“In this era of economic uncertainty, why should I send my child to a Christian school?”
As Lynn Swaner and Charlotte Marshall Powell state in the recent report “Christian Schools and COVID-19: Responding Nimbly, Facing the Future,” Christian schools may need more than ever before to articulate to families the value of the education they provide.
No doubt, many of us in Christian schools have spent years articulating our value proposition via our websites, print materials, and campus tours. We can readily describe many good things that our schools bring to our students and their families.
Yet I think we can do better. In fact, I believe we must do better.
Parents send their children to Christian schools for myriad reasons. For some, faith looms large. Others seek community with like-minded classmates and families. Some seek quality academics, sports, or fine arts programs. Still others seek help for children with special learning or behavioral needs. And the reasons go on.
While many of these things matter greatly to parents, another recent Association of Christian Schools International report on school choice finds that the number one characteristic that Christian school current and prospective parents deem essential in a school is safety.
Surveys are often blunt instruments, though, and this single word “safety” leaves much unexplained. From what exactly do parents desire safety? From bullies? Drugs? School shootings? Teenage pregnancy? Obscenities that would rob children of their innocence? Political indoctrination from opponents in the culture wars? Ideological challenges to their religious worldviews? Racial and economic diversity? Public schools in general? Satan and his minions?
A couple of years ago, I attended an administrators’ meeting during which participants were encouraged to discuss with one another how their schools could prioritize not only their students’ physical safety, but their emotional and spiritual safety as well. I was glad to see the conversation broadened to include multiple dimensions, and I agreed with much of what other participants said about ensuring that our schools were places where students sensed that they were cared for. However, I still remember feeling dissatisfied with the scope of the conversation and voicing my conviction that the greater challenge our schools actually faced was the temptation to play things too safe.
Andy Crouch, in his book Strong and Weak, argues that to flourish as humans requires that we embrace both authority and vulnerability. As educators, this means giving our students significant opportunities to develop authority by stepping out of their proverbial “comfort zone” to try new and meaningful things. We do this not merely to prepare them for the future (although it certainly does include that), but to show them that we believe that young disciples can and should make meaningful contributions to our world now—even if these things open them up to possible failure, hurt, rejection, and loss.
When we think of the paradigmatic leaders of our faith, we obviously think of Christ himself, whose mission took him to the cross on the way to his resurrection and ascension. We think of the apostles Peter and Paul, who stepped into eternal glory (tradition tells us) via crucifixion and beheading. We think of the believers at Thessalonica, whose adoption of the faith led to persecution. These New Testament figures knew by experience what 20th-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously stated in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Within the American church, we sometimes share historical stories of martyrs for the faith, but most of the time we don’t actually believe that martyrdom could or should happen to us or our children. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it,
“I think one of the most heartbreaking aspects of our lives today are young people desperate to have something to die for, and we’re afraid to give it to them. . . [But] the great good news is we’ve something to live for in a world in which you’re not going to get out of life alive. . . The deepest enemy to Christianity is not atheism; it’s sentimentality. And sentimentality is seen most clearly in Christians’ unwillingness to have their children suffer for their convictions. They just don’t want to think that what it means to be a Christian, you might have to pay some prices for.”
These words of Hauerwas indict not only an American church that deprioritizes discipleship and ignores its costs, but a generation of “helicopter” parents who swoop in to rescue their children from adversity—or, more recently, “bulldozer,” “snowplow,” “lawnmower,” and “street paver” parents who run over and push aside obstacles in order to smooth the path to success for their children.
In response to this parenting mode and to a rise in suicide and other self-harming behaviors among American youth, mental health experts and educators have written books and implemented school programs aimed at increasing student grit and resilience. As Christians, we can affirm these efforts, and also add the term perseverance, as the apostle Paul did when he reminded the church at Rome that “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
As people of hope, we know that any prices we do pay will pale in comparison to the glory we will experience on that day when our wounds born of love come to resemble those on the resurrected body of our Savior and he wipes every tear from every eye.
We also know that, until that day comes, we can still experience lives of great joy—even in the midst of uncertainty and suffering. And while following Jesus will cost us everything, we must remember that the cost of not following him is far greater still, even in this life. As Dallas Willard explains,
“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul.”
When we live life with God, we know that we are safe no matter what happens, and that even things that hurt us cannot ultimately harm us. When we know that we are loved, psychologists tell us, we have the existential security that allows us to step out bravely into the world around us. This means that we can collect life’s bumps, bruises, and lacerations, knowing that when we fall and fail, our Lord will make something beautiful not just out of our circumstances, but also out of us.
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So, during this difficult season and in the years to come, what if our value pitch sounded something like this?
Dear Parents of Current and Prospective Students,
Thank you for your commitment and interest in our school. We are honored that your children are attending or considering attending.
As we move into the future, we want to be up front with you about something: We cannot promise you a safe education for your children (in the way you may be thinking of it).
We will do our absolute best to confront bullying, to screen out unwanted visitors, to properly maintain playground equipment, and to keep drugs off of our campus. We believe these things matter greatly, and we pay close attention to them because we love our students.
However, we also believe that there is something even more essential to education than this.
You may have enrolled your children or be considering enrollment at the school for various reasons (our stellar academics, your children’s extracurricular interests, our special needs program, etc.). We value those things. But the reason we do them—or educate at all—is only because we believe in the formation of young people who know that they have been lovingly created by God and are called to love him and to love their neighbors as themselves.
While your children are at our school, they will not be entirely comfortable, because we will challenge them to look at life more deeply than they have ever done before.
We will give them every opportunity to connect with their Maker—whether they currently know him or not. It is not enough to have just a little bit of faith in order to be a well-rounded or ethical person. And it is not enough to have had a conversion experience but have little interest in pursuing a life of holiness. Rather, we will call your children into a life of discipleship, which includes engaging in soul-shaping devotional practices, confronting the many idols in their lives (and possibly the lives of your families and churches), and living out their faith in some very meaningful ways.
They will be asked to try new things, from solving complex math equations to playing organized sports to singing in a choir. They may not want to do some of these things because they have never done them before and because they fear finding out (and letting others find out) that they are not very good at something. We will ask them to try anyway, and to help them come to an understanding that the ultimate basis of self-worth is found in their status as a child of God and not in their performance. We will help them to see that God can and will use both their strengths and their weaknesses in life to bless others. And in the process, they will discover and develop competencies that they never thought possible, and use them to create products of great truth and beauty.
We will also challenge your children to think deeply. Their brains will hurt as they develop the intellectual muscles necessary to pursue truth within the worlds of nature and human culture. They will read texts and consider all sorts of ideas prevalent in the world around them. As they read and discuss (and disagree with their peers and teachers at times), they will learn to see both the resplendent beauty of God’s grace and the sheer ugliness of human sin.
As a school, we hold unswervingly to the core tenets of the Christian faith expressed in the historic creeds of the church. However, we will not take a hard and fast position on most issues that divide Christians today. But neither will we shy away from discussing them and encouraging students to honestly voice their convictions, doubts, and questions—to us and to you. Your children may come out the other end of their schooling years believing some different things than you do on various doctrinal, political, and social matters. But they will have arrived at those positions by deeply considering the connection between the Christian faith and the world around them. As a result, their faith will be more alive and real to them than ever before.
We will also impress upon your children that the faith they possess is not merely for their own emotional well-being or eternal salvation, but requires that they step beyond their comfort zones and the walls of the school to understand the harsh realities of our fallen world and how they can share the love of God in the midst of it. This means that we will provide age-appropriate opportunities for your children to learn about issues ranging from human trafficking to the residual effects of slavery and racial segregation to the difficulties faced by people with disabilities. And we will also provide age-appropriate opportunities for your children to proclaim the gospel and expend themselves on behalf of those who disproportionately suffer the effects of our world’s brokenness. After all, Jesus and his disciples never lived within a bubble. And neither should we.
As hard and scary as some of this may sound, we should also let you know that your children will spend their time in our classrooms, hallways, and sports facilities surrounded by some of the most joyful and compassionate people on the face of the earth. The administrators, teachers, and other staff members at our school have chosen the road of discipleship of Christ and have found his yoke easy, and his burden light. As they walk their days in communion with the Spirit of God, they certainly feel the world’s sorrows. But they also know the peace and providence of God in their lives. They trust God’s care for them, which frees them to avert their gaze outward to others. These people will love on your children like crazy. Of course, as a community we are not perfect. But we care for one another, laugh with one another, forgive one another, and seek the face of God together.
We cannot promise you smooth sailing or a life free of hardship or pain. On this side of eternity, no one will promise you that unless they are selling you something that, at some point, will fail to deliver.
But we can promise you that we will love your children, and that through spending time here with us, they (and possibly you) will be changed. They will have grown in confidence. They will have grown in capabilities. And, most importantly, they will have grown in character, developing virtues such as courage, humility, faith, perseverance, wisdom, and love. In sum, they will look more like Jesus.
Our school is not the only place where training in discipleship happens, of course. But we can truly say that it is our primary focus and that we strive every day to make it possible. Parents of current students, we are glad that you and your children have decided that this place matters to you. And parents of prospective students, if you believe that educational discipleship matters to you and your children, too, we would love to have you join the grand adventure that God has for us.
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I have never worked in admissions, so maybe this is all hopelessly naïve. Maybe discipleship already occurs to such a sufficient degree within most parents’ churches and homes that there is no need for a school like this. Or, much more likely, maybe parents don’t sense a need because they and their churches don’t really care about giving their children something worth living and dying for.
If the latter is the case, this still does not change one iota the mission of our schools—namely, to educate in such a way as to disciple young people, to build up the Body of Christ, and to love others within this world that God so loves. What it does mean, though, is that admissions officers must become evangelists for this form of education. Instead of merely trying to sell the school by listening to the desires of prospective parents and students and trying to explain how the school’s offerings meet those desires, admissions officers instead must enter into deep conversations about what is true about our world and about what discipleship actually entails for those who profess the name of Christ. At their best, some of our admissions officers already do this, as they prompt inquiring parents into a degree of soul searching that they certainly weren’t expecting when they made that initial phone call or scheduled that tour.
If parents and students want to come for the sports program or the rigorous academics or the fine arts offerings or the special education program, fine. But they need to know that their children are going to have to endure a whole lot of Jesus along the way—and not as an add-on, but as the central axis around which everything else revolves. As such, we will proclaim boldly and often that a life spent valuing anything more highly than God and his Kingdom is ultimately one of futility. And since Jesus commands his followers to take up their cross and follow him, this will feel quite uncomfortable for those whose primary goals are attaining pleasure and avoiding the difficulties of life.
But I’m hopeful that the Spirit of God is moving, and that a holy discontent is growing within the hearts of churchgoers dissatisfied by the thin faith promoted within many mainstream evangelical churches. Maybe these families don’t yet know exactly what they are looking for. But maybe when they see our schools, they’ll see something they’ve never experienced before—a community of educators and families who are intimately familiar with the Cross, but who live in the truth, beauty, and goodness of Resurrection and walk together with God wherever he leads.
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Of course, we can only advertise this form of education if we actually provide it. So let’s put our hands to the plow, my friends, and not look back.
 Lynn E. Swaner and Charlotte Marshall Powell, “Christian Schools and COVID-19: Responding Nimbly, Facing the Future” (Colorado Springs, CO: Association of Christian Schools International, 2020), 22–23.
 Barna Group, “Multiple Choice: How Parents Sort Education Options in a Changing Market” (Colorado Springs, CO: Association of Christian Schools International, 2017), 19–23. Thanks to Dr. Jerry Eshelman, Superintendent of Resurrection Christian School in Loveland, Colorado, for calling this study to my attention.
 Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2016).
 Bonhoeffer Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Press, 2015), 44.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “Something to Die For,” The Work of the People, accessed May 25, 2020, https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/something-to-die-for.
 Hannan Adely, “Out of the Way, Helicopter Parents: Bulldozer Parents Mow down Their Child’s Every Obstacle,” North Jersey, accessed May 27, 2020, https://www.northjersey.com/story/life/family/2019/09/17/helicopter-parents-move-over-bulldozer-parents-take-things-up-notch/2130643001/.
 Romans 5:3b-4
 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Zondervan, 2006), 9.
 “Lecture: Dr. Dallas Willard, ‘How Is God with Us? How Can We Know It?’ May 26, 2011 – YouTube,” accessed May 26, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhobThHUzcA.
 The principal concept of attachment theory is that at birth and throughout life, people attach to others who serve as a secure base from which to explore the greater world and a haven of safety to which they can turn in periods of trial. See John Bowlby, Attachment, vol. 1, 3 vols., Attachment and Loss (New York: Basic Books, 1969); Lee A. Kirkpatrick, “An Attachment-Theory Approach to the Psychology of Religion,” Journal for the Psychology of Religion, no. 2 (1992): 3–28.
 If your school is affiliated with a particular denomination, you may end up taking firmer positions on a wider range of Christian doctrinal issues than non-denominational schools. However, you still have the responsibility to create open spaces for honest discussion of these doctrines and opinions.
 Matthew 11:30
 On coming before the Cross, but living under the goodness, truth, and beauty of the Resurrection, see “Chapel: Dallas Willard, Sept. 12, 2011 – YouTube,” accessed June 1, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzzzH9z0SRE. Also, thanks to Jan Stump for conversations over the years about helping prospective parents to imagine the previously unimaginable.