The Evolution of the Christian School

Principals: take the lead here. Circulate this to your staff and hold a discussion with them on the stage of your school and what you believe to be the ideal stage. Repeat the exercise with your board.

At which stage is your school? Christian schools often start as Bible schools while protecting children from the secular world. These schools often change over time. Some intentionally become academic powerhouses with the Bible on the back bench.

In 1991 George Marsden wrote an essay in First Things entitled “The Soul of the American University.” It later became a book with that title (1996). In the essay he traced the history of the finest academic universities in America: all began as Bible schools. The early presidents often were pastors.

Duke University chapel Founded in 1924, Duke University said its aim was to “assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” At their founding, universities such as Michigan, Chicago, Harvard, Yale, and many more had similar aims. Now all of them are secular… and top-drawer academically. Marsden’s essay and a conversation with a man who had visited many Christian day schools across North America led me to describe these different stages in the history of Christian schools.

Stage 1:

A church forms an extended church school, meant to protect the children from secular culture and to teach them the Bible. These schools are heavy on pious acts (prayer, singing, Bible memorization) and have little contact with the general culture. Special revelation (the Bible) is large; general revelation (creation) is small. Academically, the school is poor. Parents who participate often view intellectual activity as leading their children away from a dependence on God.

Stage 2:

The school has a slight decrease in piety; there is an opening of the door to the general culture, with teachers required to teach subjects from a biblical perspective (which usually means Bible verses describing attitudes toward culture). The schools are better academically but no rival to the better public schools. Many teachers are strong in faith but weak in academic prowess and in their ability to integrate faith into subjects (math, history, arts, etc.).

Stage 3:

The school grows in academic strength, now looking carefully at all of culture. In every subject, teachers teach a discernible Christian perspective. The number of pious acts is few, often reserved for a chapel or daily rituals of opening and closing prayers. The community thinks of the school as equal to the public schools. The academic credentials of the faculty are the equal of the public schools.

Stage 4:

The school is now strong academically, attractive as a better alternative than the public schools. Pious acts are infrequent, perhaps a weekly chapel that is more educational than devotional. The Christian perspective on culture is written in foundational statements but seldom discernible in classrooms or in student assessments. Most participants celebrate the school’s Christian tradition.

Stage 5:

The school has a wide reputation as being an excellent academic institution clearly superior to government schools. Pious acts are non-existent; the chapel is a place more than an event, now used for graduations and discussions. The Christian tradition is still mentioned occasionally, but it has no influence on decisions. If there has been a religious word in the school’s name, it is now gone: Darlington Christian Academy becomes Darlington Academy.

I am convinced from reading and experience that no school achieves its aim with weak intentions. None of the major universities, I believe, intended to become secular. Cultural pressures caused the drift into a different kind of school with different aims.

Where has your school been? At which stage are you now? Where are you headed? These are questions worth considering.

– Dan VanderArk, curriculum director at Northpointe Christian in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to The Evolution of the Christian School

  1. Julius de Jager

    As much as I can appreciate Marsden’s work in researching a historical record of shifts in some Christian educational institutions, the five stages that are being posed by Vander Ark as development points for CSI Christian schools in a continuum is not helpful. The assumption is being communicated that schools need to get to Stage Three, which is still fraught with its own issues, while avoiding the slide to Stage Four and Five. Or, is Vander Ark suggesting that this slide is inevitable?

    It may be better to think about how well we integrate our Christian identity, perspective and insight in educational matters within a robust frame of educational excellence. We want our schools to be the best in terms of our Christian identity and educational task so that our students are developing in Christian virtue, mastering their learning and producing God-glorifying work thereby building respect for their flourishing Christian school.

    Would it not be better to determine a scale of how deeply we understand and integrate our Christian identity into our educational practice? Would it not be better to build rubrics for how well we engage in a unified learning vision that includes the three critical aspects of a sound educational experience?

  2. Tom Molenkamp

    Dan,
    Great articulation of the pattern that we see played out time and again. May our school never shed its faith as it grows and improves. And may we also not fall victim to the other perilous pattern: a) school starts as described in stage 1; b) school follows the prescribed path to stage 2 and then stage 3; c) school, in fear of stage 4, tries to revert to its “roots” or get back to the good old days but can’t recapture the authentic faith and enthusiasm of its founders; d) school becomes more insular, more disengaged from its community, its city, and its contemporary cultural context, to the degree that its defined only by what it is not and not by what it is for; e) school succumbs to a slow and painful death.

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