From the time I graduated from college until I was 36 years old, I was a church staff minister with at least half of my responsibilities in youth ministry, working with students who were 12 to 24 years old. I spent a couple of those years in seminary, but still continued to serve churches in this capacity. For several years prior to attending seminary, I served a church bi-vocationally and taught in a Christian high school to help pay the rent. When I passed my 35th birthday, I began to think about a change of direction, since I felt I was getting a bit too old to be as effective in youth ministry as I once was, so I entered the teaching profession in the same Christian high school where I had taught previously. That let to an opportunity to serve in a new, growing Christian school as chairman of the Bible department on the high school level, which I did for eight years. Following that, I had the privilege of serving as a middle school principle in another Christian school. It’s only been in the last few months that I have returned to the discipleship ministry of the local church as a staff member.
During most of the time I served as a youth pastor, and as a teacher in a Christian school, I attended seminars and read information about a dropping off of youth involvement in church. Several years ago, in a newsletter from Life Action Ministries in Michigan, it was reported that evangelical Christian churches are losing more than 70% of their active youth from involvement in church by the time they graduate from college. From my own observation, I have no reason to doubt that this figure is true. However, I hoped that the growth and advance of the Christian school movement, and the home school movement, would have some kind of an impact on that.
It might be a great idea for a doctrinal study or dissertation, to devise a means whereby the effectiveness of a Christian school or home school education on the discipleship experience of the youth that are involved could be measured. I’m not sure that intangible things like the depth of a person’s spirituality or the strength of their convictions could actually be measured, but there are some things, such as interest and involvement in a local church, that probably could.
The high school where I formerly served as Bible department chair recently had its homecoming celebration at a football game. The school is celebrating 20 years of existence and, I believe, it has had 10 graduating classes during that period of time. It was good to get together with former students I had not seen in a while. As Bible department chair, I was also responsible for community service projects, so many of my former students went on summer mission trips with me.
While it was great to visit and catch up with things happening in their lives, it was sad to note that hardly any of these students are currently active or involved, or even attending, a local church. That’s always a question I ask. Most of them get a smile on their faces, as if there is a bit of shame involved in letting me know that they aren’t in church. And like most people who are uncomfortable discussing that with a minister, they offered the typical excuses. They haven’t had time to look for one since moving back. They work a lot at an entry level job. They go out of town on the weekend. For someone who had high hopes that being in a Christian school environment would offer the students the opportunity to make the faith they had been let to by their parents their own, the results are disappointing.
Discussions I’ve had with other individuals who have taught or been adminstrators in Christian school tell me that this is not a unique phenomenon in the school where I served. For some reason, Christian school students, and a similar number of home school students, drop out of church before they’re done with college. In spite of the philosophical and curriculum differences, it seems that sending your kid to a $10,000 or more per year private Christian school, or making the necessary sacrifices to keep them at home, does not guarantee a child that has a better discipleship experience in the faith.
Maybe our expectations are too high. We complain that the public schools are saddled with responsibilities to teach too many things to the students. Maybe the same thing is happening in a Christian school. We are depending on the school to fix problems that should be taken care of by parents at home.
The overall effectiveness of discipleship via a Christian school is limited anyway. With tuition costs as high as they are, only a small percentage of Christian families can afford to send their children. Is it really “Kingdom Education” if the majority of the kingdom’s people cannot afford it? And at the present time, it does not appear that there is much of an initiative to change that. Christian school leaders seem content to continue to appeal to the upper middle class and upper class clientele that populate their schools.
I’m leading our church to do a better job of “family ministry.” We have a great youth ministry, and a high level of committment from our students. I think the next step is getting their families involved with them in ministry. Working together as a body, parents and children, I think will help create a sense of community that will lead the kids to eventually realize that the faith of their parents can become their own faith, and they will take ownership of the responsibility. They have some examples to look at and relationships to develop. It’s certainly worth a try.