What Typical Christian Parents Want in Christian Schools

In the second installment from his upcoming book, John Seel examines hidden parental assumptions.

The fashionable fallacy is that by education we can give people something that we have not got… [U]nless you can save the fathers, you cannot save the children; that at present we cannot save others, for we cannot save ourselves.”

— G.K. Chesterton

Parents have their dreams for their children. Schools largely tailor their priorities to these dreams as a pragmatic necessity for financial survival. Where, in this matrix of supply and demand, is the prophetic voice? Where is the prophetic school asking what God wants and what the child needs? Education that makes a difference must face these questions.

Brad Green, of Augustine School in Jackson, Tennessee [see Brad’s contribution to this issue’s conversation on spiritual formation at p. 6], wisely challenges prospective parents to identify whether the school’s goals for their child are compatible with their own parenting goals:

When I am visiting with prospective families, I say to virtually every one of them some version of the following: “You should look every head- master or admissions director straight in the eye and ask simply, ‘What is your goal for my child as an 18-year-old graduate of your institution?’” I then proceed, with all seriousness, to say, “If that person cannot answer that question, you should politely dismiss yourself and head to the next school. But if they can and do answer that question, you need to ask yourself an important question. ‘Is that my goal for my child’ or, at least, ‘Is that goal compatible with what we want for our child?’”

It is important to ask these questions because they reflect the hidden assumptions parents have in their understanding of the relationship of education to parenting and discipleship. Often, little distinguishes Christian parenting aspirations from those of unbelievers. In general, their aspirations boil down to a variation of “just like me.” Parents want for their child the same approximate experiences that they had when they were their age. Rarely does a parent have aspirations either higher or lower than those their own parents had for them a generation earlier.

One presumes that their children’s spiritual maturity is just as important a priority for Christian parents as academic success. Yet few parents think to ask what God wants and expects in their child’s education. Their decisions about education are the arena where these priorities become explicit.

The most difficult idols to recognize are those that are socially acceptable and religiously justified. Christian parents have difficulty realizing that their attachment to their child can become a source of idolatry. Children are the glue in many marriages, the center of household activities, and the voice on the family answering machine. Little trumps the importance of the child.

By contrast, Jesus lived in what we today call a “tribal” society. The extended family had enormous influence over the person. No nuclear family thought of itself as autonomous from extended family relationships. Jesus’ culture was family-centered not individual-centered, and “honoring father and mother” was a commandment backed by strong penalties. One only has to read Deuteronomy 21:18- 21 to sense the seriousness of the matter:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

Disobedience to parents is placed in the long list of sins characteristic of the last days in 2 Timothy 3:2. It is central in the list of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity outlined in Romans 1:28-32, with the caveat that those who are disobedient deserve death.

In this context Jesus’ stern warning to put God before all family relationships is striking: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37-38) Self-denial, taking up one’s cross, is placed squarely in a family context. God first, not family.

We do not own our children. They are a temporary stewardship. They are not an extension of our identities—little people through whom we can have our relational needs met and personal aspirations realized. Yet for many child-centered families, psychological enmeshment has obtained spiritual legitimacy.

How else can one understand the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel? Barren in a society that prized sons, she wept to the Lord and made this vow: “If you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.” Moreover, when her prayer is granted, this special child, loved as only a mother can love a child a er overcoming infertility, is then given back to the Lord. “After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was…and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh…. [T]hey brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, ‘As surely as you live, my Lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you and prayed for this child, and the Lord granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.’”

This passage is important for contemporary Christian parents, for we too must give our children over to the Lord. Our children are not ours to keep. They are a temporary gift, a means to further our growth in grace even as we seek to equip them to serve Christ and his kingdom with their lives.

When typical Christian parents come to a Christian school, they have clear goals already in mind. They want the school to mirror their values, which too often are a child-centered version of the American dream. They want the school to legitimize their lives. They want their children to be in effect a chip off the old block, and, in most cases, Christian consumer-driven schools provide exactly what parents want.

As in many churches, coming to Christ and becoming like Christ are disconnected in Christian schools. Eager to get students into heaven, Christian schools give little thought or planning to getting heaven into the student. Dallas Willard refers to this as the gospel of sin management: “You can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith at all.” Every statistical comparison of Christian teenage behavior bears out this fact. Being a Christian teen or going to a Christian school makes no behavioral difference in terms as compared with nonbelievers. We get what we expect and what our parenting models, youth groups, and schools are designed to produce. Few demand more. Conversion is the expectation; discipleship is not. Becoming an active apprentice of Jesus is reserved for the religious freak, not the normal kid.

Still, parents and schools are too frequently concerned solely with behavior. We have no expectation that the gospel will fundamentally transform a life and reform one’s character. The gospel is not simply having one’s sins forgiven, but having them forgiven so that one can become a new person infused with the life of Christ. “In Him was life, and that life is the light of men,” John writes in his Gospel. (John 1:4) “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus declares. (John 10:10) “There- fore, if any one is in Christ,” Paul concludes, “he is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The point of Christ’s work on the cross is not just forgiveness, but life.

But we confuse the means with the end. We are forgiven so that we can live in a right relationship with Christ in the here and now. This life, however, is not fire insurance for heaven—a kind of policy we purchase and then put in a desk drawer for some undisclosed time in the future. It is daily spiritual sustenance—“living water” and the “bread of life”—without which we spiritually starve. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)

My concern is that parents’ expectations of Christian schools are generally consistent with what is taught in most pulpits—a gospel that forgives sins but does not transform lives, a legalism that coerces behavior but does not change hearts, and a dual- ism that longs for heaven but has little concern for creation or culture. It is Christianity “lite,” or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace”—the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. We do not expect anything more of our children or of our schools because nothing different is taught from our pulpits. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the impotence of the German church when faced with Hitler, lamented a “grace” that is no gospel.

So schools provide what parents want—mental assent and behavioral conformity, “Get my child saved” and “Keep my child away from worldliness.”

Parents’ attitudes toward education parallel this spiritual pragmatism. Rather than being concerned for the hard work of embodiment—of cultivating a Christian mind and captivating a Christian imagination—parents are focused instead on college placement and career selection. For many parents, education is not an end, but a means to secure a job that will allow their child to live life just as they do. It is merely a step in achieving personal peace and a uence. Henry Edmondson traces this pragmatic orientation to John Dewey and warns, “In making utility the chief goal of education, we sacrifice much of its usefulness.”

Christian schools may promote piety and patriotism, but they do not routinely graduate students committed to the demands of radical discipleship: students who are equipped to take captive every thought to Christ and who expect to serve Christ through their individual callings.

In the end, the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Christian schools serve Christian parents whose values are little different from other parents in their same socioeconomic class and surrounding neighborhood. “This, in fact, is one of the great tragedies of our time,” writes theologian David Wells, “that evangelicals have lost their spiritual status as outsiders to the culture, those who march to a different drummer, and who have the capacity to think about their world in ways that are completely different from what is taken as normative in their world.”

Also, for this reason, as many as 80% of Christian parents don’t even bother with Christian education. Government schools are just as efficient in accomplishing their goals for their child and a whole lot cheaper. We get what we want, but it’s not what we need. Nor is it what God and the gospel demand.

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