Ray Tiller

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Is Australian Christian Schooling still transformative in 2015?

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​Is Australian Christian Schooling still transformative in 2015?

In my recent trip to Uganda, in the midst of extreme poverty, I encountered a virulent vision for the transformation of the Ugandan community and nation through the work of Christian schooling.  The people expressing this optimistic passion for transformation were leaders and teachers in little Christian village schools with buildings made of saplings, dirt floors and grass roofs , often with little or no equipment or books, and working with 40  - 50 mixed grade students per class (many of the students were orphans or their parents had no family income).  These inspiring people were passionately articulating that they would transform their corruption and poverty-stricken nation by educating the next generation of young people in God's ways.  It seemed that they could see past their difficult (some would say impossible!) circumstances and dream with conviction of a nation that in time could become economically capable and prosperous, its people living in peace and security, its health care, aged care, and disease control equal to the western world, and its justice and political systems effective and free of corruption.  The reason for this passionate optimism is their unwavering confidence in the power of the gospel to transform life, community and nation – “If we teach our young people to understand the ways of God's Kingdom and live by them, they will transform our nation in their generation!”

For me, the passion, vision and courage of these current day pioneer African Christian educators is reminiscent of the Christian schools movement that burgeoned in the 1980’s in Australia.  Over a decade, hundreds of new Christian schools were developed all over our nation “out of nothing” by radical, passionate, visionary, sacrificial Australian Christian school pioneers.  I remember these church and school leaders (I was one of them!) having a clear and urgent sense of the need to develop Christian schools that would address the increasingly evident decline of the moral, spiritual and cultural condition of the Australian nation.  Our perception was that Australian public life was disengaging from its Christian roots and plunging into the “brave new world” of humanism and secular post modernism, embracing an identity as a “multicultural” community that is inclusive of all faiths and cultures and holding no common cultural foundation except our rationally and pragmatically derived “core democratic values”.  Our fear was that, left to continue down this path, the Australian community would corrupt its cultural heart and lose the social, cultural, economic, political and jurisprudential wholesomeness that was developing in Australia out of dozens of generations of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

The Christian schooling pioneers of the 1980’s, sometimes suffering the misunderstanding and opposition of the broader community and governments,  sought to reverse the cultural decline and transform our nation by educating the next generation in a way that helps them to understand life and community in the context of a biblical Christian worldview.  Our hope was that, as well educated and committed Christian young people, they would bring the grace and wisdom of God to transform the communities of tomorrow.

Fast-forward 30+ years to 2015 … and this wave of Christian schools has become numerous and, as an emerging sector, it is now well established as a significant contributor to Australian education.  This, and the success of thousands of Christian school graduates, is something of a success story.  And there have been many positive benefits to people and the community from some key positive features of most Christian schools:

  1. They are almost always staffed entirely by practicing Christians who want to express their faith through their teaching and school culture.

  2. Because of this, Christian schools are usually places of care and nurture for young people, with a high level of capability for giving students a positive and well-disciplined environment for growth and learning.  
  3. The school programs and curriculum are favourable to the expression of Christian truth through their curriculum and programs.Increasingly, Christian schools have achieved high standards in academics and in the development of wholesome arts and culture programs.

However, as good as all this might be, I am concerned that many Christian schools may be falling short of what we believe God called us to do in this nation.  I feel that this may sound a bit pedantic, but I do not believe that the vision God gave us for Christian schooling in Australia was only about high standards, nurturing environments and wholesome school culture.  I think God also called us to purposefully and systematically educate students with a clearly focussed biblical Christian worldview and character that will equip them to transform our communities and nation.

I believe that there a few factors that have caused this “mission drift” in some Christian schools:

1.  I think that many Christian schools no longer place the transformation of the community at the core of their mission and vision.  It is more common for many Christian schools to have the view that our role is to bring Christian grace to bless and influence a pluralist multicultural community for good, but that we have no right to expect that Christ or Christianity will have any more influence on our nation’s values, laws and culture than does Islam, Buddhism or atheism.  So for many Christian schools, their perceived role has subtly shifted from transforming community to blessing it.  Please don’t get me wrong; blessing the community with God’s grace and wholesomeness is a very good thing.  But I do propose that it falls short of preparing young people to transform our community and nation so that it submits itself to and is transformed by the Kingdom of God. 

2.  Along with this fundamental mission shift (and maybe partly because of it), I think many Christian schools are showing the effects of subtly and slowly losing the battle with the culture-changing effects of wealth, generational change, and the crisis of confidence in the authority of scriptures.  Let me explain:

 *  Compared to our struggling beginnings, most Christian schools have become relatively well resourced, well-staffed, and enjoying great facilities.  Much of this provision has come from government support accompanied by increasing compliance requirements. It is now much easier to be less radical and flow with mainstream schooling values, resources, and practices.  It is still eminently possible in this context to develop school culture and curriculum that is distinctively Christian and even transformative, but to do so requires strenuous intentional and mission-driven “across the flow” effort by boards and school leaders.  It seems to me that not many boards and leaders are motivated that way – it is easy to become addicted to the approval of society, government, and the media and soften the radical confrontation implicit in transformation!  If my observations are correct, we will see over the next 20 years a strong convergence of many of the Christian schools with the mission and culture of the independent “elite” schools.  

 *  Over the 30 or so years of the life of many Christian schools we have seen generational change.  Old founding board members and school leaders have moved aside for new and younger ones. This, of course, is absolutely necessary and should be a refreshing and growing process. But my observation is that in this generational change, many schools have that way lost the “vision carriers” and have failed to transmit the “DNA” of their mission to the new governors and leaders.  I have worked with a number of school communities whose key stakeholders express bewilderment and grief regarding this shift - “our school seems to have lost its way in the important things God called us to do …”

 *  Broadly speaking, it seems to me that much of the Christian church (and with it much of Christian schooling) has drifted from the embrace of the authority of God’s word for living life right. The raging social debates over the acceptability of homosexuality and “same-sex marriage” have exposed the lack of confidence that many of today’s Christian leaders have in the legitimacy of saying “God clearly indicates in the scriptures that xxxx is right or wrong”.  This partial abandonment of the authority of scripture has led to an uncertainty or ambivalence in the moral teaching and leadership of some Christian schools’ students, and a lack of robust Christian presuppositions in the curriculum. Without that, these schools have absolutely no hope of building in their students’ lives the understanding and value foundations that will equip them to confidently bring God’s transforming influence to their community.

So what should we do?  I think that the governors and leaders of many Christian schools who have shifted from a “transformation” mission to a “quality education with Christian blessing” mission may well be very happy to be where they are.  And they should be congratulated and honoured for the good work that they continue to do.  Australia will undoubtedly be a better place for what they contribute. However, some governors, leaders, staff, and parents in some other Christian schools may read this article and agree that they feel some grief for the “mission drift” of their school, and some anxiety about not being effective in pursuing the transformation mission that is in their “DNA”.  I advise these schools engage in a deliberate process to refocus their core mission, evaluate their performance with respect to the mission, and plan strategically for improvement.

My prayer is that, through Christian schools and the work of God’s people, we can, along with our Ugandan brethren, regain an unwavering confidence in the power of the gospel to transform life, community and nation – “If we teach our young people to understand the ways of God's Kingdom and live by them, they will transform our nation in their generation!”

Ray Tiller

​Ray Tiller answered the call in August 2007 to be the main speaker and leader in our inaugural Staff Retreat. Ray’s brief was to introduce the staff to a framework for Christian Worldview...

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