Like every concerned parent, pastor, or educator, I look at the dropout rates of young people who leave their faith in college, never to return to the Church again, and I wonder how best to stem the tide. I take little comfort in telling myself that schools rank low in the “influence index,” or that spiritual outcomes are not the primary objectives of our typical student profile. I actually take more comfort in embracing a dose of realism—life is tough; pray hard—and I pursue a few basic objectives.
First, I have made a mantra out of telling parents and faculty that our school does not compartmentalize matters of faith. My goal is for spirituality to be pervasive, natural, and uncontrived. As an Anglican parish school, we have Morning Prayer for our students and courses in religion, but matters of faith are not confined to those venues.
Second, I advocate teaching the Bible as the Bible. Long ago I threw out all Grammar School curriculums in this area. I told my teachers to take the Scripture and to do something novel: read it with your students, outline it, make lists of the details, memorize it, and learn chapter content. Forget about curriculums that seek to make a life- application each step along the way, and don’t moralize. I have to trust that the Holy Spirit will do that at some point, but our goal at school will be to do something I don’t think most churches do very well, which is to master the text.
Third, I try to succeed with students where they are. We set ourselves up for failure if we seek to make students the next participants in the culture war. They have their own wars to fight right now, and spiritual formation occurs when they learn spiritual disciplines applied to their problems in the present. Learning faithfulness in the present will help them to be faithful when the future becomes the present. In other words, if our goal is simply to produce students who are future cultural change agents, we may overemphasize ideas, positions, and apologetic methods, and overlook the conversion that they must experience themselves.
Finally, I think conversion is a better way to think about the whole process. Christian experience is not one, but a series of conversions or “turnings” or “re-turnings.” All of us had to learn how to hold our faith as we moved through different experiences in life. We had to re-negotiate ourselves against the Dogmatics we learned at home and in Sunday School. Each time we passed from one stage to the next, whether it was from high school to college, or from college to young adulthood, or into marriage or middle age, we had to undergo a new “conversion” of sorts. We had to move up to the next level, and our faith had to be relevant and vital.
In this way of thinking, a crisis of faith at any level is a crisis of conversion. Jesus said to Peter that “Satan has desired to have you, but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not: and when you are converted, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus certainly wasn’t referring to a first-time embrace of faith on Peter’s part, but to an on-going and thoroughgoing navigation through a crisis of faith. These transitions can be successfully made when students find the support and encouragement in the people of God at each step in the process. In the K-12 student context, I think that means that we have to be present-oriented and focus on the challenges that students face right now.