Academic Excellence and the Christian School

In order that our students may thrive in the world, we as Christian educators have recognized the need to continually improve upon the work we are doing, the preparation we are providing, and the networks we are building. Simply providing an education that mirrors our local public schools and “has a little bit of Jesus sprinkled on top” cannot be the answer. As Christian schools, we need to provide the best in education, to seek to train hearts and minds so that our students will be leaders upon the campuses they will step onto in the years following their departure from our classrooms, stages, and fields. This education must have Jesus and the truth of the gospel woven into the fabric of every discipline, every course, and every department within our schools. Our teachers, directors, and coaches must be well versed in their subject matter and the truth of the Word of God.

What, after all, is the purpose of a Christian school?  If we take a look at the mission statements of Christian schools across North America, and perhaps across the world, we are likely to find the following three aims: first, the development of Christian faith; second, academic excellence, and third, social impact.  However, if we zoom in a bit closer, we would too often see the tension schools are experiencing between providing an academically robust education and inculcating a deep Christian faith.  That tension, we would suggest, is the result of a false dichotomy that has been plaguing the Church for too long, and one that can and must be resolved according to what scripture tells us about the life of the mind for a Christian. We believe that academic excellence is complementary to robust Christian formation, not contradictory, and when we frame the aims of Christian education with that in mind, the very best in Christian schooling can result.

In 1995, historian Mark Noll wrote the book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Within the chapters of this examination of evangelicalism in America, he explored the idea that believers had lost their way as it related to a serious intellectual life. Whereas believers used to be groundbreakers in intellectual pursuits, as scholars, theologians, and even lay leaders, we, at that time, had seemingly lost our will and ability to lead in this regard. Christian author R.C Sproul stated, “We live in the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization.”

Since Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind 25 years ago some within the American evangelical church have taken heed to his warning. A growing number of Christian men and women have committed themselves to serious scholarship and toward reclaiming some of the ground that had been lost over the past 100 years, attending the best colleges and universities in the world and seeking to make an impact upon those campuses. Many have gone on to teach within those hallowed halls, as they sought to make an impact for Christ through their scholarship and teaching. Likewise, Christian colleges have taken more seriously their call to produce serious Christian scholars who are not afraid to engage the world and occupy the public spaces of academia, the arts, and as Noll put it, “the realm of high culture.”

To that end, many K-12 Christian schools have begun to take a much more serious approach to their academic programming, their ability to prepare students for the many challenges of higher education, and the need to prepare graduates for the many darts and arrows the world is hurling at them as they seek to participate, engage, and challenge the status quo. To be sure, that is what our students need to do—challenge the status quo and engage the world around them in meaningful dialogue and civil discourse, all while bringing glory and honor to the name of Jesus Christ.

And so, it all begins with a recognition that the mind is the most important muscle in the body. In Love Your God with All Your Mind, J. P. Moreland writes: “If we are to love God adequately with the mind, then the mind must be exercised regularly, trained to acquire certain habits of thought, and filled with an increasingly rich set of distinctions and categories.” Our intellects are to be stretched and driven often so that we can grow to love God more. This is truly what we have been called to do as Christian educators and Christian schools.

Jesus commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” We see this played out in real life as Jesus employed the ability to debate using logic and rhetoric. The Pharisees sought to “entangle him in his words” (Matt 22:15). Jesus, however, saw through their methods and spoke to them in their language, quoting the law and interpreting the culture of the day. Likewise, as the Apostle Paul spoke to the Greeks at Mars Hill, he addressed their religious beliefs and their culture. He actually quoted their texts and their poetry to them. In order to do so, he had to have an active and engaged mind. He had to take seriously the call to know and to understand more than just his own beliefs.

The argument within the confines of the Christian school campus has been and continues to be that we are too focused on the academic and not focused enough on the hearts of our students. To be certain, their hearts are important. John Piper states, however, “…the mind serves to know the truth that fuels the fires of the heart.” Likewise, Richard Riesen, in his great book, Piety and Philosophy states:

It is not possible for Christian education… to be too academic. The purpose of education is precisely to be academic… The point is simply that we in Christian schools must do everything in our power to ensure that in future generations there is no scandal of the evangelical mind, that we have not opted out of or reneged on our responsibility to engage culture and the natural world intellectually and academically; that is, that we have not given the impression that Christian faith is somehow inimical to careful, honest thought or that honest thought destroys faith.

As Christian schools, it must therefore be our goal to train the minds of our students, which will in turn infect their hearts, thus engaging their hands and feet as they work to serve and love others around them. The world in which we live in 2021 needs students who have a depth of knowledge that translates into winsome conversation, compelling arguments, and the ability to lead those who may not even understand they desperately need moral, ethical, and honorable leadership.

We are excited about the future of Christian education as we witness many Christian schools picking up the mantle and doubling down on their missions to, within the context of a well-defined biblical worldview, educate students who are prepared to impact academe, government, the arts, the arena, and the various realms of high culture. Our calling to do so has never felt more urgent and the will to do so is increasingly apparent. The future is bright, as Christian schools the world over continue to grasp the significance of the life of the mind and its inherent impact upon the world around those who choose to engage.