I grew up in San Jose, California as the first American-born child to parents whose families immigrated to the US from the Netherlands after World War II. My dad’s family helped start the Christian Reformed Church in San Jose, and my mom’s family helped plan and launch a Christian school there. You’ve got to hand it to immigrant families—they are driven by conviction about what can and should be better, and they’re willing to pour themselves out in pursuit of those ideals. For those from faith backgrounds within the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, those efforts were often focused on the institutions of church and school.
I started my career in Christian education twenty-five years ago after graduating from Calvin College (now University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My journey from secondary English teaching to administration has taken me to a variety of schools in the Midwest, the West coast, and now the Southwest. In looking at the core values of each of those institutions, along with the demographics of their student bodies and faculties, some fall under a traditionally Reformed umbrella, and others do not. Regardless of which school I was affiliated with as a teacher, I was aware of discussions about target audience, mission, and vision, but those concepts felt a bit removed from my day-to-day world because I figured that I would teach whoever was in front of me to the best of my ability, regardless of their background or beliefs.
Having worked in school administration for the last twelve years, I’ve been thrust into more frequent conversations about who we should welcome or recruit for our schools. I hear stories about days past when churches were “really doing their jobs” and preaching sermons about the importance of Christian education for families. I hear analysis about how younger parents aren’t willing to sacrifice in the same way as previous generations because they’re more concerned about the luxuries of life. Or I see schools pouring massive resources into state of the art buildings and programs, driven by the reality of today’s choosy parents, who seem to be in search of some nebulous idea of “best” for their children.
In Reformed education circles, discussions about who makes up the student body within our schools typically come down to two words: covenant and mission. Proponents of a covenantal approach to education will advocate for an audience of students from Christian families—maybe even families from particular denominations. This is how they understand our biblical calling, and this when they believe Christian education is most effective. Those favoring a missional approach tend to cast the enrollment net more widely for anyone who is open to the teachings and beliefs of the school, even if they don’t share doctrinal unity or aren’t even a professing follower of Jesus.
I’ve met incredibly dedicated, undoubtedly Christian people in each camp of this issue, and their collective thoughts have made me a better leader. I always try to speak highly of anyone’s efforts within Christian education, even if they don’t reflect the same approach I would take personally. Our work requires tremendous sacrifice, and I think we all need as much collective support as we can get. In the incredibly polarized environment in which we find ourselves, I can’t help but sadden at hearing or reading of Christian people using an awful lot of energy, breath, and ink to “slam,” “trash,” or “destroy” (pick your favorite clickbait verb) fellow believers. We’re better than that, aren’t we?
All that being said, only in the last few years have I started to ask questions about the fundamental designations of covenantal and missional Christian education. What covenant are we referring to? And what mission? Are they as mutually exclusive as we set them up to be? Can a school be both covenantal and missional? Does either designation affect the day-to-day experiences of students, parents, or teachers in the school? There is some real richness in unpacking this terminology and the biblical history behind it, and we do ourselves and our work a service when we take time to wrestle and come to grips with the roots of our calling.
We all have people who have made an indelible impression on our lives, and one such person for me is Ray Vander Laan. “RVL,” as we affectionately called him, teaches Bible at Holland Christian Schools (Holland, MI), and for decades he has led people on trips to the Holy Land to experience God’s big story and, by way of a whole lot of hiking under the blazing desert sun, earn personal insight into the context and perspective of the ancient Near Eastern audience at the roots of our Christian faith. I’ve been privileged to travel with Ray twice, and those excursions have filled me with far stronger belief, purpose, and calling than anything I’ve known before. Looking back to the story of God and His people just might point us in a helpful direction in the discussion of covenantal versus missional Christian education. I don’t pretend to speak for RVL on any matters. Rather, I’d like to share some of my own insights and conclusions from my time with him.
The concept of a covenant enters the biblical story early on. We read about God making a covenant with Noah and “every living creature” on the earth (Gen. 9:12), assuring them that He will never flood the world again. In another story, the Lord walks a blood-path covenant with Abraham, through whom the whole earth will be blessed—promising that even when Abraham and his descendants don’t keep up their side of the bargain, it’s God who will pay the price. And there’s the mountaintop marriage covenant between Israel and Adonai at Sinai—the one that birthed the law and the Torah, spelling out how God’s people should live. It’s this covenant at Sinai that appears most closely tied to the use of the word covenantal in Christian education, and we’ll unpack it here. First, a little context though.
The ancient Near East was a thoroughly patriarchal society, but unlike some of the negative connotations that go along with that term today, the patriarchy of this culture would engender positive sentiment of being loved and cared for. Noble patriarchs were driven by ga’al, the Hebrew word for redemption. If any member of the extended family became lost or marginalized, it was up to the patriarch to seek them out and pay whatever debt was keeping them apart from their rightful community. The term ga’al had no ties to religion. It was about a transaction through which the patriarch emptied himself to bring someone else back into the family. Once that happened, the rest of the group was required to welcome back the lost person and restore them to their place in the father’s house. On the occasion of a patriarch practicing ga’al, a huge party would ensue—celebrating the fact that things had worked the way they were supposed to and recognizing the love and care of the father. Think of the prodigal son parable for an example.
When patriarchs died, the bulk of their resources, duties, and responsibilities would be passed to their bechors or firstborn sons, so that they could continue the work of ga’al—bringing people back into the family. God is the patriarch of the Bible, and He has three firstborn sons: the people of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church. It is those groups to whom He passes on the call and the responsibility of redemption—not in a spiritually salvific sense but in the sense of bringing people back.
With that background in mind, we shift to the story of Mount Sinai.
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Dan Meester has worked in Christian schools in Illinois, California, Michigan, and New Mexico. He currently serves as the high school principal at Rehoboth Christian School in Gallup, New Mexico, where he lives with his wife, Betsy, and his two children, Juliana and Thijs. In addition to Christian education, Dan loves LEGOs, hiking, and spoken word poetry. You can contact him at email@example.com.