Learning (by) Stories: A Future for Christian Education

Learning (by) Stories

This article was first presented as an address for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of Northern Michigan Christian School, in McBain, Michigan in May 2011.

It is an honor to be able to join you as you celebrate one hundred years of Christian schooling here at Northern Michigan Christian School. I never cease to be amazed by the communities that sustain Christian schools, against so many odds and off the radar of our cultural mainstream. According to so many metrics, you shouldn’t still be here! Economic pressures, community fatigue, and the trajectory of secularization all make the reality of Christian schools a veritable institutional miracle.

But whether it’s McBain, Michigan or Waupun, Wisconsin, or Smithville, Ontario, these Christian school communities are a testimony to a God who is faithful to his peculiar people. And they are testimony to a Spirit-led people who are committed to goods beyond the bottom line—who so value the formation of their children that they are willing to set aside other pleasures of “the good life” in order to provide a faith-full education for their young people. The centenary of Northern Michigan Christian School is a witness that you are a community invested in “[telling] the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord” (Ps. 78:4).

This would be an easy time to get nostalgic—to recall wistfully the old days, some golden age gone by, to pine for “the way things were”—which usually comes with a kind of resignation that those days are gone, that we’re just waiting for the inevitable dwindling and denouement. But Christians have a very different sense of time: in the words of that immortal Michael J. Fox movie, God calls us “back to the future.” When God constantly enjoins his people to remember, he is always asking them to remember forward, to remember for the sake of the future. Yahweh presses Israel to remember the covenant and their liberation from Egypt, not so they can wallow in wistful memories of bobby socks and letterman jackets and kvetch about the “good ol’ days.” They are called to remember because God is calling them to something—to the Promised Land.

We need to appreciate how countercultural this sense of time is. We live in an age that is easily attracted to nostalgia. Whether it’s our fascination with Mad Men or our fixation on the Founding Fathers, we are easily duped into hiding in an idealized past. Indeed, just recently I read of a strange new phenomenon: the adult prom (Medina). This would be funny if it wasn’t about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard of: adults with children and mortgages and minivans trying to relive their adolescence, largely because they inhabit a culture that has encouraged them to never grow up.

When Christians remember, we are not retreating to the past; we are being catapulted toward a future. God’s people inhabit time in this strange tension, where we are called to remember so that we can hope. When Jesus enjoins us to eat and drink in remembrance of that Last Supper, he also points us toward the future: we celebrate the Lord’s Supper “until he comes,” and so the remembrance is really just a foretaste of that coming feast. Our traditions are the gifts that propel us toward the future with hopeful expectation. Christians inhabit time as a stretched people.

So let’s not confuse a celebration of faithfulness with a mere trip down memory lane. Let’s use this as an occasion to think about the future of Christian education, to hope with God-sized expectations about what the Spirit is going to continue to do here at Northern Michigan Christian School. Because Christian education isn’t just something that’s nice while it lasts; it might just be crucial for future of the people of God. Indeed, I think Christian schooling is an incredible opportunity in our postmodern context, and it might be more important now than ever.

I would like to make this case by considering the centrality of story to Christian education. Christian education tells the story of God’s redemption; indeed, Christian education is another way of inviting young people into that story. But we also need to appreciate that we learn by stories.
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