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Missional Implications Of Education

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Today was a big day in our household.  This morning, bright and early, Micah boarded the bus for the first time for his first day of kindergarten.  As parents, we have been (of course) excited, nervous, frantic, etc.  He is joining many of his friends from pre-school at the same facility, so for Micah it is only a minor but exciting change.  However, the school is some distance from our home- a fact that has surprised a lot of people who know us and our engagement in the local neighbourhood.  Micah is enrolled in a Christian school that is not located in our community.  How do we square that with our deeply held (and embodied) missional convictions?

That question and questions like it are causing a buzz these days, especially due to the recent posts by Tony Jones on the topic of homeschooling and being missional (see “Death to Homeschooling!” and “Why Homeschoolers Don’t Understand Missional”).  To sum up, Tony asserts:

“So it seems to me that to withdraw my children from public education is to not play my (God-given) role as a missional member of society — like I can’t just choose to withhold my taxes. We give our children all those vaccinations when they’re young not necessarily to protect them from polio (since the chances of any one of my children getting it is exceedingly small) but because we live in a society, and part of the contract within the society is that we will never again let polio gain a foothold.”

Clarifying what he means by “missional”, he goes on:

Missional does not mean evangelism. Missional means showing Christlike compassion to other human beings and to all of creation. Here are the two biblical passages that bring me to my definition of missional:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. (Matthew 5:13)

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Missional means being the salt seasoning in the world, and you cannot be that seasoning (no matter your age) if you withdraw from society.”

While primarily directed at home schoolers, Tony’s logic indicts our choices as well.  So how do we respond to this?

First, I firmly agree with Tony that there are deep implications (both missional and others) to the educational choices we make for our children.  There are certainly widely evidenced trends within many Christians circles to use such educational choices as a means by which we withdraw from the world (whether in protest, protection or otherwise)- trends that are often not consistent with the missional vocation of Christians to live into the world.  I live in a region where many of the Christian homeschooling families fall dangerously into these very extremes.  Therefore, I believe the conversation must be had and that Tony’s cautions are essential to address.

However, Tony’s articles fail to be nuanced enough to fairly and helpfully engage the topic.  For example, he says:

“So I can’t think, “I’ll just pull my kids out of the public schools — what difference will one less follower of Jesus make in a school full of hundreds of kids?” I don’t, as a Christian, have the option to “opt out” of the societal contract. Instead, I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be.”

First, this argument fails to address that many reasons families choose educational alternatives outside of the public school system.  Yes, if a family makes the casual assertion that he posits in the quote above, that would be problematic.  However, I find it doubtful that this represents even a small portion of the reasoning of such families.  In our own family, we made the decision to send Micah to a private Christian school for many reasons: being a new Canadian with new English skills, he required a higher level of attention to help him catch up; several dynamics of attachment disorder associated with adoption will be mitigated by the unique offerings of this school; the racial tensions in some of our local (inner city) schools are such that our social worker felt it might be especially challenging for our child at this stage of education; etc.  It was not an easy decision to make, but one we made over a long period of time, with prayer, research, etc.  We are also open to see him move back into a public school should circumstances proven that to be a better option.  The point is this: there are many (important and good) reasons other than the ones Tony implies in his post, yet he fails to differentiate.

While the strongest critiques fall to home schoolers, which does not apply to our situation, I still believe Tony paints with too wide a brush.  He speaks of homeschooling as though it is a singular model that looks, largely, the same way.  Yet, the fact is that homeschooling is very diverse in expression and methodology.  Many have strong and creative social dynamics, for example.  The point here is that, while some expressions of homeschooling are unhealthy, there needs to be room for differences that make such a broad critique require more qualification.

The biggest problem I have with the position of Tony’s articles is that he articulates in a way that seems all or nothing.  In other words, if you home school (or don’t send your children to public school) you aren’t missional, don’t understand missional, you betray your missional and/or societal contract, make a bad choice for the child(ren).  Aside from the fact that I don’t believe this is always the case, such logic would mean that if any aspect of your life wasn’t in accordance with the missional ideal meant missional disqualification.  I doubt any of us, Tony included, could then claim to be or understand missional.

The truth is that education, like life, is complex.  We are faced with a myriad of choices, most of which can never be divide into the binary options of “right” and “wrong”.  More often than not, those choices are a wide array of options between many “good” options, with the “better” option being somewhat subjective.  Further, the diversity of context, circumstances, specific children, specific schools (districts), teachers, etc. means that the right or best choices are not going to be the same from everyone.  Such diversity necessitates a diversity of options and expressions.  This shouldn’t be seen as threatening, but as a necessary (even exciting) reflection of humanity.

Our choice to put our son in a Christian school is not a withdrawal from society.  Does it come with significant draw backs with respect to missional engagement and responsibility?  Without question.  Yet, in the bigger picture, we believe our son, our family, our neighbour and our society will be better served (missionally and otherwise) by the choice we have made.  For others, sending their kids to public school will be the best choice in this respect.

So while we need this conversation and we need to speak hard truths about some choices made by Christians, we need to be equally committed to do so with respect and trust.  We must resist the impulse to primarily articulate our positions (and oppositions) in polemic over-statements.  We need to trust people to make the right choices for their family based upon their unique set of criteria- criteria that is largely private and unseen- without resorting to calling each others integrity into question (missional or otherwise).

19 Comments

  1. Thank you for this.

    We chose a private school, too. Actually, it’s a part-time school. They attend class two days a week and are homeschooled on the other days. Our oldest daughter has ADHD and we felt smaller class sizes were best for her learning style.

    I read Tony’s article last week as well as today’s and felt they are both unfair. We know our neighbors and interact with families in sports and dance classes. Now that my girls are getting older I hope our more flexible schedule will allow us time to serve in the community as well.

    Tony is a smart guy, but his arguments are so obviously black and white, not to mention and uninformed, that it surprises me.

  2. Thanks April.

  3. Kathryn

    I was hesitant to read this at first – my oldest daughter just began Grade 1 in the Catholic school near our house after two years of homeschooling. In an ideal world, I would still be homeschooling her – she misses it too, but we are both coping with the new reality.

    I am a strong advocate for homeschooling when it is well-executed, done thoughtfully, and decided upon for good reasons. I totally agree that to say that homeschooling parents choose this path to withdraw/protect their child from society is to unfairly paint a very diverse group of families with a wide brush dipped in ugly paint. In fact, I would argue that part of my decision to homeschool was to be able to engage with our community alongside my daughter in ways that neither the public nor the private school system are conducive to. We volunteered at a nursing home, singing for the elderly; we picked up garbage in the streets around our neighbourhood; we visited the fire station, the archaeological society, the art gallery, and countless other places together. She has been a karate student at the dojo a few blocks away for over a year now. We have had great conversations about what it means to be a part of a community and how to show kindness and respect to everyone, and great opportunities to put those conversations into practice.

    Are there families out there who are choosing to homeschool for wrongheaded, isolationist reasons? Sure. And they do themselves, the reputation of homeschooling in general, and especially their children a great disservice. But I believe that there is no method of education that should be dismissed outright, whether public school, private school, Catholic school, or homeschool – you’re right on the money when you say that there is just a range of “good” options, and which one(s) is/are “better” depends on the family circumstances and on the child in question.

    As I’ve been coming to terms with not being able to follow my first choice for educating my kids, I’ve been reassured by remembering that the key is to seek to live an engaged, inquisitive, responsive, prayer-soaked, love-filled life no matter our circumstances – and to help our children learn to do the same. I kind of thought that was the idea of missional living!

  4. Well said, Kathryn.

  5. Mike Swalm

    While I often find tony enlightening and helpful, this critique seems to miss the mark. Thanks Jamie for your thoughts. When I first read his posts on Scot’s blog, my first thought was that I really hope Tony and his family eat out at restaurants for every meal, since staying in for a home-cooked meal would reinforce an isolationist mentality. But that makes me sound like a jerk, so I’d never say it out loud.
    The fact of the matter for my wife and me is that missional is difficult as a prescriptive lifestyle with check-boxes and lists of requirements. The very idea of incarnation and enculturation seems to guard against such a notion. I won’t even talk about the vaccination stuff…the her.meneutics blog already got us fired up! 🙂 When it comes to schooling choices, we believe that christian-schooled kids have a sphere of influence with the neighbour kids and the kids at the school whose families are not Christian. For homeschoolers, does tony believe that they simply lock themselves inside and shun the outside? if so, that may be problematic. But i’ve known a lot of homsechoolers, none of whom would subscribe to that kind of education. I suppose we just have to ask how Jesus would educate 🙂
    blessings,

  6. Well said, Mike. Missional as ideology is a dangerous thing. As a relational (and thus dynamic) way of life, it can be a beautiful and powerful thing.

  7. Penny Kovacs

    As a parent and friend of parents who have made a variety of educational choices for their children (all, for the most part, good and thoughtful choices) I would agree with much of what is said here. As an educator in a public school, though, it is sad to see how few Christian families choose to get involved. Many of the children in my area have no choice of where to go to school. When Christians “en masse” leave the public school, the losers are the kids who are subject to a school environment that is for the most part devoid of the salt and light of Christian families. Each child has different needs, and I applaud parents who seek to provide the best for those needs. Sometimes that has to be a smaller, more individualized school environment. But I think many Christians don’t give the public school a chance. It is filled (at least mine is) with hard working dedicated teachers who are on the cutting edge of research to deal with such issues as EAL and behavioural disorders. Wouldn’t it be great if a larger Christian population were in our schools to enhance the learning and also benefit from it?

    I didn’t read the article that this blog is a response to so don’t know how angry or antagonistic the author was. Education is definately an emotional issue, since it touches the loves of those most precious to us, and that makes it a very complex issue as well.

  8. Penny, I agree with you that “en masse” departure of Christians is not good. However, I am not sure that is an accurate representation. Wouldn’t a larger issue be the en masse departure of Christians from the neighbourhood entirely? I guess I get frustrated when the school issue is made so significant, yet we rarely confront believers about where they live. That is why I appreciate you so much- you live and work in the neighbourhood.

    It is hard, also, because I hear different things from different parents & educators about the nature of schools in our neighbourhood. The teachers are always praised, but the larger systemic issues are problematic to degrees that I worry far outstretch the influence of a few more Christian families.

    Thanks for your great push back. As to the original article in question, his points are valid, but grossly and sometimes offensively overstated.

  9. Jamie, well-though and well-written contribution to the conversation. Thanks.

    I spent grade K through grade 8 in a private Christian school and then transferred to a public (small town) high school. Even as a teen, I felt the truth that Tony gets at–that public schools are a space for missional witness to the way of Jesus. I was invited back to speak at my Christian school as a high school junior or senior. I remember then saying that specifically Christian schools must be “bootcamps, not bomb shelters.” I might change my metaphor since my Anabaptist conversion, but I stand by the idea.

    That said, you’re right in pointing out that people have many, many reasons for choosing private schools or homeschooling or unschooling (etc.) over the public school system. The neighborhood I formerly lived in had one of the worst high school graduation rates in Chicago. Many families in our church-community chose to send their kids to other schools, with better academic records. Is that unmissional? I’m not sure.

    I do know that the family with the strongest missional presence I know chose to homeschool their son rather than send him to a public school. Sometimes the practices we’re formed in by public education undo or contravene the formation of truly Jesus-shaped practices in our kids. As their son goes off on a year of voluntary service and discipleship post high school, their philosophy seems to have worked.

    This is a complex issue indeed! We need grace and perseverance to steer our way through it faithfully.

  10. Josh, thanks for your input. I felt much the same way as you did- sympathetic with Tony’s underlying point, but frustrated by the narrowness of his way of responding to it.

  11. Penny Kovacs

    You’re right, Jamie, that a larger issue is the “pull-out” of Christians from society as a whole, choosing to create their own Christian society where they feel more comfortable. But the school issue is important too, and not an easy one-fits-all answer. I think a good education can be had at a public, private or home school. My main point is concern over the “taking away” of resources in the schools from those who have little voice or choice. Also, some staff (not me!) at public schools see home and private schools as a lack of support and a stance of “the public schools aren’t good enough for them”, thus widening the gap of understanding between the groups. We have (to my knowledge) only one committed Christian family at our school, and they volunteer in the classroom and on parent council. THey are loved and respected by staff and students alike, and are able to make many positive and fruitful connections with other parents that see them as “being in this thing together”. They have a powerful and loving posture with the school (and thus broader) community than they would have any other way. Definately not the only way to be missional, but in our busy world a very natural and effective way.

    That said, it is definately up to the parents who know their kids best, to know if this is a learning context that would work out for their kids. I was open to many options for my kids as well. THe public school served well as far as preparing them for university and work, as well as being compassionate towards people of all cultures and backgrounds. Where they suffered, I feel, was very little in the way of Christian peers, so I may have done a few things differently if I could go back. Don’t know if I’ve explained myself well, but it’s not an easy answer 🙂

  12. Penny, well said. I also am concerned that school divisions also make challenges for the teachers (and families) that are significant. Again, though, it is the assumption that public school is the default that I think we need to at least question. You’ve explained yourself well and I agree with about 80%. Thanks so much for your informed contribution!

  13. Penny Kovacs

    Thanks, Jamie. Always enjoy your blog!

  14. Yes, Jamie! I agree with your assessment of Tony’s post. (My response will be on Scot’s blog in the not-too-distant future…but I think your response is better.) =) I appreciate your sharing about your own decision-making process for your son, thus illustrating the reality of how complex the decision of what type of education to choose is for today’s Christian families, a point that definitely gets lost in Tony’s all-or-nothing perspective against homeschooling.

  15. Thanks Helen. What I did not say is that anyone who thinks that YOU do not understand missional (and live it) clearly has some critical information missing. Look forward to reading your response.

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