Christian Schools and Community

September 10, 2010

Al Boerema starts the conversation about Christian schools and community.

Good morning,

I hope your year got off to a great start. Things are humming along here at Calvin. It is always good to get students back on campus; they bring a vitality that to the place that is missing in the summer. Our theme for this discussion is Christian schools as communities.

September 10, 2010

Mary Ashun wrote:

Hi everyone,

I’d like to kick start the discussion because it’s a topic I’ve been mulling over for a while. I’ve come to realize that an essential component of community is the sense that everyone feels that they belong, which means that space(s) should be created to allow that to happen. Who creates these spaces? Is it any one particular group’s responsibility to do so? The latter arises when you admit that despite the fact that community implies a “togetherness,” we will still have some differences within that community. Therein lies the difficulty of trying to establish community, maintaining that togetherness while understanding that differences will still exist.

I find that within Christian schools, we hardly talk about these things. Why is this? Are we so uncomfortable with these differences that we’d rather pretend they don’t exist? When we sweep these discussions under the rug, we intentionally, slowly, start breaking the bond of Christ that should hold us together. Evidence of this is seen in our inability to retain diversity in our hiring; no one will stay and contribute to the rich fabric of our faith communities if they perceive that they do not belong. For me, a strong marker that a school community is focused on Jesus is seen in their ability to welcome, embrace, and encourage other Christians to stay within the community.

This is a good first step. We are talking about it!

September 19, 2010

Rebecca De Smith adds:

Some more thoughts on community: The idea of community is a biblical concept. Throughout scripture, we read about communities of believers who met together, worked together, and lived together as members of God’s chosen family. First Corinthians 12 calls Christians to delight in the community of one body made up of many believers, respecting its unique and diverse parts. In Jesus’s teachings and throughout his ministry, he included people from all walks of life into his kingdom community, pouring out his love, acceptance, and forgiveness. As Christian educators, we are called to follow his example and develop communities of learning and acceptance in our schools and classrooms. But it isn’t always easy, and yes, Mary, we don’t always do a very good job of it.

Christian school communities in which Christ reigns value and develop relationships, respect diversity, and provide opportunities for all to grow and learn in cooperation. Learning in these communities involves real sharing, trust, and acceptance. Teachers and students must share knowledge, skills, experiences, and feelings through actions and honest dialogue. Through this kind of sharing, teachers and students learn to trust each other, allowing everyone to take risks as they learn together. As we learn to trust each other, we become more accepting of one another and our differences, allowing for genuine fellowship and love. Learning in classroom communities can enrich our education and prepare us for participating in other kinds of communities—churches, workplaces, and friendships.

But learning in communities can be complex and difficult because we are all part of a broken, sinful world. Trusting others is not easy. Accepting others’ differences can be challenging. Sharing one’s own weaknesses can take courage. None of it is easy.

Thank God for grace! Because we cannot build Christ-reflecting communities on our own, we need God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. We need to work diligently at reconciliation and redemption in our schools and classrooms. We must strive to nurture students who reflect the fruit of the Spirit in their lives and within their relationships. We must not give up just because the process is tough. Just as in many aspects of our Christian journey, we must continue on—teaching, modeling, dialoging, and working toward peace and acceptance as we teach God’s covenant children in the broken communities of our classroom.

October 9, 2010

Christian Altena jumps in:

Hello all,

Let me begin by saying that I feel incredibly blessed to have lived and worked within the Christian educational community for the past fourteen years. It is exceedingly edifying to be daily amongst fellow believers and hourly discussing the kingdom of God. I think we can all recognize the important benefits of living in regular contact and communication with other Christ followers, so then it becomes all the more important to identify and respond to the many barriers to community. Here are two big ones.

The proximity problem. If one begins with a definition of community as being a place where people live together, there is an obvious challenge to the Christian school in that it frequently draws students and staff from a wide geographical area. We literally all live in different communities, and in some way what we attempt to maintain at school is artificial. Often this problem results in minor inconveniences involving playdates, sporting events, and the ability of students to work together after school; but sometimes the effects are much more significant, and can even induce some serious soul-searching. This problem of proximity has had an interesting historical effect here in the Chicago area, as some schools have moved more than once to follow their traditional population as they migrated. The school staying put, however, leads to the next problem.

The Protestant problem. This problem didn’t always exist, but over the past few decades our previously monolithic student body has been steadily becoming more diverse. Alongside the traditional Dutch and/or Reformed students, we have more and more students from the ever-widening protestant spectrum, not to forget the Polish Catholic and Greek Orthodox kids. This growing diversity has provided excellent educational opportunities as we talk to each other about such topics as the proper Christian response to culture, when and how Jesus is going to return, whether it is permissible to vote the Democratic ticket, and on and on. There may be some ugly bumps in the road as we debate together (do we let those premillennialists on the board?), but if we continue to talk, and more importantly, to listen to each other prayerfully and in the spirit of our common Lord and savior, we can overcome these barriers to healthy Christian community.

October 14, 2010

Bruce Wergeland:

Let me sneak in . . . I have always enjoyed belonging to an educational community, and I find it very easy to contribute and participate; consequently, I have experienced many people who share my sense of belonging and many who choose to remain preoccupied or aloof. I am fascinated by the natural and intentional barriers that are erected within the walls of a Christian school. The intentional barriers are simply evidence of unique personalities, work demands, and selfish motives that are clearly evident within the community. It is the natural barriers—often called “structures” by educators or “mentalities” by historians—that are powerful and undefined, but also enduring and pervasive.

I was reminded very recently that our educational structures (bells, deadlines, class sizes, administration, and so on) are borrowed from the public system of mass education. These structures were created during the Industrial Revolution to create a standardized working class. Even today, our own province of British Columbia has an educational mandate that views education as the foundation for prosperous citizens of the state. Economic prosperity is at the heart of our culture, and we cannot escape this perspective in our Christian schools.

Second, the individualism that emerged during the late Middle Ages, after the collapse of feudalism and other social structures, is a notion so ingrained in western civilization that we cannot imagine life any other way. Today, our ethics—how we engage the “other”—must be continuously scrutinized by NGOs, organized political committees, and religious “fundamentalists” because communal life on this continent has been shattered by the privatization of almost every ritual that is meaningful to human flourishing: faith, death, marriage, birth, confession.

If Christian schools are to become places of authentic community, then we must first understand what community looks like, and we don’t really have too many examples in our culture that we can follow. If we want to claim that “we have everything in common” and that “we gave to the least of these,” we must honestly critique the culture that flows through us like a mighty rush of adrenaline. The barriers to community, created by time constraints, demanding curriculum, and clashing personalities, are simply the realities of living with others who have the ability to choose for themselves, but unnoticed cultural forces have the ability to cement these differences into permanent obstacles.

In order for a place of biblical community to develop within the confines of popular culture, the interruptions by others into my daily agenda, need to become the most important part of my day. Then, maybe, I can begin to develop a desire to truly know others and be known by others

October 15, 2010

Tim Leugs contributes:

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your thoughtful insights so far. They have helped me quite a bit in framing my thoughts. I entirely agree that the concept of belonging is the key to identity as a community. I wonder, though, if the barriers we mention are as significant as we make them out to be? Do we really sweep issues of diversity under the rug by pretending that everyone in the community is part of a homogeneous group? In this tough economic climate where our area Christian schools tend to do all we can just to get people in the doors, I see schools that are indeed reaching out in more diverse areas than schools ever did. Twenty years ago, a local school in my town could predict how many students were going to be in the class simply by looking at the baptismal records of the five Christian Reformed Churches in the area; today, my school has students whose families are members of about seventy different churches from a variety of denominations.

To me, this indicates an embrace of diversity—although the reasons for it may be for the survival of the school. In order to allow our schools to keep their doors open, we have had to shift away from the traditional Dutch Calvinist student body. While that is not comfortable, it is biblical; we all are parts of one body in the Spirit. Diversity, though, requires trust as vital to developing community, and seeing trust being built in our school has helped us to build more community through our common love of Christ (and more specifically, for the school to which their family belongs). This love is found not only in the classroom, but many school events are also an expression of community. As I witness parents and students getting to know one another at sports events or family fun nights, there is a common identity being established—not perfect, to be sure, but working towards it. Do people tend to stay near close friends at these events? Surely. Nonetheless, I commonly see families at school taking time to talk to those around them on the bleachers, getting to know one another a little better, and working to build community.

This is a big shift in identity, even from schools five years ago, and I agree that it’s definitely not perfect yet. But “knowing that we are Christians by our love” is a marker that can draw together a diverse group of people dedicated to educating their children Christianly, and looking for commonalities in this regard helps to enrich that group towards a close-knit community.


The panel consists of:

  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Mary Ashun, who teaches in the education department at Redeemer University College.
  • Al Boerema, who teaches in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Rebecca DeSmith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Tim Leugs, who teaches at Legacy Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Bruce Wergeland, who teaches at Langley Christian Middle School in Langley, British Columbia