The Cardus research study examined the role that Christian education at the high school level plays in furthering the spiritual formation of its graduates. The researchers hoped that results would provide a better understanding of how Christian educators can better prepare young people to live out God’s call on their lives and to serve Christ with distinction.
For the purposes of this study, spiritual formation was measured by several guiding questions:
- Has Christian education prepared you to live out your Christian faith in the world?
- Has Christian education prepared you to defend your faith intelligently and share it with others?
- Has Christian education prepared you to function in a diverse world?
- How can Christian education better support your academic and spiritual development?
Researchers surveyed and interviewed students—graduates of both public and Christian high schools—attending an evangelical Christian university in Florida, and found that in this sample:
- students who graduated from private Christian schools were significantly better prepared to defend their faith intellectually than students from public schools;
- students who graduated from public schools were significantly better prepared to function in a diverse world than the private Christian school respondents;
- graduates of Christian high schools did not significantly differ from public school graduates in their responses to the questions of whether or not the high school experience helped them to discover their spiritual gifts and their calling;
- responses to questions about spiritual disciplines (prayer, worship, etc.) did not differ significantly between this group of public and Christian high school graduates.
One of the primary tasks during adolescence is the formation of a personal identity—what one researcher calls a dynamic, developmental process that begins at birth and culminates during the adolescent period (Erikson 30). One aspect of identity development involves the exploration and solidification of religious beliefs and values.
For many of the students interviewed, their experience attending a Christian high school helped them solidify the spiritual components of their identities, by challenging them to examine what they believed and why. In addition, their high school experiences prepared them to defend their faith intellectually, and taught them valuable lessons about how to “live” out their faith beyond the classroom.
The value of this solidification of spiritual values could have important implications for Christian high school graduates who choose to attend a public college or university. A four-year longitudinal study conducted almost thirty years ago found a significant decrease in traditional religiosity of college students, with 50 percent of study participants indicating a decrease in religiosity over a four-year period (Madsen and Vernon 128). According to the authors, as the level of education in the sample increased, the reported level of religiosity decreased. In a more recent study, Gary Railsback found that 27 percent of students who attended public universities claiming to be “born again” no longer held to their faith four years later (44). In other words, more than one out of two Christian young people at public universities discard their faith by graduation.
The spiritual development of students seems to be affected almost as much by who teachers are as by how teachers teach. Educators who are authentic, genuine, and “real” invite their students to engage in a relationship that can have lasting impact on their academic, personal, and spiritual development. Christian high school graduates in this study described their favorite teachers as:
- always giving godly advice
- willing to do anything to see everyone get a change to go to college and succeed
- having a strong walk with God
- being genuine, (having a) true character
- setting high expectations
- giving constructive criticism
Graduates of Christian high schools reported having desired Christian education in order to be challenged to grow spiritually and to learn how to apply their faith in “real-world” contexts. They valued access to and interaction with godly educators who challenged them to grow spiritually in loving, safe classroom communities.
When asked, “How can Christian education better support your academic and spiritual development?” students in this study repeatedly said that all knowledge, including biblical knowledge, should be applied to real-world settings. Authentic education—in the form of role-play, debates, ministry, and discussions—is important to these students. They want Christian education to demonstrate how they can stand up for their beliefs. They also report needing greater exposure to other belief systems in order to prepare them to defend their faith intelligently.
If Christian educators hope to engage their students in reflective, self-evaluative, contemplative thought and analysis, the classroom must be a safe, inviting place in which to express and explore ideas, questions, doubts, and discoveries. A classroom “does not have a voice until a teacher gives it one” (Palmer 80).
That said, both public and private Christian high school graduates reported in interviews that the major influence on their spiritual formation was not their high school experience, but rather their families, homes, churches, mission opportunities, and youth groups. Strong youth groups repeatedly surfaced as critically important to adolescents’ overall spiritual growth. Students who reported strong youth groups described them as those that 1) provide Christ-centered teaching vs. doctrinal instruction, 2) give direct instruction in evangelizing, and 3) are action-oriented in real-world contexts such as missions and social justice issues. These findings corroborate the suggestions of a separate study of what churches and schools can do to enhance spiritual development (Smith and Denton 265–71).
Borrowing from a 2009 Biola University journal, educators in both church and school settings might consider several exercises that can help enhance the spiritual development of young people.
- Reflective exercises promote self-evaluation as students contemplate how course material fits into their moral frameworks and belief structures. For example, the authors recommend that after reading Pilgrim’s Progress, students could write a paper that addresses the similarities and differences between their experiences and those of Bunyan.
- Statements of personal intention give students the opportunity to be goal-oriented in their choices and behaviors by committing to engage in behaviors that will further their academic and spiritual development.
- Journaling can be used to enhance self-evaluation as students reflect on how the course content intersects with their personal and spiritual development.
- Prayer projects can be used to help enhance the students’ prayer lives by encouraging them to integrate prayer into their study of the course material. For example, when studying about slavery, students could be encouraged to pray for racial reconciliation (Wilhoit 167–72).
In light of disheartening statistics, Christian educators face a doubly important task: fostering the spiritual growth and development of students, and treating Christian education as “more than Bible knowledge, but rather the processing of biblical information into both personal life application and a framework that is continually revised throughout a lifetime” (Estep 160). In this tremendous opportunity, this daunting responsibility, you would be wise to heed the words of Paul: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7–8).
- Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth in Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.
- Estep, James Riley. “Spiritual Formation as Social: Toward a Vygotskyan Development Perspective.” Religious Education 97 (2002): 141–64.
- Madsen, G.E., and G.M. Vernon. “Maintaining the Faith During College: A Study of Campus Religious Group Participation.” Review of Religious Research 25 (1983): 127–39.
- Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
- Railsback, Gary. “Faith Commitment of Born-again Students at Secular and Evangelical Colleges.” Journal of Research on Christian Education 15 (2006): 39–60.
- Smith, Christian, and Melinda L. Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Wilhoit, James, David Setran, Donald Ratcliff, Daniel Hasse, and Linda Rosema. Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care. Institute of Spiritual Formation: Biola University, 2.2 (2009): 153–78.