Given the fact that the average evangelical upbringing in America potentially includes access to Protestant day-schools, private Christian schools, home-schools, Sunday schools, youth groups, para-church organizations, Christian colleges, seminaries, church camps, along with every conceivable form of on-line resources, can someone please answer the question why only 40% of American youth continue in the faith when they leave home? And how did those who remain in the faith shift so far from the historical tenants of the apostles creed to the “moralistic, therapeutic deism” so prevalent in today’s churches (16)?
Theories abound, but Ted Newell in his book Education: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019) suggests that the shift is owing to a competing flood of dissonant educational paradigms. Evangelicals today need to take a much broader approach to Christian education and reclaim our intellectual tradition (14). Newell traces that tradition from Jesus own education, through the Christian education in Hellenistic city-states, the medieval cloister schools, and on into the modern era.
As the daughter-in-law of a public and a Christian school teacher, the wife of a Christian school teacher and a homeschooling mother of 5, I was more than enthralled on this journey through the hows, lows, highs and “whys” of Christian education. My own education was through the public school and state university system and reading how it had evolved through the ages brought to light the competing paradigms between the sacred and the secular. What was even more illuminating was Newell’s analysis of the evolution of Christian education, its curricula, and especially its setting.
The Hellenistic setting of oikos and ekklesia was presented as “situating the knowledge where it was to be used (54).” In other words, “Learning the faith in a household was done in a context where the knowledge was immediately applied (50).” In sharp contrast, American youth are experiencing full-time (via the advent of hand-held devices) exposure to conflicting stories. This coupled with “the withering of settings for acting out the Christian story means that Christian knowledge is increasingly “unsituated.” It lacks a relevant setting for its use (56).” Consider the following link Newell makes between this unsituated learning and the statistical crises of my opening paragraph:
“Unsituated learning is a significant issue for present-day, church -related learning. The weakening of contexts where biblical knowledge matters may help explain declines in Bible reading and Bible knowledge. Families that practice the faith and teach it in the home remain the primary site of faith learning. Renewed Christian education must show the urgent cultural relevance of God’s Word (51).”
Newell concludes this third chapter with the following observation:
“The earliest churches prevailed over their severe competition. Their deliberate alienation from the wider culture placed significant weight on family and church formation in faith. Contradictory voices and stories were kept away. Christians maintained the faith in high tension with their society. In some places and periods, the sacrifice of lives was graphic illustration for their nonconformity (56).”
The rest of the book shows the shift from this biblically focused, deeply contextual learning environment to the modern-era public school and university system which seeks to educate all students, including Christian ones, “in secular knowledge for secular aims (75).” Even with the myriad of supplemental Christian add-ons, what seems to be lacking most is context. THIS is the post-modern dilemma. Our current age-segregated church structure so removes our youth from the actual context of church life that a New Testament overflowing with Ecclesiastical rhetoric has no meaning. And how is one to learn anything from the Bible of the Father and Son, Christ and His Bride, or the privilege of being an adopted heir into an Eternal household of faith, if the oikos has lost all its edifying influence?
While Newell’s book is quite heavy on history and the development of educational philosophy, I still found much to apply to our own way of “doing school.” Teachers, administrators, pastors and parents could all benefit from a close examination of why, how, and especially in what context we are educating our youth. It cannot be stressed enough what’s eternally at stake.
(Even though I received this book gratis from the publisher, I am not required to give it a positive review)