Faith Formation and Christian Schools: Trends and Suggestions

Faith Formation and Christian Schools

Times of intense change afford us positive opportunities to reshape institutions and operational patterns. As Christian educators, we should seize this opportunity to not only reshape our educational practices, but also to consider new information that has been emerging about the very nature of what we seek to do in Christian schools—educating for wisdom and discipleship. In this article, I hope to review some of the recent research related to the faith formation of children and adolescents and examine the role of the Christian school and the Christian educator in nurturing student faith.

Recent Research on Faith Formation

Here is a quick rundown of some recent research around faith formation. There has been considerable energy and monies expended within the Christian community on this topic in the past ten years. It is imperative that we pay attention to this information and discuss possible implications for our practice in Christian schools. Full bibliographic information for each title can be found in the Works Cited at the end of this article.

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005)

This book is highly significant because it reports the findings of the largest study ever done of the faith beliefs of 13–17 year olds in America (The National Study of Youth and Religion, NSYR). The authors coin the term “Moral Therapeutic Deism” to describe teens’ dominant religion, and suggest that it is a secularized version of the historic Christian faith. They identify five tenets: 1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth, 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about one’s self, 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem, and 5) Good people go to heaven when they die. Today’s teens demonstrate a warm, fuzzy faith with no demands, low commitment, superficial understandings of faith, and a focus on self and one’s own happiness rather than a life of obedience and service to God and neighbor. The authors state that “we have gotten what we are,” meaning that kids are modeling themselves after their parents.

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (2009)

This book follows up with the subjects of the first study (who are now aged 18–23) and the authors suggest that they can be sorted into six religious types:

  1. Committed Traditionalists, 15 percent
  2. Selective Adherents,  30 percent
  3. Spiritually Open, 15 percent
  4. Religiously Indifferent, 25 percent
  5. Religiously Disconnected, 5 percent
  6. Irreligious, 10 percent

The authors reiterate the significance of parental modeling and state that those who have established devotional lives during high school are much more likely to continue those practices into adulthood.

A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents (2011)

Working from the same 2005 study, the authors suggest five categories of types of faith commitment and approximate percentages: abiders (21 percent), adapters (24 percent), assenters (31 percent), avoiders (20 percent), and atheists (4 percent). The authors state that religion becomes more important to people during their adolescent years. They believe that during adolescence, people remain as religious, or become more so, than they were as younger children. Youth with both biological parents in the home are more likely to be religiously engaged, and those who have less emotional access to their parents also exhibit lower levels of religious affect.

Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, (2010)

Author Kenda Creasy Dean, one of the NYSR investigators and professor at Princeton, suggests that among the 8 percent of “highly devoted” youth, she noticed four common beliefs: 1) God is loving, powerful, and active in the world, 2) their church communities were spiritually and relationally significant, 3) they sensed a divinely appointed purpose for their lives, and 4) they bore witness to a hopeful future. She states: “These teenagers did not belong to the Church of Benign Whateverism,” but rather they demonstrated “four theological accents – a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto” (PAGE). While acknowledging the church as both the problem and the solution, Dean presents an honest, hopeful tone in her book. She states that religious formation is not an accident and recommends that we “cultivate a missional imagination in young people” (PAGE).

Our Desired Student Outcomes

As Christian educators, we are part of that faith formation process, working with students at the behest of the parents, who probably realize that a well-formed faith must be shaped by their child seeing God’s truth in all learning. We have the opportunity to help students come to faith and to learn discipleship, turning their hearts and passions toward God, preparing them to be leaders wherever God calls them in the world.

If we give credence to current research and historical thinking on the issue of faith formation, we realize that most children come to faith between the ages of five and fourteen and many of their ideas, commitments, habits, and practices are set in place by their early teens. Additionally, we see that the period of middle school and high school are times when many children come to a deeper understanding of faith. However, what happens after high school is a huge concern, as Gabe Lyons points out in his recent book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America. He notes that 51 percent of youth leave the faith after high school.

Is this statistic true for our graduates? How have students who attended Christian school turned out? We have some compelling research on this topic from the recently completed Cardus study of Christian school graduates. Here is a brief summary:

The picture the data paints is that Christian schools are having a significant effect in the lives of their graduates, but not in the world-changing way that some might aspire to. Compared to their public school, Catholic school, and non-religious-private school peers, Protestant Christian school graduates have been found to be uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly focused individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches, and larger society.

From this summary we learn that our graduates are having an impact, largely through family, church, and local community involvement. This is encouraging news, but how can we take this to the next level? Can our youth be “world transformers?” I appreciate Gabe Lyons’s suggestion that the “next Christians” will demonstrate six characteristics that will set them apart from others. They will be provoked, but not offended; creators, not critics; called, not employed; grounded, not distracted; in community, not alone; and countercultural, not “relevant.”

I think we should be asking questions related to student faith formation: What are the kinds of characteristics that those who are alive in their faith demonstrate as adults? How could we enable students to live out Dean’s four theological accents: “a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto?” How do we challenge and encourage students to demonstrate the characteristics of Lyons’s “next Christians”? How do we move from good philosophical/theological constructs to daily practice in a PreK through 12 school setting?

Our Needed Focus in Faith Encouragement

If we want students to know and live the truth of Jesus Christ, we must be working with the head, heart, and hands of our students. We need to help them connect God’s Word and world through understanding, articulation, and defense of a Christian worldview. We want to direct the passion of their hearts toward the crazy, upside-down understanding of Christ’s kingdom and demonstrate how to live out their lives in the “foolish” manner of loving enemies, seeking justice, doing good to those that hate them, giving sacrificially, seeking truth, and loving neighbors with no thought of reward. We need to equip their hands through fostering an understanding of who God has created them to be, developing habits and practices that bring them closer to honoring God, and equipping them to use twenty-first-century tools to be creative forces in their worlds.

Students need at least four things through their Christian school experience to encourage faith formation: connection, coherence, contribution, and community. Let me explain.

  1. Connection. Connection and belonging are critical needs for every human being. No wonder the Heidelberg Catechism addresses this in the first question. For example, each day at Rehoboth Christian School, kids recite the Rehoboth Creed (see sidebar). It says critical things to them about who God has made them to be and how they connect with others. Even in our Facebook era, students at Grand Rapids Christian High found meaning in connecting via posting over one thousand handwritten notes on a “Speak Wall,” sharing their intensely personal thoughts and feelings about life (Grand Rapids Press, May 6, 2011).
  2. Coherence. Since we are created in the image of God/Christ, in whom all things cohere (Col. 1:21), then our desire to make sense of things is innate and God-given. Do our time-blocked, discipline-segregated school schedules reflect a coherent approach to educating students or do they exacerbate the fragmented, time-sliced life they already struggle with? Are the learning experiences we provide students reflective of what we are trying to get them to see spiritually—the sovereignty/beauty/unity/coherence of Christ in the world? Do they increase student engagement, awe, wonder, and joy?
  3. Contribution. Do we help students understand how God has made them? Do we spend time with them discerning the call of God on their lives? Do they know if they are beauty creators, justice seekers, community builders, or servant workers? Do we provide them with a variety of opportunities to contribute?
  4. Community. Is community promoted at your school? Is it a safe place for the true flourishing of all students, staff, and parents? Does your school balance truth and grace? Are worship and service impassioned?

Positive Signs

As I have worked with diverse schools across the continent in recent years, I am encouraged by a renewed emphasis on student faith formation. I see a desire to be distinctive in curriculum, classroom, and community. The number of schools sharing curriculum articulation, particularly faith-learning ideas, through electronic networking encourages me. It is imperative that we continue current efforts to write good essential questions and rich student assessments that provoke deep thinking about how learning reveals God’s truth. I see more opportunity for reflective writing and faith expression at the classroom/school level. An increasing number of schools have culminating experiences that increase the coherence of student learning and encourage faith development. There are more spiritual directors and more examples of released time for teachers to connect with students about spiritual matters. I see renewed community engagement by schools as they reach out to local and global communities beyond their own.


Looking Ahead

In closing, here are some questions for you and your school to consider:

  1. What percentage of the day do you and your school do things that are distinctively Christian and encourage faith in your students?
  2. Are you putting first things first? Is your school an educational institution that primarily “adds on” Christian things, or do you see nurturing faith, in the context of an educational setting, as your essential task?
  3. Is your school meeting its mission? How do you know? Does the education at your school provide for connection, coherence, contribution, and community as you seek to encourage faith in the lives of students?

We have amazing opportunities to guide and nurture every beautiful soul that enters our doors. We are coming to a better understanding of when children come to faith and how that faith can be nurtured. We are clear on what kinds of Christ followers we need for the next generation. Let’s respond with joy to Christ’s call and use all means to encourage faith in the next generation!

Works Cited

  • Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Lyons, Gabe. The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
  • Pearce, Lisa and Melinda Lundquist Denton. A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Pennings, Ray. “Are Christian School Graduates World-Changers?” Ray Pennings, Capital Commentary. 20 May 2011. Accessed 8 August 2011.
  • Rademacher, Tom. “Students share all on ‘Speak Wall,’” Grand Rapids Press, 6 May 2011.
  • Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Smith, Christian and Patricia Snell. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.