Is Christian education really “ministry”?
Being a teacher in a Christian school doesn’t automatically qualify one to be called a “teacher-minister.” To be so described is, in verity, an honor. But it is also a responsibility borne by all those who believe they are called to serve in any of the ministries.
Christian educators use various terms and expressions to describe the enterprise they are engaged in: “Christ-centered education,” “teaching from a Christian perspective,” “Bible-based curriculum,” “redemptive discipline,” “servant ministry,” and so on. Such phrases seem reasonable and proper to describe the enterprise in which Christian teachers are engaged. While each term has a particular connotation, the ideas they represent cluster around the notion of what constitutes “ministry.” It is not uncommon to hear Christian education referred to as “the ministry of teaching.” But is it just a fanciful jargon and cliché? Or is Christian education really ministry?
This question prompts many others. What do we mean by ministry? How many ministries are there? Are all ministries the same or share anything in common? Are they of equal status? This article attempts to identify and explain the essence of ministry, whether the concept of ministry applies to Christian education, and how that concept affects the practice and administration of education. In addition, the article explores the crucial issue: how well does current practice in Christian schools measure up to this ideal?
Fundamental to our discussion is that we pursue it with a biblically-informed consciousness, or what Harry Blamires and others call “a Christian mind.”1 This is more than a casual label. It is undeniable that in the West, we live in a secular age and are impacted by its profound effect. The impact is greater than we realize, and we need to be ever vigilant to secularism’s subtle inroads and consciously resist blindly following practices that conflict with biblical principles and values.2 To think with a Christian mind challenges one of our greatest weaknesses: our tendency to live compartmentalized lives, in which we separate the sacred from the secular.3 At its worst, spiritual sensitivity is diminished as secular modernity prevails. Despite the fact that Christian educators frequently speak of “a balance between the spiritual, mental, physical, social,” the reality is that it is often fragmented and piecemeal. For example, the spiritual activities of a Christian school frequently stand distinct from the formal curriculum in which subjects are taught to criteria dictated by external public authorities.
Can genuine Christian education rightly be described as ministry? The Bible provides us with an orientation and frame of reference to discover answers to this question, and also to all of the big questions relating to what is real, how we know, and what is good and of value. The answers to all of these questions stem from the historical flow of Scripture. Together, they form a powerful metanarrative, described variously such as the “cosmic conflict,” or the “creation-fall-redemption-consummation” theme. In the face of postmodernity’s disparaging attitude toward core metanarratives, Christians assert that this metanarrative is the basis of a distinctive, normative worldview that is the center of their personal faith. The heart of that faith embraces and responds to an understanding of who God is, what He has done, the origin of humanity, humanity’s dilemma, God’s response to that problem, and humanity’s ultimate destiny.
Appreciating what it means to be human. Fundamental to our discussion is a clear understanding of what it means to be truly human. Unlike widely-held assumptions of humans evolving from some primeval state, this discussion endorses the biblical account of humans being uniquely created by God Himself (see Genesis 1, 2; Psalm 8). As creatures, humans are seen as primarily dependent on Him as the source of life, meaning, understanding, and purpose in their capacity to display intelligence, decision-making, creativity, emotion, physicality, individuality, sociality, and spirituality. In so doing, they are intended to be image bearers, designed to reflect, in some small measure, aspects of what God is like. But personality is more than merely the sum of those parts. These qualities comprise an interrelated whole, the human soul, which “lives, and moves and has its being” in the Creator (see Acts 17:28).
Recognizing humanity’s predicament. A fundamental problem confronts every member of the human race. Christians believe that a rebellious choice by humanity’s primal parents severed the open relationship they had previously enjoyed with the Creator. As a consequence they — with the world — were plunged into a conflict of cosmic proportions, with the capacity of those who would follow to reflect the image of God well-nigh destroyed. Despite this predicament, human nature in its very essence craves and actively seeks to be reconnected with the Creator. Thus Augustine reflected, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”4
The context and essence of ministry
The Good News proclaimed in the Bible essentially makes people aware of the way God has provided hope and meaning for human existence in the face of the dislocation and brokenness caused by the Fall. Contrary to the popular accusation that God is harsh and vengeful, His compassionate, redemptive nature is highlighted in a theme beginning in Genesis 3 and traced throughout all Scripture.
The oft-quoted declaration of the Gospel in John 3:16 is followed by another of profound significance: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17 NKJV).
Many Christians tend to be preoccupied with the forensic side of salvation and miss recognizing that the word “save” or sozo (Greek) also has connotations of healing, not only of physical ailments, but also of comprehensive healing — body, soul and spirit. In His miraculous acts of healing, Jesus bore testimony to this. Physical healing was accompanied by emotional and spiritual healing. Broken relationships were restored and exclusions were dissolved, resulting in social acceptance, reconciliation, and peace. Salvation is restoration in the most comprehensive sense. Restoration is wholistic; that is, it is more than the sum of the parts. It focuses on the development of the whole person — spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially. The term “whole person” carries with it important implications. Although aspects of personhood can be identified as distinct elements, the notion of wholistic development assumes the effective integration or interweaving of each element with the others. To the western mind, this poses a conceptual challenge that must be overcome.
The concept of ministry comes to prominence in the writings of Paul addressing the ekklesia or “the church” of the New Testament. Due to its function, it was referred to as the koinonia, that is, “the fellowship” or “community of faith,” and “the body of Christ.” The goal was always building up, restoration, and reconciliation. Paul’s words are noteworthy and illuminating: “It was [Christ] who gave some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors, some to be teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ… . From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
The word translated as “prepare” has significant connotations. The verb katartismon implies healing. To the Greek mind, it was akin to the setting of a broken limb or restoring a dislocated joint. It also has significance in the political sense of bringing together alienated parties to enable harmonious governance to continue.5 In essence, this process represents a reversal of the alienation resulting from the sin of our first parents. This ministry is focused on Christ. As Paul states so eloquently: “He was supreme in the beginning and — leading the resurrection parade — he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe — people and things, animals and atoms — get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross” (Colossians 1:18-20, The Message).
It must be stressed that this ministry of reconciliation happens in community. But what we are considering is more than just a community as a sociological phenomenon. William Andersen argues that the New Testament church, ekklesia, fits the community profile, but takes the argument a step further. He argues that the Christian school should be recognized as a ministry of the church at large, reflecting the same elements of community, and sharing the same ultimate goal: restoration of wholeness, or, as often stated, “the restoration of the image of God in man.”6
Implications of ministry
Clearly, while there are different ministries that are called to serve in specific contexts — church, health, education, welfare, counseling, etc. — it is argued that their goal is the same: restoration. Thus, these ministries are complementary. They are not discrete and independent. Rather, they are interdependent. From time to time, assumptions of superior status produce attitudes that reflect a sense of superiority and assumed authority that are obstructive and disruptive. The validity of such assumptions bears questioning. The evangelical church often asserts its roots in the Reformation but forgets the views of Luther and Calvin on the ministerial status of “theologians, gardeners, janitors and tradespeople.”7 Christian schools adopting such a vision and mission truly emulate the redemptive, restorative ministry of Jesus Himself. That ministry of restoration has salvific implications. Salvation is reconciliation in the most comprehensive sense. As Westly explains:
Salvation in the biblical sense cannot be understood in one-dimensionally, narrow, reductionist, parochial ways. The salvation the Scriptures speak of offers a comprehensive wholeness in this fragmented and alienated life. Salvation in the biblical sense is a newness of life, the unfolding of true humanity in the fullness of God (Colossians 2:9), it is salvation of the soul and the body, of the individual and society, of humankind and the whole of creation (Romans 8:19).8
Such a view represents a significant challenge to the false dichotomy commonly posed between the sacred and the secular. As Harry Blamires argues, the Christian mind is able to see the most secular aspects of life from a Christian perspective because of the individual’s orientation to biblical presuppositions and values — that is, their worldview.9 George Knight argues that Christian education is true ministry and each teacher is an “agent of salvation.”10 It is also religion in essence (Latin religere = “to bind together again”).
The ultimate goal of Christian education
Christian education can be regarded as one of the complementary ministries envisaged by Paul (Ephesians 4:11-14). The process that underpins Christian education in all phases and aspects is formation. The ultimate goal of that process is sometimes expressed as the restoration of the image of God in humans through the harmonious development of the mental, social, physical, and spiritual faculties.
This goal envisages a process that in all phases and aspects represents wholistic renewal. In recent years, the term “spiritual formation” has gained wide usage and describes such renewal. But in our adoption of the term, we are not talking about a nebulous spirituality that is commonly encountered in postmodern thinking. We are speaking of dynamic, formative, biblically-grounded development empowered by the Holy Spirit as part of the shared work of the Triune God. It assumes a disposition that accepts as a given that “in [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:25). Dallas Willard reminds us that the term can be rightly regarded as “spiritual re-formation” in recognition of our origin, our fall, and our new potential.11 Spiritual formation, in other words, is re-creation in response to our predicament and God’s answer through the work of Christ and the conviction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. As such, it is the work and prerogative of the Holy Spirit. Such formation aligns with the redemption phase of the creation-fall-redemption-consummation motif. It constitutes a lifelong response to personal acceptance of God’s act of grace in Christ at Calvary. It is an essential part of God’s plan of restoration, transformation, and renewal, seeking to heal human disconnectedness resulting from the Fall, and part of the ministry of the Gospel as commissioned by Jesus in the New Testament. It leads to the reflection of God-likeness, personal integrity, and unselfish service, rather than the elevation of human greatness, material gain, and status. This development is viewed as progressing through stages of maturity and character development relative to age.
Understandably, teachers of mathematics, science, technology, commerce, and the like will query the fit of their subject specializations in the overall scheme of things. The contribution of Christian teachers in a pastoral role alongside their teaching specializations is accepted by most. But that role tends to be seen more as a complementary role than an integrated, wholistic one: value-added benefit of the Christian school. But there is a fundamental problem with such a dualistic view. A preoccupation with the here and now and preparation for a working career tends to eclipse other perceived roles. But this paper argues that this-world needs should not be ignored, but are part of the whole. It advocates a macro view that provides a context in which these specific elements — the subjects of the formal curriculum — are integrated and extend into eternity. Over recent decades, debate has ebbed and flowed around the term “integration of faith and learning.” By this we are not advocating a contrived cobbling of spiritual allusions, object lessons, and the like into every lesson — in other words, pseudointegration12 — unless those linkages are natural.
What is the relationship of the apparently-secular subjects of the curriculum to spiritual formation? The short answer is; “Everything!” Otherwise, we are upholding dualism that is inconsistent with Paul’s assertion that “in God we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:29). A notable example of a disposition that does not separate the sacred from the secular is that of Brother Lawrence, the Carmelite monk, who “practiced the presence of God through the washing of pots and pans and serving his brothers.” It does not apply just to religious life. In this regard, Pettit argues rightly when he asserts:
This process should not be divided into the spiritual and physical, private and public, or secular and sacred. It involves the integrated, whole person — one’s manner of thinking, habits and behaviors, and the manner of relating with God and others — and it should result in a life of loving God and loving others well.13
Pettit further explains that by using the term “spiritual,” we are referring to the dynamic, wholistic, maturing relationship between the individual believer and God, and between the individual believer and others (both believers and unbelievers). Thus, two principles emerge to prominence. First, formation is personal, where a particular individual is being changed (formed) at the core of his or her being (spirit). This lifelong transformation is set into motion when one places his or her faith in Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him. Secondly, the change or transformation that occurs in the believer’s life happens best in the context of authentic, Christian community and is oriented as service toward God and others. Thus, the whole of life is not lived in monastic seclusion. As responsible image bearers, our worship, study, work, recreation, community service, cultural pursuit and expression, and social interaction are harmoniously integrated — in all things, “whether eating or drinking or whatever is done, it is done to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As such, it encompasses all facets of personhood, and bears testimony to the quality of comprehensive formation.
The implications for teaching as ministry
The formal curriculum. A biblical view of knowledge recognizes both a supernatural and a natural order, where God is acknowledged as the ultimate, essential source of all wisdom and virtue. Thus, true knowledge is more than a body of factual information and marketable skills to be transmitted, learned, reproduced, and applied. True knowledge encompasses cognitive, experiential, emotional, relational, intuitive, and spiritual elements functioning as an interrelated whole. Christian education seeks to restore to factual information its true meaning as a way of knowing God and His creation, and acting responsibly as disciples, servants, and stewards to one another and the created environment. The commonly-viewed distinction between the sacred and the secular is artificial and false. All truth is part of God’s order, and His presence can be recognized and practiced in even the apparently-secular and mundane aspects of life. Acquisition of true knowledge leads to understanding that is manifested in wisdom, integrity, appropriate action, and worship. True knowledge is active by nature — knowing is doing, and knowing comes through doing.
Christian schools respect the place of the traditional disciplines or learning areas in representing particular realms of meaning that are typical of the respective subjects. These are seen as part of the human quest to explore, discover, understand, test, and communicate those understandings. Ronald Nelson argues, “each [discipline] develops its own heuristic, that is, its own principles and methods of discovery. Each devises and revises its own special categories, its own conceptual system. Each claims the prerogative of formulating its own criteria for judging the validity of what is put forward by scholars in the field. Each has its own sense, diffuse and debated though it might be, of what the integrity of the discipline requires.”14
Thus, the disciplines may be regarded either as windows through which to see, or windows of opportunity by which to act. As windows, they provide an opportunity to see or perceive and understand something of God and His activity. These are reflected through the created world, the Bible, and the cosmic conflict and promote appreciation of Christian heritage. As windows of opportunity, they motivate response, application, expression, and practice that are conducive to community building, citizenship, social justice, and stewardship of the environment and resources in ways that are consistent with biblical values. These values are sometimes described as kingdom values because of their foundation in the New Testament account of Jesus’ life and teachings. Therefore, in planning the formal curriculum, a balance is sought between spiritual, intellectual, physical, social, and emotional understanding. While some learning areas fit closely in one category, they often have relevance in other categories or “realms of meaning.”15 They are not discrete one from the other. Because they all find their shared origin in God-centered reality, cross-disciplinary linkages are recognized and engaged, particularly in the primary and middle years of study. This can be seen as providing opportunity for integration around relevant themes of study.
The formal curriculum serves as a venue for true learning: opportunities to make connections, see patterns and wholeness, form a big picture, and in doing so, portray meaning.16 Such learning reflects a move from surface knowledge to deeper meaning. In a similar vein, research on the function of the brain in learning accounts for ideas and experiences being built into neural nets or maps of meaning that go together to make up a big picture (or gestalt). Such conceptualizations of learning help us to understand what faith is and how it grows. These ideas are not new in essence. Fowler, for instance, speaks of the development of personal master stories as part of one’s faith.17 These master stories are at the heart of what Stephen Covey18 describes as paradigms that inform and drive the development of personal integrity of character, meaning, and effectiveness.
The Christian teacher’s role. As a minister-teacher, the Christian teacher’s role is of central importance. As well as being experts in their teaching fields, with the ability to promote and support learning in those areas, the teacher’s role in Christian schools is more extensive and wholistic. Such teaching is a sharing of realities or weaving connections between their subjects, themselves, and the world until students make it their own. So as professional educators, they are expected to be competent in their respective fields of teaching, motivating and maintaining high levels of engagement in learning in a fair, just, non-discriminatory, and emotionally supportive manner. They will be sensitive to the spiritual implications and connections inherent in their learning area. They will reflect a disposition that is open to new perspectives, collegial, reflective, and self-critical in their quest for excellence to the glory of the Creator. Christian teachers will also be people of faith and integrity who share the vision of the school and its goals and will actively model the culture, ethos, and lifestyle of the school system within and beyond their own classrooms. While specialists may take a designated pastoral role, individual teachers will actively nurture and support children in pastoral ministry. They will be continually conscious of the impact they have upon the unplanned learning of their students.
The learning environment. Christian schools seek to provide an enriched, meaningful, spiritually- and culturally-sensitive learning environment. There is effort to make connections between the student and the subject matter, between the head and the heart, and develop maps of meaning in the minds of their students. Thus, there is sensitivity to the culture, typical methodology, and skills of the different learning areas and where they fit within the larger scheme of learning. Teaching approaches will acknowledge and affirm the diversity of intellects and gifts shared between the learners, and promote excellence in all facets of development. Teachers will generally function with students as facilitators and mentors in an interactive, emotionally-supportive manner, and students will often work in collaborative, cooperative learning and peer-sharing settings in a wide range of activities, both within and beyond the school. Teachers will recognize and follow opportunities to explore new spiritual insights and understanding, both planned and incidental, and encourage personal decisions and commitment in students.
The Christian school: a community of faith. Learning, as we have reflected, is obviously not limited to the classroom. As a community of faith, the Christian school provides a cultural setting or context that enhances the quality of learning, and conversely, the community’s ethos is enhanced by the quality of that learning. Just like the New Testament koinonia, personal identity and physical, spiritual, and psycho-social well-being are nurtured and maintained. Dwayne Huebner19 describes this dynamic graphically. He adopts the metaphor of weaving to describe how individuals create a “fabric of life,” comprising an interweaving of ideas, abstractions, memories, biblical metaphors, and cultural mores derived from the faith community and the relationships within it. He argues that life in the intimacy and context of those relationships affirms a personal and a collective past that, in turn, acknowledges, practices, and celebrates the presence of God. And it is dynamic, nourishing, and renewing. Such ideas are consistent with the kind of individuals God created in His image, with the capacity to think and act.
Just calling a school Christian doesn’t make it so. Being a teacher in a Christian school doesn’t automatically qualify one to be called a teacher-minister. To be so described is, in verity, an honor. But it is also a responsibility borne by all those who believe they are called to serve in any of the ministries. If we are honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge disparities and flaws in what we presently observe in Christian education. Some are just relatively more up-market, selective, academically-competitive clones of the public school down the road, but with a veneer of spirituality thrown in. The challenge will always be there to resist the secular tide, the subversive threats, and the influence of those who would compromise the potential of authentic Christian schools. It will only be in this context that such vocation and service can truly be called “ministry.”
Don Roy (Ph.D., Deakin University, Victoria, Australia) is conjoint senior lecturer, Avondale College of Higher Education. E-mail: email@example.com.
- Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1978). See also John Stott and Roy McCloughry, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th Edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), pp. 59-67; David Gill, The Opening of the Christian Mind (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989); Arthur Holmes, The Making of a Christian Mind, (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1985); J.P. Moreland, The Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007).
- See Barclay’s comment on Romans 12:2. William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans: Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1966), pp. 167-171.
- See Don C. Roy, “Christian schools– a world of difference,” TEACH: Journal of Christian Education 2 (1): 38-44.
- Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1.
- Barclay, pp. 176, 177.
- W.E. Andersen, “From Gospel Into Education: Exploring a Translation,” Parts 1 & 2, Journal of Christian Education, Papers 79 (April) 1984: 26-37 and Papers 81 (October) 1984: 11-19.
- Alistair Mackenzie, Faith and Work: Martin Luther/John Calvin. Retrieved from http://workliferhythm.org/cc/article/0,,PTID331328_CHID808482_CIID1789804,00.html.
- Dick Westly, A Theology of Presence: The Search for Meaning in the American Catholic Experience (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), pp.69, 70.
- Blamires, Harry. op. cit.
- George R. Knight, Philosophy & Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2007).
- Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
- David L. Wolfe, "The line of demarcation between integration and pseudointegration," in Harold Heie & David Wolfe, The Reality of Christian Learning (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004); also Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2004).
- Paul Pettit, ed., Foundations of Spiritual Formation: A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregal Publications, 2008), p. 24.
- Ronald Nelson, in Heie & Wolfe. Also Harris, p. 318.
- Though assumed by some as somewhat “dated,” the thought of Philip Phenix and Paul Hirst is seminal and still very pertinent. See Philip Phenix, Realms of Meaning (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) and Paul Hirst, “The logic of the curriculum,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 1 (1969) 2.
- Caine Renate Nummela & Caine Geoffrey, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1994).
- James Fowler, Stages of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
- Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (London: Simon & Schuster, 1989).
- Dwayne Huebner, “Practicing the Presence of God,” Religious Education 82 (Fall 1987).