The Church & the Christian School:
A Guide for Leaders of Christian Day School Ministries and their Sponsoring Churches
by Jay R. Hancock, D.Min.
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INTRODUCTION: TROUBLE IN THE CHURCH-SCHOOL RELATIONSHIP
The relationship between many churches and their Christian school ministries is in trouble today. In the past several decades, churches have started Christian school ministries with great hope for increased discipleship and outreach opportunities only to find that internal struggles between the church and school ministry outweigh the projected benefits. Schools and their sponsoring churches struggle, sometimes endlessly, over finances, meeting space, philosophy, personnel, and so on. Paul Young, former President of the Southern Baptist Education Center in Olive Branch, Mississippi, notes that the situation has become so bad that “most pastors surveyed today would not consider having a Christian school as part of their church ministry."
During the past century, America has witnessed a tremendous growth in the number of Christian schools. Speaking about Fundamentalist schools, Fred Wilson notes that “between 1945 and 1985 the number of these schools expanded from almost nothing to at least 3,100 schools with over 552,000 students.” In 2002, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), an accrediting organization serving primarily evangelical Christian schools, reported a membership of 4,000 schools; but these membership statistics represent only a fraction of all Christian schools in America. According to Ken Friesen of ACSI, there are somewhere between eighteen and twenty thousand “religious” schools in America today.
Christian school ministry is an exciting, relatively new ministry concept for many churches. Healthy Christian schools have the potential of producing committed, influential Christian leaders who can have a tremendous impact on our churches and our world. However, these schools will not be started if pastors and laypeople perceive them to be troublemaking organizations. Church leaders and pastors need to have more information about Christian school ministry so that they can approach the concept informed and confident in their ability to initiate a successful ministry.
CHAPTER 2: A THEOLOGY OF CHRISTIAN SCHOOL MINISTRY
In the process of establishing a model for how a Christian School ministry should relate to its sponsoring church, we must first examine the nature of Christian ministry and consider the validity of a Christian school as a ministry of a local church. As we will see, the body of Christ is commanded to engage in ministry. The bottom line is that a Christian school is either a valid outgrowth of that obligation, or it has no place as a ministry of a church.
The Bible offers considerable insight into the role of the church and its members in regard to education. Old and New Testament believers considered the education of their children a high priority, and they looked to parents to be the primary teachers. But parents did not always seek to educate their children on their own. They welcomed the support of the believing community in fulfilling their obligation, and that community continues to support parents with the education of their children to this day.
Christian education is a critical task of the church and family. Pastors must recognize that there is more to education than just Bible education. Every educational discipline was created by God and is only fully understood in the context of biblical truth. Therefore, pastors need not fear starting a Christian school ministry. In fact, they should hope that they have the opportunity to expand their church’s educational role with the presence of a Christian school that helps parents more adequately fulfill their God-given responsibility of educating their children. Regardless of how a pastor seeks to fulfill his duty of Christian education, he can be assured that the task is a biblically mandated one and that the resources of the Holy Spirit and the word of God are available for the task.
CHAPTER 3: A HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN SCHOOL EDUCATION
The church’s effort to establish and operate Christian schools for children has an established history. Church leaders and parents have always sought ways to teach their children to obey the commands of God. In order to understand the current religious and cultural context of Christian school education, one must first examine the overall history of Christian schools.
The church’s history of education starts with the early church’s efforts to follow their Jewish heritage and educate their children as best they could. However, that brief effort was followed by years of educational darkness imposed by the Roman Catholic Church that viewed education as hazardous for the laity. The vision of education for the masses was, however, rekindled in the church by the Reformers, and the church was once again in the business of Christian education.
America’s settlers came to their new land with the Reformers’ ideas and continued their educational efforts at least among those who could afford it. New England’s settlers eventually led the cause for public schools for every child while the settlers of the middle and southern colonies were less enthusiastic and, especially in the South, relegated extensive education for the upper class alone.
Baptists in the South were not greatly concerned about education for their children beyond what was necessary to help with the family farm or business. In fact Southern Baptists, among others, were wary of education in general, especially for their clergy. But southerners eventually sent their children to public school and by their influence on school boards and their employment as teachers and administrators, they would control the spiritual atmosphere in those schools until the mid-1900s.
Southern Baptist’s history of Christian education is more a story of the Sunday school than the Christian school. Southern Baptist’s have relied on the Sunday school for their children’s religious education and they have built an impressive denominational support system for that ministry. The lesson from the history of Southern Baptist Christian schools is that it is a young and fairly disorganized movement. There are relatively few Christian school ministries in Southern Baptist churches and there is minimal uniformity in the way they are governed and operated.
In short, Christian school education is a new venture for Southern Baptists. Because of that, churches that start Christian school ministries face an expanse of uncharted territory. There are few written rules and procedures for Southern Baptists to draw from—at least from within their own ranks.
CHAPTER 4: PROBLEMS FACED BY CHURCHES AND THEIR CHRISTIAN SCHOOL MINISTRIES
The relationship between sponsoring churches and their Christian school ministries is often strained. In some ways, the relationship is not unlike that of any other church ministry. But on the other hand, the church-school relationship is more complex due to the size and mission of the Christian school ministry. The school ministry requires more resources than other church ministries in regard to time, people, space and money.
Anyone who says that Christian school ministries are simple and trouble-free is not telling the truth. When a church adds over thirty-five hours of ministry time to its weekly schedule and increases its staff by dozens of school employees, there will be issues that even the most experienced school administrator cannot avoid. But for all the risk that is involved in starting a Christian school ministry, there is an equal or greater amount of reward. As long as there is sin in our world, ministry will be messy, but the good news is that it is worth it.
In this chapter, we seek to introduce you to the kinds of issues that can arise as a church births and grows a Christian school ministry. None of the problems are unsolvable. In fact, in the process of solving problems, church and school leaders grow in their ability to manage and resolve conflict. Leaders also learn more about themselves, the Bible, and God’s unique vision for their church. Values are clarified and the church’s mission is solidified as leaders grapple with new methods for discipling young saints. None of the effort is wasted when the finished product is kept in mind—a mature, disciplined, intelligent, dedicated child of God.
There are ways to minimize the difficulties of starting a new ministry. We can learn from the experience of others and we can anticipate the issues mentioned in this chapter and make policy decisions in advance in order to address problems before they occur.
CHAPTER 5: A MODEL FOR THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A CHURCH AND ITS CHRISTIAN SCHOOL MINISTRY
Relatively few Southern Baptist churches have Christian school ministries. It is estimated that there are about 600 such schools among the 40,000 Southern Baptist churches. However, this number is increasing at a significant rate and it is expected that the trend will continue. Many large, influential Southern Baptist churches already have established Christian school ministries and LifeWay Christian Resources has increased its support for Christian school ministries. For these and many other reasons, more churches are likely to consider starting Christian school ministries in the years to come.
As these churches start Christian schools, they will face a variety of decisions about the nature of the relationship between the overall ministry of the church and the specific ministry of the school. Generally, Southern Baptist churches that have started Christian school ministries have maintained close ties with their school ministries. A survey conducted by Kenneth Coley, Assistant Professor for Christian Education at Southeastern Baptist Seminary, found that ninety-two percent of the schools related to Southern Baptist churches were founded by a single church. Seventy-seven percent are not incorporated separately but are included in the church’s corporation. And eighty-five percent of the school’s governing boards are made up of church members only. This data suggests that sponsoring churches maintain a strong connection with their school ministries.
These strong relational ties along with the unique size and demands of a Christian school ministry combine to force church leaders to make a variety of decisions about how the overall church will relate to the school ministry. But the best time to make those decisions is before an issue rises to the level of conflict. Church leaders will save themselves from many crises if they will carefully think through the issues that churches and school ministries commonly face. Wise church leaders will address common points of contention before or during the founding of the school ministry. However, it is never too late for even a well-established school to look over its shoulder to address any unresolved issues or to look ahead for potential points of disagreement. Not doing so increases the risk of the church encountering conflict that has the potential of distracting the entire church from its mission.
The purpose of this chapter is to address issues common to Southern Baptist churches and their Christian school ministries and to recommend possible solutions or points of actions for church and school leaders to consider. It should comfort all ministry leaders to know that these issues are common to Christian schools. There is no reason to give up or become frustrated every time a crisis erupts. But maintaining unity in the church comes with a price, and that price includes planning and foresight.
CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION
This study has focused on two of the most powerful forces of influence in the world—education and the church. First, education in general has the power to change individual people and society at large, but Christian education, armed with the truth, has even greater power. Second, no institution is more powerful and more capable of changing the world than the church—an institution that God created and that will survive until Christ’s return. The ministry of Christian school education combines these two powerful forces. Excellent Christian education sponsored by a local church holds tremendous promise for raising up leaders who think and act like Christ and who can influence the next generation in America and the world.
The primary purpose of this thesis is to help Southern Baptist churches build and maintain healthy relationships with their Christian school ministries. To that end, one major recommendation is offered: use this thesis as a guide to identify critical issues applicable to your particular setting and make decisions in advance to head off potential conflict.
For the past thirteen years I have served in two of the few Southern Baptist churches that have Christian school ministries. I have personally seen the positive impact a Christian worldview education has on a child, and I believe that in the days to come more Southern Baptist churches will discover the value of Christian school education. My hope is that this paper will help those churches extend their kingdom influence by starting and growing healthy Christian school ministries.