Signs of Life
Does the Christian intellectual tradition of education really need to be reclaimed? On the surface, Christian thinking about education is much in evidence. If academic writing about education indicates a Christian intellectual tradition, then publishers issue hundreds of new books, journal articles, and curricula every month. It would be impossible to attend all Christian academic, professional, or family conferences about education which are convened all over the world, every week of the year, to say nothing about the dozens of education courses in seminaries and Christian universities, and innumerable websites and podcasts. Christian education displays vibrant vital signs.
Imagine an alien investigator. Even if it limited its investigation to education in conservative Protestant or evangelical families, churches, youth ministries, parachurch organizations, schools, universities, and seminaries in the early 2000’s, it would find a day-school movement of ten of thousands of schools, largely expanded since the 1960s, with dozens of curriculum publishers and two major associations.
If education is the whole process of personal development, then the dismal news is that Christian education is in crisis.
It would find a homeschooling movement embracing nearly two million children in 2012 in the US, its largest country, directed by books, curricula, and conferences.1
It would find a Classical education movement for day schools and homeschools, with more curricula, blogs, and conferences.
It would find conservative Protestant or evangelical universities with published rationales for existence, along with professional journals and conferences, in addition to similar intellectual activity for Catholic universities and other faith groups. The process of confirming employment at an evangelical university often elicits a specific statement of Christian beliefs from the professor. Administrators scrutinize thousands of their statements about Christianity and education. Hundreds more professors teach church education to seminary or undergraduate students.
On secular university campuses, our alien would find student groups such as Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, and smaller groups—all teaching Christian beliefs to future leaders.
Neither would the alien find educational thinking absent in conservative churches. Sunday school materials plus mid-week and summer programming from Christian publishers would find a place in its survey. Parents absorb programs from sources like Focus on the Family and similar parachurch agencies. Church leaders would be noted as having the choice of offsite learning for leadership development conferences via worldwide satellite link.
Our alien might conclude that a Christian tradition of education is alive in thought and practice.2
And yet. . .
Sociological surveys since the late 1990s reveal that as few as forty percent of American young adults who grew up in evangelical churches still attend services regularly. The phenomenon of low adult adherence is apparent in Canada, Australia, Europe–across Western societies.
Moreover, the faith that young adults confess is different than that of their parents and of the historic declarations of Christian faith such as the Apostles’ Creed. Researcher Christian Smith memorably tagged the new faith as “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism,” marked by five beliefs:
First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. Second, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. Third, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Fourth, God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.3
Smith and fellow researchers emphasize that teens and young adults function with the restricted faith that their parents model. The life-world of teens and young adults is not its own world; it is largely copied from older adults. Parents are gatekeepers for influences that shape their children up to their teen years. However, these key educators are in an ecology with mass media, peers, formal education, the legal environment, and churches. The social ecology expresses long and deep social trends.4
If education is the whole process of personal development, then the dismal news is that Christian education is in crisis. Despite the many evidences of intellectual activity that our alien surveyed, other factors are working against mature adherence to orthodox Christian faith. Reclaiming a Christian intellectual tradition in education is an urgent task.
- Jeremy Redford, Danielle Battle, and Stacey Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States: 2012,” November 2016, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED569947
- Jeremy Redford, Danielle Battle, and Stacey Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States: 2012,” 2016, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED569947.
- Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 154–55.
- Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press US, 2005), 118–71; David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, International ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2011); James Penner et al., “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church,” Foundational Research Document Commissioned by EFC Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable (Ottawa: Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, 2012); Mark McCrindle, “A Demographic Snapshot of Christianity and Church Attenders in Australia” (Bella Vista, NSW, Australia: McCrindle Research Pty. Ltd., April 18, 2014); Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney, and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
This article is adapted from Education: A Student’s Guide by Ted Newell.
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