For the record, I’m pro–Christian school. I graduated from Arvada Christian School in 1983, and my wife and I sent our kids to Faith Christian Academy from preschool on. My son graduated from Faith in 2020, and my daughter is a senior there this year. We don’t regret sending our kids to a Christian school, even though my wife has been a public school teacher for the last 28 years. We believe Christian schools can be a powerful force for spiritual transformation.
Sadly, that’s often not the case. After speaking at many Christian schools over the last three decades, talking to countless Christian school students and graduates, and witnessing the struggles of our own kids as they went through Christian school, I’ve concluded that the model we use for Christian schools is largely failing to capture the hearts of our kids for Christ over the long haul.
Many Christian school teenagers have a deep spiritual cynicism baked into their hardened hearts. Far too many of these teens graduate and then publicly evacuate their faith, either through outright denunciation or post–high school hedonism. While I don’t have statistics to prove the fallout, I’ve personally connected with many Christian school attendees/graduates who have forsaken their faith and/or the lifestyle that goes with it.
The good news is: I believe this tragic trajectory can change.
But it will require radical action from Christian school teachers and administrators. In the words of Rocky Balboa to Adonis Creed in Creed II: “Listen, you want to change things in a big way, then you gotta make some big changes.” Here are 7 ways Christian schools are falling short—and how they can turn it around.
1. Not enough wrestling
“Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” Colossians 4:12
We have at our disposal the greatest power available, the very power of God. Epaphras knew this. That’s why he prayed for the believers in Colossae to be “mature and fully assured.” The idea of the word “wrestle” here is agonizing prayer. He called out to God in agony, begging God to mature the hearts of these believers he so loved. And he was praying for very specific things: that these believers would stand firmly in God’s will, mature spiritually in God’s Word, and walk confidently in God’s ways.
Isn’t that exactly what we long to see happen in the lives of our Christian teenagers? Whether they go to public school, Christian school, or home school, we yearn to see them grow into full-bloom spiritual maturity—which requires consistent, intense prayer.
What if Christian school teachers wrestled with God every day in prayer for each of their students to become fully surrendered followers of Jesus? I’m sure some do, but what if all did? What if teachers’ meetings were drenched in prayer, led by the principal? What if parents were brought into these wrestling matches with God?
Nothing replaces the power of God to change a life. The best buildings, teachers, curriculum, classrooms, and settings fade when compared with the power of a praying teacher. The best teachers in the world without prayer are simply hollow caves through which biblical truth echoes and fades. But when super-charged by prayer, even average teachers become catalytic forces for lasting change in young lives.
How do I know this? I’ve seen the power of my wife’s prayers for the public school kids who went through her class over the years. When they were taking tests, she would walk the aisles and silently pray for each of them by name. Over the past three decades, so many of them have been transformed, not because she jumped up on a desk and gave the Gospel (she’d get fired), but because she relentlessly prayed for them by name in the sanctuary of her heart.
Never underestimate the power of a praying teacher.
2. Parents who tap out
“Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deuteronomy 6:7
How many times have we seen Christian parents just dump their badly behaving kids off at a Christian school with a maybe-you-can-fix-them attitude. But nothing replaces an on-fire-for-God mom and dad who long to see that fire passed along to their kids.
From square one, my wife and I have viewed ourselves as the ones responsible to provide the primary spiritual inputs into our kids’ lives. We look at the Christian school and youth group as supplemental. Our hope and prayer has always been that the Christianity they live out is due, in large part, to them seeing us live out our Christianity, however imperfectly, over the years.
Christian schools must find ways to engage parents as the chief disciplers of their own children. This could come in the form of homework that engages parents in discussions over biblical issues or seminars that equip parents to take the lead discipleship role with their families.
Every parent who enrolls their kids into a Christian school should be reminded that, while Christian schools can help kids grow in their faith, nothing replaces a dad and mom who take their faith seriously in public and private.
3. Failure to Gospelize
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2
Every time I preach at a Christian school chapel, I share the Gospel. And nearly every time, there are many young people who indicate a first-time decision for Jesus. This should be jarring to most Christian school teachers and administrators.
Attending a Christian school doesn’t make you a Christian, any more than being born in a garage makes you a car. We must give the Gospel clearly and consistently at our Christian schools. Doing so will help unbelieving students understand the Good News and help believing students experience its power to enable them to live a victorious Christian life.
Plunge your hand into the dirt of Scripture and feel around. In every passage, you’ll find a scarlet thread. Pull that thread, and it inevitably ends up at the cross. What’s true of every Scripture, should be true of every chapel service and Bible class. We should end up at the blood-stained cross and empty tomb of Christ.
We must Gospelize our Christian schools!
4. Forgetting the practical application
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:15-16
Christian school Bible teachers often aren’t trained to show the relevance of Scripture to a teenager’s everyday life. Young people must be taught more than the cold facts of Christianity—they must be shown how those truths can set their lives of fire for Christ.
For instance, the theology of the incarnation of Christ (God in the flesh), can be used to communicate that we have a God who empathizes with us in our struggles (Hebrews 4:15-16). The doctrine of the Trinity is not just a mind-boggling mystery that teenagers must articulate for some test, but also a heart-transforming reminder that we’re never alone—that the Holy Spirit invites us into the community of fellowship with the Trinity (John 14:23). The substitutionary atonement of Christ is not just salvific truth, but a powerful reminder that we now have peace with God (Romans 5:1) and can experience peace, not anxiety.
When teens know why a certain Biblical truth in important and how to apply it in their everyday lives, these truths become way more than answers on a test. They’re answers to the biggest problems they face. I dare you to show me a core theological truth that isn’t crucial for a teen’s identity, belonging, and/or purpose.
Just as Paul reminded Timothy, Christian school teachers need to remind and equip their students how to practically live lives that are in full sync with Christian doctrine.
5. Lists instead of love
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Colossians 2:21-3:1
The Christian school I attended growing up had a lot of good things: great teachers, Gospel training, practical theology. But it also had one big bad thing: a legalistic list of spiritual requirements for godliness. There was a not-so-subtle riptide of expectation that whispered: “Keep this list of dos and don’ts, and you’ll be godly.” So I did. I kept my hair cut short. I memorized entire books of the Bible. I shared the Gospel relentlessly. I got straight A’s. I read my Bible every day. And on and on the list went. And up and up my frustration level went.
Consistent compliance to this long list couldn’t restrain my sensual indulgences. The list was like kerosene poured on the fire of my lusts.
Finally, at the age of 18, I told God, “You have to show me some way other than the list, or I don’t think I can do this anymore.” That’s when He taught me about the indwelling Holy Spirit and a day-by-day dependence on Him. That’s when He taught me to let Christ live through me (Galatians 2:20) instead of me always trying (in vain) to live for Him. He used other believers in Christ to introduce me to game-changing books like True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer, The Saving Life of Christ by Major Ian Thomas, and The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll. From these books, I learned the way of Spirit instead of the way of the flesh, the way of relationship instead of religion, the way of trusting instead of trying, and the way of love instead of the way of the list.
And everything changed as a result!
Oh how I wish I would have learned these truths in Christian school. How I wish I would have learned about the centrality of the Holy Spirit to the victorious Christian life. My Christian school was so conservative that they viewed the theology of the Holy Spirit as “charismatic” instead of essential.
Without the Holy Spirit, we have no divine power (Ephesians 3:16), no deep encouragement (Acts 9:31), and no effective witness (Acts 1:8). I thank God for individual teachers (Mark Schweitzer and Kenny Sanchez) who sought to train me in some of these truths, but the gravitational pull of legalism was so strong that it grounded me in a works-based-approach to sanctification until God set me free during my freshman year of college.
We must awaken our Christian school students to grace, to the Holy Spirit, and to the life of Christ in them.
6. Letting the milk spoil
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” Matthew 28:18-20
Pour milk into a sponge and, eventually, the milk spoils. Pour the milk of God’s Word into the sponge of young minds and, eventually, that milk will spoil—unless it’s wrung out to others through evangelism and discipleship.
When I speak at Christian schools, I often smell spoiled milk. These are the students who have God’s Word poured into their minds by well-meaning teachers, but they’re never challenged or equipped to wring it out to others.
The Western model of truth transference is flawed. We think if we pour the best-quality milk (theology, worldview training, apologetics) into young minds, it will inevitably lead to transformation. Instead, it has led to spoiled milk—to the stench of legalism and hedonism.
But when Christian school students engage on the mission Jesus has given them to “go and make disciples” here, there, and everywhere, that sponge gets wrung out, and they come back thirsty for more. They realize their goal is not just to know the truth but to spread it, not just to make good grades but to make disciples, not just to make it into a good college but to embark on the greatest mission of all time.
As legalistic as my little Christian school was growing up, the one thing they did extremely well was to equip us for mission. We were encouraged to go out every Friday night and share the Gospel. Many of us did. “Friday night soul winning,” as it was called, brought to life all the truths we learned. Every Friday night, we wrung our sponges full of Gospel truth dry and came back to class on Monday thirsty for more.
What if Christian schools mobilized teenagers for the Gospel? What if they joined us for Dare 2 Share Live (coming up on November 12, 2022) to mobilize their young people for a day of evangelism? What if the last Saturday of every month they joined hundreds of other youth groups from around the world to wring their sponges dry on Go Share Day? What if evangelism training was a normal part of Christian school curriculum, and if part of passing that class was sharing the Gospel with at least five people? What if, in every chapel service, teenagers shared stories of those they were engaging that week in Gospel conversations?
7. Lack of 10%ers
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:25-27
It takes only a fully committed few to set the pace for an entire group.
According to a study done by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: “Scientists have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion.”
This simply means that if you can get 10% of teenagers currently attending a Christian school to commit 100% to follow Jesus, they’ll inevitably influence the spiritual climate of the entire school. It doesn’t take everyone to be all-in. It just takes 10%. Those “10%ers” become the thermostat that cranks up the spiritual heat of the entire school.
Just a few months ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Anchorage Christian School in Alaska. I thought I’d put the 10% rule to the test. During my talk, I gave a challenge to the teenagers. I had two rows of them (about 25 students) stand up. I said: “It takes only 10% of you to make a difference in this whole school. But you have to, like the disciples of Jesus, be 100% committed. Since there are 250 teenagers between the middle school and high school, it takes only these two rows of students to change the whole school! Will you be one of them? Will you be a 10%er?”
For those who were willing to do that, I challenged them to let their chapel leaders know after. And, within a few minutes after chapel, a group of about 10% gathered in the middle of the auditorium to pray. They started meeting every week to pray for revival and plan for outreaches. They call themselves, you guessed it, “the 10%ers.”
We need 10%ers at every Christian school, who will lead the way and set the pace. We need teenagers to rise up and say, “No more lukewarm Christian life! We’re all-in for Christ and His Cause!”
Before I published this post, I sent it to my friend Andrew Hasz, who is the superintendent of Faith Christian Academy where my kids attend. I loved his response: “…in many ways, these same points also apply to churches and Christian families; and, as you communicated, the solution isn’t to abandon Christian schools (any more than we would abandon church or Christian households); rather, it is to continue to press in and pursue God’s calling and purpose.”
Amen, Andrew! Let’s not abandon Christian schools. Instead, let’s double down on building the best ones we possibly can—ones that fill young minds and hearts with God’s truth and equip them to pour that truth out to others.
My prayer is that Christian school teachers, administrators, and students will read this and determine, by God’s grace, to help build the model for a Gospel Advancing, disciple-making Christian school that will create a new model for Christian schools. My prayer is for a revolution in Christian school philosophy that raises up Christian school radicals who lead the way and set the pace for revival.