The Mission of Christian Education
Christian educators have a high calling from God to teach their students about Christ and to give these students a solid foundation of biblical knowledge. The mission of Christiana education must never be overlooked or underestimated.
Education as Part of Mission
Local churches are often busy with many different ministry activities: worship programs, member care, youth ministries, local witness and/or evangelism, education programs, international missions support, etc. Due to the organizational structure of many churches, we tend to think of these various areas of ministry as partnering (or even competing) programs within the church. But the command of Christ is more focused and precise: “Go ... and teach (make disciples of) all nations ... teaching them to observe (obey) all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a).
The teaching ministries of the church (and by extension the preaching ministry) are given priority in Christ’s command to New Testament church leaders. Furthermore, Christ’s command is clearly more comprehensive than just a teaching ministry inside the church — it is an authoritative commission of the church’s leadership to engage as witnesses in the teaching of all nations. Mission is the ministry of the New Testament church and teaching is the primary method for fulfilling this commission.
Mission is not just one of the many ministries of the church. Rather, it is the ministry of the church, and all other ministry activities are subordinate to and part of the church’s mission. Christ commissions His followers: You are my witnesses (Acts 1:8). This means that all our activities as Christians should be shaped by who we are: witnesses of Christ.
The ministry of the church is to witness of Christ at all times, among all peoples, to the outermost part of the earth. So it logically follows that all ministry programs of the local church are to be missional; they are to participate in the witness of Christ to all nations. Thus education, and especially Christian education, is essentially missional and it should be a central missional activity of the church.
Evangelism and Discipleship
Since education is part of the larger mission of the church, the two primary activities of mission — evangelism and discipleship — must be embedded as priorities of all Christian education activities. Evangelism comes first: faithfully teaching students about Christ. This requires more than just imparting biblical knowledge about Christ; it also involves working and praying for the students to repent of their sinfulness and to believe in Christ alone for salvation. Evangelism in the classroom (like evangelistic preaching) is especially important in situations where many of the students come from unbelieving or non-Christian homes.
Then discipleship follows; it involves cultivating a Christian worldview and training students to follow Christ in every area of life. Many institutions of Christian education in North America during the past few decades have excelled in this fundamental task, and we rejoice in the blessings of God as a result.
There is also an apologetic element in the mission of Christian education. Teachers should intentionally confront false thinking in the classroom and intentionally ground their students in a Christian worldview. They should also create space to prepare their students themselves to engage in apologetic and evangelic activity.
Practicing what we Preach
How can Christian education be more intentionally missional? Let’s use the common head-heart-hands framework to answer this question: First, we make every effort to give our students a foundational head-knowledge of the Bible. We seek to cultivate a Christian worldview. We facilitate the development of biblical patterns of thinking and rational response to the brokenness of this sinful world. The report card of many Christian education institutions has high marks in this vital area.
Second, we desire to see genuine heart-changes. This starts with conviction of sin leading to godly repentance. The Holy Spirit sovereignly works this grace in sinful hearts. He has promised to use us in this process and to bless the efforts we make in humble dependence on Him. So we work with the prayer that God will work both heart-conviction and heart-conversion. Then we continue to work in dependence on the Spirit to develop in our students a missional concern for others who are lost and a missional zeal to share the gospel with them.
Third, we mentor our students in practical hands-on missional ministry. For example, elementary schools often plan mission weeks to increase awareness of God’s mission and to help the students think practically about how they themselves can participate in evangelistic witness. Older students can study the sociopolitical contexts of persecuted Christians and be guided to pray for specific needs of the global church. Higher levels of education can focus on the study of false religions and non-Christian worldviews and lifestyles in order to cultivate the missional desire and ability to witness to such people. Educators can also facilitate participation in local ministry opportunities, especially where extended evangelistic interaction is possible.
There seems to be a natural tendency in the Christian education of many covenant communities to become focused on preserving one’s self-identity and personal needs. We also see this tendency in the Old Testament where the chosen people correctly realized their special status but sinned by thinking themselves better than the “outsiders” of the surrounding communities. Especially we who treasure covenant theology must be careful, by God’s grace, to resist this sinful, myopic thinking. Mission is the best way to guard ourselves and our children against this sin.
Strategically Significant Service
Not only does the mission of Christian education protect us from myopic thinking, but it also has been a method often used by God to extend Christ’s kingdom. Christian education was an important part of the church’s mission in the first century following Christ. The task of teaching is undeniably central to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20, cf. Acts 14:21). Making disciples and teaching the Word of the gospel was the main task of church leaders in the New Testament (Acts 4:2, 5:21, 5:42, 11:26, 15:35, 18:11, 20:20, 28:31, Col. 1:28, 2 Tim. 2:2, etc.). Historically, Christian education has always had an essential place in the church’s mission. So our efforts in Christian education today continue this noble tradition of advancing the cause of Christ among all nations.
The New Testament is a casebook of examples of Christian education. We should meditate on these examples and pray for wisdom to develop contextualized methods that best serve our own social situation. For example, providing quality Christian education in a society where Christians are a small minority has often proven to be an effective way to evangelize children from non-Christian families and thus to extend the influence of the gospel. Likewise, a faithful Sunday school program in a post-Christian society has often been used by God to (re)evangelize local families and to reestablish a Christian worldview within a God-forsaking society.
Due to various factors in the last forty years, the Lord has blessed many church communities in North America with a strong Christian education ministry. We now should think and act strategically, depending on the wisdom God has promised to give. We have an amazing providential opportunity! How can our established Christian schools be used to reach a secular post-Christian society with the gospel of Jesus Christ? How can we replace myopic thinking with a missional zeal to (re)evangelize many more families? How can our schools become salt and light in a sinful society? Perhaps the Lord will use us now for such a time as this!
How can our Christian education institutions more effectively participate in the church’s mission? Do we have a mind and heart for this ministry? A church’s budget is a good indicator: the ratio of money spent on ourselves compared to the money spent on teaching “outsiders.” Do we have hearts and hands for this ministry? Are we ready to reach out to the lost around us and share our heritage of faithful Christian education? Will we, in response to God’s prompting and Christ’s commission, go and make disciples of the unsaved peoples in our society?
As a privileged product of Christian education myself, I will always be exceedingly grateful for the church leaders and Christian educators who God used in my life to prepare me for future ministry. I am thankful for those with a missional vision who initiated and advanced the cause of Christian education within the church communities in which I was raised. This mission of Christian education was not always clearly articulated and could probably have been more intentionally pursued. But this underlying missional vision and zeal were present, and by God’s grace it was blessed for many.
What therefore has been in the past an important though often unexpressed desire should now be brought front and center and boldly pursued, especially given the increasingly unchristian and anti-Christian society in which we live. This intentionality is already seen in some segments of the homeschooling movement; it now needs more attention within private Christian school communities in North America and beyond.
The risen Christ has left us with a command: You are my witnesses. This missional duty applies to all the world-facing activities of the church, and especially in the area of Christian education and discipleship. Furthermore, Christ has commissioned His Spirit to empower us for the task He has given us. So in humble dependence on the Spirit of Christ we go forward to boldly advance His cause, also in the strategically important area of Christian education.