Tuesday, September 09, 2014

God, school and Christian education

Question: Would the Bentley's send their children to a Christian school?

Answer: We will send our children to schools which provide them with a good education, whether they are Christian or not.

And by education we do not mean indoctrination, but our children's exposure to ideas, philosophy, science, conflicting perspectives, all which will help equip them to add their own contribution to life.

You see, we actually have more questions about Christian schools than schools that have no overt religious affiliation. Personally, I would like my children to learn about, for instance, different understandings of beginnings...I don't mind at all that they learn about Darwin and his evolution-theory. I would similarly also like them to hear about the indigenous South African understandings of beginnings. I think they should be exposed to as many ideas as possible. In our house, we celebrate the diversity of life which we believe God has given as a gift.

We've had some bad experiences with Christian education.

Story number 1: Scouting for schools when Matthew was little, we checked out a Christian school in our area. Visiting the class of 5 year-old's, the teacher proudly said: "Class, this is Reverend Bentley, his wife, Natalie and little Matthew. Let's show them what we learnt today". The class then, in unison, recited the whole of 1 Corinthians 13.

It was impressive, I admit. I also hoped that the teacher would rather spend her energy guiding these little ones in learning the meaning of the gift of love, rather than reciting a long passage of Scripture. I am sure my phone has an app that can do the same (reciting Paul's epistles), but it will never know the meaning...We did not enroll Matthew there.

Story number 2. One of the young women in my confirmation class, who went to a Christian school, came to confirmation-class in tears. Her class was called onto the field and were told to stand in a circle. The teachers prayed over each of them individually, until they were able to "speak in tongues". She didn't. What did this mean? Was her faith too weak? Did God not love her? I told her about the difference in Scripture between "Glossolalia" (the use of sounds to utter feelings that cannot be expressed in words) and "Xenoglossia" (the ability to speak in a different language); that these were not and are not prescriptive to a meaningful relationship with God. I asked her to clarify with the teachers (if this were to happen again),  whether they preferred glossolalia or xenoglossia? She did. The ritual stopped.

Story number 3. Some of my congregants applied to enroll their children at a local Christian school. Of course they needed the pastor's approval that both parents were filled with the Spirit. Because I am Methodist, the answer was always "Yes". Once, attached to the form, was a school policy document outlining how people from different denominations had to be redeemed in order to become true Christians. Needless to say, this became a discussion point whenever I was asked to sign an application letter.

I came to this conclusion: It would be in Christianity's best interest if SOME schools withdrew their "Christian" status, because the Christianity they promote has nothing to do with the gospel.

I admit. I am the one with the problem. I cannot help but question the prominent use of "Christianity" in school constitutions when children are subject to the abuse of denominational proselytizing. Yes, I know, slating Christian schools on the account of hypocritical behaviour is the same as renouncing gyms because the guy on the treadmill has a drive-thru meal on his way home.

There is a further constitutional problem, but I deliberately do not want to discuss this here. Constitutional experts can do this much better and a lot has been said about this already in the media and elsewhere. My response here is precisely that: my response.

Let me look at this from a different angle: Why do people insist on having their children go to a Christian school? What are their expectations?  What is the picture they have in mind? In my dealings with people, I have heard two main responses.

1. "We want our children to go to a school with good morals"

I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but Christianity does not have a monopoly on morals or ethics. In response to their statement I ask: "And what do Christian morals look like? What are they?". It turns out that the morals people are looking for in Christianity appear not only in many religions, but also in secular humanism.

2. "We want our children to learn about God"

I suppose this is also the reason why many parents drop their kids off  at Sunday school while they either sit in their cars reading the Sunday newspaper or jet off to catch a nice breakfast - trusting the church's free babysitting services on Sunday mornings. Honest, naked newsflash:


Stop saddling someone else with the responsibility of making your child religious, hoping that one day when they stand at the Pearly gates they will be granted access because they went to this-and-that Christian School or baptised, confirmed, blessed and anointed at this-or-that church under Bishop/Pastor/Rev/Apostle Whatshis/herface.

I spend a lot of time driving this point home when we have Baptism classes. If we want our children to "learn about God", then it is not achieved through a curriculum or school constitution, but in an education by modelling. It is for this reason that congregations are asked at children's baptism: "Will you so maintain the life of Christian worship and service that all these little one's among you may learn to trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord?" Parents are asked: "Will you provide for this your child a Christian home...Will you lead them by your words and example...Will you encourage them to serve Christ in the Church and in the world?" Sponsors are asked: "Will you assist these parents in the Christian upbringing of these children?" - It is all about community, examples and a mutual responsibility to help parents guide their children's development.

A school does not need to have a Christian clause if we are serious about setting the example of what it means to "Love the Lord your God" and to "Love your neighbour as yourself".

I get equally irked by the "Get God back in school"-lobby. As if God needs an education... Do we really think we will get God back in school by having religious education? No, no, no. That is very poor theology. "Get God back", as if God is absent... God is everywhere. God is in school already, not only when there is religious education or a Governing Body resolution. Building on my last point, God is in school through our children and the committed teaching staff exercising their gifts.

If we place the priority on our children living out the modeled lives they learn at home and their religious communities, then our children are the Body of Christ at school. Isn't that what we preach every Sunday? "Church is not just about attending here every Sunday...this is the gathering of those who try to follow in His footsteps. Church goes beyond these walls...to the boardroom...to the playing field". Why not trust that our children have the same responsibility at school? Or perhaps are we  not confident enough in the religious example we hope they will model?

I don't really worry about whether our children go to a school where there is a Christian clause or emphasis. I am concerned about whether our children will hold onto their convictions with integrity. I do worry about their ability to respect and listen to those with whom they may differ.

For this reason we pray in the car every day before they head off to class: "Lord, help us all to let our little lights shine, to make a positive difference in this world, to love You, to love all your people and to love ourselves."

Just my 5c worth