jasonbwatson

January 25, 2017

Authentic Christianity

Recently my family and I visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. I had been there before but my children had not. I had explained to my son ahead of time that there was something unique about the exterior of the house. It appears to be made of stone, but it is actually wood. Through a process called rustication, the wooden plans that side the house are cut with beveled edges periodically and then, while the white paint is still wet, fine sand is thrown onto the wood. The result is that it gives the appearance of stone blocks. This is both creative and effective, and for the purposes of architecture there is nothing wrong with it. However, it got me thinking about other things that are not what they appear to be–and specifically about the times that I cause myself to appear to be something other than what or who I am. As I pondered this I began to consider what it means to practice authentic Christianity.

If you google that phrase you will find plenty of hits. There are books and sermons by that title as well as plenty of blog posts and articles. I found a number of thoughts that were particularly helpful for me.

In one such message, titled “Authentic Christianity,” Steven Cole tells a story that was contained in a 1984 issue of Reader’s Digest. A bishop who had just had a cup of tea with a parishioner commented, “I’m glad to see in what a comfortable way you are living.” The churchgoer replied, “Oh, bishop, if you want to know how we really live, you need to come when you’re not here.”

That is funny, of course, but it is also true. How many times do I straighten things up and do my best to create the right appearance when there will be company coming over–particularly company whom I want to impress? Maybe that is no big deal really, but it is a big deal when we do the same thing with our lives, living differently at different times depending on who is around and whom we are trying to impress.

In that same message Cole said, “Unfortunately, a lot of Christians live that way, keeping up a good front to impress others with their spirituality. But if you knew how they really live, you’d find that they are faking it. They don’t live as authentic Christians.”

Several years ago Megan Hill wrote an article in Christianity Today about authenticity, with the subtitle “Do we Christians even understand what the buzzword means?”

In that article she suggested five principles for being an authentic Christian:

  1. Authenticity proclaims the reality of the Gospel – “Being authentic means that God and His Word define what is real,” she wrote.
  2. Authenticity doesn’t excuse sin. She writes:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love was the memoir of a woman seeking an authentic life. Its first page bears the motto: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

But for Gilbert, living authentically includes adultery, hedonism, blasphemy, and so on.

Gilbert’s type of authenticity is easy for Christians to reject. Her sins are “obvious.” But are we on guard against more subtle sins? …

Selfishness, love of men’s praise, lack of joy can all lurk, undetected, around our authentic edges.

  1. Authenticity seeks the good of the Body. “We live transparently, not to unload our own burdens and thus walk more lightly alone, but to intentionally share the burdens of others and carry them to the same grace that liberated us.”
  2. Authenticity honors wisdom. “Christians seeking to be authentic rightly value humility. We recognize that we are broken. But sometimes, in our quest to avoid the appearance of pride, we question our God-given ability to shine the light of wisdom.”
  3. Authenticity points ahead to a perfected future.

John Piper once said in an interview,

Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, doing the willing and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living and doing the acting and doing the willing in and through your acting and willing and doing? …

[W]hen I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit. I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say: “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 5:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing. It is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.

Someone has said, “Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But we have no business faking Christianity. The Bible is full of passages that tell us what authentic Christian living really is and looks like. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit or Paul’s writing about the new life in Christ in Ephesians 4 and 5 for starters.

So, food for thought from two perspectives:

First, am I examining myself and striving to live an authentic Christian life? We are not “playing a role.” I recently read a dual-biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. When I finished I told my wife I enjoyed it but if she wanted to continue to think of them as the lovable characters from The Andy Griffith Show I would not recommend reading it. Both men were tortured individuals with deep personal demons. They were, of course, actors–and very talented ones. That is what they were paid to do and they did it well. But we, Christians, are not to be actors. We are not to “play the part” of a Christian at certain times or put on certain appearances. We are to be like Christ.

Second, are we teaching our students, our own children, our co-workers and colleagues, friends and fellow church members, to pursue authentic Christianity? We do not want them to throw sand in wet paint, so to speak. We want them to be genuine, authentic Christians.

August 31, 2016

In Defense of Homework

You have probably seen the story buzzing around the internet about a Texas second grade teacher who sent a note home with her students to start the school year in which she informed parents that she would not be assigning any homework this year. The teacher, Brandy Young, wrote that she reached this decision after much research. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” Young wrote. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

Those four suggestions Young gives in lieu of homework are wonderful. I wholeheartedly agree that parents should strive to do all four with the children and I strive to do so with my own two. I have addressed the importance of families eating together numerous times in this space. I have also addressed the importance of reading. Children who are read to and who read are always going to do better in school than those students who do not fit in that category. And getting children in bed early is—despite their own protests and the confusion with which you may be greeted by family, friends and the children themselves—essential for their own health and success.

Still, I do not at all agree with the notion that eliminating homework is in the best interest of any child. Should homework be assigned every day? No. Should homework be assigned just for the sake of assigning homework? No. But there are legitimate reasons for using homework and homework appropriate assigned and used does indeed contribute to student success.

First of all, when homework is eliminated and formal learning is therefore confined to the schoolhouse, there is a disconnect that develops. Students begin to think that they learn at school and they just have fun at home. Parents begin to see educating their children as something that the teachers do between the bells and they are not responsible for or involved in in any way. Parents who still want to be involved with their children—want to look over their work, review their spelling words with them, and so on—will be placed in the position of asking students to do something that their teacher told them they do not need to do. This will, inevitably, lead to a student saying, “But Mrs. Young said I don’t have to do any school work at home,” which will be answered by the parent saying, “I am your parent and I said this is what we are going to do. Now get out your spelling words.” Now we suddenly have parent and teacher in opposition rather than working together for the success of the child. Additionally, parents are better able to keep up with what their students are doing in school when their child is working on homework. Even if it is nothing more than a brief conversation, seeing a child with his or her book open and paper out will open the door for an update—and “what are you working on?” is just about guaranteed to get a more concrete response than “what did you do in school today?”

Second, Young’s note said that the only work that students will take home will be work they did not finish during the school day. It stands to reason, from the tenor of the note, that Young does not intend this to be a regular occurrence or even something that will happen for every student. It does not take a great imagination, though, to picture what happens when little Alfred gets home with work to do. “Why didn’t you get this finished in school?” is the logical question to be asked by mom or dad. Any number of options exist for how Al will respond, but none of them end well or contribute to an effective teacher-parent partnership. If Al says he did not have time, the parents will want to know why Mrs. Young assigned more work than the class could finish at school in the first place. If Al says it was too hard and he could not finish it, the folks will want to know why Mrs. Young is giving work to Alfred that he cannot understand or handle. Why isn’t she giving him the help and instruction he needs, for crying out loud? If, after Parents of Alfred get in touch with Mrs. Young they find out that Al was the only one who did not finish his work and it was because he was not using his class time wisely they will no doubt follow up with questions demanding to know why Mrs. Young allowed him to fritter away his precious minutes at school and did not hold him accountable for doing his work when he was supposed to do so. Are you getting the idea that this is not going to end well no matter how Alfred responds or which route the conversations take?

Third, homework—again, when used properly—is designed to reinforce what was taught at school through practice and repetition and/or to allow students to work with that information to develop their understanding and application of the material. When I have my students answer questions over assigned reading, for example, it allows me to see whether or not they understood the reading and grasped the key points. On August 29 Alexandra Pannoni posted on the web site of U.S. News & World Report an article entitled “3 Questions for High School Teachers to Ask Before Ditching Homework.”  In it, she included this important reason to think carefully—especially in high school—about eliminating homework:

High schoolers need some homework because they need to learn how to study independently, says Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.”

When they go to college, they’ll spend less time in class and more time studying on their own.

This is absolutely imperative to understand. Students who become accustomed to the idea that they will be given adequate in-class time to complete whatever is necessary to accomplish the education they are pursuing will be in serious trouble when they get to the college campus.

In October 2010 the Alberta Teachers’ Association released findings entitled “Does homework improve student achievement?” Here’s what they stated:

In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning analyzed 18 studies to update Harris Cooper’s 2006 research on this contentious topic. These studies suggest that some homework does help students to achieve but (1) only in the case of some children, (2) only for a reasonable period of time and (3) only if the homework is meaningful and engaging and if it requires active thinking and learning.

Those caveats are all logical. To the first point, nothing works for every student. By and large, though, homework will benefit students when points two and three are enforced.

On his website AlfieKohn.org, Kohn includes a chapter of the book entitled The Homework Myth. After sharing a number of studies and comments, he concludes the chapter this way:

I’ve been arguing that any gains we might conceivably identify are both minimal and far from universal, limited to certain ages and to certain (dubious) outcome measures.  What’s more, even studies that seem to show an overall benefit don’t prove that more homework – or any homework, for that matter — has such an effect for most students.  Put differently, the research offers no reason to believe that students in high-quality classrooms whose teachers give little or no homework would be at a disadvantage as regards any meaningful kind of learning.

Yet, he asserts that conclusion after stating, in the previous paragraph, “It’s true that we don’t have clear evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that homework doesn’t help students to learn.” At the beginning of the chapter Kohn quotes findings published in the Journal of Educational Psychology:

The conclusions of more than a dozen reviews of the homework literature conducted between 1960 and 1989 varied greatly.  Their assessments ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects, or complex effects to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions.

In other words, none of the studies suggested that homework had a negative impact on students. And even those studies that found that homework had no effect surely did not suggest that homework had no effect on any student. Just as the article quoted above indicated that homework helped some students achieve, I dare say there is no study which has ever suggested that homework has no positive impact on any student. That means homework, even in studies which do not conclude that it is beneficial, does provide benefit for some students. Show me anything—any method, pedagogy, technology, style, etc.—that benefits every student and you will quickly become a multimillionaire, I assure you. There simply is no such thing. Instead, educators use those strategies that are most effective for the most students.

In February 2007 the Center for Public Education posted a lengthy article on the homework question, too. One of their observations was this: “Although the overall effects of homework on student achievement are inconclusive, studies involving students at different grade levels suggest that homework may be more effective for older students than for younger ones.” That is why effective educators tailor homework based on the age of the students. I do not know anyone who would suggest that ninety minutes a day of homework would be appropriate for a first grader, but that is a generally-accepted rule of thumb for ninth graders. Here is that article’s conclusion:

The central lesson of this body of research is that homework is not a strategy that works for all children. Because of its possible negative effects of decreasing students’ motivation and interest, thereby indirectly impairing performance, homework should be assigned judiciously and moderately. Heavy homework loads should not be used as a main strategy for improving home-school relations or student achievement.

There are three sentences in this conclusion. To the first, let’s simply acknowledge that it is a redundant point we have already addressed here. To the second, we have also already addressed the importance of assigning meaningful homework that is age-appropriate. Effective homework should serve to enhance student understanding even if it does not increase their motivation or interest, but it is possible to develop and assign homework that will in fact increase student interest. It involves being creative, thinking outside the box, and probably not giving the same assignment to every student, but it can be done. To the third sentence, the most tempting thing to say is “duh.” I find it rather mindboggling that a professional organization would find it necessary to state that “heavy homework loads” are not likely to improve “home-school relations.” Again, though, the key word in that sentence is “heavy.” And on that note, see points one and two.

In the March 2007 issue of Educational Leadership Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering took on this question about the value to homework. Their article summarized the arguments made in a book entitled The End of Homework like this:

[H]omework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being. The authors focused particularly on the harm to economically disadvantaged students, who are unintentionally penalized because their environments often make it almost impossible to complete assignments at home. The authors called for people to unite against homework and to lobby for an extended school day instead.

My own sphere of relationships is, admittedly, limited. But I have to tell you that I do not know anyone in education who desires to damage familial well-being. In fact, if there is any conclusive evidence out there about anything involving student achievement it is that familial well-being contributes to student learning and success. But, I will say again, effectively designed and used homework will not interfere with familial well-being. Is it true that students from economically disadvantaged homes are likely to have a more difficult time completing assignments at home? Yes. Whether it be because the student is also serving as caretaker, because there is no safe and/or quiet enough place at home to do homework or the resources necessary to get the help needed to complete the assignment necessary are not available, it is entirely possible that some students will have legitimate reasons for not being able to get their homework done. Eliminating homework, however, is not even a remotely logical response to that problem. That would be like suggesting that because economically disadvantaged students do not have access to quality health care we should eliminate the health care system. Or because economically disadvantaged students are not likely to frequent bookstores we should close them all. Extending the school day is not a logical response either. There may well be good reasons to offer extended school days or after-school programs for students who need it, but to say that because some students live in areas not conducive to completing homework means all students should stay at school longer is an argument that both does serve to harm familial well-being (by keeping all students away from home longer) and expands government control and influence over the family.

Marzano and Pickering make the same acknowledgement I have here, writing, “Certainly, inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit—it may even decrease student achievement.” Their ultimate conclusion though? “Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead, they should improve its instructional quality.” I agree.

Most of the studies I have references here report that there is simply not sufficient research and evidence to prove that homework is beneficial to students. That may well be. As we have also seen, though, neither is there sufficient research or evidence to prove that homework is not effective for students. And I suspect there never will be sufficient research and evidence to prove either. That is precisely because children—and teachers—are human beings are we are all designed differently. There will never be anything that works every time for everyone. I will suggest however that it would not take long after the elimination of homework to provide research and evidence proving that barring homework does not benefit many—if any—students.

One last thought. Call it a P.S. if you want. Do those who think students should be able to do all their learning, practicing and application within the hours of the school day think that teachers should be able to do the same? I mean, if students need not do anything outside of the classroom, why should teachers? I can imagine many people jumping to tell me that’s ridiculous, and it is. But why would we think it is reasonable to expect teachers to spend hours outside of the instructional hours preparing lessons and grading assignments if we think it is unreasonable to ask students to do a little work outside of the classroom? Doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

November 12, 2014

The State of Theology

Last month Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with LifeWay Research, released the findings of a survey conducted on the state of theology in the United States. The survey polled 3,000 American adults between the end of February and the beginning of March 2014. The objectives of the survey were “To quantify among a national sample of Americans indicators of the theological understanding of
Americans today providing comparisons between: Christian church goers and the unchurched; and, Those who consider themselves Evangelical and those who do not.” As with any survey or statistic, there must be some discernment used in reading and applying the survey results, but the survey claims that the sample provides 95% certainty that the margin of error does not exceed plus/minus 1.8%. Accordingly, the results are worth considering, especially for anyone whose ministry is focused on the spiritual development of parishioners or students. You can easily find the full results of the survey by visiting Ligonier.org or by googling State of Theology, but I want to zero in on a few of the results here.

First, 71% of survey responders agree–strongly or somewhat–that individuals must contribute their own efforts for personal salvation. This is a startling number–particularly in light of the fact the Bible makes it abundantly clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and that works have nothing to do with salvation. Any belief to the contrary is dangerous for one of two reasons; either humans are capable, in an of themselves, of contributing to their own salvation, or the death of Christ on the cross was somehow insufficient in and of itself to provide salvation. To suggest that Christ’s atoning death on the cross must be supplemented by man’s efforts is to seriously undermine the entire salvation message. John 3:16 is nullified by the position that human efforts are required to obtain salvation. And lest you temper your concern about this figure by suggesting that the 71% is surely made up of unbelievers, note that 38% of self-identified Evangelicals strongly agree with this notion. That is the same percentage of Evangelicals who attend church once a month or more who strongly disagree with the statement, meaning that even Evangelicals are evenly split over whether or not man has a role in salvation. It is not surprising, given the tenets of the Catholic faith, that 49% of Catholics strongly agree that human effort is required, but 38% of Evangelicals to do so is cause for concern.

Oddly enough, 87% of self-identified Evangelicals who attend church at least once a month strongly agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone. Only 33% of other Christians strongly agree, and just 13% of non-Christians. That range is not surprising. It is baffling however, that 87% of Evangelicals can strongly agree that salvation is through Christ alone while 38% of them also agree that human effort is a required element of salvation. That means some 25% of Evangelical responders are either schizophrenic or deeply confused.

The beliefs about salvation segue right into a question in the survey about the authority of Scripture. A startling 41% of survey respondents agree–either somewhat or strongly–that the Bible is not literally true. I am pleased that 80% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with this statement, but it concerns me that one in five do not strongly disagree! Forty-five percent of survey respondents believe that the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose–and only 66% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with that. Only forty-eight percent of survey respondents agree that the Bible alone is the written Word of God. While 79% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree, just 62% of all Evangelicals strongly agree and only 22% of Mainline Protestants strongly agree. This means that there is considerable belief that the Bible is not God’s only revealed, written Word. Among all survey responders, only 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches. And while 78% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree with that statement, that still leaves almost a quarter who do not strongly agree. Even more troubling is that only 23% of “Other Christians” strongly agree.

So what can we learn from these statistics? First, the term “Christian” can obviously be applied very loosely, and just because someone identifies him- or herself as a Christian does not mean that they believe the things I would expect a Christian to believe. Second, we live in a world that is divided on issues of biblical authority and godly living at best, opposed to it at worst. (For example, 43% of the survey responders indicated disagreement that sex outside of marriage is a sin while only 48% indicated agreement. The balance was “not sure”). Accordingly, we need to be more diligent and more vigilant than ever in our churches, in our Christian schools and in our families that we are equipping our students with the Truth of God’s Word and preparing them for the realities of the world in which we live.

September 19, 2014

(Re)Defining Education

I do not like to “attack” fellow laborers in the field of Christian education. We get enough attacks from outside of Christian ed; no need to go after each other. At the same time, though, there is a need to identify and confront error when it exists, whether in Christian education, within the church or anywhere else within the realm of Christendom. Much to my dismay, yesterday I read an article in a Christian education publication that requires such confrontation. Adding to my dismay is the fact that this article was written by the dean of the School of Education at one of the leading Christian universities in the United States, which causes me no small amount of concern about what the education majors at this university are being taught.

The article begins with the question, “What should Christian education look like in the twenty-first century?” The author then states that in order to answer this question it is necessary to “consider how the twenty-first century child learns.” As part of his answer to that, he writes, “Watch a middle childhood student multitask by playing a video game, texting a friend on her phone, video chatting on her computer, and working on her homework.” The implication is that she is doing all of these things at the same time. And right there, not even a paragraph into the article, my hackles are raised. There is no reason for a “middle childhood student” to have the technology available to be doing all of these things at once. She certainly does not need all of this technology of her own. (Frankly, I do not even know what “middle childhood” means, because I do not think it is a term I have ever heard before. Since the article also references elementary students and young adolescents, I am assuming “middle childhood” must encompass ages 10-12 or so). Thus, the initial concern with this individual’s recommendations is that we are granting the notion of children having almost free reign over various and sundry digital devices, and that is a notion I think we should be challenging, not granting.

The writer goes on to state this: “These twenty-first century learners are comfortable with instant communication with anyone anywhere in the world; quick access to vast, accurate (or not) information; and the immediate ability to produce creative multisensory projects with only access to the Internet. These students interact with content and each other in a different way than students did just a decade ago” (emphasis his). Again, though, I challenge the notion that because students are comfortable with this that we therefore should educate them this way. Just because students are comfortable with something–anything–does not mean it should be incorporated into a classroom setting. Students are no doubt comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts, lounging on their sofa and munching on snacks while they do all the various things described in the paragraph above. By no means does that mean that we should allow them to behave that way in classrooms.

Notice, as well, in the above quote, the repeated use of words that refer to instant gratification–“instant communication,” “quick access” and “immediate ability.” We live in a world that is all about doing things faster, so it is no surprise that students are used to this pace. Frankly, that is all the more reason why we should avoid automatically engaging them that way in classrooms. The attention span of many students today is shorter than this sentence. That is a problem, not an opportunity. That means teaching styles that do not conform to their “give it to me now” preferences will take them some getting used to, may even make them uncomfortable. That’s good. It is not good because I think being mean to students is fun. Rather, it is good because learning necessarily entails becoming uncomfortable. Unless I become uncomfortable with the fact that there are things I do not know there will be absolutely zero motivation for me strive to know them. While being able to learn in familiar and comfortable methods can be a valuable part of education, learning how to learn in new and unfamiliar ways is also an important part of education. I am well aware of the fact that technology is moving and developing at breakneck speed. Though students find it hard to believe when I tell them this, can remember television commercials when I was in elementary school that had the tag line “Computers are coming your way!” I can remember the first computer we ever had in a classroom and I can remember when my elementary school got a computer lab. This was big news–literally. A reporter and camera from a local news affiliate showed up to record the story! So things have changed, and are changing, and that is not going to change. But classroom instruction does need to mirror or follow every technological advancement–certainly not in toto.

On this point the author of the article I am critiquing and I clearly disagree. He writes, “It is essential to synch today’s classroom with the twenty-first century student’s way of learning.” This is simply not true. Neither is it necessarily wise. Yes, the use of technology is an important component of teaching, and teachers should take advantage of the many things that technology can enable them to do that truly enhance their instruction, but that should be one tool in their toolbox. Oddly enough, the author states as much when he writes, “A teacher’s toolbox of instructional models, methods, and strategies should contain a plethora of ways to engage students in the academic content to motivate them to learn.” That is odd for this reason–synching classrooms with the student’s way of learning is contradictory to using a plethora of ways to engage students. The implication of the first statement, and indeed of much of the article, is that classrooms need to adapt to students’ preferred and comfortable styles period.

Another erroneous premise of the article is that the utilization of all of the bells, whistles and wonders of the latest technology is necessary for effective learning. The author writes, “The educator must purposefully plan to create multiple memories for each concept. This current understanding of how the brain works best aligns with a nontraditional, student-centered approach to teaching, which is compatible for the twenty-first century learner.” Unless I am missing something or misunderstanding something, these coupling is absurd. Yes, the multiple memory idea is valid. However, it can be utilized in addition to a traditional approach; it does not have to be used instead of it. Furthermore, the implication is that traditional instruction does not (cannot?) create multiple memory pathways, and that implication is simply false; it is entirely possible to create multiple memories without utilizing technology.

While there are several additional points I could make here, I am endeavoring to keep my critique of the article shorter than the article itself, so let me jump to this statement made close to the article’s conclusion. “Unfortunately, too many Christian school classrooms are based on the traditional model of instruction in which the teacher is the giver of all information, forcing the learner to be passive and absorb factual-based information.” I would challenge both the use of the word “all” in that sentence and the idea that learners are necessarily passive in traditional instruction. Neither is automatically true.

This author states that utilizing individualized instructional models that conform to students’ interests will “increase the probability that the student will become successful.” Frankly, I disagree. I think what it will do is increase the probability that the student will become self-centered and unprepared for the realities of life. Are we really serving students, or adequately preparing them for “the real world,” by making everything focused on them? By tailoring, or allowing them to tailor, everything to their own likes, styles and preferences? I would answer with a hearty no. That the dean of the school of education of one of America’s leading evangelical universities thinks yes–and thus, no doubt, ensures that education students at his university are taught yes–does not bode well for the future of Christian education. This is not a defining of twenty-first century education, it is a redefining of education for the twenty-first century.

June 20, 2014

“The fragrance of spiritual devoutness”

George Müller died in 1898. Arthur Pierson died in 1911. Pierson wrote a biography of Müller, entitled George Müller of Bristol, an excellent book. In the book he shared a concern about the education of children of Christian parents. More than one hundred years later that concern has proven to be incredibly prescient. Here is what Pierson wrote…

Many Christian parents have made the fatal mistake of entrusting their children’s education to those whose gifts were wholly intellectual and not spiritual, and who have misled the young pupils entrusted in their care into an irreligious or infidel life, or, at best, a career of mere intellectualism and worldly ambition. In not a few instances, all the influences of a pious home have been counteracted by the atmosphere of a school which, if not godless, has been without the fragrance of spiritual devoutness and consecration which is indispensable to the true training of impressionable children during the plastic years when character is forming for eternity.

Solomon write, in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.” That is certainly true in this instance. Pierson could easily have written that rebuke yesterday and it would have been just as accurate, if not more so, as when he wrote it.

It is not my intention here to attack Christian parents who send their children to public schools, but it is my intention to offer a word of caution. It is my hope that perhaps those parents will take time to reflect on the decisions they have made regarding the education of their children and perhaps prompt them to reconsider.

I know that there are some very good public schools in the United States, schools that are safe, staffed by competent and even caring individuals and that provide students with a top-notch academic education. There are certainly public schools with fantastic facilities. Despite those perks, there are real problems with even the very best public schools. It simply is not possible for an educational setting to be morally neutral or for any teacher to teach in a morally neutral fashion. Every person (and therefore every teacher) has a worldview. Every public school has rules which prevent the inclusion of some things and require the inclusion of others. Often those things which are excluded are the very things Christian parents should desire for their children while those things which are included are the very things Christian parents would likely desire that their students not be exposed to or influenced by.

Quite simply, there is not–and in the current climate of the United States cannot be–a public school that contains “the fragrance of spiritual devoutness and consecration which is indispensable to the true training of impressionable children during the plastic years when character is forming for eternity.” Parents need to carefully and prayerfully consider the atmosphere and environment in which they are placing their children. Between kindergarten and high school graduation a student will spend some fifteen thousand hours in school. That’s nearly two full years of life if the child were in school 24/7.

The character of children is being formed for eternity and in many instances that character is firmly established by the time the child leaves home. What influences are shaping the character of your child?

May 28, 2014

Ramblings

Filed under: Christian Education — jbwatson @ 1:27 am

Wow…it has been almost exactly a month since I blogged last and the topic of that last post is still making headlines today. It’s like a soap opera…you can miss a few weeks, come back and realize you have not missed anything. Actually, this particular topic is like a soap opera in more ways than one! Apparently Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has reached an agreement allowing his estranged wife to sell the team but the NBA is pursuing its stated intention to terminate the Sterlings’ ownership of the team and take over the sale. I commented last time on the dangers of any entity being permitted to forcibly take over private property so I will not “go there” again today.

The real reason for my absence from this space for the past month has not had anything to do with Donald Sterling and certainly has not been for lack of topics I could have commented upon. If only there were a way for my thoughts to be translated into words and posted on this site… Never mind, that would be more than a little scary…for you and for me. No, the real reason has been the busy-ness of the end of the school year. The school where I serve is not unique in its tendency to pack an abundance of activities into the last few weeks of school, from drama productions to music concerts to awards ceremonies to field trips. And that was just last week! No, I’m kidding, it wasn’t really that bad…but close.

The end of a school year is always bittersweet for me, and I know I am not alone. I am (almost) always surprised at how quickly the end of the year comes around. In August, as the school year gets started, it always feels like the year will drag on…the finish line is nowhere in sight and barely even seems imaginable. Then all of a sudden it’s Thanksgiving, then there’s the blitz to Christmas, and then the entire second semester is a blur.

As I reflect on the successful completion of another school year I am again humbled by the privilege that it is to be in a position to influence and shape the lives and minds of young people. Sometimes I think to myself, “Why in the world would God allow any human being to be responsible for teaching human children?!? Surely there is a better way, a more efficient and far more effective way, to instill whatever knowledge they need….” That is true, of course. God could create us already hardwired with the knowledge we need. He could easily eliminate the need for schools entirely. God could create us to love and obey Him automatically too, but He doesn’t.

Of course God did not create schools. Schools are not one of the ordained institutions we find in Scripture. I believe the Bible gives the responsibility for teaching and training children to parents. The Bible ordains the family, the church and government (though not in that order). Unfortunately, in today’s society, the first of those often leaves it to the last of those to take care of teaching and training the children and the middle one may or may not be involved. There is room for healthy and legitimate debate as to whether or not the government should be involved in the education of children and, if it is, to what extent it should be involved. I have spent plenty of words in this space talking about that issue and I am not going to focus on that here. Regardless of what you may believe about the government’s responsibility when it comes to education, though, there can be no debate among those who believe the Bible that the family must be involved. The church should be involved, too.

I am privileged to serve at a school where the government involvement and oversight is minimal…and where the family and the church join with our school in creating a three-strand cord to educate the students we serve. I may not know why God allows me to be involved in shaping the lives of today’s students but I am glad that He does… because, truth be told, they’re involved in shaping my life, too.

April 9, 2014

Do Not Grow Weary

It’s fairly common for teachers to begin to feel weary around this time of the year. The end of the school year is in sight, the weather is getting warmer, the students are ready to be done, all of the year-end activities are piling up…these are the ingredients for weariness! Christian school teachers are by no means exempt from this feeling. The Bible, however, has something to say about that. Specifically, Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (ESV). This instruction/admonition is not targeted at Christian school teachers. The thoughts I am going to share here were originally shared with the faculty and staff of a Christian school, but I trust it will be encouraging to anyone who is tempted to let weariness creep in.

This verse contains a promise – we will reap if we do not give up. But it also contains a warning – it is possible to grow weary in the work of the Lord and possibly even give up and stop our ministry if we allow weariness to overtake us. Why might we grow weary? After giving it some thought and reading a few messages and commentaries on the subject I came up with a list of several possible reasons…

Sometimes it could be caused by a lack of devotion to the Lord. If you look at Revelation 2:2-5, you see that the church at Ephesus was commended for its work, its labor and its patience – but its passion and fervor for Christ had become cold. They were doing all the right things but it was just mechanical – they were just going through the motions. It is possible for us to be doing things for the Lord but to let our motivation die.

It could be a lack of prayer – Luke 18:1 says, “Men ought always to pray and not to faint.” If we neglect our prayer lives we are ignoring a vital ingredient of the successful Christian life.

It could a physical matter – a lack of proper nutrition and rest. Our physical well-being is essential to effective Christian service. We are not going to be able to serve the Lord effectively if we are too tired to see clearly or if our diet is unhealthy. Many individuals in Christian service just keep giving and doing. None of us, though, are the Energizer bunny and we cannot keep “going and going and going….” Eventually we will become exhausted if we do not maintain proper diet and get enough rest.

It could be the apathy and/or idleness of others. Sometimes it seems like we’re doing more than our fair share and we grow tired of it – especially when it seems like others are not pulling their weight or are simply sitting around doing nothing.

It could be criticism. That can certainly make anyone weary. No one likes to be criticized. I find that effective servants and leaders are receptive to constructive criticism, but if all we ever hear about are the things we are doing wrong or the areas we need to work on we will surely become discouraged.

It could certainly be our own expectations. I cannot tell you how many times I have had my own idea of how something should go or how something should turn out. More often than not those are probably purely a result of my own selfishness, of wanting things done my own way. When they do not go according to my plan I might get miffed. I might be tempted to “take my ball and go home,” so to speak.

Finally – and I think this may be the biggest challenge of all – it could the lack of observable results. In almost any endeavor in life we can see how we’re doing. In sports you have the scoreboard. In painting you can see what you’ve put on the canvas. In cooking you can smell, see, touch and taste what you’ve made. You get the point. When it comes to working with people, though, there are not always evident results of our efforts, and that can be frustrating.

The reality is that we are called to sow the seed; eventually we will reap, but we do not know when. Only the Lord knows. Our task is to remain faithful to His call and to continue doing what He has asked us to do.

On that note, by the way, I do not consider it coincidental that Galatians 6:9 comes very shortly after the list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Those fruits are what we are to be living out and demonstrating in our lives; they are no small part of the good that we are to be doing. It is not enough for us to do good when things are easy, when others are also doing good to us or when we “feel like” doing good. That would, quite frankly, make us no different from most of the rest of the world. Instead, we must persevere and continue to do good always.

Persevere means “to persist in anything undertaken; to maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles or discouragement; to continue steadfastly.” That does not happen by accident. It takes intentionality and persistence. We live in a day of instant gratification; we want what we want and we want it now. As a result, very few people persevere when the going really gets tough. Farming is a great example. At the risk of sounding like I am criticizing the Bible, though, I do not think farming is a perfect example because even in farming the farmer has an idea of when the harvest will come. He may not know how bountiful the harvest will be, but he is not left wondering, “Will it be this year or next year when we see results?” With people, though, you truly have no idea. The observable results may be years down the road – or they may never been seen this side of heaven.

I actually like the way The Message presents the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart…. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

That is exactly what we need to be doing. That is how we can avoid growing weary in doing good. Let us seek to develop that willingness to stick with things and to direct our energies wisely in a way that honors the Lord.

January 29, 2014

School Choice

January 26 to February 1 is National School Choice Week. According to the NSCW web site this annual week of celebration is a “nonpartisan, nonpolitical public awareness effort.” The purpose of NSCW is to “shine a positive spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children.” The individuals and groups who participate in National School Choice “believe that parents should be empowered to choose the educational environments for their children.”

As an administrator of a non-public school and a parent who has never enrolled my own children in public school I certainly agree that school choice is important. It is not as if NSCW is fighting for something that does not exist–school choice exists in the United States now and has for quite some time. Of course the choice to which I am referring has always come with a cost–anyone who wanted to do so and could afford to do so could send their children to any school they wanted (assuming the student was accepted at the school). One of the positions of National School Choice is that all possible options need to be available to everyone, including public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online schooling options and state programs allowing for private school choice–programs like scholarships, tax credits or deductions or vouchers that parents can use to pay for their child’s education at a private school. The idea of vouchers is that parents have the say in how part of the tax dollars set aside for their children gets used–even if that means the funds are used at a private school.

As a school choice proponent and private school administrator I have always been interested in the voucher idea. In the state where I live–South Dakota–spending per pupil in FY 2011 was $8,805, with perhaps 40% of that coming from the state. Across the United States, total spending per pupil in FY 2011 was $10,559.70, which includes federal, state and local spending. Evidence indicates that when voucher systems are in place many parents utilize them. They do not exist in my state, and I am not aware of any significant movement toward their adoption here, but it is a plan that truly gives parents a say in how the tax revenue earmarked for their childrens’ education is used.

Still and all, with or without vouchers more and more parents are choosing to exercise their right of school choice. According to the National Center for Education Statistics 5.2 million students were expected to attend private schools in 2013. That is about one-tenth of the number of students enrolled in public schools. According to figures released last August there are 1.77 million homeschooled students in the United States–about 3.4% of the school-age population. That, by the way, was an increase of 300,000 students over the last time the survey was completed in 2007. So there are a significant number of parents deciding that the best educational option for their child(ren) is not public school.

Now, as I have indicated here before, I am a product of public school. I never took a class anywhere other than a public school from the time I started kindergarten to the time I graduated from high school. I was–and still am–satisfied with the academic instruction I received. As I have also indicated here before, however, I have since come to realize that schooling is about far more than the acquisition of knowledge. Education involves worldview–the lens through which that knowledge is presented. That is the primary reason why my children are in a Christian school and why I serve at a Christian school.

I am not going to use the fact that this is National School Choice Week to reiterate the arguments I have made here before about the importance of Christian education; you can read previous posts if you want to do so. Rather, I am going to use this opportunity to remind parents that there truly is a choice when it comes to the education of your child. Do not just send them to public school because that is where you went or because that is what everyone else does or because it is convenient or it is “free.” Take the time to evaluate what you want your children to learn, from perspective you want them to learn it and in what environment you want them to learn. If, after giving that serious consideration, you determine that the local public school is probably not the place where you want that to take place, take advantage of the freedom you have to exercise school choice. Ultimately the education of your child(ren) is your responsibility; take it seriously.

October 24, 2013

Religious Liberty

As promised, I also want to address the third letter submitted to the WORLD Magazine Mailbag. In this letter an individual from Delaware wrote, “Our grassroots policy organization is promoting religious liberty in public schools at an upcoming conference,” and mentioned that the information in the magazine would be helpful to the organization as they “invite public school parents, teachers, and administrators to move ‘from fear to freedom’ regarding Christian expression at school.”

I do not know what organization this individual is a part of, so I cannot address specifically the efforts of the organization or even speak specifically to what they are trying to accomplish, but this letter highlights, in my mind, both positives and negatives. Perhaps a better way of putting that would be to say both reasons to get excited and reasons to proceed with caution. Allow me to elaborate….

First, the reason to be excited. Religious liberty, and the expression of religious liberty, is a constitutionally-protected right of American citizens. There have certainly been efforts to curtail liberties, if not outright deny them, and that violates the very principles on which this country was founded. In that regard, any efforts to protect and defend religious liberty and encourage those in arenas where it may be restricted to stand up for their rights is a good thing.

Here is the reason for caution, though. The individual who wrote to WORLD stated that the organization would be encouraging Christian expression at school. Super; I have no problem with that. However, I think it is very important that we carefully think through the full ramifications of what we are asking for when we take such action. The Constitution does not protect only Christian religious liberty. Many people, myself included, have bemoaned the consequences of our nation’s straying from the morals that seemed far more prevalent in every area of society not all that long ago. Many have pointed out the negative cultural changes that seem to have coincided with the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools. Many, therefore, have advocated the return of prayer and Bible reading to the public schools.

Here is where we must think through exactly what that would mean. If all religious liberty is protected, there is no way to pursue the return of only Christian prayer and Bible reading to the schools. If all religious liberty is protected, the expression of religious liberty in public schools cannot be restricted to what I may believe or I may want–or what any one individual, group or denomination may want. Religious liberty for all means just that. The Pledge of Allegiance ends with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.” That means Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Atheists and Agnostics among many others.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty includes this statement on its web site: “Dedicated to protecting the free expression of all faiths. Our clients have included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.” The Becket Fund includes a cross in its logo, but, whatever else you may think of it, it recognizes that true religious freedom for Christians must also include religious freedom for other religions, as well.

Am I saying that there is no place for prayer or Bible reading in public schools? Not necessarily. But I am saying that those who desire to see those things returned to public schools need to remember that true religious liberty would then also mean that other religious sacred texts must be able to be read and/or taught in the public schools, as well. If you really want the Bible back in public schools make sure you want the Talmud and the Quran, too.

The Alliance Defending Freedom states on its web site, “Throughout our history, America has been a land defined by religious faith and freedom. Religious freedom is our first and most fundamental, God-given right deemed so precious that our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the U.S. Constitution.” I agree with that statement. Their web site goes on, however, to state this: “For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other radical anti-Christian groups have been on a mission to eliminate public expression of our nation’s faith and heritage.” I only partly agree with this. Whether we want to admit it or not, we must recognize that our nation does not have a faith. There is no national faith or national religion in the United States. Fleeing state-sponsored churches was no small part of the impetus for many of America’s earliest settlers. Where many people get hung up is on the idea that their way is the right way. When it comes to biblical Christianity, of course, it is the right way. It is the right way (the only way) to heaven, it is the only understanding of the one true God, it is the only way to receive forgiveness of sins. However, it is not the only religion. And if we stop and think about it carefully, I do not think any of us really want a national religion.

So what is my point in all of this? What does this have to do with my ongoing discussion of education in America? Basically it is this: anyone who wants their children to be educated in an environment that embraces a biblical worldview and allows, encourages or even requires Bible reading and prayer needs to homeschool their children or enroll them in a solid Christian school. There is simply no other way to make that happen.

October 11, 2013

Sabotaging the Lighthouse

As I alluded to at the end of the last post, there is considerable disagreement among Christians over the way in which Christian parents should respond to the reality of public school education. These differences of opinion are clear in the first three letters printed in the Mailbag section of the October 19, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine. All three are in response to the September 7 issue of WORLD, their “Back to School” issue.

The first letter, from a gentleman in California, says, “The questions and issues listed on your Sept. 7 cover are vital ones that I fear too many, even Christian parents, are unaware of. Do we understand scientism? Do we discern that all schools teach secular humanism in the state systems?” Without coming right out and saying so he certainly seems to be of the opinion that the public school is not a safe environment for Christian children because of the worldview that is presented.

The second letter, however, refutes any assertion that Christians should abandon the public schools. “My husband is a minister and I teach in the public school system,” writes a lady from Missouri. “Our four children thrived in public schools because we taught them Christian values. Things have gotten bad, but if Christians continue to withdraw, schools will only get worse. My children and I are missionaries every day.” This is perhaps the most common objection I hear from Christian parents who do not want to remove their children from public schools. As I have indicated before, I believe each parent is ultimately charged by God with raising their own children and I cannot clearly know God’s will for anyone else, so I am not going to suggest that everyone who holds to this position is wrong. I will suggest, however, that the number of Christian children who are “missionaries” in the public schools pales in comparison to the number of public schools that are missionaries to the Christian students that attend them. By that, I mean that more often than not I think the school influences the students more than the students influence the school.

I heard Cal Thomas address this issue a few years ago. At that time he stated that ninety percent of Christian children go to public schools. I am not sure where he got that figure, but I suspect it is not far off. One of the things he said about the assertion made by the wife and mother in Missouri that the influence of public schools can be countered by teaching them Christian values at home stuck with me. He said, “You wouldn’t send your children off with a healthy breakfast and be unconcerned if they ate lead paint for lunch.” The same, he said, is true intellectually, spiritually and morally when students go to public schools. I would have to agree; after all, students are almost certainly getting more direct instruction from their schools than they are from their parents; even the best case scenario might be only fifty-fifty. So why would Christian parents concerned about the development of their students knowingly and willingly send their children to an environment in which much of what they learn, or at least the perspective from which they learn it, is in opposition to what the parents believe and the Bible teaches?

To the point of being missionaries or ambassadors in the public school setting, I think there is a tremendous amount of merit to that argument for Christian adults working in public schools. I think the weight of that argument diminishes exponentially when talking about children. It is not coincidental that the United States does not send children or teenagers as ambassadors to other nations. I realize that is not a perfect example, and yes, children and teens can absolutely be salt and light in the world. Truth be told, I was probably more bold about sharing my faith with strangers as a child than I am now, much to my own dismay. This argument is flawed, though, because children and teens are still having their faith, their worldview and their understanding shaped. They are still extremely susceptible to influences and their minds are still quite pliable.

I have always considered lighthouses to be a terrific metaphor for Christians and the role that Christians are to have in the world. A lighthouse was a carefully constructed building. The bricks needed to be placed correctly and secured carefully in order to build the structure up high enough for its light to be seen from a distance. It also needed to be strong enough to support the staircase that wrapped its way around the inside of the light tower so that the keeper could make his regular trips up and down the stairs. If the tower fell, the light would be useless. If the stairs collapsed and the keeper could not light the light (in the days before automation) the light would be useless. In other words, the light itself only had any value if the lighthouse itself was securely constructed. There might be a perfectly goof Fresnel lens sitting on top of the lighthouse, or sitting on the ground next to a lighthouse being constructed, but without the properly constructed light and usable stairs within the tower the light would be worthless.

The same is true of Christians. The light the we have is perfect and good and complete, because the light that we have is the Gospel message, the truth of God’s Word. But if our towers are faulty, if we cannot or do not light the light, the light in our towers is worthless.

No one charged with the task of constructing a lighthouse would spend mornings, evenings and weekends constructing the tower and knowingly and willingly allow another person or group of people to spend six to eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, sabotaging the tower he was building. Imagine how long it would take to construct that lighthouse! Think of the adage two steps forward, one step backward. Even worse, think of one step forward, two steps backward. The one charged with building the tower would have to spend so much time repairing and fixing what he had already done that he would seldom if ever make progress in building the tower higher. Getting to the point where the lighthouse was complete and the light could accomplish its purpose would take an extremely long time! This is exactly what happens when Christian students go to public schools. They have a light to show to the world, but it is seldom visible because the world is continually sabotaging their tower by attacking and undermining their faith and their worldview.

I always find it particularly troubling when parents send their children to Christian school for elementary and perhaps even junior high school and then send them off to public school for their high school years. More often than not this is due to the athletic, music and other co-curricular activities that public schools offer than many Christian schools cannot (or not at the same level). Sometimes it is also because parents question whether or not the academic in the Christian school are as rigorous as those in the public schools. Regardless of the reason, I find the decision incredibly uninformed. Teenagers are perhaps more susceptible to the influence of others than any other humans. They are already trying to figure out who they are and what they think. They are already prone to question authority and what they have been raised to do, think and believe. Why in the world would a Christian parent insert their child into an environment where they are surrounded by the influences of the world at exactly that age? Quite simply, I don’t get it.

I mentioned three letters published in WORLD. I will talk about the point made in the third one next time.

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