A missional approach to education

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, January 19, 2011, at 4:02 pm

One of the weaknesses in the current missional emphasis in urban church planting is the lack of commitment to planting Christian schools. Too many missional Christians equate Christian schools with withdrawing from the culture. But Christian schools also can be a way to serve society by providing education alternatives for people who need them.

Outside of a church, there is no better way, institutionally speaking, to demonstrate love for our neighbors than to provide education that surpasses failing public schools in quality and virtue, especially in inner cities. Planting churches simply is not enough to affect social change. By not having "salt and light" Christian schools (Matthew 5:13-16) we are squandering an opportunity to do much good for our society. It is strategic to note that whoever teaches the nation's children shapes the future of the culture.

Puritan pastor Cotton Mather explained the justice implications of Christian education in this way:

"A Good School deserves to be call'd, the very Salt of the Town, that hath it: And the Pastors of every Town are under peculiar obligations to make this a part of their Pastoral Care, That they may have a Good School, in their Neighbourhood.

"A woeful putrefaction threatens the Rising Generation; Barbarous Ignorance, and the unavoidable consequence of it, Outrageous Wickedness will make the Rising Generation Loathsome, if it have not Schools to preserve it.

"But Schools, wherein the Youth may by able Masters be Taught the Things that are necessary to qualify them for future Serviceableness, and have their Manners therewithal well-formed under a Laudable Discipline, and be over and above Well-Catechised in the principles of Religion, Those would be a Glory of our Land, and the preservatives of all other Glory."

Think about it. Children spend more time at school, from kindergarten through 12th grade, than they do at church-related activities. Because of the time kids spend at school, salt and light Christian schools can serve Christian and non-Christians alike in radical ways in an inner-city context. This is education as missions. How can you plant a church in a community for renewal and not also have a vision for renewing the neighborhood's education system?

Historically, the Christian tradition considered moral formation in the church and education in schools as two sides of the same coin. How wonderful would it be, then, for Christian and non-Christian children to see that, as Calvin College's James K.A. Smith puts it, a confession and understanding of "'Jesus is Lord' has a radical impact on how we see every aspect of God's good creation." Moreover, he writes, "the curriculum of Christian schools [enables] children to learn about everything-from algebra to zygotes-through the lens of Christian faith." Why not expose all children to the best possible lens for looking at reality?

The good news is that more Christians are catching the salt and light vision for Christian education and taking action. For example, Philadelphia area Christians joined hands and wallets in 1993 to launch the Children's Jubilee Fund (CJF), which sends inner-city kids to Christian schools and supports the flourishing of urban Christian schools (see video clip below). According to the CJF, only 50 percent of urban young people in Philadelphia graduate from high school and of that graduating group 35 percent are boys and 65 percent are of girls. These statistics have set the CJF on a mission for radical change.

Because of the strong connection between education and family life, these statistics also call for churches to build and strengthen families, as well as create alternative education opportunities for inner-city children that form and shape them to be knowledgeable and virtuous citizens.

What is happening in Philadelphia is innovative and more cities could benefit from missional partnerships of this nature. Missional urban church planting efforts will have little sustaining effect in our cities without missional, salt and light Christian schools.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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