School new launch pad for mission

A significant shift seems to have taken place in Anglican Schools in Australia over the last twenty or so years. The shift is around the focus of the Christian mission of the school, specifically the educative and evangelistic functions.

Traditionally the chaplain was there in a pastoral sense for the whole community – students, staff, families, and they were there in a missional and educative sense for the students. No doubt there was some degree of mission focus on families and staff but it doesn’t seem to have been a major consideration.

In the last twenty years or more the focus of mission has shifted or expanded from students to include staff. This is a very important shift and may have occurred for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is that the school, as a place for mission, has come in to sharper focus in the eyes of the church. There is a greater recognition that many teachers in Anglican Schools are not actively engaged with a church or have much Christian knowledge. They therefore require education about the Christian faith in order to be part of the mission of the school. In Brisbane evidence of this can be seen in the Formative Anglican Induction for School Staff (FAISS) program that was developed in 2006 and in current professional development programs. Similar professional development programs are also run in other Dioceses. In some places, including Brisbane, the development of retreats, Christian courses and spiritual formation programs for staff are also underway.

Developing teachers personally and professionally in this area is important and strategic because they are by all accounts the ones who are most influential in the lives of students. This statement is not meant to devalue chaplains but the reality is that in many schools there is one chaplain for a thousand or more students. With this kind of ratio the depth of relationship developed with the majority of students is going to be limited. Time and depth of relationship matter in development that has a social element,and this is true for development of the Christian faith. Some teachers will have an ongoing interaction with students over many years, some will be in class with them every day. This time enables a quality of relationship that is highly beneficial for role modelling and mentoring.

This daily relational engagement has the potential to unlock faith for students. If we want to influence the spiritual lives of students in the school it is through these relationships that it is most likely to occur. There are a whole range of implications for Anglican Schools in accepting this. The development of staff is just one of them. The spin-off of this increased missional education and engagement with staff is that anecdotally it appears we are beginning to see more staff being baptised, confirmed and received into the Anglican Church.

The teacher/student relationship is powerful but in terms of being influential for faith development it pales in comparison to that of the parent/child relationship. Research in Australia and overseas shows that parental influences are the most significant. In 2004 the National Church Life Survey released an occasional paper titled ‘Social Influences upon Faith Development’. The research sought to discover the activities and people that were significant in the development of faith among Anglican and Protestant church attenders. The results were interesting to say the least.

Over 70% of Anglican & Protestant Believers became Christians before age 20.

39% before age 10

34% between 10-19 years

Responders overwhelmingly cited that it was their parent’s faith in God (68%) and how they lived out their faith (53%) that influenced them the most.

This and other research should alert us that if we are to influence young people in Anglican Schools towards the Christian faith we must also influence their families. Encouragingly there seems to be a shift towards this happening right now. We see this trend emerging in the employment of community chaplains, in the increase in the number of churches being planted in the school and in the increasing number of projects focussing on supporting families connected to the school community.

Schools have the potential to play a big role in encouraging and supporting family faith development. The best case scenario might be for the local church to enter into a partnership with the school. There is however a significant challenge to this whole enterprise. In fact three that I can see: institutional individualisation, socialisation of reproduction and work/life balance.

Institutional Individualisation

Traditional social institutions like family, gender and class, that once provided the script for living and governed behaviour have lost much of their prescriptive power. Individuals therefore have to work it out for themselves. Families confronted with a host of decisions may struggle to do anything intentional. Schools could play a significant role in helping families think about how they may develop their family life and develop their children’s faith life at the same time. My guess is that many families at the lower end of the school with young children might be open to this.

 Socialisation of Reproduction

This ha been going on since the industrial revolution. Instead of parents taking on the role of reproducing their own way of life and vales in their children they have handed it over to others. This includes to the school for education, and to the church for faith development. In effect they are handing over responsibilities that once were theirs to other institutions. We see this in the way that schools are expected to teach all kinds of things today such as manners, safety and hygiene. It will be a challenge for schools to try to redirect some of this responsibility, especially due to the third issue.

Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance is an issue. There have been a number of Federal and State Government investigations into it in the last ten or so years. Families struggle to find time. What more needs to be said. There is an opportunity here for Anglican Schools to do something radical. Toss out the homework and turn it into family time. Give families a format for family time and resource them to develop family rituals that might include Bible and prayer.

Schools have an amazing missional opportunity in front of them. It won’t be easy and the resources are probably not there at the moment. But imagine if church and school could work together to connect with families and help them do life in new and meaningful ways. There is so much potential in the school becoming the launch pad for mission in the 21st century.

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