I have never seen a Christian school with such a sign and I don’t ever expect to see one. For too many Christian schools such a sign might reflect “truth in advertising” but it would be extraordinary bad marketing! It would also be suicidal for both the administrator and the school. Besides, while average may be more common than we would like to admit, every school administrator I know is genuinely committed to excellence in his or her school.
But the fact of the matter is, and the research supports it, far too many Christian schools are average–generally no better than their public school counterparts as measured by student achievement. There are many reasons why this is so but I believe one of them–perhaps the primary one–is that we are afraid of excellence of the kind that could be classified as world-class.
This is part one of a series of short articles exploring the questions; “Should our schools strive to be world-class, or as I will explain later–Kingdom-class–and if so, how do we get closer to that goal? How excellent should we strive to be? What is excellence, anyway? Does the pursuit of world-class standards of quality run the risk of compromising our integrity as Christian schools? Do we run the risk of becoming worldly institutions?”
Those are fair questions. They are essential questions. History is littered with examples of fine Christian institutions of learning losing their way in the pursuit of an excellence defined by cultural values rather than by Christ and his word. They compromised bit by bit and in the end ceased to be Christian. I believe that is the proverbial elephant in our administrative offices and board rooms.
I hope to demonstrate that it is possible–in fact necessary–that we strive to be world-class institutions precisely because doing so can bring honor to Christ and advance his kingdom. There is a wrong way and a right way to pursue this goal.
Let’s stare down the elephant.
Part-One: Excellence Defined
A commitment to excellence begs the question, how does one define it? If my readers will pardon this example, it is a bit like the comment made by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart in his attempt to define pornography:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.
We might say, “Perhaps I cannot precisely define excellence but I know it when I see it.”
Notwithstanding the difficulty in defining excellence, I will step out on the proverbial limb and offer a working definition of excellence. I will also suggest why it is important.
I shall begin by first acknowledging that there are many forms of excellence in many categories of human experience. For a helpful, but not explicitly Christian, perspective on academic excellence, I recommned John Gardner’s book, Excellence: Can we be excellent and equal too? For purposes of this article I am focusing on Christian school institutionalexcellence,* which leads to other forms of excellence.
There are two objections that I encounter when advocating for world-class excellence in our Christian schools. One is the fear that excellence will lead to elitism. The second is that when the term world-class is used, it is often interpreted by Christians as synonymous with “worldly.”
Excellence and elitism are not synonymous nor does the passionate pursuit of excellence need to lead to elitism. World-class is not synonymous with being worldly. A Christian school can be world-class without compromising its commitment to God’s word and to Christ.
Part of our struggle arises from imprecision in our definition of terms.
Elitism is snobbishness, superciliousness; arrogance, haughtiness, being disdainful, condescending; pretentious, uppity, and stuck-up. Elitism generally refers to a person or group that believes one sector of society is superior, smarter, richer, more aristocratic or sophisticated to another and therefore is more entitled to be taken seriously, listened to, and so forth. All of which are antithetical to biblical attitudes and behaviors.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:3ff)
Excellence, on the other hand, is defined as a distinction in quality, brilliance, merit, caliber, eminence, preeminence, skill, talent, virtuosity, accomplishment, and mastery. Excellence thus defined means to be the best in class. I may, for example, seek out a world-class cardiologist if I need heart surgery. No one I know would seek to have a well-meaning but average heart surgeon! If I have to choose between a world-class atheist cardiologist and an average Christian cardiologist, when I go under the knife, give me the atheist. If I survive, I’ll witness to him or her!
Seeking a world-class cardiologist is not elitist nor worldly—it is responsible and smart. Being a world-class cardiologist is not being elitist, it is to be the best heart surgeon possible for the benefit of patients–it is a noble goal, a noble accomplishment and status, to be commended and encouraged. On the other hand, behaving in an elitist fashion is contemptible.
I can think of no more important or nobler calling than educating the hearts and minds of eternal souls–our students. Average is unworthy of such a calling. Average is unworthy of an eternal soul. Average is unworthy of Christ.
However, while defining institutional excellence in terms of being world-class is not inherently wrong or inaccurate, it is too narrow. In seeking a more biblical and descriptive definition of excellence for our schools I make a distinction between being world-class and kingdom-class. While these definitions are not “fully baked,” perhaps they can provide a working framework as we strive to create genuinely excellent institutions of Christian learning.
World-class: A world-class school is one that is among the best or most prominent in the world because of the quality and impact of its educational program. It sets a standard for excellence for others to emulate.
Kingdom-class: A Kingdom-class Christian school is one that is among the best in the world because of the quality and impact of its educational program. It sets a standard of educational quality and innovation worthy of emulation by both non-Christian and Christian educators throughout the world.
Its students are prepared for college and career in a globalized, connected, and competitive world. They are also prepared to use their God-given gifts in fulfilling the Creation Mandate1 and the Great Commission. Its students’ lives are transformed, others are served, and God is glorified.
A Kingdom-class education includes the quality measures that constitute a world-class program but expands and deepens them to include a biblical worldview. A Kingdom-class education educates both the mind and the soul and seeks to glorify God, not man consistent with Jesus’s command to "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 5:16
When thinking through this distinction, it may be helpful to understand two concepts related to developing a biblical worldview around the concept of excellence. Those two concepts are structure and direction which are ways of understanding and applying the biblical doctrines of Creation-Fall-Redemption.
Al Wolters defines structure and direction in his book Creation Regained, which Tim Hoiland1summarizes thus:
First, all things are created good (their “structure” is good), but all created things have been deformed by the Fall and sin (that is, they have been “misdirected”). As Christians, too often we recognize the directional distortion of something and discard it as sinful, but we fail to affirm its structural goodness, and miss the opportunity to see how, as a structurally good but misdirected part of creation, it can be redirected for purposes that please God and, in turn, serve the common good. With this distinction in mind, we can truly be “reformers” rather than either seeking to obliterate what’s tainted by sin on the one hand, or by fatalistically accepting the sin-tainted status quo on the other.
Structure and Direction when applied to the pursuit of a kingdom-class education would mean creating Christian institutions of learning that are structurally among the best in the world as reflected both in the quality of faculty, curriculum, teaching, and so on and that are directionally biblical by reflecting a love for God, seeking God’s glory-not ours—, loving our neighbors as ourselves (our students, parents, colleagues, and community) and treating students, parents, and colleagues as God’s image bearers with all of the implications is programs, policies, and practices that that entails.
When both the structure and the direction of a Christian school are biblically sound and reflect the very best that can be delivered then the school—as an a Christian educational institution—is able to “Let its light shine before others, so that they may see its good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.” Anything less is unworthy of our Savior.
Excellence is as much a journey as a destination. It seems presumptuous to claim that any of our schools have become genuinely world or Kingdom-class. But, taking the journey is not an excuse for never arriving at our destination—even if only in some areas. No matter where we are on the journey, we can start where we are and relentlessly pursue our destination.
Hoiland, T. (2012, April 16). Al Wolters on worldview in everyday life. Eerdmans. Retrieved February 7, 2015, from http://timhoiland.com/2012/04/creation-regained/