In previous posts I highlighted the way in which society has become increasingly mobile and spread out. Our relationships are no longer shaped so much by locality as by the network of ‘places’ that make up our ‘Personal Network Village’ (PNV).
However, that is not to say that locality is unimportant. Proximity continues to be fundamental to human existence. Local community still has real significance and potential for evangelism. My point is simply that it is more difficult to tap into the relational potential of locality than it used to be. There are far fewer places that locals gather. Most local places (e.g. the local grocery store) have been reduced to irredeemably impersonal spaces consisting almost entirely of merely transactional engagements. (And you can avoid human contact altogether if you use the self-checkout!).
Local public schools are one of the few places in our society that still represent a cross-section of the local community. People go there because they are local. In contrast, people go to private schools out of choice and usually travel outside their local neighbourhood to get to them. When I was on the P&C of my son’s public school I was continually struck by the fact that the people there represented a unique intersection of the local community. I couldn’t find anything else like it in the suburb. The school showed me what the average dweller of the community looked like. There were people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. There were rough people and well-spoken people. There were white-collars and blue-collars. There were Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, and atheists, as well as many for whom ‘religion’ isn’t even a category in their worldview. All in all, it was an obvious place for Christians to try to connect with locals and attempt to share the gospel with them. The problem was that most Christians sent their children to the private Christian school instead.
Here is where many readers feel defensive. It’s hard to even raise this topic without sounding judgemental. That is not my intention at all. There are many good reasons to consider sending your children to a Christian school. However, we need to be able to have real conversations about this topic since it makes a very significant difference to the opportunities that we have to connect with our communities and to share the gospel with them.
This topic is such that I think putting my background on the table at the start is probably helpful. “Where is this guy coming from?” you ask. Let me tell you.
As a child I attended my local public primary school and then a private Anglican high school. Should my parents have sent me to a private school? It’s easy to second-guess decisions made with the benefit of hindsight (especially decisions made by other people!). But adult children should only criticise the decisions that their parents made about their upbringing with humility and respect. Adults remember their childhood hazily and will often overestimate the maturity and fortitude that they possessed through their childhood and teenage years. In my case I believe my parents made a good decision for my sake. Going to my local public high school probably wouldn’t have turned out well for me. Of course, we’ll never know for sure, but that’s the nature of these kinds of decisions. Personally, I am thankful for what I received.
My working life has consisted of being a church pastor and a high school teacher. I have done at least some work in three public high schools and five private high schools. I presently do some casual teaching in various Anglican schools whilst working on my PhD. I have three children, two of whom are school-age and go to their local public school. Decisions for high school are still several years away.
I believe my experience gives me a reasonably well informed and balanced perspective on these things, but it’s still just my experience and its limited to South-west Sydney. I recognise that other contexts differ. My hope is that saying these things up-front will help the reader move beyond trying to guess at my biases and focus on the topic.
I previously argued that we need to think carefully about the amount of time we spend with Christians, particularly if that leaves us little opportunity or capacity to develop relationships with non-Christians.
Christians schools are a very significant part of our PNVs. They have non-Christians in them but are still basically Christian environments insulated from the wider community. Furthermore, private school often express and perpetuate other social divisions. Even low-fee-paying private schools consist of the children of middle-class people who can afford to send their kids there.
We see this expressed in our churches. Have you ever wondered why your church is full of middle-class people and why it’s so hard to reach blue-collar workers and ocker-Aussies? Have you wondered why your youth group is full of kids from private schools and few from public schools? Or why your church community feels insulated from the life of the local community? One of the reasons might be that most of the Christians at your church send their children to the Christian school. It’s very difficult to connect with a school community that you aren’t a part of.
This is a macro-level problem. This conversation may not change your decision of where you send your own children to school. That decision is an important part of your responsibility as a parent. However, as a church we need to recognise this social disconnection and the implications that it has for mission. Yes, there are non-Christians in Christian schools. Yes, there are good opportunities for evangelism there. But this doesn’t alleviate the issue in the slightest. Surely we cannot be satisfied with dismissively concluding that “at least we’re evangelising the private school kids”! We are missing out on connecting with most of our local communities. Local schools are possibly the best local opportunity for mission that we have.
Christian Schools as Opportunity & Danger
Christian education offers a wonderful opportunity to integrate the Christian worldview across the curriculum. It is a wonderful opportunity for schools to partner with Christian parents in raising children who are disciples of Jesus. It is a wonderful opportunity to challenge the many non-Christians who attend Christian schools to turn to Jesus too.
However, there are dangers. Students who go to a Christian school and don’t become Christians will ever afterwards assume that they have “tried out Christianity” and found it wanting. To some extent this is inevitable: rebellious human-beings will use any excuse available to reject the gospel. However, there is a danger here that Christian schools must take extraordinarily seriously: it is far easier to inoculate students to the gospel than it is to evangelise them. It is far easier to tell the gospel to students than it is to disciple them toward Christian maturity.
So: does your school present the gospel faithfully and winsomely to teenagers? Does it teach the scope of the Christian worldview and integrate it throughout the curriculum? Does it teach all that is good about life under Jesus, and show just how destructive the alternatives are? Or does it include just enough gospel to make sure students will never catch the whole illness? Is it satisfied with explaining how to become a Christian, but teaching little on how to be a Christian?
Public schools must do one thing well: teach students the curriculum. Christian schools must do two things well: teach students the curriculum and evangelise them. If Christian schools teach the curriculum badly then they are failing in their educational mandate. If they evangelise badly then they are failing to be Christian and are probably hardening children to the gospel. Failing in either task is entirely unacceptable. If we are to have Christian schools at all then they need to be extremely good at both tasks. That means that we need excellent Christian teachers in Christian schools. But we need excellent Christian teachers elsewhere too…
Public Schools as Opportunity & Danger
Public schools teach a curriculum that is controlled by the state, meaning that they will reflect the ever-changing morality and worldview of secular society. As public schools move further from the Christian worldview, Christian parents will have more reasons to be concerned about what is taught to their children. This has become increasingly obvious in the areas of gender identity and sex education. We should expect the number of areas of concern to increase as time goes on.
This is a good reason to send your children to a Christian school. Children are not mission resources to be strategically “deployed” into hostile territory. They aren’t missionaries either, though some will take exception to my saying that. They are adults-in-training. That means that they cannot be more than disciples-in-training and missionaries-in-training.
That’s the challenge. Teenagers need to simultaneously grow into mature adults and mature disciples. They must grow up in more than one way at the same time. Adults struggle to merely grow in Christ. Let’s be considerate of teens who must grow up in two ways at once! Teenagers are struggling with issues of identity, sexuality, peer-pressure, and a host of worldview and morality issues that we never had to face. They face the challenge of turning their childhood faith into adult faith and of working out if they will own the faith of their upbringing for themselves. Leaving aside their peers, how will they handle their teachers who authoritatively portray the Christian faith as historically, scientifically, and morally bankrupt? We must be careful not to overestimate their maturity or resilience. The teenage years are years of growth and formation. They are years of enormous potential, but also of enormous danger. We must be sober minded about their capacity.
That’s why many Christians don’t send their children to public schools. I respect that decision and I understand it. Perhaps my wife and I will end up making the same decision for our children. However, I cannot help but feel profoundly dissatisfied by the way in which this isolates Christians from a large proportion of their local community. This alone should make us consider sending our children to public schools.
To the Teachers
It’s not just our Christian students who are in private schools. Most of our best Christian teachers work at Christian schools. But we need Christian teachers in public schools too! We need Christians supporting Christian students, facilitating Christian lunchtime groups, evangelising their colleagues, and (if nothing else) just being Christians in a secular schooling environment. There is so much potential for Christian teachers to quietly promote the gospel in public schools and to lovingly serve their local community there. (Read this).
This will be challenging. Christians are often not welcome in public schools. They will often be expected to keep their faith to themselves. But there are many opportunities too. My first teaching job was at a challenging public high school. It didn’t take long for students to notice that I was the teacher who didn’t swear and for them to ask me: “sir, are you a churchy?” You cannot go into public schools to overtly evangelise students. However, if they ask you about yourself (as they often do) there is a lot of opportunity to share what you personally believe and explain why you think it is important.
We need experienced Christian teachers to serve in public schools. This is a wonderful opportunity for promoting the gospel, and for loving our neighbours. I wonder if it should become a standard move for experienced Christian teachers to move into public schools for the sake of the gospel.
And then there are Catholic schools. I know of Catholic schools where even non-Christians teach religious education. That is a great opportunity for evangelicals to be part of the community and to speak the gospel. So we need Christians there too…
By now it sounds like my thoughts can be summarised as: we need an impossibly large number of Christian teachers in public schools, Christian schools, and Roman Catholic schools.
Yes, that’s exactly what we need! Let’s pray for that (Matthew 9:38)!
Let’s also have some conversations about schooling and making the most of the available opportunities. We need to talk together about how to raise our children well and the pros and cons of where to send our children to school. We need to do Christian education extremely well. We need Christian teachers in public schools.
There is a lot potential and a lot of complexity around this
issue. Let’s start talking about it.
 Emily Cobb and Fiona McLean have each recently offered thoroughly worthwhile reflections on the decision of whether or not to send our children to private schools.
 ‘Evangelise’ is being used in a broad sense here: it includes educating about the content of the Bible and the Christian worldview, integrating this into the entire curriculum, as well as evangelising in the narrower sense of communicating the gospel and challenging them to repentance and faith in Jesus.
‘Musings on Mission’ Series
1. The Disappearance of the Visible Church
2. We Need to Spend Less Time with Other Christians
3. We Need to Think More Carefully about Christians Schools
4. We Need to Stop ‘Church Planting’
5. God Uses Godliness for Mission
6. We Don’t Really Believe in Prayer