Schools Embodying a Transforming Vision: Missional, Dynamic, Deeper, and Global 2010 – Present
It is a risk to try new things, to move in new directions, to love that deeply. But we have reached a time in history where by not innovating we are running a greater risk than staying our current course.
—Dan Beerens and Erik Ellefsen, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education
Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Christian schooling in North America has been challenged on all sides. First, this financial crisis brought about a questioning of the value of the Christian school commitment, pushing school leaders to reimagine the value proposition of these schools. Second, the demographic crunch (lower birth rates) that started then has been extended to 2035 (and possibly beyond due to COVID), resulting in fewer students in the North American school system. Third, as traditional church denominations have shrunk and begun to collapse, the religious and social supports no longer exist in many communities along with the ethnic ties that bound communities together in support of these schools. Fourth, greater secularism in our communities brought into question whether Calvinist/Reformed Christian day schools were all that distinctive from other schools, let alone public schools.
Simply put, the Christian school movement has been challenged at a pace that was unthinkable just ten years prior. But simultaneously, new opportunities have arisen, and a new era of collaboration and innovation is in motion.
As the Calvinist/Reformed Christian day school movement continued to absorb, reflect, and respond to cultural assimilation and change forces (as highlighted in Bruce Hekman’s article
), a good number of schools moved, partially or fully, to a more missional approach. This move was made for both outreach and enrollment purposes. Essentially, this approach meant that instead of requiring for at least one parent be a believer, schools instead clearly stated their mission; parents were asked to agree to the mission and goals of the school, regardless of faith commitment. Further explanation of the covenantal and missional approaches can be found here
. The expanded view that Christian education is for all, with a corollary desire to reach out to non-ethnic communities, led to the establishment of urban Christian schools in the mold of Daystar, Mustard Seed, Potter’s House and more recent ones such as Hope, Anchor Point, and Living Stones, for example. We look forward to hearing the story of Living Stones
in Grand Rapids at our conference.
While not usually sought for evangelistic reasons, growth in Asian international student enrollment in Christian schools boomed during this time as schools sought to balance budgets and/or increase diversity. In many cases these students were accepted as missional enrollments, even though the school was officially a covenantal school by board/society policy. Depending on their location in a given state, some schools have been able to alleviate budget pressures through vouchers or tuition tax credits.
The increase of Internet speed and connectivity during this period made it possible to virtually/visually connect with anyone anywhere around the world with access. As educators took advantage of collaboration opportunities and resources of all kinds proliferated, there was less need to rely on organizations providing member services. In recent years, networks have exploded, and member organizations have struggled as members questioned the value they were receiving for services. While resources for schools and teachers were scarce in earlier years, they were now readily and immediately available as connectivity access and speeds increased. Consequently, one of the challenges of this time is that as educators procure a variety of resources from everywhere, will they be able to, and will they take the time and care to, frame them within the biblical story with students?
A number of more specialized organizations or groups have arisen during this time to fill voids that were impossible for one singular organization to effectively deliver. Here are some examples. The Van Lunen Center for Executive Management in Christian Schools
was established in 2007; it provides school leaders of approximately 20 different faith traditions with a yearlong training program. The Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning
at Calvin University promotes the development of Christian teaching and learning K-16 and fosters research and professional development. CESA
(Council on Educational Standards and Accountability) emerged in 2011 as a council of schools seeking to raise the standards and overall quality of Christian schools. CACE
(Center for the Advancement of Christian Education) was established by the Verdoorn Foundation in cooperation with Dordt University; CACE “exists for the sustainability, improvement, innovation, advocacy, and promotion of Christian education at all levels of learning.” Likewise, in 2010, Cardus
, a think-tank from Canada, started a decades long research study in Canada, United States, and Australia to better discern the impact of Christian schooling on life outcomes. And most recently, The Baylor Center for School Leadership
has emerged to build collective leadership capacity in Christian schools.
As schools began to understand the promise of technology and work through how to use it most effectively, new possibilities began to emerge. One of the most famous videos challenging the status quo in education was the Changing Education Paradigms
video by Sir Ken Robinson. How did it make sense anymore to continue to educate in factory model batches? Were we effectively diminishing or killing creativity in students with our traditional, teacher directed/controlled classroom?
The Transformed by Technology and Project-Based Learning: High Tech High video
showed schools what was possible with the use of technology, student-centered instruction, and a service-to-community orientation. Was this public charter actually a more “Christian” school in its care for students and its opportunities to love and serve its neighbors than some of our Christian schools that seemed to make students hate learning? The “high tech/high touch” nature of this school that honored image-bearers caused many schools to rethink the impact of pedagogical approaches. The promise of individualization and collaboration (high tech) and the possibility of the personalization of education with contribution to the broader community (high touch) needed further exploration. Much work is still needed to seamlessly develop our tech and our touch in our work of educating with a “Timeless Truth, Different Delivery
With the rise of national standards and an increase of accountability in both the US and Canada, some began to wonder how much our identities as Christian schools were driven by the wrong outcomes. What was our hope for our graduates? As I (Dan) considered what my wife and I were hoping for with our own daughters, I realized that our hope was for their flourishing in life
. As I worked with schools, it seemed to me that this large question remained: What ways of educating might produce more flourishing students than our current traditional models? It also seemed that in Canada this question had already been under consideration for a number of years.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, a group of CSI educators in Alberta were persistently working on developing the idea of discipleship dimensions called Throughlines and a larger structure for curriculum design called Teaching for Transformation (TfT). Longtime educator/administrator Brian Doornenbal, who has written more on this history, describes a holy discontent:
This discontent arose from the recognition of a gap between what Christian schools ought to be and what they were. Although those that had gone before in the Neo Calvinist school movement had left a firm foundation upon which thematic statements, conceptual frameworks and discipleship training could take place, the gap between the many words and the classroom practices was often so obvious that some teachers expressed frustration and even guilt about not walking the talk. (personal communication)
The good news is that many schools are now working hard to put Christian education theory into practice. TfT has spread throughout North America via CACE and the efforts of Darryl DeBoer, Tim VanSoelen, Steven Levy, and many others. Examples of the kinds of beautiful student work that are being done in TfT schools are showcased here in this compilation
by Surrey Christian in BC. We look forward to hearing more of Surrey’s story from Dave Loewen at our conference.
Collaboration abounds around shared interests to learn and grow. This drive is partly due to the ease in “finding one’s tribe” through social media and then coming together through air travel to a common location. In 2017, a group of 40 Christian innovators from 5 countries gathered in California for the Innovation Retreat which ultimately led to the MindShift project. The MindShift
project has inspired a book (in your packet); has included over 100 Christian school innovators who have dug deep into the rethinking of our work in Christian education; and has organized gatherings to see, experience, and reimagine our work in places like San Jose, Chicago, San Antonio, Toronto, Washington D.C., London, and this November in Vancouver.
In 2017, seven associations including CSI joined in Orlando for the Global Christian School Leadership Summit, and, due to the event’s success, was followed by an even larger event in San Antonio in 2019. We were connected at the Global Summit with our friends in the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership
as they seek to revitalize a shrinking church through their schools. To guide their revitalizing work, Andy Wolfe and David Ford created a leadership framework—Called, Connected, Committed
, which might be the best Reformed framework for thinking about school leadership.
These events gave us the opportunity to see that Christian schooling was emerging or reimagining itself all over the world. COVID paused our global gatherings, but another global summit called Converge, gathering twelve Christian school associations, is currently being planned for March 2022 in San Diego, California. We celebrate the many efforts going forward in Christian education around the world and look forward to learning more about one such group from the Calvinist/Reformed perspective, Edu-Deo, at our conference.
In your packets you’ll also find Flourishing Together: A Christian Vision for Students, Educators, and Schools
written by our friends Lynn Swaner and Andy Wolfe. They provide a framework for how we might think about the future flourishing of our schools in multi-ethnic, multicultural, and socio-economically diverse communities in ways that might possibly transform our testimony and work in a secularized and fractured world. In the epilogue, they remind us what really matters in this broader work of Christian education:
Love is at the core of our vision for flourishing together. Love is why teachers long to see the flourishing of students, why leaders invest in the flourishing of teachers, and why schools extend themselves in and on behalf of their communities. Love is the measure by which we will know if our Christian vision of education is achieved—as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
In this series of emails, we have examined the origins, development, and educational approach of Calvinist/Reformed Christian day school education from its earliest days in Western Michigan to the present. The heritage and the stories may eventually be forgotten in the dustbin of history, but we fervently hope that Calvinist/Reformed theology/philosophy lives on in “schools where God’s light shines in all learning” (A Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God
Our desire is that you see that this tradition is alive and active. Likewise, we hope that you’ll begin to gain a greater appreciation of how it is morphing beyond the traditional forms we consistently return to in times of uncertainty. Therefore, during our conference, we have planned our sessions to include encouragement from our speaker, table conversation, and Q&A as a group.
We would like to invite you into a broader conversation on reimagining the future of this heritage by listening, asking questions, and sharing insights for what might come next. Therefore, we’d like you to consider some questions that drive us beyond a celebration of the past, an affirmation of what we believe, and/or even a lamenting of our present uncertainty to a place of dynamic conversation and discovery together.
- How are we distinctive from other schooling sectors?
- Where might we have impact in our profession beyond our traditional relationships and communities?
- Where are students flourishing in our schools?
- Who is missing from this work?
- What structures do we need to change to become more innovative and dynamic amidst a future of uncertainties?
- How do we celebrate the great work God is doing and step into that work?
- How are we enjoying God in this work?
We hope you’ll fully embrace the opportunity to jump into a 200-year-old conversation as we foster growth and impact through our schools and students in our world for years to come!
In the epilogue of Mindshift
, Dan and Erik wrote these thoughts a few years ago, "Our fears are ever-present and division is a threatening possibility. But we know that we are not on our own, that we rest in the truth that we serve at the calling of the King, and that this work is ultimately His." And this is why we gather with excitement and an abundance of joy for what lies ahead.
Looking forward to seeing you soon in DC!
(Author’s note: While I take full responsibility for the previous three emails, I am grateful to my friend and colleague Erik Ellefsen for his collaboration and contributions to this final one.—Dan Beerens)
The Engage Conference Planning Team
Tim Van Soelen