For those of us who are involved in Christian education every day, a discussion about why we do what we do may seem to be a case of restating the obvious. After all, Christian education is what we do, and asking why we do it and how we do it is a little like asking why and how we breathe. The answers seem obvious.
A moment of reflection on the issues facing Christian educators may serve to clarify the urgency of the question. Consider:
- Many Christian schools are facing declining enrolments. The reasons for those declines are undoubtedly complex, but in part they relate to the reality that Christian schools are being scrutinized more critically by parents who are considering a large and growing number of educational options for their children. In many of our communities, these include charter schools, Christian schools of various stripes, and private schools that promise academic programs that will get students into their choice of universities. How can our schools compete in this crowded marketplace?
- In addition, parents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in what they expect of schools. Education is very much in the public conversation, and the public is becoming more aware of the importance of quality education in the lives of their children. The argument that Christian parents reflexively choose Christian schools has not been true for a long time.
- Furthermore, many Christian schools were established to serve the needs of a fairly narrow ethnic and denominational community. For many years, these schools were able to predict their future enrolments by noting the birth rates in the community they served. Several challenges have emerged as a result. First, and most obviously, as the birth rate in these communities has declined, the enrolments in these schools have declined. Second, the narrow focus of these schools has made them relatively unattractive to parents and students who are not part of the founding community. And third, the focus on the needs of a narrow community has made it difficult for these schools to address issues of mission and vision dynamically.
- It is a truism that we live in a rapidly changing environment. The communities in which our schools are located are becoming more diverse and more complex in every way, including language, ethnicity, and culture. Issues of morality and ethics, about which there was consensus in many of our school communities, are now the subjects of intense debate. That growing diversity has deeply affected the families that we serve, to say nothing of the families we might hope to serve.
- Many Christian schools have relied for cultural, social, and financial support on specific church communities. These schools are now forced to compete for that support with a wide range of organizations that are often Christian, that offer very compelling programs and very sophisticated appeals for funds to people who historically had designated their support to the local Christian school. And, too frequently, Christian schools have lost out in that competition.
- The widespread concern in the public about education has had the effect of stimulating a wide-ranging debate about school improvement in the publicly funded schools in our communities. As a result, many of these schools have embarked on comprehensive programs of school reform so that student learning is enhanced and the culture of these schools is much more positive. The credibility of our argument that parents should send their children to Christian schools because they are “better” no longer has the weight it once had.
All of this adds up to an interesting challenge for us, to which we can respond in a variety of ways. We can bemoan the fact that “people are not as committed to Christian education as they once were.” We can choose to regard Christians outside of our school communities as a threat to the confessional standards that we wish to uphold. Or, we can acknowledge that while the task of revisiting the mission and vision and practices of our schools may be very difficult and fraught with risks, we live in a time when we have been given a marvellous opportunity to reimagine who we are and what we do as Christian educators and Christian schools. Again, consider:
- The Christian gospel is fundamentally a message of hope and grace for all people, and it has been demonstrated by great Christian leaders throughout history that, properly presented, the gospel has enormous appeal throughout the world. Christian educators have a unique opportunity to present God’s grace and hope in a setting that allows for courageous exploration of all of God’s creation. In Christian schools we can deal with any and all questions, and ask with our students: “How does the redemptive and healing power of God’s grace and love speak to this issue?”
- Most Christian schools are not encumbered by complex bureaucratic structures that can impede school reform. Therefore, it is possible for Christian educators to be more innovative as they explore new ways of teaching and learning to ensure success for all of their students. Christian educators are also free to explore the implications of faith in both the process of teaching and learning and in the content that is dealt with in our classrooms.
- Christian educators are people who are in teaching, usually not for large financial reward, but because they believe in their God-given task to shape the lives of their students and their communities in God-honouring ways. Therefore the challenge of exploring ways of making Christian schools better and more appealing to more people in our communities is one that Christian educators will undertake faithfully and enthusiastically.
I believe that in a very real way Christian education is at a crossroads. The challenge for us is to take this opportunity to explore ways of making the gift of Christian education alive for ourselves, for our communities, and for our students. In this issue of the Christian Educators Journal you will find an attempt to encourage that exploration. Some of the contributions approach the issue from an academic perspective and some from the perspective of classroom experience. All of those who have contributed have done so with the prayer that you will find encouragement and challenge in these pages.