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The Christian school movement is growing in China, with 300-500 unregistered church schools now operating. A leader in the movement, Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, has a classical Christian school, Covenant Reformed, with 36 students in three grade levels—third, sixth, and ninth. It plans to add a first-grade class next year. Here are edited and translated excerpts of my interview with headmaster Matthew Su.
How did the idea for starting a Christian school come about? While researching a Sunday school curriculum for the church, we started to see the importance of Christian education in Reformed theology. At the time, several Sunday school teachers and I had our own kids who were reaching school age, and so we decided to look into Christian education resources in China to start our school.
What did you find? We weren’t satisfied. We found many of the other schools had been influenced by modern secular educators such as Maria Montessori and John Dewey. House churches want to teach kids based on the Bible, but because they haven’t completely rethought their ideas about education, they’ve quietly been influenced. We started to think how we could teach through a biblical worldview.
What is the difference between Covenant Reformed and the typical Chinese school? Classical Christian education focuses on the Bible and how to look at different topics through a biblical worldview. In the lower grades, teachers work on developing students’ language and math skills. Once this foundation is set up, then when students learn science or theology, they will already be able to think independently and use language to express themselves. In China, schools split their time teaching a variety of subjects, so even grad students have trouble communicating their ideas through writing. They haven’t been well-trained in logic, critical thinking, and humanities, and instead focus solely on their specialty.
‘We help students understand Chinese modern history, politics, and law so they can better understand society. We talk about things that are skipped over in Chinese public schools, like the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square incident.’
Do you deal with controversial areas? We help students understand Chinese modern history, politics, and law so they can better understand society. We talk about things that are skipped over in Chinese public schools, like the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square incident. Rather than giving them opinion pieces written by democracy activists, we want them to look at this from a Christian worldview. To get information on these subjects, often we need to hop over the Great Firewall or get books from Hong Kong or Taiwan.
How do you get students to look at classical Chinese literature from a biblical worldview? In elementary grades they focus on learning Chinese well, so they memorize classical Chinese texts, like Tang dynasty poems. In middle school we start to teach them The Analects of Confucius. We examine the thought process undergirding his writing. We consider how it influenced Chinese culture and how we can look at it from a Christian point of view. Since the Ming dynasty, Jesuit missionaries have compared and contrasted Christianity with Confucianism. Now we need to research this from a Reformed worldview.
Some Christian schools in China teach in English. Why do you focus on the students getting a Chinese education? Part of our curriculum includes classic Western books, yet we read Chinese translations of those books and discuss those books in Chinese. We want our students to have good English, but many of China’s Christian schools are completely taught in English, and in turn their students have poor Chinese. The danger in this is that it changes the goal and motive of the Chinese Christian school movement. First, the schools won’t be accessible to everyone, since the English curriculum is more expensive. Also, the schools will solely prepare students to study overseas, rather than giving them the preparation they need to stay in China and influence society.
What do you look for in a teacher? First, teachers need to know the basics of the theology and have a good church life, so they can view issues through a biblical lens, as well as grow in their faith through the shepherding of the church. Second, they need a foundation in the humanities with logic, critical thinking, philosophy, and history. Third, they need to be educators with school experience who know how to manage a classroom. Right now in the church, most teachers only have that third requirement down. We ask potential teachers about their thoughts about faith, politics, and societal issues, and they often have trouble articulating their views. This is because typical Chinese colleges don’t emphasize the humanities. It’s very specialized, and students only learn their own subject. In contrast, our students start thinking about these topics in middle school.
Besides finding teachers, what other difficulties do Christian schools face? Pastors need to understand better Christian education to promote it in their churches. If they don’t care about this, this movement won’t grow. We need to create more organizations that focus on informing the church about education. We need people to translate overseas books and articles on Christian education: We need conferences and discussions about this. Right now there are a lot of new schools, but very few organizations that do research on education. Without the research, many of these schools lack a foundation for what they are doing.
What risks do students who attend Covenant face? When we first started, we told parents they should be prepared for the school to shut down at any time. This school is under Early Rain Church, so if the church is persecuted, the school will be closed as well. We are prepared: If worst comes to worst, the students will be taught in their dining rooms because we believe the most important part of the school is the people; if the rest is gone, then we can continue teaching in homes, like the original house churches.
And because this is an unregistered school, what happens when students graduate? Right now we’ve already started creating a college: We hope that when our ninth-grade class graduates, students have the option of attending college here if they can’t go overseas. Because Chinese Christian schools have only started in the past 10 years, few students have graduated thus far, but in a few years there will be a huge need for Christian colleges. If the government by then gives house churches greater freedom, it’s possible that churches will be able to connect and create two or three liberal arts colleges in China, as well as vocational schools that incorporate Christian values and ethics.
How will Christian schools affect the entire house church movement? Since the ban on Chinese Christian schools in 1949, this is the first time churches have started their own schools, so we are working with other schools to create a Christian education system. This is a blessing to house churches because they will affect a future generation of Christians, including pastors. Now we have seminarians with only a middle-school education, so writing essays and learning church history and biblical languages is difficult for them. If future pastors have this basis in Christian education, that will greatly help the church in China.