Rooted Schools: How to Be Present

This is a bonus article that does not appear in the print issue. It is included here in its entirety.

We owned a Nissan Xterra for thirteen years. There was nothing overtly special about that vehicle, but my wife and I loved it—that was until random, minor things began breaking, often leaving the driver stranded. The proverbial nail in the coffin for us with that vehicle was the time the shifter cable popped resulting in us being unable to shift the car into gear. After another unwanted towing and repair bill, we began looking for a different family vehicle. 

Many Christian educators have strong convictions about the truth we read in scripture and we know what we believe, but we struggle to apply this in a relative way that informs our practice. We lack a vehicle to drive our philosophy into tangible expressions and outcomes, so we sit stranded while year after year our graduates walk across the stage ready or not to participate in the world like Jesus did. 

What We Believe Is Everything

Before I outline how our school is creating community partnerships that highlight who God is and what his kingdom is like, I first must take a moment to explain the philosophy behind the practice. The gospel of Luke documented this reaction to Jesus’ impending death on the cross: “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him” (Luke 23:27). As I read that description of the crowd’s response, I am moved by their expression of grief but not surprised by it. For those who followed Jesus, who knew and loved him, his death marked the loss of their Savior and the hope he carried with him. Even if the crowd had heard about the upcoming resurrection, who can fault anyone for doubting? I mean, how many people have you encountered who have been brought back to life? This one verse in Luke’s gospel prompts these questions for me:

  • If followers of Jesus actually followed the ways of Jesus, would the people around us miss our presence once it is gone?
  • For my school, if we are present in our community the way Jesus was present in his, do we bring with us the same qualities of grace and truth for others to experience?
  • If our school permanently closed its doors tomorrow, essentially dying, would the community have the same response as the crowd did to Jesus’ death, or would the community even notice?

We believe that Jesus’ presence among people is a road map to follow when it comes to demonstrating the grace and truth that helps others experience God’s glory (John 1:14). The gospel accounts are abundantly full of stories that showcase Jesus’ brilliant handling of treating people with proper amounts of grace and truth so they have a better understanding of God and his love for them. Zacchaeus was labeled a crook and thief by everyone, but Jesus called him by name (Luke 19:1-10). People were appalled that a prostitute threw herself at Jesus during dinner, but he warmly embraced her and declared that she has been forgiven (Luke 7:36-50). The diseased and infirmed reached out to touch him, but Jesus never flinched (Matthew 8:3, Mark 5:27). The crowd was ready to end the life of a woman caught in adultery, but Jesus stepped in to spare her life (John 8:1-11). Jesus even declared good neighbors to be those from hated ethnic groups (Luke 10:25-37). This list can go on and on, but one thing becomes overwhelmingly clear: Jesus gives no example of ever evading the community, but instead, he unabashedly engages it.

When it comes to community involvement, Jesus’ demonstration of how to live amongst people is something we believe wholeheartedly must be followed. The incarnation of God put Jesus shoulder to shoulder with the brokenness of humanity. Our depravity, our wretchedness, our despair—Jesus waded chest deep through it all so people would know the healing, redeeming, and restoring power of his love. And while teaching twelve guys how to live like him, he boldly declared that his followers would need to surrender everything to effectively live this way too. It is our belief that to be deeply rooted and present in our community, we must adopt an incarnational posture towards our student programming that allows our students to practice the ways of Jesus in the world around them.

The strategies we have in play at our school are a response to the belief that if we are following the ways of Jesus, then our community will feel the hope of Christ through our presence. These structures that connect our students with the community have been developed over time. They are not perfect, and we are always tinkering so they become more effective. But, they are grounded in scripture’s teachings about what followers of Jesus are to do with their lives and how we are to live amongst others. We communicate this to students by teaching them how to think critically, lead courageously, and serve faithfully.

Think Critically

Through our Bible classes and faculty-led small group times, every student in our high school goes through an assessment phase of self-evaluation that helps the student identify his or her God-given talents, dreams, and passions. Simultaneously, and in these same forums, students’ attention is brought to areas of brokenness in our community. These are often characterized by injustice, oppression, sickness, and poverty in our local context. Students are led through a process of then matching their individual giftedness to areas in need of healing in the community. For example, a junior girl may recognize she loves big crowds and has a knack for mobilizing people towards something. Being raised by a single mom, she is also compassionate toward single mothers and the parenting challenges they endure. Prompted by Bible class assignments, she spends time researching local agencies that assist single mothers.

Lead Courageously 

After students go through this evaluation period, they are then encouraged to lead others towards expressions of mercy, justice, and healing. So, that junior girl who has a heart for single mothers and a natural ability to recruit others begins planning a community baby shower. Since this is a big undertaking, she is paired with a faculty sponsor who uses the inherent authority of his or her position to assist her. Using the student’s research, the faculty sponsor makes the phone call that connects a local agency with the student, and a partnership is formed. This student begins collaborating with the agency on how she can help host a community-wide baby shower for single mothers. Once the details of the event are finalized, the student begins assembling a team of friends who will join the effort to collect supplies such as diapers, baby wipes, and baby formula. 

Serve Faithfully

All that remains is actually hosting the baby shower. Since the entire process has been overseen by a faculty member and led by an engaged student, it is a remarkable success. Student participation is high, moms are blessed, and a partnership between our school and the community is established. And all of this because a student was allowed the freedom within our school’s programming to explore how God made her and what he wants her to pursue. 

Some Final Thoughts

The above example is a quick synopsis of what we try to lead each of our students toward. Anyone in education knows that for every exemplar there are equally as many that do not quite meet the expectation. That is okay because even if students cannot execute this fully, they are learning to apply Jesus’ example to how they see their place in the world. This is invaluable.

Our job as Christian educators is to properly equip students through instruction that helps position them to engage the community. After imparting this biblical worldview, we need to empower students through opportunities. This may mean creating space in their schedules so they can enact what we are challenging them to think through. At our school, we have created a Bible elective that students can opt into for the sole purpose of community engagement through projects similar to the community-wide baby shower referenced above. By giving the students a designated time and place to work on community engagement, we have freed them up to pursue the connections between their talents, dreams, and passions and areas of need in our local context. 

Finally, we enlist students through community partnerships. If your school is not connected to local agencies, especially faith-based organizations, who are committed to bringing mercy, justice, and healing, then you need to begin reaching out. Learn their stories and retell them well. Invite them into your school so students can put names to faces. Go out and meet with those leaders and advocate for their mission, notably when they align with God’s mission for his Church. In other words, introduce the community to your student body.

The incarnation placed Jesus in a local context amongst humanity. His example is a model we are to follow. We believe doing so will effectively bring the same hope, healing, redemption, and restoration that was experienced by those in Jesus’ orbit to our neighbors (John 14:12). Our desire is for our school to be rooted and present in our community, and my prayer is your school would be too. Be encouraged as you advance God’s kingdom.