A proper environment for tender plants.

When our youngest left for college last fall, our children had completed 54 years of Christian school education in five different schools, one of which we helped found.

This seems to be a good time for evaluation. Would we do it again, or would we choose public school education next time around? (Three children, for various reasons, did log a total of eight years in public high schools.) A final answer will have to wait for some years, perhaps beyond our lifetimes, for all education is a delayed-action bomb, set to go off in the future. And the bomb seems to have a multitude of warheads timed to explode—or fizzle—throughout life.

Back in 1950, when our first child was ready for school, Christian day schools were a new concept—at least to most of us Protestants. Denominations such as Christian Reformed and Missouri Synod Lutheran, and the Mennonites, had well-established educational systems for their constituencies. But the interdenominational, parent-controlled school was a new, in some ways disturbing, idea.

I remember my conversation in 1949 with J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., then president of National Bible Institute in New York, about a school some parents were trying to launch in suburban Philadelphia. They asked us to join their effort, and we were inclined to refuse to be involved.

As I recall, Dr. Buswell said, “I know how you feel because it’s how I used to feel. If the public schools were good enough for me and for my parents, why weren’t they good enough for my children? But I came to realize that the public schools have changed radically in my lifetime, and now I am on the side of Christian school education.” We came down on that side, too, for our own children at least. The decisive reason for our action was that we couldn’t conceive of God-fearing Israelites turning their young children over to Canaanites for their education.

I remember one other thing Dr. Buswell said in that conversation. He was at that time a candidate for a Ph.D. degree in the philosophy of education at New York University where, a few months before he had been invited to attend a ninetieth birthday celebration for Columbia’s distinguished retired professor John Dewey.

“The main subject of discussion,” Dr. Buswell said, as I recall his words, “was what educators would do when people across the country realized that they were trying to replace the church with the school as the center of American life.”

I link that disclosure of what was then beginning to happen in public education to Dewey’s comment of five years earlier, in an article published in Fortune: “There is probably no better way to realize what philosophy is about when it is living, not antiquarian, than to ask ourselves what criteria and ideals should control our educational policies and undertakings.”

Article continues below

Our decision to enter our child in a Christian school was the first time in our lives, I believe, that we admitted the United States was not a Christian nation. The Supreme Court decision of 1948, eliminating required Bible reading from the public schools, was only one factor in that admission. (Curiously, some Christian schools seem to identify Caesar and God in a civil-religion approach to education.)

Let me describe Delaware County Christian School. The institution began after a year of planning and hard work. We started in a Presbyterian church with kindergarten on the first floor. A large basement room was divided into two parts by sheets hung on a wire, with first grade on one side of the sheets, second to fifth on the other. The church kitchen served as a room for remedial reading and similar small-group instructional uses. There were 55 students, two full-time and two part-time teachers, and a part-time nurse. In one year we had outgrown that church, so we moved to a large interdenominational church that permitted us to use its Christian education building. Every Friday afternoon parents packed up the school and put it away, and rearranged the rooms for Sunday; vice versa on Sunday afternoon.

Four years later, after much praying and searching, the school found its permanent home: an estate seven miles away. The main residence was ideal (or so we thought then) for use as a school; minimal structural changes, made largely with volunteer labor by the parents, included fire escapes, breaking down some partitions, and converting bathrooms for expanded usage. The 11 acres of land, later increased to 16, were adequate for sports fields, parking, and future growth.

One significant factor in the success of this school has been, and continues to be, work performed by parents and older children. Cleaning, grounds work, and similar maintenance jobs are assigned, with all families participating. This has also helped preserve a feeling that “this is our school, and we’re all in it together.”

This school today has 700 students, a faculty of 39, and a staff of 13. Headmaster Roy W. Lowrie, Jr., Ed.D., is president of the Association of Christian Schools International. In addition to the original mansion (now used mainly for offices and special instruction) and barn (kindergarten), the $2 million plant includes elementary, intermediate, and high school buildings, elementary gym-auditorium, and high school gym. The annual budget is $1 million.

Article continues below

I recall a board meeting several years after the school’s founding where there appeared on the agenda an item concerning the application by black parents for the admission of their child. A strong discussion ensued (remember, this was the early 1950s). The vote, when it came, was to admit any child, regardless of race, whose parents were convinced of the need for a Christ-centered education for their children. Today the school buses black children out from Philadelphia.

To our shame as evangelical Christians, many “Christian” schools have been founded—and continue today—for the purpose of perpetuating racial segregation. We would not send our own children to a segregated school, nor recommend such a school to others. There is a tendency in Christian schools, after they have become established and accepted, to draw their students from an increasingly narrow portion of the socioeconomic spectrum. Parents who can afford it want their children to have a good “private school” education. Three actions can help prevent such an elitism: first, a continuing education program for parents, to make sure they remember the real reason for leaving Egypt; second, careful screening through admission policies; and third, availability of scholarships for needy families.

Church-related schools usually do not have this problem of elitism. At one point, after our children had spent spent several years in another parent-controlled school, we changed their enrollment to a Lutheran school so that they would be part of a wider spectrum of social, economic, and racial backgrounds.

I suppose all Christian schools are engaged in a quest for “academic excellence”—partly to silence their critics. But this commendable goal sometimes creates conflicts in other areas, conflicts that are not readily resolved. In theory, the Christian school exists to cooperate with parents in the training of their children. Many schools, like Delaware County Christian School, will not accept only one child from a family; all must be included in the application for admission. (Some parents otherwise would send their child with a behavior problem to the Christian school, their other children to a public school; or their slow learner to the Christian school, etc.)

Article continues below

The way it works out in most established schools of the non-church-related type is that the admissions committee turns down the slow learner, or the educationally handicapped, and accepts the bright child from the same family. “We are not equipped for special education,” is the usual explanation. This is also true of a child with blue-collar vocational interests (shop, automobile mechanics, etc.). Most Christian schools are only for college-bound or white-collar-career students. And if a child who has been admitted later becomes a behavior problem, he is expelled—and goes back into the public school.

I consider these actions a violation of the purpose for which Christian schools exist. Granted, a new school cannot handle special problems; it is struggling for its life. But what about the established, educationally enriched, financially solvent school? If the Christian school exists to cooperate with Christian parents as an extension of the home, it cannot disclaim responsibility for its involvement in problems parents face with their children. It cannot expel a child, except on the same grounds as those on which a public school would act. Can parents divest themselves of a child with a behavior problem?

Another issue with which many Christian schools must grapple, in my opinion, is their intrusion into areas of parental responsibility. Many evangelical Christians are threatened by diversities of lifestyle in the extended family of God; perhaps they are unable to handle confrontations with their own children over such differences. The result, in many schools, is a multiplication of rules related to skirt length and type of pants that may be worn (prominent exhibitors at recent Christian school educational conventions have been distributors of uniforms, an ultimate conformity); hair length and style; and such amusements as movies, cards, and dancing, in the total (including family) life of the students.

Another Kind Of Christian School

Our daughter Deborah Bayly teaches in a different kind of Christian school: Lake View Academy, an alternative high school, primarily for low income, multi-ethnic students over 16 years of age. The ungraded school, located in Chicago’s Uptown area at Lake View United Presbyterian Church, is in its eighth year.

A faculty of three permanent teachers and two Mennonite Voluntary Service Workers concentrates on 25 students, works intensively with 40—including graduates. Social services, continuing job counseling, and help with college entrance and performance, extend well beyond the time a student leaves the school.

Article continues below

In addition to the usual academic requirements for graduation, students must successfully hold a job (or do volunteer work) for five consecutive months, or they must pass a college/junior college course. Purpose: to prove they can cope with a larger environment and to ease the transition to a job or college after graduation.

Current student fees are $300 per year, including books and activities. This is an easy amount for students to earn on their own; and the school helps them to find part-time jobs. In addition, students take turns at janitorial tasks and school projects and participate in church work days.

The permanent faculty and the church minister, Rev. James Hargleroad, do most of the fund raising. The church provides facilities, and some Presbytery money recently was made available. Government grants are used when they won’t jeopardize the integrity of the program.

Problems at other (public) schools cause students to come to LVA. Among them: lack of success because of difficulty with English as a second language, or learning disabilities; drug involvement; in some instances “nice kids” terrorized by uncontrolled violence, often gang-related, in and around the public schools.

In an effort to expand students’ horizons beyond their limited inner-city area, the school provides canoeing and wilderness camping experiences. Vocational tryouts in areas of student interests are arranged for a week at a time. Usually these involve working with a Christian who works and enjoys it.

Through the cooperation of Young Life staff members in the Chicago area, LVA students have become involved with church young people in various activities, including travel to a Young Life summer camp.

Low point of the school’s history: the drug overdose death of an American Indian student who refused to undergo professional treatment. High points: the independent commitment of a number of students to Christ, including voluntary attendance at church.

The school tends to be an extended family. One Mexican family has formed friendships with the teachers, inviting them to “fantastic meals.”


It seems to me that parents are responsible to God for decisions about their own children’s appearance and recreation, and that, however attractive the siren song of conformity may be, the school administrators are wrong, in my opinion, if they treat the school as a substitute for parents judgment in the area of modesty, the school can discuss this with them. In a word, parents and school administrators are wrong, in my opinion, if they treat the school as a substitute for parents and assume their authority over and decision-making for the children. No school can take the place of the home, nor can a school make up for a serious moral or spiritual lack in the home. Exceptions, in my observation, are one-Christian-parent homes, where God undertakes to “sanctify” the children (1 Cor. 7:14). For such homes, the Christian school is God’s special provision.

Article continues below

Over the years, some of our friends—equally concerned for their children’s education, which they are convinced should be in public schools—have objected to the “hothouse” environment of a Christian school. Our answer is that a hothouse may be a proper environment both for tender plants and for tender children. The enriched nourishment and training of a hothouse will probably build a stronger organism when it is later transplanted and is forced to stand up to the elements. But our conviction is different from that of many other Christians: we believe that Christian education is most necessary during the early years of a child’s schooling, when patterns of thought, attitude toward God, obedience, and many other elements of a child’s makeup are being formed. In our opinion, a Christian world and life view will be most easily developed during the earliest years rather than at the age of 18 after a secular education, when habits of thought and attitudes toward truth have largely crystallized.

Of course, children in a Christian school are not completely sheltered from the world—nor would we wish them to be. Children of Christian parents are not automatically Christians. Ordinary problems of childhood and the teen years also surface, but a Christian framework exists for understanding and solving these problems.

In addition, only part of a child’s life is spent in school. Another significant part involves friends in the neighborhood with whom he/she plays as well as those in other activities they share with not-yet Christians. We would fear any education that denied responsibility for a Christian witness.

Let’s keep our priorities straight, though. We don’t send children to school primarily to evangelize, or to be salt in a corrupting society. We send them to be educated for life, in its fullest sense: the conventional subject matter, yes, but also for moral reasoning, discipline and self-discipline, goals, career guidance, sex education and social relationships, and citizenship. Who is as equipped as a Bible-believing Christian for such an educating task?

Article continues below

At the heart of Christian school education, of course, is the conviction of the unity of truth: in Dr. Frank Gaebelein’s dictum, “All truth is God’s truth.” Teachers in Christian schools make a conscious attempt to remove the unbiblical distinction between the sacred and the secular that plagues our generation. At the same time, they try to trace “the fingerprints of God” in history and in other areas of study, and to develop a God-conscious attitude toward all of life. A Christian school is not a five-day Sunday school. But at the same time, we are convinced of the great value for our children of academic courses in Bible, doctrine, and church history.

In retrospect, the Christian school’s function as part of the extended family of God (meaning parents joined together in a common commitment to what they perceive to be God’s will in the lives of their children, even beyond the formal school program) is near the top of any list of benefits our family received from all those years of Christian school involvement.

Teachers and classmates and their families who prayed for our children and for us; parents who did not hesitate, in love, to correct and instruct our children—and we theirs; concern for families’ and teachers’ financial and other needs as a Christian community; teachers who became part of our family, “angels unaware”; close friendships with whole families; these are some of the most valuable and enduring elements of our children’s Christian schooling and our involvement in it.

Would we do it again? Yes, but with more awareness of what to look for in a Christian school, and with more appreciation when we found it.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.