Christian schools, homeschooling make gains among Southern Baptists

The proud parents of a newborn listen intently as the pastor prays for their commitment to raise their first child in the admonition of the Lord. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, they are eager to rely upon experienced parents and other church leaders for encouragement.

In the preschool years, those parents faithfully take the growing toddler to Sunday School, encourage him to play and learn alongside other children at Vacation Bible School, and videotape his first choir presentation. Each night one of them reads a simplified Bible story and listens as he offers a prayer thanking God for the day's blessings.

In the protected world that revolves around their home and church, the young parents confidently keep the pledge they made five years earlier. As they take the next step toward formal education, the choices are more complex. The once-common assumption that most 5- or 6-year olds will move from being at home for most of the day to spending half of their waking hours in a school building has changed.

Many Christian parents are re-evaluating the path that best prepares their children to know Christ and serve him throughout their lives. Some will continue to find public schools to be a viable educational option that offers academic challenge and reinforcement of worthy character qualities in their children. Many godly teachers influence the next generation through their commitment to train young minds.

A growing number of parents continue the educational process by homeschooling their children, utilizing a wide range of curriculum choices and cooperative education with likeminded parents. Government surveys placed the number of homeschoolers at 850,000 in 1999, although experts say it could be twice that many. Educational testing results indicate that home-educated children typically surpass the scores of students in other types of schools, earning the attention of college recruiters.

A third alternative is found in the private and Christian educational institutions that make up one-fourth of the nation's schools, attracting 11 percent of the student population. Private school enrollment has risen 10.6 percent in the last decade -- keeping pace with growth rate for public schools. Seventy-five percent of that growth can be attributed to the astounding 46 percent increase in conservative Christian schools, according to the Council for American Private Education's biennial private school survey drawn from U.S. Census Bureau studies.

Christian leaders are challenging churches to establish these schools as a way of achieving the Great Commission, while parents find such schools to be an educational option that upholds their own values. Academics, discipline, a more positive environment and smaller student-teacher ratios in Christian schools are characteristics that appeal to parents as they seek to fulfill those commitments made when their children were born.

Jack Graham, pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church, has issued a call as president of the Southern Baptist Convention for SBC churches to plant new schools to develop young disciples through education. As members of the SBC Executive Committee gathered in Nashville, Tenn., for their fall meeting, Graham applied the new convention-wide Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis to the educational context.

"I think it's time that Southern Baptist churches and associations and groups of churches look more seriously at establishing Kingdom schools, Christian schools," Graham said. He told the Florida Baptist Witness that Christian education must start earlier than at the college and seminary level. He urged Southern Baptists to train up a new generation of leaders "who understand their faith, who are able to communicate their faith and to live their faith in whatever their career or calling."

Prestonwood Academy draws 1,059 students to its north-Dallas campus situated next to the church Graham pastors. He is well aware of the "many wonderful public school teachers and coaches" and doesn't see Kingdom schools as a reaction to public schools. Instead, the choice of public education, Christian education or homeschooling should be a "matter of prayer" for each parent "as it fits the need and the place in life for that child," he said.

"The world is too much with us and so, while we are not trying to cocoon our children, we don't want to put our children in a position to fail. I think Christian schools put children in a position to succeed spiritually."

The director of Christian school resources for the SBC's LifeWay Christian Resources believes the church is losing its most valuable asset, its children. Drawing on research by George Barna, Glen Schultz told a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary audience that only 7 to 8 percent of people identifying themselves as Christian today are biblical in their understanding of life. He looks to the generation now sitting in America's classrooms to decide whether society is headed for spiritual revival or moral anarchy.

Schultz said the education children are receiving in many classrooms might contribute to their failure in achieving the Great Commission of the church. "We're betraying our children," he said. "We've prepared our kids to go to college and get a good job. We're not preparing them to think and act from a biblical perspective."

Research suggests that 70 percent of the teenagers attending a church youth group will stop attending church within two years of high school graduation, he said, half of them never coming back. He cites the way in which Christians have allowed their children to be educated as the problem.

"The end result of all education is a worldview," Schultz said. "That worldview is either man-centered or God-centered. We tell our kids to love the Lord, get good grades and do well in school. Many schools teach things like evolution, directly refuting our biblical view, yet we tell them to get good grades, and therefore they end up believing these philosophies."

Waiting until kids go off to a Christian college is too late, Schultz argued. "By the time a child reaches age 18, that child already has formed a general worldview upon which he will build the rest of his character and life," he said.

"Children are God's homework assignment to parents," he added. "When I'm through training my child, I'm handing Christ an arrow to use on the spiritual battleground."

Viewing education as a means of passing on a Christian heritage to the next generation, Schultz said, "I just don't find in Scripture where we should allow the unsaved to explain life to our children. You can't have Christian education without the Bible, and that means unsaved teachers and a secular education cannot properly prepare our children for eternity."

With society becoming more and more ambiguous about morality and the place of spirituality within the confines of the classroom, Schultz said Christians should step up to the plate and start talking about how the church will instill those values in the children. That involves more than just giving children a replica of secular schooling within the confines of the church. To Schultz, it's the difference between modifying behavior for the short term and focusing on forming beliefs based on God's Word that will prepare a child for life.

"Whether they are in Christian schools or in public schools," Graham said kids "see plenty of the world." By looking more seriously and aggressively at establishing schools that participate in the discipleship process, Graham believes the tide could be turned.

"Kingdom education is like planting an orchard," explained Ed Gamble, the former headmaster of First Baptist Church of Orlando's First Academy and now executive director of the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools based in Frisco, Texas. "The big crop is down the road. We teach children to function in the Kingdom, not to just be good little girls and boys."

Keeping that biblical assignment of training children in the hands of the parents is tough, Gamble admitted. "Historically, professional educators are the pros," he said.

"God did not give professional educators children," Gamble said in an interview with the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. "He gave children to parents and they are the ones whom God holds accountable for the way their children turn out."

Gamble encourages parents to draw from a host of godly influences for help in educating their children.

"We're asking them to participate by mentoring, nurturing and creating an extended family. You need someone else looking out for your kid when you aren't around. When we Kingdom educate our kids, then everyone is expected to join in that in a biblical way," he said.

Some critics of public education go so far as to urge parents to remove their children from such schools in order to send a message to government entities and educational leaders. As a former high school teacher and administrator, Schultz is concerned that many of these groups spark debates that will erect barriers and further polarize participants.

The point is not to simply shift students from one school setting to another, he said, but to grasp the reason for emphasizing the Bible as the basis of learning. "I don't tell all parents what to do," Schultz said in an earlier Baptist Press interview. "They have to search the Scriptures. It's up to them. We'll give them the resources to help. But we're fooling ourselves to think that we can overcome what's done in six hours a day, five days a week, in one Sunday School class."

While others argue that Christian parents should keep their children in public schools as a means of adding salt and light to the culture, Schultz said, "I think it's out of context to keep our kids in a system where they'll develop a secular mindset and tell them they're salt and light. You've got to train them. Just because a 5-year-old is saved, it doesn't mean you send him into spiritual battle."

Gamble argues that the process of integrating learning into faith is better achieved in a Christian school. "It is more difficult in algebra than English literature, but in math you talk about order, which can be illustrated scripturally. What if we teach children both to balance their checkbooks -- scholarship -- and also to use their resources in ministry and missions -- wisdom? This is the integration of learning into faith rather than faith into learning. Faith is the base."

Gamble predicted, "The Christian school movement in our churches is going to take the denomination by storm in the next 10 to 15 years. By the end of that time it will be as unusual to find a church that is not sponsoring or supporting a Christian school and a home school network as it is today to find a church that does not have a Sunday School program.

"This movement and the homeschool movement together are going to radically reshape the way America does school in the next two decades."