By George Durance

In early October (2022) I found myself in a relaxed social setting where several parents with teenage children spoke to each other about life “at school.” The conversation turned negative when one mentioned an issue she found upsetting and others joined her in lamenting the state of affairs.

I am not sure what a “typical” American high school is, but I suspect the school to which she was referring would qualify as something approaching typical. Not particularly conspicuous at any level, it is generally held to be a “good” school with a modern facility, up-to-date pedagogy, involved parents and a moderately progressive school board. The local newspaper demonstrates enthusiasm for the better than average sports teams and graduates occasionally distinguish themselves in ways that we are led to believe folks in other counties celebrate. Also, to its presumed credit, disgruntled parents neither disrupt school board meetings, nor do they establish a competing private high school, that telltale sign of dissatisfaction and disengagement.  

The issue upsetting the parent was the need an animal-presenting student had for a litter box. This makes the point, in a way, that LGBTQ+ is already “so yesterday” along with a host of other issues which were the headline only a few years ago. Social media makes an event in San Francisco Friday afternoon a raging concern in a suburban school far away on Monday morning. This phenomenon leaves society and the church, off footed and ill-prepared to provide answers and alternatives.

According to the parent, a biological female presenting as a she and a girl objected to one of the cat students touching her; in her words, she firmly but without anger, told the cat student to ‘get his paws off her.’ Her insensitivity and hurtful language deeply wounded the cat who appealed to the principal and student body. Upon discovering this, the pawed girl apologized, offered to perform the requisite penance, and agreed to embrace shame for bullying and verbal violence. This version of events, while informed, was informal, so the point I am making is not about the details of an outrageous incident, but about one side of a challenge the church currently faces.

A few days after this conversation, I attended a kickoff BBQ for a classical Christian school operating in our church. Many of the parents and supporters in attendance were leading members of the church’s board and congregation. The next day I mentioned to the church’s pastor that I had been a guest at the celebratory BBQ. He thought for a moment and then told me he had not known ‘a school was starting or that it wished to use the church’s facility until a few weeks ago.’ This statement was more shocking than anything the parents had said about “cats” in the high school, and it introduces the other side of the challenge referenced above.   

What is the challenge? It is the fact that the church remains essentially unaware of its cultural marginalization and failure to embrace the power Christ gave us through His Spirit to make disciples in an oppositional world. Juxtaposing the two conversations above is like viewing two sides of a coin: on one side is a church that is unaware of the opportunity and need and on the other is a society that is intentionally and ruinously throwing off the truth and heritage which nurtured it in every way.

Many have written extensively about the broad cultural degeneration in Canada, the United States, and other western countries. However, few are addressing the church side of the problem, namely that the church’s light is dimming; by contrast, there is nothing surprising about the darkness of the world – it is just doing what darkness does. In the case at hand, there is a capable, people oriented, networked senior pastor – one of the most gifted I have met – serving in the largest evangelical church in the region, yet unaware of what should have been the most noteworthy innovation in the fall program. This is not an administrative error where a chain of command was broken; rather, it is a statement about the church’s understanding of its educational mandate. Other than the 40 or so gathered at the BBQ, the congregation was largely unaware of the school’s launch or the potential significance it represented. Perhaps even worse, although this is speculation, the low-key launch may have been intentional because naysayers in the community could have killed the initiative if it had been publicly vetted.

Sunday School, Awana, camps, VBS, and youth activities are uncontroversial in most churches today, if they still exist. But when the church seeks to become involved in formal PK-12 education, controversial and contrarian perspectives emerge everywhere. Many argue that Christian children should be salt and light in the secular school system. Others point out that children will not get a quality education if they attend a fledgling school, or that parents should not experiment with educational alternatives given the fact that children have only one chance to be educated. Some argue that local schools employ good Christian teachers who can neutralize the negative aspects found in the public school’s environment. And, if these teachers don’t fully eradicate or neutralize the deleterious elements in the environment, the excellent youth pastor will complete the task through periodic contact with the children. It is quite common for Christian parents to feel their excellent parenting skills, including family devotions and wholesome media policies, are sufficient to protect the child from the evils of the age even while they give their children an opportunity to toughen up and understand what the world is doing and saying. Afterall, was that not what happened to them 25 years ago when their parents sent them to school?

All these arguments make a point and invite a contrary point, which may or may not be convincing. The church’s responsibility is not to engage in argument but in a sincere quest to help parents think through the issues and adopt a rigorous strategy of discipleship, regardless of the educational option chosen for good and wholesome purpose. This calls for reflection, creativity, and commitment.

There are many children and young families in our local church because it provides an excellent suite of resources and activities for children, amongst other good qualities. What more should be done? While praising the church and thanking God for the wonderful people and programs associated with it, what we have is a good first step. In the twentieth century, when much of the culture was nominally Christian, it would have been a sufficient step. Until recently our culture allowed parents and the church to pursue discipleship programing as a kind of supplement to what was publicly available. Four or five hours of church-based activities and teaching, together with character modelling and God-honoring instruction in the home, was seen to top up and correct twenty-five hours of a co-mingled Christian-secular public education. Dramatic changes in the home, the school and even the church mean the model is no longer useful. To misunderstand this is to leave the emerging generation unprepared for a life journey on a narrow path to the Celestial City.

Deuteronomy 6 and Joshua 1 and many other passages speak of the all-in nature of disciple making. Biblical truth and the presence of a Christo-centric world view in the totality of all our experiences is to be impressed on our children, talked about in our homes, and intentionally cultivated when we sit, lie down, and dress ourselves. This should be seen in our home’s décor and in our person as we walk through the streets of everyday life. Our Lord’s simple statement to Joshua (1:8) sums up the enduring mandate:

“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.”

The Spirit teaches us that discipleship is an ‘everywhere, all the time, in every logical way’ activity. With virtually every facet of our culture communicating an enticing, antagonistic, secular worldview, the church needs an equally pervasive, all-in effort to win the hearts and minds of our children, even while it relies prayerfully on God’s Spirit to transform. What might this strategy look like in the church today? Below are several articles that provide helpful ideas for those seeking inspiration.

Walter Bagehot, renowned journalist and editor of the Economist wrote many years ago:

The practical difficulties of life cannot be met by very simple rules; [because] those dangers [are]…complex and many, the rules for encountering them cannot…be single or simple…. A uniform remedy for many diseases often ends by killing the patient.

This tragic, unwanted outcome of simplistic solutions is on the church’s horizon in the United States if we continue to adhere to an outdated educational model loved and revered in an age now largely forgotten.

Suggestions for further reading

  1. “Educational Imperialism” by Nicole M. King in Salvo Magazine. Clipped On Tuesday, October 4, 2022 at 10:37 AM.
  2. "Misguided education and the decline of western civilization," Tomorrow's World. Douglas S Winnail. 2020 July-August
  3. "The role of Christian education in local church: Explained," JustDisciple. Tai McGuire
  4. "40+ Encouraging Bible verses for teachers," Lay Cistercians South Florida