"Do Christian schools make students more religious?" is a report by Tobin Grant in Christianity Today about a study of students in US Christian schools. The conclusions are thought-provoking, but they may not have measured the wrong thing.
"There are two major findings that parents — and prognosticators — should consider when evaluating school options.
- Protestant schools affect the private religious practices of students, but have no impact on church-related activities.
- Parents and peers have more shaping influence on the religious lives of teens than do schools."
It is easy to assume from such a study that Christian schools are marginally effective, but if they are measuring the wrong thing, the conclusion may not be justified.
I am not sure that the goal of Christian schools is to make students more religious--nor should it be. Jesus told us to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
Because many Christian schools in the US context are focused on providing education for people already involved within the church, it isn’t surprising that they don’t make a lot of difference in church-related activity. It seems that devotional and church activity are the only things examined. There is no evidence in the report that Christian thinking about non-church and non-Biblical material was explored in any way. How are these things connected to the church and Bible? Does it make a difference at work during the week? This is the area where we need to be able to measure change. It is a lot messier than checking how often you go to church or read the Bible, but it is much closer to the essence of Christian discipleship.
In the North American context there are many religious activities available completely separate from Christian schools. Students have many options. There are all kinds of people and places where they can be influenced by Christians. But what about the situation in places where there options are much more limited?
I’d like to see a study of the effect of mission schools in the past in Africa, Asia, etc. What difference did they make in developing a more Christ-centered view of the world. It would be important to correlate the impact they made with the goals of the schools. Was the school established for evangelism, academic quality, economic assistance, or Biblical integration? My suspicion is that a lot of things done by well-meaning, dedicated Christians were not really directed to developing a Christian perspective of life and learning within the students.
It is very easy to have a very dualistic, secular/sacred mindset as a Christian missionary. There is education on the secular side which can be justified for all kinds of pragmatic reasons including being a door to “real” ministry. On the sacred side, ecclesiastical or religious activity is fit into evenings and weekends—an optional extra in the minds of most students even though it may be the prime motivation of the missionary’s involvement in schools.
I got the theological training of a very missionary-minded denomination that was just at the point of ending their involvement with 100’s of schools that they’d helped start. I was prepared to be a missionary teacher, but had 0 exposure to the idea that a Christian might think differently about things like education, physics, chemistry, etc. It is no surprise that the missionaries who had gone through the same kind of training before me were unable to communicate any kind of uniquely Christian vision of what God might want to do in the classroom.
Of course, what God is doing now, isn’t conditional upon what He did in the past, but we can learn from both our mistakes and His successes.