The mission Anglican Schools have of helping young people to hear and respond to the Gospel is harder today than maybe at any other time. The reasons for this are well known. We no longer live in a society that broadly aligns itself with the Christian worldview and most people under forty have little experience of church. Common cultural knowledge about Christianity, such as an awareness of the Bible, no longer exists. The trinity of family, church and school supporting faith has also largely disappeared. Most families in Anglican Schools are not church attenders. The school is their only experience of church and it is likely to be the only place where they hear the Christian message. It is not only that the social structures young people move through don’t encourage a Christian worldview; more so they actively promote an alternative vision of truth and the good life.
Despite all of this, or possibly because of it, Anglican Schools are more strategic and intentional about their Christian mission and ministry than ever before. We live in challenging but exciting times and a school’s approach to mission with young people needs to be carefully thought through. We may have a captive audience but this should not be carelessly exploited. We must be sensitive to how students perceive faith activities and use strategies that are compelling, cut through the noise of a pluralistic society and provide whole-person experiences.The bread and butter of Anglican School ministry for the past forty years or more has consisted of four strategies or activities. These are chaplain, chapel, religious or Christian education and service. Of course schools use many other strategies such as voluntary Christian groups, prayer spaces and all kinds of innovative activities to cultivate engagement. Apart from the work done in developing a Christian ethos or culture in the school the core has always been these four basic things.
Today many Anglican Schools put significant effort into thinking strategically about how they might fulfil their Christian mission. They gather key staff together to ask big questions about purpose and how it might be creatively and effectively fulfilled. In doing this it is essential that all the faith development tools available are considered. While recognising that faith is a gift from God it is still pertinent to ask how we can fulfil our task of presenting the Gospel as effectively as possible. Even Paul in the much cited example of his discourse in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31) sought to communicate clearly and compellingly in culturally relevant ways with those before him.
Not putting chapel, chaplain, religious education and service aside there are three significant tools that Anglican Schools might consider when planning how they do their mission and ministry.
Relationships are at the heart of chaplaincy. They are also at the heart of faith formation. It is not unusual for Christians to name a key person as important to their coming to faith. This may have been their parents, friends, teachers or chaplains. When faith is witnessed in the character of those we are close to it influences us. It is important for schools to recognise that a single chaplain in a school of hundreds or a thousand or more students can only build significant relationships with so many students.
While some chaplains seek to teach as many students as possible and this is positive in terms of breadth of relationships, it will diminish depth. It may however increase the likelihood that those who want to connect with the chaplain in time of need will. If the chaplain teaches the same students for many years this will increase the depth of relationship. Schools needs to think how they want to shape the chaplain’s relational work and the impact this will have on the breadth and depth of relationships.
While additional chaplains might alleviate relational pressure a more natural solution might be to harness the existing relationships in the school. For many students the teachers who they like and spend a lot of time with are likely to be their most significant and influential relationships in the school. Schools might ask how these powerful relationships might be harnessed as part of the Christian mission of the school. The chaplain may seek to equip teachers and other staff to be nurturers of faith and role models of spiritual exploration. Even non-Christian teachers can play a role in encouraging openness and spiritual exploration. Chaplains have a really important relational role in Anglican Schools and strategically we might ask how more people can become ‘chaplain-like’ in the school.
One of the most powerful tools that schools have at their disposal for the positive development of young people is time. While not all students will stay in the one school for thirteen years most will be in the one place for significant periods. That students spend most days of most weeks of these years in the one community means that small things can be very powerful. A prayer said every day for a year can remain with a person for life becoming a resource to draw on in times of need. Stories told and retold across the year or years can become part of the way people think about life. Time and repetition can be powerful influencers particularly if students see value in the activity. Prayers, stillness, reflection on values and other simple small practices that aren’t considered an imposition by the student and are presented as part of the culture of the school can have a considerable cumulative impact. Thinking strategically, schools might ask themselves how time can be used in a daily or regular way to open students to positive faith practices. Questions might also be asked around how time is used in relation to chapel, RE and service to build on the work that is done each year of school. Time should be seen as a significant tool and best utilised by acting strategically in the faith domain over the long period of a student’s life at school.
Experiences beyond the pond
A story is told of a baby fish that asks: Mother, what is this thing I keep hearing about water? The Mother says: if you want to know what water is, go and stick your head out of the pond. Often our worldview and presuppositions about life are quite invisible to us until we stick our head out of our cultural pond. Experiences that let young people step out of their pond and reflect deeply seem to enable them more clarity and freedom to make choices about what they want their life to be. The prime example of this type of experience is the overseas cultural exchange trip. In terms of tools for faith development these types of experiences are powerful and therefore need to be done carefully and with subsequent ongoing support.
While it may be impossible for schools to send every student overseas it is possible to provide them with experiences for reflection that help them to step back from daily life. Short camps or retreats can have such an effect if led well. Experiences of working with communities of difference within Australia can also enable student insight. The key is the change of perspective which is why even going bush or beach for a few days can make a difference.
Anglican Schools are in a new time and space for mission and ministry. Increasingly, missional imagination is needed to engage young people with faith on the same level as previous generations. While innovative strategies are emerging across Australia the elements of relationships, time and experience should be considered, not only for new strategies but for existing ones as well.
[This article was written for and appeared first in ASA News December 2017]