Meeting on the porch: Christian schools as common ground

Right before he died, Timothy Keller wrote a piece called “Lemonade on the Porch: The Gospel in a Post-Christendom Society”.

Keller used the metaphor of the “porch” to talk about engagement with people who are not Christian. Drawing on experiences of neighbourhoods where busy porches functioned as vital community spaces, Keller painted an image of the secular world (the street) and the church (the house) finding a point of connection on the “porch”. Keller’s interest was in spaces where relationship can develop to the point where it might even be natural for the person to enter “the house”.

While there were once many of these “porches”, these days they are few and far between. Keller identified the arts and media, the activity of the church in caring for people in need and, thirdly, educational institutions as some of the remaining “porches” for secular people to encounter Christians and what they believe.

In Australia, as the “no religion” category grows and those ticking “Christian” on the census continues to decline at a striking rate, schools run with a Christian mission and foundation (and there is a wide variety of those) are, perhaps surprisingly, playing an increasingly significant role in our social fabric.

What will people find today when they step onto the “porch”, that is the school, that offers a Christian view of the world? What are the ways that education might be a gift to those people encountering the core of the Christian story at their school? There are so many. Here are just four:

Every aspect of life is, in a mysterious way, sacred, because there is a relationship attached to it.

Understanding the physical creation as a gift of God

The modern dream of technology seems to be all about escaping our physical reality, but from the very beginning, the Bible is radically positive about creation, declaring it to be profoundly “good.” This is a challenge to our tech-infused virtual realities that, as Andy Crouch suggests, are dangerously depleting “our capacity for wonder and delight, contemplation and attention, real play and fruitful work.”

Significantly, the Bible tells us the physical stuff of life means something. It matters. It comes from a God who gives it to us to enjoy. It means that every aspect of life is, in a mysterious way, sacred, because there is a relationship attached to it.

Schools have a huge opportunity to illustrate this reality and make links between “creation as gift” and our understanding of sport, art, music and dance; of the way we engage with and take care of creation; and how we think about creativity, food and community, and where these things fit within the grand biblical vision.

Forming a stable identity

Understanding who we are as human beings is a crucial question as we form our identities, and the signs are that contemporary culture is floundering in trying to find a satisfying answer.

Schools have a vital role to play here. Christianity tells us that we are not simply physical beings made up of water and chemicals. We are not only animals or pleasure-seeking machines with no inherent purpose. Human beings, according to the Bible, are precious beyond measurement because we are made in the image of God. We have a bestowed worth that lifts us up and makes us God’s special representatives on earth. We are intimately known and loved by him.

Where every other part of our lives suggests our worth is in what we can achieve – what we can get in our ATAR, what credentials we can amass for ourselves, what job and possessions, the number of followers or friends we can accumulate, how fit we can be – Christianity supersedes that measurement.

This valuing of the individual is a key part of school communities that have a strong Christian foundation. If a young person can come away from their school knowing their value comes not from what they can conjure up from within themselves but from a God who loves them, they will be well placed to navigate the world confident in who they are.

High school students walking

Finding community

As a society our experiment with radical individualism is not working well. We have an epidemic of loneliness. Today 40 per cent of Australians have never felt lonelier. And young people are suffering this scourge. The loneliest of all the generations are Gen Z and Millennials.

Schools can speak into this dilemma, providing community that situates each student within a grand story. It can be community with a distinct flavour of welcome and hospitality, offering time, interest in each person, true listening and belonging. In her book A Place at the Table, Jo Swinney describes hospitality this way: “You are seen. You are accepted. You are not alone. How badly we all need to hear these words expressed in an unhurried conversation, an arm around the shoulder, a probing question.”

Becoming that kind of community for a generation of kids in danger of missing out on deep connections is a goal worthy striving for.

It turns out that the ancient wisdom of Jesus actually works!

The great paradox: the full life from service of others

Jesus says the full life comes not from self-service but service of others. Whoever wants to be great among you must become a servant, he said, which might sound like a hard sell for teenagers. But I have seen schools take this on and adopt programs of “service learning” that are built into the fabric of the school, operating across all the years a student is there. Without exception, staff speak of the incredible impact of getting students out of their own heads and working on behalf of people in need. These programs are transformative for students in giving them perspective, appreciation for what they have and empathy.

It turns out that the ancient wisdom of Jesus actually works! Social researcher Hugh Mackay has spent decades observing and talking to Australians about their lives. He concludes his book The Good Life with this stunning summary of his findings about the shape of the life worth living: “Nobody can promise you that a life lived for the sake of others will lead to satisfaction. But it’s certain that nothing else will.”

Conveying even a taste of that wisdom would be a fine aim for a school seeking to be a Christian witness and an embodiment of the way of Jesus.

There are enormous opportunities and responsibilities here. With fewer Australians knowing much at all about the faith, but still keen to send their kids to schools with a Christian ethos and values (whatever they understand those to mean), it is exciting to think of what can be done to provide a welcoming place that celebrates each student as a precious child of God, a thriving community where they truly belong, and a place where they can be, in both words and actions, exposed to the truth and the beauty of the Christian story and all it entails. That can be a true gift, not only for students and parents but staff as well.

Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity. In a previous life he was a history teacher.

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