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By December 1, 2009March 15th, 2023No Comments

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Dear C,
Everywhere I turn, spiritual formation is the topic of conversation in Christian schooling circles. Always, however, from the point of view that schools are missing the boat by neglecting spiritual formation of students and that the faith dropout rate of students can be laid at the feet of the schools. After twenty years in Christian ministry and education, I am becoming skeptical that schools can or should try to take on the spiritual formation of students. Any ideas?

— R.

Dear R,
I tend to share your skepticism. I would add the nuance that academic training in a Christian context IS spiritual formation. But parents and ministry and school leaders often want something else. I’m not sure they believe that smart Christians are really spiritually better off. So, the spiritual formation or character education program — even Bible classes — is a way to dumb things down for a few hours a week so we can really “get at the kids’ hearts.”

It’s a huge bias. Try to convince a group of parents that one of the main reasons that kids lose their faith in college is not that they are too smart, but that they are not smart enough!

So, what can a school legitimately do? We can teach students to study the Word, and occasionally preach it to them. Parochial/liturgical schools might administer sacraments. We can pray. We can practice self-denial in the context of our academic and social responsibilities. And we can serve others. What else is there? I would guess, if you had this conversation with someone, they would say, “Yes, yes, I know that, that’s all good, but I just don’t feel like we’re getting to their heeeaaarrrts!” And then you say, “What does that mean?” And then they blame you because their kids are acting like teenagers, but especially like the teenagers with whom their parents let them spend every unsupervised minute of every weekend.

The battle is against the bias. CS Lewis, Harry Blamires, Frank Gaebelein, Frances Schaeffer. More recently, educators like Bruce Lockerbie, Doug Wilson, Robert Littlejohn, Richard Riesen, and John Seel are fighting the fight. Who else?

— C

Dear C,
Thanks again for your input on my question.

The caution about not overstating as well as the thoughts about how the church has historically approached spiritual formation were very helpful.

A Christian school meeting several years ago got me pondering the role of schools. An administrator painted a picture of what a “graduate” should look like – the list heavily slanted toward spiritual outcomes – while at the same time admitting that schools were at least 3rd in rank of spiritual influence on students, after parents and church.

I politely questioned the emphasis at the time, but received no satisfactory reply. Since then, I have been thinking, observing, and wondering.

Whenever I bring it up with other educators, I get dismissive responses – “Yes, it’s ultimately the parent’s job, but we do have a role—we are, after all, ‘in loco parentis.’” I can agree with that, but “having a role” and making it a concrete objective are two very different things.

I’ll spare you the process, but I have pretty much concluded that Christian education is ill- served when we make spiritual formation of students anything other than an organic by-product of participating in a community of faith centered on academic endeavor. When we say we are about the spiritual training and nurture of students, we either are misrepresenting ourselves or losing sight of our true mission. I also concluded that I had probably stepped over the edge from an alternative, but reasonable position into outright heresy, since it was hard to find others clearly saying the same.

Then my Nov. issue of First Things arrived and Gilbert Meilaender has a review of Stanley Fish’s latest book. As part of the review, Meileander draws some pretty clear distinctions between what Christian education can and cannot do. I would do him a grave injustice to try and summarize, but it certainly resonated with me. Of course, he is talking about college education, but I think much of it still applies. So, if I am off into deep heresy, at least I’m not feeling quite so lonely!

On Thursday I went to a Christian school conference for the day. The last time I went (several years ago), I was very heartened by the emphasis on academic excellence, raising the bar, the value of challenging the mind. I reported back: “They are singing our song.” This time, I heard over and over ideas similar to “if it doesn’t have an immediate spiritual application and impact, it is worthless.” Even from a college professor. It was discouraging but it is the only logical end if our job is a spiritual one.

There are 1000 facets to this whole discussion and nuances too fine for my reductionistic tendencies. But I would love to see this discussion taking place in the ranks of SCL. Have we just bought into the latest “ x” for the undeniable spiritual anemia of students? I was also intrigued by Ken Myer’s comment in Peter Leithart’s article in the ISI Journal when he wondered if the classical Christian school movement would lose its bearings and be drawn into a utilitarian view of producing cultural change agents. Aren’t these important questions for us to be asking ourselves?

— R

Dear R,
One of the problems with the confusion on this topic is that it subjectivizes what we do, and I think it feeds the consumeristic mentality that we often find ourselves battling with parents. Many Christian parents don’t look to their churches as the most profound spiritual influences in their lives—lots of people I know say that they didn’t learn to be Christians in church, but individuals in college or someplace taught them to be Christians. So when they think about their kids’ faith, maybe we’re the new Campus Crusade.

Would you mind if I circulate your thoughts and see what kind of responses we get?

— C


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