Let’s Make Our Schools More Thrilling and Beautiful


Cruising at thirty thousand feet and intensively absorbed in my work, I was startled by the sudden outburst of fearful crying from a three year-old little girl frantically running down the aisle of the big jet. Her brown eyes were wide with fear and her face wet from the tears cascading down her cheeks. Somehow she managed to leave her seat without her mother’s notice. Disoriented and scared she stumbled past row after row of strangers unable to find her mother in the sea of unfamiliar faces. As a father of three daughters and the “pawpaw”of a little granddaughter, my heart went out to her. Although prudence dictated otherwise, I wanted to leap from my seat and pick her up to comfort her.

My heart also goes out to teachers and school leaders who, like that little girl, find themselves disoriented, perhaps even a little intimidated and frightened by a strange and constantly changing world. This is a new experience for most educators.

School work has historically been comfortable and predictable. It has been observed that if you took a teacher from the early 1900s and dropped her into most any classroom today she would hardly skip a beat. She would find a board at the front of the room (albeit it may be electronic) and neat rows of students waiting for her to speak. There would be some new things, a computer on the teacher’s desk and a copier down the hall, but fundamentally things would look and feel much like they did at the beginning of the 20th century.

This predictability is giving way to uncertainty created by the relentless currents of cultural, economic, and technological change. Nothing in our schools is untouched. Whereas schools have historically been islands of relative tranquility, teachers and school leaders are now feeling uncertain about their roles and methods amid the changes invading their schools. We feel the seismic vibrations of shifting cultural norms beneath us. And we are confronted with the ever quickening pace of technological innovation that is reshaping the way we work, communicate, and entertain ourselves.

Like the girl on the plane, these cultural and technological changes can cause us to become disoriented, feeling overwhelmed, even frightened. The familiar is giving way to the new and the strange. That which once seemed like bedrock—steady and predictable—now feels like quicksand.

Consider the Internet and mobile technology. In their just released book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen summarize how the Internet and mobile technologies are fundamentally reshaping our lives and institutions.

The proliferation of communication technologies has advanced at an unprecedented speed. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the number of people connected to the Internet worldwide increased from 350 million to more than 2 billion. In the same period, the number of mobile-phone subscribers rose from 750 million to well over 5 billion (it is now over 6 billion). Adoption of these technologies is spreading to the farthest reaches of the planet, and, in some parts of the world, at an accelerating rate. By 2025, the majority of the world’s population will, in one generation, have gone from having virtually no access to unfiltered information to accessing all of the world’s information through a device that fits in the palm of the hand. If the current pace of technological innovation is maintained, most of the projected eight billion people on Earth will be online …

As global connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many old institutions and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society. The struggles we see today in many businesses, large and small, are examples of the dramatic shift for society that lies ahead. Communication technologies will continue to change our institutions from within and without. We will increasingly reach, and relate to, people far beyond our own borders and language groups, sharing ideas, doing business and building genuine relationships.

If you substitute school for institutions and businesses in the above quote it reads, “As global connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many [schools] and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society. The struggles we see today in many [schools], large and small, are examples of the dramatic shift for society that lies ahead.” No one wants to become obsolete and irrelevant.

There is a sense in which the students sitting in front of us, or if we are an administrator, the young teachers in front of us, are strangers. They live in two worlds, not just one. They live in the physical world and in a virtual world. And they know nothing of our educational experience, one that relied on the teacher, the librarian, and the encyclopedia for information.

Our students are growing up in a world where everyone is, or soon will be, connected with each other. They carry the world’s information in the palm of their hand. If they need extra help, they don’t “need” to ask the teacher-they can text a friend, video-chat with an expert, or watch remarkably well constructed tutorials on Khan Academy. If they need information, they “Google it.” Teachers are needed for other things but they are not needed for delivering information.

How should we respond as Christian educators? With courage not fear, with optimism not pessimism, with excitement, not dread; with a vision for the future, not with a nostalgic longing for the past. We should respond with creativity, vigor and innovation, not with the mechanical and routinized habits that have become so comfortable but are increasingly arcane and irrelevant for our students.

Carpe Diem This is not Pollyannaish happy talk. The ability to seize the day, to courageously and creatively adapt one’s teaching and leadership to the opportunities before us and to the needs of our students,—not to our needs and preferences—is firmly rooted in God’s sovereignty, his commands, and his commission. 

—God’s Sovereignty— When thinking about change, one of my favorite passages is a short epitaph to King David: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers.” (Ac 13:36) This epitaph reflects the relevant servant leadership of David. David did not serve the previous generation, he served HIS generation.

That is our task, to serve the generation of students God has entrusted to our stewardship. We are not to be subservient to our past, to our habits, to our comfort, or to our preferences. We are to serve the purpose of God in our generation. In our case, this means the Internet generation—always connected and immersed in a world of ubiquitous technology.

We can serve optimistically and confidently when we learn to rest in God’s sovereignty, recognizing that he has determined when and where we are to serve.

God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’… ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (Ac 17:24–28).

We do not get to choose when or where we are born nor the circumstances and conditions under which we serve. We do choose how we are going to respond. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings - Fellowship of the Ring, the wise wizard Gandalph responds to Frodo’s dismay and fear:

Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” 

Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

That is how we should respond to the disruptions and changes around us—with the confidence that God has placed us here at this time, under these circumstances so that we might serve his purposes in our generation. It is not for us to decide when and where we serve, only how we will serve.

—God’s Command— Christians ought to be optimists, positive and excited about life. There is plenty wrong in this world—there always has been and there always will be until Christ returns. But Christians of all people are to be optimists and this optimism should shine as a bright light of encouragement and as a model to our students and a watching world. The last thing our students need are hesitant, pessimistic, fearful, stuck in the mud teachers.

Optimism is defined as hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something. Should that not describe Christians who place their confidence in Christ who has redeemed us, gives us eternal life and who will give us glorified resurrected bodies? This same Christ will ultimately redeem this world and at the close of history God will descend from heaven and live with a redeemed humanity on a beautifully restored earth no longer marred, by nor laboring under, the devastating effects of sin!

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new … And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and here will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Re 21ff)

This bright ending had a bright beginning—a beginning which is still to guide our lives and work. It is interesting that in Genesis everything that God communicated to man was positive with the one exception of not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God creates man in his image, makes him an eternal embodied soul, gives him the world and tells him to go forth, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. God’s tell man to go forth and build culture! Man was not to stay in his comfort zone—the Garden. He was to venture out and to create as an imitator of the Creator whose image he bore.

This is still our primary mission. We are to build, develop, create, innovate, and progress. Sin has not removed nor diminished this calling. It has made it harder but it has not destroyed it.

Christian teachers and administrators, of all people, should model this perspective and it should animate our teaching and leadership. We should be the consummate innovators and builders of culture and users of new technology under the Lordship and for the glory of Christ.

—God’s Commission— When we think of God’s commission, we think of the Great Commission of Christ-to make disciples of all nations. This is certainly the Great Commission but it is founded on the First Commission:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Ge 1:28–31)

The Great Commission is the work of reclaiming and redeeming people to progressively and righteously fulfill the First Commission. This truth is reflected in Rev. 21 so that Genesis 1–2 and Revelation 21 are the bookends of history. The Great Commission is the restoration of the work started in the Garden, which was corrupted, not destroyed, by sin.

The little girl on the plane was scared. Suddenly, after leaving her mother—the place of safety and comfort—she found herself lost and surrounded by strangers. Fortunately, a flight attendant saw what happened and quickly picked up the little girl and returned her to her mother. She stopped crying. Everything was okay.

For Christians everything is okay. It is not necessarily easy or comfortable, but in Christ, everything is okay—even change. Christian educators do not need to fear the changes around us nor be preoccupied with condemning what is wrong, although that must be done.

Instead of condemnation and fear, we should be biased toward positive living with a positive message—the life and culture encompassing gospel. Andy Crouch, in his excellent book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, asks some probing questions that we need to answer:

Why aren’t we known as cultivators-people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators-people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?

Let us go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, guided by God’s word, to transform lives and culture. Let us serve God in our generation by being creators of culture and as relevant Christian educators. let us dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before in our schools, something that makes our schools more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful for our 21st century students.