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).