John Collier has a great view of Gothic buttresses and the soaring roof of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, as he looks out from his eyrie as head of the Cathedral School. But today he is not looking at the sandstone. Instead, he’s looking at me as he answers Eternity’s questions about whether it is useful to have church schools.
He’s a good person to ask because he has been a principal in both state and independent schools. That’s rare.
“Not quite unique, he says wryly. “By the end of the year I will have given each sector 24 and a half years, so why disturb the symmetry by carrying on.”
He’s referring to his taking up a new role, no longer in a school but as Dean of Education at Morling College, the Sydney and Perth-based Baptist college.
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He sees there’s good work to be done in many different sorts of schools. State and independent.
“In the government sector – and I have not been in it for 24 years – it is a vital ministry to have Christian teachers witnessing in those schools,” says Collier, who points out that it can be a lonely ministry.
Depending on the size of the school, the Christian teacher might be the only one who is a Christian. Perhaps they will get to lead the ISCF (Inter-School Christian Fellowship) groups, or similar groups
“Their ministry can be highly strategic but increasingly difficult … when Christian faith is on the outer, culturally.”
Highly strategic indeed. Collier points out that together with Scripture class volunteers in some Australian states, the teacher might be the only contact young people have with Christianity. (This is backed up by the McCrindle Faith and Belief report which found younger generations of Australians were less likely to know a Christian).
Collier sees chaplains in government schools funded by the Federal Government in a positive light “Although there are rules about direct proselyting which makes that difficult – but the witness of a life lived for Christ can be attractive.”
“What I found in the government sector is that some people do come to faith, through the ministry of some teachers. And other opportunities they can put forward, such as Anglican Youthworks camps [in New South Wales] and Scripture Union camps. So, it is an important ministry.”
“In the independent sector where I have spent nearly 24 years, Christian faith can be much more overt. And in many Christian schools not only is overt witness possible but it is actually encouraged and, on occasions, positively required.”
“We need a combination of faith being taught and faith being caught.” – John Collier
The difficulty in independent schools is that “church schools have a history of handling faith ministries so poorly that they inoculate children against Christian faith.”
The content of Christianity might not be attractive to young people, according to Collier, because they can be exposed to traditions they view as boring or arcane, heavily liturgical, or even focused on ‘church insider’ stuff. “It smacks of a generation that is past,” Collier explains.
Or, even worse, “the rendition of faith is oppressive in style” and doesn’t invite students to explore further.
“What I have tried to encourage – and I am not alone in that – is engaging well and winsomely with young people for the Gospel.”
Eternity asked him what lesson he had learned. He had a few.
- It’s vital to listen attentively to young people.
- To be real and authentic.
- To not live hypocritically in front of then but to manifest the Christian faith of which one speaks.
- To answer the questions they are asking (and not the ones we think they should ask).
- To be open and responsive.
- Not to be indoctrinating.
- To help them grapple through the issues that see as “worrisome”.
- Material needs to be doctrinally and cognitively strong, but winsome as well.
Collier refers to Professor Trevor Cooling’s research which found that teenagers need people to walk through issues such as:
- Why does a good God allow pain and suffering?
- Has science disproved God?
- Is there any historical credibility to the New Testament?
“It is not good enough to suppress these ideas by insisting children just have faith,” says Collier.
“They are real questions and they need real answers.
“So schools ministries need to be apologetically strong. In terms of 1 Peter 3:15: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have …’ – but the other half of the verse is important – ‘… But do this with gentleness and respect.’
“So we need a combination of faith being taught and faith being caught.”