from the truth. For over 100 years, Catholic schools became not only the educational choice for 80% of the church’s membership, but it built in deep loyalty to church tradition. Most loyal American Catholics can speak of a period of time when they attended Catholic school and the membership growth of the church, to a peak of 65 million in 1990, coincides with the growth of their schools and the availability of a Catholic education to all church members.
There is no reason why conservative Evangelicals, who have in common a belief in the scripture as inerrant, infallible truth revealing salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, cannot provide a discipleship ministry of equal effectiveness to their families. In fact, there is no other place in conservative Evangelical Christianity in America where Christians unite together around a common cause than in our Christian schools. While churches are, for the most part, racially and socially segregated, holding up behind walls of doctrinal and denominational distinctives and largely separated into quarrelling small groups over secondary and tertiary interpretations of scripture that are so finely tuned they are meaningless, the number of people being won to Christ through our ministries has dropped by 60% in just two decades. And the number of people who gather in a church that identifies as conservative and Evangelical has declined by more than 35% since 2000, with right at half of that decline happening in just the past five years. According to at least two church research groups and one denominational publishing house, the median age of the membership of most Evangelical churches is now past 60.
We’re losing younger generations to what Paul calls “deceit and empty philosophy” in Colossians, taught under the umbrella of “religious neutrality” in the public school system. And we’re not going to be able to turn back the clock and “put God back in the schools” again. That’s a pipe dream that isn’t going to happen. Christianity is just one of many religious that now compete in the marketplace of ideas and even if the schools and courts became open to entertaining the thought of religious teaching, it would have to be open to every kind of religious teaching that exists today. I don’t think our parents want their children exposed to that any more than they want their child’s school taking the responsibility for teaching them the history and social values of the LGBTQ community. That’s a parent’s responsibility, not the school.
Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of hosts.
We need to disciple each succeeding generation if we are going to impact this world, this country and our own communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Lord, give us the vision.
ACSI is apparently changing the requirement that 80% of the teachers in an accredited Christian school be certified through ACSI’s teacher certification program. They will now recognized state teacher certificates as long as the teacher also completes the ACSI Philosophy of Christian School Education required course.
I must say I am disappointed in this action for a couple of reasons. Though it will now be easier for schools to meet the certification requirements for teachers in order to achieve accredited status, I am not now, nor have I ever been convinced that state teacher certification is a benchmark for qualification that a Christian school should recognize. If our schools are genuinely Christian ministries, as we claim they are, and if they are centered on the written word of God found in the Bible, as we claim they are, then how can the secular state’s approval mark be consistent with our educational standards and processes? States follow the principle of “religious neutrality” as it has been interpreted by the courts. How is it that a certificate provided by a government that declares itself to have no understanding of, nor favor toward, the principles upon which our schools are founded can provide a document that provides a reference and point of qualification for one of our teachers?
A “religiously neutral” state cannot acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh. Therefore, it cannot qualify teachers for what amounts to a Christian classroom ministry.
Christian educational philosophy is not given any consideration in the requirements for teacher training and certification by the state. The basic principle forming the foundation that is at the core of the public education system is the idea that education is the answer to resolving the problems of our society and building a better world. Since the existence of God is not acknowledged in “religious neutrality,” human intellect is acknowledged and recognized as the source of human wisdom. In other words, we can save ourselves with the power of our own intellect. State teacher certification coursework and course requirements are developed out of this philosophical foundation and most education coursework in universities and colleges leading to a state teaching certificate, especially in state-supported schools, supports and undergirds this philosophy. Therefore, having a state teaching certificate should not be a pre-requisite qualification to teach in a Christian school.
With 12 years of experience as a Christian school administrator, and going on 25 years of service in Christian school ministry, I have encountered many teachers emerging from the state university system with a teaching certificate who are not philosophically equipped, or adequately trained for that matter, to take on the responsibility of teaching in a Christian school classroom where Biblical truth is made relevant to each learning objective and is connected to the student’s developing faith formation as well as to their intellect. I don’t doubt that they are Christians, by their own declaration of faith in Christ as Lord as it is put in 1 John 4:1-3. But for the most part, all they know about teaching in a Christian school classroom is that they can talk about Jesus, they can pray at the beginning of the day, we say pledges to the Christian flag and the Bible, we have a Bible class and we have chapel. But their state certification training hasn’t shown them how to connect Biblical truth to mathematics, social studies, science, reading, language arts, spelling or Spanish. That’s something that we must teach them.
My own experience with education courses at a state university in Texas was enough for me to see that there is a stark difference between the philosophical foundations of Christian school education and what is being taught in state certification programs. It wasn’t that there was some kind of hostility to Christian faith as much as it was just something that was never brought up and completely left out. Many of the classes were taught from an existential philosophical perspective which fits well with the humanist foundation of public education. As a Christian school administrator, years later, that experience was helpful to me in hiring candidates for teaching positions who had come from a similar experience. The ACSI teaching certification requirement was hugely supportive in being able to provide Christian teachers who had only a state certificate and an educational background at a state university with the tools they needed to prepare them for ministry in a Christian school classroom.
There are several Christian colleges and universities out there that offer teachers a direct pathway to ACSI certification during their college training. I’ve been able to hire several teachers from three or four of them and not only are they well prepared to teach, they know how to connect Biblical truth to the learning objectives and help students develop a Christian worldview as part of their school experience. They teach the “whole” child, not just the intellect. For them, when they step in the classroom, their work is a ministry that incorporates discipleship, evangelism, ministry and worship into each school day. I was pleased to hire a candidate for a mathematics position at a previous school who had gone back and earned a Master’s degree from Grand Canyon University and already had his ACSI certification. Likewise, I’ve hired them from Cedarville University and Lancaster Bible College and most recently, from Moody Bible Institute. Moody prepares teachers exclusively for Christian schools domestically and on the mission field.
Grand Canyon University is near and dear to my heart because it is my alma mater. It is also one of just a few on-line providers of both undergraduate and graduate degrees in education that discounts its tuition for certified teachers who need continuing education coursework through the Canyon Christian School Consortium.
Fortunately, most of the teachers who come through the door wanting to teach in a Christian school are trainable, have themselves reasoned through the philosophical differences between their faith and what they were required to learn to obtain a state teaching certificate and are willing to earn an ACSI certification when it is required. I strongly encourage ACSI to reconsider this accreditation requirement.
Reading through some recent social media posts, I saw a topic introduced by a Christian school graduate that asked for opinions from other former Christian school students regarding the rigor and effectiveness of their science, computer and mathematics class in Christian school. The author of the post was being critical, sounding a bit resentful that the college experience he had was made considerably more difficult by inferior instruction and textbook material in the Christian school he attended.
“Sour grapes” was my first thought. But then, some of the posts identified colleges and universities that some of my former students had attended, including some of the special programs they offered in pre-med, nursing and engineering in particular. That made me a bit uneasy. Still, going down the list of alumni who had graduated during my tenure, I came across many names of students who had qualified for admission in pre-med, pre-pharmacy, physician assistant and engineering program at schools with highly selective admissions. Would they be willing to discuss perceived shortcomings of their math and science education at their Christian school with their former principal?
Fortunately, most of them felt their preparation in high school was adequate for what they faced in college. We had an English program that was exceptionally strong in preparing students to write papers and do reading assignments, and our students always felt that was an advantage. They did point to some weaknesses in science and math, particularly with regard to the textbook content. We were fortunate to have teachers in Biology, Chemistry and Physics who knew from their own college experience what needed to be the outcome of a high school class and developed objectives based on standards apart from textbook content. Looking at the curriculum guides for upper high school sciences in particular, more than half of the objectives were not textbook supported and had to be supplemented by teachers.
Most of our students felt their math preparation was superior to that of most of their college classmates. We used a strong [secular] textbook series that was vertically aligned from Kindergarten right up through Pre-Calculus. We offered Calculus AB and Statistics as AP courses with their recommended textbooks and again, it was having teachers with a high level of preparation in math that was the key to the program’s effectiveness.
Where our students felt inadequate was in preparation for the use of technology. Moving from a high school program with limited resources to college level courses in which all assignments and projects are done on computer was quite a leap for most of our students. It takes resources to purchase the necessary equipment and we didn’t have much more than classroom sets of chrome books and laptops. At college, most of our alumni were introduced to tablets which contained everything from their textbooks and supplemental reading material to assignment sheets, tests, video prompts and support systems along with the ability to immediately communicate with their peers and professors instantly.
While our elementary teachers had their doubts, having a secondary staff that was well prepared in math and science was the key to developing a curriculum that supported the expected outcomes in those subjects that set us apart from many Christian schools. It was a gift from God to have teachers who had graduated from colleges and universities which were known for some of their select programs in STEM fields, including electrical engineering, medicine and even robotics and technology. We had to figure out how to contend with comments and remarks about math textbooks which mentioned that they were aligned with Common Core standards and we had to point out to parents that there was nothing in a math textbook that would be inconsistent with a Christian worldview. Over a period of years, the switch in textbooks paid off in higher SAT and ACT scores, and in satisfactory evaluations of former students enrolled in highly competitive programs in STEM fields in college.
The access to technology and the rigor of math and science courses in Christian schools should always be at the top of our monitoring list. Progress moves fast and our schools need to keep up and the fact of the matter is that many of our students do have legitimate complains about the academic level of courses in science or math. We must keep current, something that we can do without compromising anything related to our faith.
Many schools have already started, while others will be in session after Labor Day. Best wishes for a great school year, may the Lord bless you and keep you safe. May this year be a blessing for your students, as they have the opportunity to grow closer to the Lord through your ministry.
The question of whether or not a Christian school should require its faculty to be certified in accordance with state requirements is one that faces many Christian school boards and administrations. Some states require it in order for the school to be able to operate, and receive recognition from the state department of education. So that ends the question for them. There are a few schools in those kinds of circumstances that are willing to run whatever risk is required to remain autonomous, and out from underneath the state’s influence and control, but for the most part, Christian schools comply.
But in states where that’s not a requirement for any non-public school, it means that a decision must be made about job requirements for teachers, and for Christian schools, it is most often an issue of philosophical compatibility and the school’s independence and autonomy versus a public perception of the quality and rigor of the academic program of a school that doesn’t require state certification for all of its teaching staff.
Let’s define some issues first.
There is a significant difference in principle and pedagogy between a public school and a Christian school.
A Christian school isn’t just a public education with prayer and Bible verses interjected in a nice way. The underlying foundational philosophies of education are significantly different, as are the answers to the questions, “What is ‘education'”? and “What is truth?” Teacher training at most colleges and universities, including most Christian colleges, is aimed at preparing students for teaching in the public education system. The objectives and content of the courses, from the basic philosophical foundations of education to specialized methods courses are all based on the expectations of preparation for a public school classroom. Having had a basic “Foundations of Education” course in a college class that prepared students for public school teaching, and one in a classroom where teachers were being prepared for Christian school teaching, it is easy to note the differences, the most notable one being that a significant portion of the class for Christian teachers was based on Biblical content, and there wasn’t any of that in the public school preparation.
A teacher in a Christian school classroom recognizes that there is relevant Biblical truth in the objectives of every core subject. While basic reading and math skills may be quite similar, a teacher in a Christian school classroom needs to have enough training and experience with Biblical content to be able to recognize opportunities in the classroom, including in teaching basic skills, to introduce learning objectives which support and undergird spiritual formation. That’s not necessarily a skill that comes naturally, though we do expect Christian teachers to be gifted by the spirit. But these skills are not included as part of state teacher certification training, nor are they integrated into the content of the curriculum.
The basic foundations of public school education rests on a secular philosophy that elevates human intelligence and reason to a position of universal importance. Whereas in a Christian philosophy of education, God is recognized as the creator and sustainer of the universe, as the one all-knowing, and all-powerful being in all existence, He is not recognized or included in the secular philosophy of education that forms the foundation of public education. And while you may not hear a declaration that God doesn’t exist, you will see that the foundations of public school education, and thus, of most teacher certification training, recognizes human reason as the means by which humanity “saves” itself, or, as the foundational philosophy states, “resolves the problems of human existence.” All teacher training that leads to state certification is based on that philosophical foundation.
On the other side of that position is the fact that a Christian philosophy of education, one which recognizes not only the existence of God, but also the divine and human nature of his son, Jesus, who is part of the fullness of a trinitarian God who is the world’s savior, is the foundation for a Christian school education, but an understanding of how to integrate it into the core curriculum is not part of the state’s teacher certification process. Since that is at the top of the list for a Christian school, this is the point where the question about the value of state teacher certification to a Christian school enters the equation. There is another relevant question along the same lines. Where does a Christian school educator get the necessary training which includes the full integration of a Christian philosophy of education in its foundational objectives?
Alternatives to State Certification
So if I’m not required by the educational policy toward non-public education in my state to hire teachers with state certificates, then having state teacher certification drops off the list of qualifications for the teachers I want to have in the classrooms of my school. That doesn’t mean having one disqualifies someone, but when it comes to hiring the people who will teach the children in a school where I’m administrator, I prefer to use a Biblical list of qualifications, not a government list provided by the state. The outcomes of most public schools from an educational and philosophical perspective does not encourage reliance on the state to set the qualifications for teachers in a school that aspires to support the Christian spiritual formation of its students, and provide a level of academic excellence to give them an opportunity for success.
I believe that anyone who feels called to serve in Christian school education can be trained in Christian philosophy integration into foundational core objectives of the curriculum, and in the best practices and methods of instruction for success in teaching. It takes practical experience and some time commitment just like taking any college level course would require, because this is college-level instruction. It takes an understanding of the Biblical teaching about spiritual gifts, and how to cultivate and nurture them into effective use.
There are some Christian colleges and universities that have achieved a balance of turning out excellent teachers, and equipping them for teaching as a ministry, whether in public education or in a Christian school. Becoming familiar with the professors and staff in the Christian colleges in your area will help you discern whether they have recognized the philosophical battle that is occurring, or whether they are simply following the course objectives provided by the state department of education. Being a historically Christian college or university is not a guarantee that they’ve equipped their education department to train teachers for Christian schools, or that they’ve committed to ensuring that their graduates see the differences and are trained to handle them.
The larger Christian school organizations, like ACSI and CSI, work with some colleges to establish teacher training programs leading to certification for Christian schools, and if one of those isn’t in your back yard, there are some high quality on-line programs leading to ACSI certification that are very reasonably priced, including at least one that offers graduate degrees for Christian school teaching.
One of the best things I can offer to my teaching staff to help them gain an understanding of a Christian philosophy of education, understand the difference between that, and what they may have been taught in a public university certification program is my own expertise. As an administrator, I am regularly involved in continuing education in this area in order to be able to keep my staff informed and motivated. Many of them are working in schools that don’t provide funds for continuing education, and are not working for salaries that can sustain it either. So that makes it my responsibility to keep them informed and updated, and if possible, to help them earn continuing education credit.
In I John 4, the apostle writes a very clear, distinctive philosophical statement which defines everything we do in a Christian school, and gives us a clear reason for our existence. The acknowledgement that Jesus “has come in the flesh,” or more simply, that he is our Lord and Savior, can only come from the Spirit of God. He says not acknowledging Jesus in the spirit of the antichrist. The implications of that brief statement are clear when applied to the education of children. Acknowledging that Jesus is Lord is the core principle of our educational philosophy is the thing that distinguishes a Christian school from all other forms of education, and is the only reason we exist.
Today, I thought I would take a look at some inspirational words that all educators can use as the school year approaches. I know a few teachers in some special programs, charter schools, and out west in Arizona, who are already in school, while others will not go back until after Labor Day. At any rate, these are some words you can read, and over which you can meditate. Go sit on your porch after dark, or your balcony if you’re in the city, or just a quiet place where you can think and pray, and enjoy.
Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote the words of truth. Ecclesiastes 12:9-10
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. Ecclesiastes 12:13
Give instruction to a wise man and he will still be wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Proverbs 9:9-10
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Psalm 119:9-11
I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right. Isaiah 45:19
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. Mark 11:24-25
But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it. Luke 11:28
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32
And when they had prayed, , the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. Acts 4:31
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ. I Corinthians 2:14-16
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and you have been filled in him who is the head of all rule and authority. Colossians 2:8-9
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine…For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, waiting for the blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people of his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:1, 11-14
All citations are from the ESV.
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ.” Colossians 2:8, ESV
It is impossible to be neutral in an educational process when it comes to belief in God. Either you acknowledge his existence, and in so doing, acknowledge his character and his revelation of himself through the scripture, or you don’t acknowledge his existence, in which case there must be acknowledgement of another source of knowledge and another way of measuring wisdom.
When the American education system came under the ownership and operation of the government, it took a while for the courts to rule on various cases which forced a position of “religious neutrality” on the schools. We’ve been operating with that fully in place for about three generations now, and it has had an effect on the ministry of the local church. Religious neutrality essentially means that the schools cannot teach anything that would lead students to have a more favorable view of one religion over another, and which would be seen as a government “establishment” of a particular religious belief. Translated, that means to acknowledge God as creator and sustainer of the universe is not religiously neutral, and therefore any philosophy of education which teaches from that basis is not maintaining the required religious neutrality.
The irony of that situation is that just a generation or so before, the Catholic church in America established an extensive system of parish-related schools because they felt that the public school system was too Protestant in its educational philosophy! In so doing, they discovered how valuable it was to have their children enrolled in schools committed to developing spiritual formation and loyalty to the church. Catholic schools have been the primary source of the church’s clergy, the individuals committed to its service orders, including most of its missionary personnel, and its overall growth in this country for over a hundred years.
Evangelical Christians are only just now discovering how valuable it is to have a developed educational system in place where children are taught that God exists, and that the truth he has revealed through the Bible is relevant to all of life, and forms the foundation for all education, not just the knowledge we learn and the wisdom developed to apply it, but also the principles and methods used to teach it. Of course that happens in most of our churches, but when kids head down the street or catch a bus to their local public school, they are taught from a philosophical foundation that is much different than that of their Christian parents, or from what is taught in Sunday school, or missions group, or youth group, or AWANA, or preached by their pastor.
“Religious neutrality” has opened the door for secular humanism to take over the public education system, control the curriculum of the schools and the methods by which it is taught, and become the primary influence in American culture, society and government. It impacts the church because it undermines the gospel, and teaches children that God doesn’t really exist, and that human wisdom is the highest form of intelligence in the universe, making it possible for “salvation” to be achieved by human effort. It is the “human tradition” that the Apostle Paul spoke about in the verses from Colossians cited at the beginning of this article, and it is a philosophy characterized by empty deceit. When your kids hear this from teachers at school, they tend to believe it because it comes from someone they see as an authority on the subject.
If education were the answer to resolving the problems of humanity and was, indeed, the means by which humans save themselves, then why is the public education system in the shape that it is in? And what university or college have you visited recently where there were no problems, and where the issues that face humanity were being resolved in practice?
I would suggest that the primary reason for enrolling your child in a Christian school is to protect their mind from empty deceit, and worldly philosophy. More thn 70% of Generation X, and 90% of the adult millennial generation are missing from the pews of Christian churches. They constitute a growing segment of the population identified as “nones,” when it comes to any kind of religious belief, Christian or otherwise. Our church researchers tell us that among them, you will find a very high percentage of individuals who were raised in Evangelical Christian churches, and who were active and engaged in a wide variety of church programs. The fact that human beings are given a free will by God means there are no guarantees, but if they’ve been educated in the public school system, the odds are they won’t be interested in pursuing their faith by the time they’re done with college.
There are other good reasons. The empty deceit, and philosophy of the world doesn’t value your children as individuals. There’s little real protection for them from an intellectual perspective, but the philosophy of education in the public school system doesn’t involve providing any kind of moral or ethical guidance either. Children are left alone to develop their own moral conscience, not to have it taught to them or modeled for them by their teachers. There is no sense of right or wrong, and the same philosophical foundation that governs the curriculum governs the way children are managed in school. In fact, it is an environment in which children are left to make their own choices, and then have those choices reinforced and supported by teachers and staff. It’s an “everything is OK” world, where there is no right and wrong, and where those who attempt to introduce some sort of moral guidance are rejected.
That means there won’t be much in the way of protection for your child from being exposed to a very worldly moral perspective at a very early age. If you’re raising your child in a Christian home or a Christian environment, you’ll discover that you get no support for that at all from your child’s teachers and school staff. And it is likely that your Christian faith, if your child does reflect it in their behavior at school, will be looked at as problematic and disruptive, and as something to be corrected.
Christian schools are not perfect communities, and they do not guarantee that your child will emerge from that environment as a strong Christian faithful to the church and headed to the mission field. But they do exist to support parents in their task of educating their children, which has been given to them by a God who does exist, and who is who the scripture reveals. Your family values will not be undermined, and your child’s faith will be nurtured and supported. Right and wrong will be concepts that they learn are supported with the scriptures, and behavior will be either rewarded and supported if it is right, or guided in a different direction if it is wrong.
Your child’s mind won’t be sheltered, but it will be protected and allowed to develop as is appropriate, and with the guidance of Biblical truth and committed, Christian teachers who know Christ as their savior, and integrate their personal faith into their teaching.
Perhaps one day Christian schools will be supported in a way that views them as a ministry of the church, and a benefit for the ministry, and they will be widely supported, with the burden of resources and expenses being shared by the entire Christian community. But even though that’s not the way it is now, is your child’s mind and soul worth the protection a Christian school education provides?
Give that some thought.
For about five years, now, I’ve served as an advocate for Christian schools, representing our position to the state legislature in Pennsylvania, and for two years, through the legal/legislative conference of ACSI in Washington, DC. Though both of these positions are voluntary, and the time that I can give to participation with job responsibilities is small, I have seen the needle move on the dial, so to speak. In Pennsylvania in particular, allied with other religious-based private school groups, we have succeeded in getting the legislature to increase the capacity of the tax credit scholarship programs, and give consideration to legislation that would allow a much greater degree of school choice. It’s been different in Washington, where the needle keeps moving the other direction, though we have been able to sit down with our legislators, and show them what the face of private, Christian-based education looks like.
All of this activity has been aimed at helping to equalize the expense and financial burden of support for Christian schools, against what is the most pervasive government bureaucracy that exists in the public school system. In no other area of government does a monopoly exist that requires citizens to pay taxes to support it, and limits their access for the services those tax dollars provide to a single provider. Whether students attend the public schools or not, the tax dollars set aside for their education go to the public school in the district in which they reside. If the service isn’t good quality, parents have a choice, but they can’t re-direct the tax dollars, some of which they’ve contributed, anywhere else. So in effect, only those who earn enough money to pay for private education actually have a choice. That’s one of the things we’ve been working to change.
The problem is that a new obstacle has been put in our path. At a time when state governments seem to be getting interested and creative when it comes to school choice and school finance, after years of hearing complaints about the poor overall performance of the public education system, there is also heightened interest in a social agenda that includes eliminating discrimination against persons involved in a lifestyle not consistent with Christian principles that are taught, and practiced by example, in our schools. In Pennsylvania this week, we got the news that the Department of Community and Economic Development, which is the primary state agency responsible for the tax credit scholarship program we use, will no longer distribute those funds unless the organization receiving them agrees to a statement of non-discrimination that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in hiring practices. While we are attempting to exercise the option of a religious exemption that has applied to all such rulings in the past, the outcome is still uncertain. And while there is a high level of support for school choice, there is also a high level of support for codifying into law the non-discrimination practices, including among most conservative politicians.
The fact is that conservative politics do not always square up with a Biblical worldview. It takes genuine Christian convictions to understand why opposition to sexual orientation choices outside of traditional, heterosexual marriage, and questions about gender identity are outside of God’s created order, and are part of the sinful human nature. Many of the politicians who support our school choice initiatives see the value of private education, and how it contributes to the overall quality of education within the state, and to the introduction of values and morals into the culture. They have a cultural acceptance of Christianity, but they are not Christians in the Biblical sense that they have acknowledged Jesus as Lord, and have been through the process of conviction, repentance and restoration to a relationship with God through Christ. The number of politicians who actually hold Christian convictions, and understand our position, is a small minority. Don’t expect help from this quarter, you’ll be disappointed.
So what does this mean for us? Do we throw up our hands, accept defeat, and let the brunt of this decision be carried on the backs of the families who depend on financial aid to place their kids in a Christian school?
It’s time for the church, collectively, to stand up for us.
What Christian Schools do for the Church
Our small, rural Christian school in Pennsylvania, with 235 students in grades K-12, has students enrolled who represent over 60 different local congregations from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds and Christian traditions. Though it is affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, there are only 11 students in the school whose families attend an Alliance congregation. Students come from non-denominational megachurches, including one that is Charismatic in its tradition, and from small town and rural congregations affiliated with various Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Wesleyan denominations, including United Methodists and Church of the Nazarene. There are students from Assembly of God congregations, Churches of Christ, Church of God (both Anderson and Cleveland, TN), Disciples of Christ, independent Bible churches, Episcopal and Anglican churches, and Catholic churches. In this Christian school ministry, as in almost any other, people come together united in Christ, set aside the secondary and tertiary doctrinal and practice issues that create denominational and theological walls behind which we wage philosophical wars with each other, and work to accomplish a specific discipleship ministry of the church, based on Biblical teaching.
We are providing the churches with solid, regular, systematic instruction in the scriptures for their students, accompanied by practical application, mission service, and we are undergirding the church’s future membership with a daily emphasis that focuses on their personal relationship with Christ, and their role and responsibility as a member of his local body. Research shows that students who have spent as few as five years in a Christian school environment are much more likely to remain faithful in attendance, and take a leadership role in a local church than those who are raised in church, but attend the public school system. We have become the primary basic training ground for pastors and church staff, missionary volunteers and those who serve in vocational ministry. We are doing for the church what it has not necessarily been doing for itself over the past two or three decades when it comes to developing a committed, loyal membership with the knowledge and skills to lead.
We have been doing this for decades on our own dime. Denominational and church budget funds committed to “Christian Education” do not, for the most part, go to Christian schools. As supportive and directed as the ministry of Christian schools have been toward the church, we have largely been left to seek our financial resources almost exclusively from the parents who send their children. Very little thought has been given, on the part of church and denominational leadership, to providing direct support to schools so that we can continue to educate their children in a Christian environment with a Biblical worldview. Churches do not realize that a Christian school education is really only possible for about 20% of their congregants, when the cost of tuition and fees is considered. Consequently, the church invests a small portion of its budget into Christian education in general, and collectively, almost nothing gets from the church budget to the Christian school, except in a situation where a school is directly operated by a church.
Church and Denominational Support is Vital to the Future of Both
After generations of church growth in attendance, membership and baptisms, conservative Evangelical congregations and denominations have entered a period of increasing decline. Membership of congregations is aging, with the median age in a typical conservative Evangelical church now being about 60, meaning that half of the membership is actually older than that. The number of baptisms, representing new believers added to the kingdom, has declined among Evangelicals by more than 50% in a decade, and most baptisms nowadays, 80% of them, represent children of adults who are already church members. The number of self-identified “Evangelicals” in two recent surveys done by church research groups has fallen 15% in a decade, a figure that is consistent with the drop in the number of people who claimed to be “conservative Evangelicals” who voted in the 2016 election, compared to 2008. All of the major denominations considered to be classified as “conservative, Evangelical,” report declines in both membership and attendance for at least the last 5 years. The largest Evangelical group, the Southern Baptist Convention, has lost a million members in a decade. The Assemblies of God, which was once one of the fastest growing, has lost 10% of their membership in the same period of time.
While not spending anything on any real effective or significant Christian education, churches are spending gigantic amounts of money on other things that are clearly not productive in terms of enhancing their ministries. Billions goes into the construction of buildings with increasing seating capacities for shrinking congregations that are used for just a few hours a week, and sit empty most of the rest of the time. What a blessing it would be to a Christian school to have a church willing to host classes in its educational facilities, and make their five day a week use of the building the primary priority, requiring their once a week classes and groups to work around the school, rather than make the school adapt. It would be a major help if a church did this rent-free, and paid the utility bill as their contribution to Christian education. Why not establish a special offering scholarship fund, or just a special offering Sunday, to give to the Christian schools represented in your congregation?
Christian schools now need the churches to stand up and fill in the gaps. We need to continue to provide financial aid to families who need it, and which supports a Biblical worldview. If churches do not support the schools that are raising up generations of young people who stay committed to them, then their future will be much more bleak than it now is, as empty pews and abandoned buildings will be the legacy left behind by their failure to see this blessing, and capture this vision.
Stand up for Christian schools, church!
Lee Saunders is the head administrator at Portersville Christian School in rural Western Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh. He has thirty years of experience in Christian school education, and currently volunteers with ACSIPA, a group of administrators who serve schools in Pennsylvania by meeting with state legislators and advocating on behalf of Christian schools
The last weeks of May and the first weeks of June will be celebrated by students all over the country as school years come to a close. For students, school won’t really be much on their minds for weeks, perhaps months. For administrators and teachers, planning has already started on the next school term, and textbook orders, class schedules and budget planning has already taken shape.
At over 400 private, Christian schools where the school year is winding down, there are no plans for a “next year.” Once the last bell rings, the last student leaves, and the last staff member turns off the light, the school will cease to exist. In some cases, arrangements have been made to transfer students to other schools, while in others, parents have been left on their own to find an alternative to the education their children had been experiencing. In most cases, students will go to the public education system. Over the past decade, the closure of private, Christian schools has left many communities without a viable, Christ-centered, Biblical-focused option anywhere nearby.
Christian education experienced a boom in enrollment beginning in the early 1970’s. Through the mid-1990’s, Christian schools were being started at almost an identical rate to the closures now being experienced. Enrollment soared, and at one point, almost 15% of the students in grades K through 12 were enrolled in a private school with a religious-based philosophy of education, and more than 45% of those students were under the daily influence of Evangelical conservatives with a high view of the Bible as the written word of God and a strong, Biblical worldview. The percentage of students enrolled in an educational alternative outside of public schools has remained fairly steady, at 15%, as alternative forms of education, such as cyber and charter schools have grown and developed, but the percentage in private, religious based schools has fallen to less than 7% total, including Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, Quaker and any other type of religious based educational institution. That is a significant drop.
For the conservative Evangelical Christian school organizations, the drop in enrollment and school closures is considered a crisis for the movement. The largest organization in the US, ACSI, which has been seeing the number of member school closings approach the 300 mark each year, is conducting research and looking into factors which are behind the decline and the closings. Along with other groups, there are some factors which have been identified to explain the drop.
A Shrinking Constituency
Evangelical churches and denominations have, over the past 60 years, developed a system of schools which reflect their emphasis on personal salvation, evangelism, a high view of scripture, and development of a personal worldview rooted in the truths of the Bible. It stands to reason that the vast majority of students who are enrolled in these schools come from the churches that are like-minded, and similar in theology and practice. Christian schools have developed a remarkable unity, bringing together people of various denominational backgrounds in support of a common ministry goal.
But the denominations and churches that fall under that which defines being “Evangelical” are experiencing a decline in membership that is affecting the enrollment of the schools. Many of the schools are selective in their admissions process, requiring students to come from families that are members of churches which share similar convictions and doctrine. After decades of growth, church membership in over 80% of the churches that identify as “Evangelical” plateaued in the mid-1990’s, and began to decline by the beginning of the 21st century. Over the past decade an a half, the decline has steepened, and since these churches are where most of the Christian school students come from, enrollments in many schools have also been declining at similar rates.
Church leaders, who thought that the emphasis on personal evangelism was the main factor in church growth, and would always sustain the numbers, are alarmed. The drop in numbers is occurring among the age groups of the population that are most likely to have school-aged children. Recent studies show that over the past half-decade, only 8% of self-identified “Evangelical” churches are growing in attendance and membership, and over 90% of that growth is coming by transfer rather than evangelism. Churches, and by extension some Christian schools, that are fortunate enough to be located in communities in the suburbs and city fringes where there is population growth, are growing. But there is nothing in the research to indicate that the trends of declining membership, and the loss of a significant portion of Generation X and Millennial generations, is slowing down.
A Leadership Crisis
There aren’t a lot of experienced, long-term leaders who have made a career in Christian school leadership. That’s unusual, for a movement that has made its own niche as a ministry. Seasoned veterans, those with experience, education, and who are steeped in a clearly defined philosophy of education that supports the work of Christian schools, are rare. Turnover rates for administrative-level personnel are high, and many of those who started out as teachers, and advanced to administrative positions in Christian schools have left Christian school education, citing a variety of reasons. Some have drifted into public or charter education, and others have found their way into the higher education field, but one of the most serious issues identified by virtually every Christian school organization in the country is the failure to develop, and retain, a senior leadership core.
It’s natural to conclude that low salaries, with a diminished ability to save for retirement, combined with a demanding work load, is the main reason for this. It is a factor, but it is far from being the main reason for leadership attrition. The average tenure of a Christian school administrator at any specific Christian school is 5 years. And most of the reasons behind this, according to those who are in the field, have little or nothing to do with compensation and benefits. According to a recent ACSI study, the average administrative tenure at schools that have closed over the past decade is even less than that. Comparatively, the average tenure of administrators in all other types of religious-based schools is 12 years, and among independent, private schools, the average is 15 years. So it is clear that administrative tenure and stability is a major factor in school sustainability.
Burnout is one of the leading causes for the departure of experienced, senior administrators. In attempting to curb costs of school operations, many Christian schools add long lists of duties to administrator’s job descriptions. Schools that are careful to ensure that salaries and benefits are kept competitive can get careless when it comes to the expectations they place on their administrator when it comes to work that needs to be performed. In many cases, an administrator also serves as a principal, but there should be a recognition that these are two different jobs in many ways, and that it doesn’t take a very large school for the work of a school head to get demanding and time consuming.
Administrators are also not development officers. I can’t tell you how many postings of Christian school administrator positions I’ve read each year where there is a clear expectation that the administrator is going to come into the school, grow enrollment and raise thousands of dollars for school operations. If you are in a school of 200 students, raising the kind of money necessary to supplement operations and expenses in the way that most school boards expect is a full time job, as is that of a principal who is supervising and managing the school’s academic program. So if you have 200 students, you should have three administrators.
Different Expectations from Parents Regarding Christian Beliefs and Influences
“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” I Peter 3:15-16 ESV
You would be shocked, I’m certain, to discover how few members of your school community have a working knowledge of the core principles of Christian faith, and are committed to making sure their children are also steeped in these principles. Christian schools, where the Bible is taught through mainly expository methods, engage fewer than 20% of the members of conservative, Evangelical congregations, and an additional 3-5% may be involved in some form of cooperative home education. During the 70’s and 80’s, most parents would tell you they were putting their children in a Christian school because they understood the chasm of difference between the education offered in the public school system, which operated under a secular, humanist philosophy of education, and where existentialism was the driving force behind the instructional methodology that was taught, and a Christian philosophy of education recognizing the existence of an omnipotent, omnicient, omnipresent God as the source of all knowledge, with education as the process of developing wisdom to discern and interpret all that God reveals about himself. According to surveys across the board in Christian schools today, you’d be hard pressed to find very many parents who cite that as their reason for having their children in a Christian school.
As things like expository preaching, Sunday School, and formal Bible study groups have declined significantly in practice, people have become philosophically illiterate when it comes to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The fact of the matter is that most parents want their children in a Christian school in order to protect and shield them from what they see as negative social and behavioral influences, not because the Christian school teaches that God absolutely exists, and the public school says that you can’t know that for sure.
Christian schools are only affordable to about 20% of the conservative Evangelical community that has organized and supported most of them. Having a publicly supported educational monopoly that everyone has to pay for up front contributes to this being the case. However, many Christians have come to believe that having your children in school with others of the upper middle class income bracket is as beneficial as some obscure “foundational” principles or commitment to a Christian worldview. This is evidenced by a “pick and choose” attitude that has developed in Christian school constituencies, in which participation in football outweighs the value of a Christ-centered education in the classroom, or a family chooses a high dollar SUV or an extra vacation over a year of Christian school for their children.
Research done by some of the larger Christian school organizations points to evidence of a different set of values used by many parents as opposed to the stated mission and purpose of the school. Even in schools where a profession of faith in Christ, and membership in a local church is required, with a pastor recommendation, a percentage of families, in many cases as high as 50%, would not be considered “regular” in their church involvement or attendance. Schools are dealing with increased issues from social media involving student behavior that is considered outside the boundaries of expectation for families who claim to be committed to raising their children in a Christlike environment. Schools are under increasing pressure via complaints from parents about dress codes being too “strict,” limits and rules on activities like “dancing,” or the “intrusion” into student privacy through monitoring of social media and rules which stipulate consequences for behavior that the school observes and considers to be outside the boundaries of acceptable representation of a Christlike demeanor. During the past decade, Christian schools have been sued for dismissing students for behavior like being drunk in public, or engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage because the incidents “weren’t any of the school’s business.” Let that sink in.
If your school hasn’t experienced board conflict, you are lucky. Christian school organizations like ACSI have done a lot of work in recent years with groups that develop models of board governance to help alleviate this problem, but it is still very easy for a school board to run off track and into a wreck. Board conflict, involving control of a school by agenda-driven parents, is the second most often cited reason for schools declining in enrollment leading to a closure.
School boards are intended to be made up of responsible people who have a strong vision of Christian school education, and who realize that cooperative ministry and working together for common benefit outweigh their own personal interests and perspectives when it comes to the way a school should be managed. But there are many schools whose method of selecting board members opens the door to those who have personal agendas, or vendettas, whose interest in running interference for their own child is as far as they can see, and is the sum total of all of the vision they possess. Tightly written governance policies, and strict adherence to them are the solution to this problem. Otherwise, every board meeting will contain a litany of complaints and require wasting hours in order to resolve them.
ACSI has recommended that its schools employ a policy governance model of board leadership, similar to the Carver model. The recommendation includes ensuring that all school policies are written, and that all board decisions are consistent with the written policy. Unanimous approval is required to change policies, which prevents agendas, even those pushed by a majority on the board, from taking root. A policy model can be developed in which various aspects of volunteer leadership can be incorporated into the way the board directs activity. Primarily, the educational and spiritual aspects of the school, its extra-curricular activities, personnel and admissions policies are placed in the hands of an administrator, and policy is written to provide clear direction and evaluation of that person’s compliance with policy in running the school. The link between board and administrator prevents direct intervention or interference of the board and requires adherence to written policy in order to evaluate effectiveness.
If there aren’t a lot of volunteers stepping up to serve on the board, that can also be a problem, or at least, an indication of one. Having to accept a board member because they were the only one who applied to serve can lead to disunity and lack of effectiveness. It’s OK to be selective, and to say no to someone who seems to be more interested in their personal agenda than they are in the well-being and unity of the school.
A Financial Crisis
Cost per student in a Christian school in this country averages just under $10,000 per year. The median family income required to sustain such a cost, for the typical household with two children, is higher than that which is earned by more than two thirds of the entire constituency of conservative Evangelical Christians. When two thirds of a shrining constituency of families cannot afford to send their children to a Christian school, it will have an effect on the enrollment. Financial issues, and financial crisis, is the top reason cited for the closure of Christian schools in this country.
It is difficult to consider measures to reduce the costs. Most schools are now “bare bones” operations as it is, and teachers salaries among Christian schools are an embarrassment to the entire ministry, and affect the quality of education when they are too low. The tools of the operation, like textbooks and supplies, technology, building and utilities, are pretty well fixed costs. Parents, of course, must pay tuition for their children to attend, while still paying tax dollars to support the public education system they are choosing to leave. And in spite of an atmosphere of hopefulness to change the system, it is very unlikely that public money will ever be available in sufficient qualities for school choice to be available to everyone.
Evangelicals have been, among all of the Christian groups in this country with schools associated with or attached to their churches, the least supportive when it comes to financial resources, and the most resistant to consider anything that would shift away from a tuition-driven model. Catholic schools have historically been based on a diocesan model of support, with the lion’s share of the church’s Christian education budget going to its schools, and they motivate their own church members to get their kids in the church’s schools with tuition rates that average less than half of what a parent pays to send a child to an Evangelical school. The Episcopalian and Lutheran churches operate schools through associations of churches, and the students whose families are members of the sponsoring churches get significant tuition discounts, and in many cases, attend for just a small fee. Quakers schools draw their entire budgets from congregational support, and provide full tuition for those whose income levels fall below the ability to pay, while charging tuition to others based on their income.
There are few Evangelical churches that share in the expense of a Christian school, other than, perhaps, one that their own church operates. And there is a lot of resistance, because of the conservative economic views most of them hold, to any kind of plan that requires a higher level of financial support from those who can afford more, even though that is the Biblical model for something like this. The result of this line of thinking is that Evangelical Christian schools tend to be more expensive than other private school options, less hospitable to a segment of students who are really the only place growth will come from, and as costs go up, enrollment goes down proportionately.
Church resources and support for Christian schools is an untapped resource among the Evangelical community. American churches literally spend billions of dollars a year on church facilities that stand empty six days a week. The debt service on church property for one year in this country is greater than the combined budgets of all of the several thousand Christian schools that are currently operating. If Evangelicals are going to continue to have a system of Christian education that assists with their discipleship ministries, they are going to have to work together, share space, and come up with the money to operate schools at minimum expense to the members of their congregations.
The Bottom Line
Since the late 1970”s, researchers who study religious groups in the US have noted that a large segment of the younger generations seem to be stepping away from faith-based institutions, especially the churches, at some point during their young adulthood. In the 70’s, the lament was that more than 70% of those who were raised in an Evangelical church, and were active in their church’s youth ministry would not be found in church following their graduation from college. Some denominations, like the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God, came up with program approaches to try and stem the tide, and both denominations had groups of individuals within who recognized what a Christian school education contributed to student discipleship. By the late 1980’s, with the departure of young people approaching the 80% mark, research indicated that students who attended a Christian school for at least 5 years, were far less likely to be among those who left the church. In fact, the longer a student attends Christian school, the less likely they are to leave the church when they are adults. Spending 5 days a week in discipleship and Bible study alongside basic skills works.
Do the math. If 80% of the students who attend, or graduate from, a Christian school, are likely to remain in the church, and take an active ministry role as either a volunteer, or a vocational minister or missionary, then doesn’t it seem that the best way for Evangelicals to arrest the steepening decline in attendance and membership in their churches, especially among the younger generations, would be to find ways to get more of their children and youth in a Christian school somewhere?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Without going into a long history of the interpretation of this amendment, and particularly of the religious freedom clause, I’m going to say that I agree with the idea of separation of church and state, and of the “wall” that Thomas Jefferson used to explain what it means. I can consider myself an expert on this topic, not as a lawyer, but as a teacher, educator and school administrator who has taught hundreds of high school students in American History, US Government and Economics. You’re entitled to disagree, but I believe the establishment phrase is a specific prohibition against the American government against establishing a state-sponsored and tax-supported church. I think all of the corroborating evidence points to that interpretation. The primary piece of evidence comes from one of the major authors of the constitution itself, former President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, providing assurances that there would not be a state church in America.
The second phrase is much broader in its interpretation, in spite of court rulings that have attempted to narrow it. I believe it is quite clear, and very easy, to distinguish between what is the free exercise of religion, and what tries to look like free exercise for selfish benefit. So I’m going to cut to the chase.
The cultural clash between those who hold a literal, conservative interpretation of the Bible, when it comes to the issue of homosexuality and transgender identity, must be resolved by the first amendment. And from where I sit, as a Christian school administrator, it must be resolved in a manner that is fair, and that does not prohibit either myself, or the institution I serve, from the free exercise of our religious beliefs.
A Religious Perspective is not Bigotry
Christian faith has a long heritage, rooted in ancient Judaism, going all the way back to the Abrahamic covenant. The theology and doctrine comes from a very unique blend and interpretation of the Jewish scriptures with the writings of the Apostles of Jesus which reflect his teachings and their experience with him. The practices and interpretations of the church are not always accurate to the intentions of God, because of human imperfection, but the most common thread linking almost all of the world’s Christians together is reliance on the Bible as the written and authoritative word of God.
One of the unique aspects of the Bible is that when it is correctly interpreted, with the new covenant in Christ in its proper place as scripture is studied, points to perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfect grace and perfect love. The higher principles of the Bible are the means by which concepts such as bigotry, injustice and inequality are defined. Sin is defined as separation from God, and redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus is offered as the resolution, and as a means of being restored to God. There is no degree of sinful behavior that is excused from judgment, or denied grace. There is a standard of purity that is taught as the model for redemptive behavior in the Bible, and it is that God intended for sexual expression to be part of a marriage relationship. So any kind of sexual expression that finds itself outside of a marriage ordained and blessed by God is sin, regardless of whether it involves a man and a woman, two men, two women, or persons who aren’t certain of their gender identity. In that regard, we are all treated equally, and we all need grace (Hebrews 4:16).
As a Christian, I understand that I live in a free society, and I understand that the diversity of the population means that not everyone follows the same religious principles that I do. I also realize that many people are really not guided through life by any religious beliefs at all, and under the law, particularly under this first amendment, I realize that they have the same rights as I do. Under this particular constitutional principle, I should be allowed to organize a church, or any kind of religious institution, including a school, that functions according to religious principles, and determines who it will admit, and who it will employ, based solely on those religious principles. That’s not bigotry, that’s a choice of conscience. The same standards for behavior are being equally applied to all, and the same expectations are also being applied, and there’s no basis for discrimination. If I want mature Christians who model the lifestyle that the Bible says is the essence of the Christian faith to be the teachers of the students in my privately supported school, that’s not discrimination, because the same standard is expected of every applicant, and I would turn away someone involved in pre-marital sex, or adultery, for the same reason I would turn away someone who was openly gay or lesbian, or transgender. That’s not a sign of hatred. You’d have to meet some kind of qualification for any job you were seeking, this one, in this place, has this set of them, based on our interpretation of our faith.
The law, through a series of interpretations of court rulings and executive orders, sees the issue of homosexuality and gender identity as a legal definition, not a spiritual definition. Believing that the open practice of their sexuality is a sin, in the same way that adultery, or any sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin, is now considered bigotry, not a protected religious freedom. The law has made it possible for two persons of the same gender to legally marry, because marriage has been absorbed into our culture as a legal arrangement, and not necessarily a spiritual ordinance. The implications of that practice go well beyond the rights of the two individuals of the same gender who want to marry. That’s a legal interpretation, and it differs from Christian teaching. “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” If we can figure out a way to allow Native Americans to smoke peyote as a protected religious practice, then we should be able to figure out how to avoid causing Christian institutions, including Christian schools, to violate their conscience by openly practicing a religious principle that they held long before there ever was an America.