An answer to this question needs to first address underlying assumptions: What is the purpose of Christian education? What is the nature of truth? What is the gospel? What is required of discipleship?
The purpose of Christian education is to equip students with a Christian mind – a true understanding of reality and how to successfully live within it. This means more than just knowing a biblical worldview. It also means being given a compelling vision of the good life and how to appropriate right here and now the resources of heaven. Spiritual formation is not optional— something to be added or subtracted from the curriculum. It is the culmination of all the factors that go into shaping what a person loves, what they trust or rely on, and who they follow. Both Pope Benedict and the Al-Quaeda operative are being spiritually formed. The only difference is to what. So the first thing to acknowledge is that every school, including the notorious government schools, is involved in spiritual formation.
The truth we teach is more than cognitive. It includes reason and imagination, being and doing. We must shun all forms of dualism that pits the academic knowledge against spiritual depth, smarts against piety, excellence against devotion.
Many parents, administrators, and teachers struggle with this question because of two factors. First, they have naively assumed the Enlightenment dualism of fact vs. value: science is about objective facts; religion is about subjective values. This is a lie from the pit of hell—and one that is celebrated and assumed by all public school education. Since many of our teachers have been trained by these institutions as have most of our parents, this assumption, though false, is common. When the Bible says that the way up is down, it carries the same epistemic force as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The good, true and beautiful are all based on objective norms whether couched in the language of the liturgy or the lab.
Second, they have naively assumed a truncated gospel that only addresses the sin problem but leaves out much of life. By reducing the gospel message to fall and redemption, we have adopted a message that gets people into heaven and fails to get heaven into people. Many Christian parents want the Christian school to simply provide a long altar call in a safe place. If at the same time the school can keep their child from publicly shaming them with an embarrassing pregnancy or drug and alcohol arrest, so much the better. Most Christian schools gladly oblige to focusing more on overt behavior than the heart condition. With enough administrative coercion, students’ heart realities can be faked until they leave for college.
If the gospel, however, includes creation and restoration (in addition to fall and redemption), then a fully orbed discipleship is in view. And true discipleship connects Sunday to Monday, the head to the heart, and the sacred to the secular. The mission of the Christian school emerges as understanding God’s good creation and the ways sin has distorted it, so that, in Christ’s power, we may bring healing to both people and the created order. And, as God’s image-bearers, we are able to exercise responsible authority in our task of cultivating the creation to the end that all people and things joyfully acknowledge and serve their Creator and true King.
All living things depend for their existence on a reality larger than themselves. This is a fact of life. It is not enough to teach our students the nature of reality without teaching them how to live successfully within it. Our goal for our students is that they become apprentices of Jesus, thereby becoming the kind of person whose lives are dependent on the resources of heaven. Our aim is not merely to create believers, but followers.
Central in our Christian schools must be a curriculum in Christ-likeness and a school culture that encourages reflection on Jesus’ priorities and character. The crisis of the church today is mirrored in Christian schools. It does not lack evangelism; it lacks an understanding of and commitment to discipleship. Competencies in spiritual formation are just as important as competencies in language and math.
We must take care in our schools not to produce modern day Pharisees, those who know Scripture but lack its transforming power. To be truly educated is to know the truth about reality and how to live life on the basis of it. And in the end, reality is relational. To teach that knowledge can somehow be segregated into compartments is to deny the lordship of Christ over all of life—a lordship which demands more than getting all the facts straight, and which demands a daily reliance on a spiritual power that is beyond us.
Dallas Willard observes, “Spiritual persons are not those who engage in certain ‘spiritual practices,’ but those who draw their life from
a conversational relationship with God. Thus they do not live their lives merely in terms of the human order in the visible world. They have ‘a life beyond.’” If flowers wither without a life beyond, so will our students. We are dishonest about the nature of reality if we exclude such information from our instruction.