The Integration of Church and School
The impact of educational choices on the life and witness of the local church
“A lot of people see us as a home-school church.”
I was surprised when one of our leaders said that just a few weeks after our family came to Atlantic (Iowa) EFC. That label had not occurred to me during the call process. Yes, I had noticed that a handful of families were committed to home-schooling. But I had also noticed that most of our families attended public schools, and that our congregation included several public-school teachers and administrators.
Yet, over the next several months, I found that my friend had a point. At least some people, both inside and outside our congregation, did in fact think of our church as a “home-school church”—a reputation that was viewed positively by some in our community, but negatively by others.
While home-schoolers are still a minority in the United States (approximately 3.4 percent of school-aged children are educated at home1), the movement has grown steadily. And a majority of those who home school do so for moral and religious reasons. For example, in one 2012 study,2 64 percent of home-school parents said that a desire to provide religious instruction to their children was an important reason for their choice. In that same study, 77 percent said that a desire to provide moral education was an important reason.
While Muslims and Jews account for a portion of this population, the majority of values-based home-schoolers are coming from a conservative Christian perspective.3
It is therefore not at all unusual for an evangelical church to have public-school families, home-school families and private-school families all worshipping and serving together in the same congregation. This educational diversity can, of course, be a strength. But at the same time, it can create two problems that church leaders need to guard against.
The first problem is the danger of disunity within the church. Most parents are passionate about their children’s education, whichever option they pursue. If we’re not careful to guard our hearts and words, that passion can easily degenerate into criticism and judgmentalism. As I spoke about this potential danger with pastors in my community and other EFCA pastors, two steps stood out:
First, lead from the pulpit. The attitude of a church’s pastor may well be the single biggest influence on the atmosphere within that church.True, pastors and leaders who home school their own children tend to attract families who also home school. Yet if parents are publicly supported in whichever option they pursue, the church will enjoy unity in the midst of diversity.
“From the pulpit, I never favor or endorse any of those [educational] options,” confirms Scott Hatton, senior pastor of First EFC of Fort Dodge, Iowa. “Partially because our family has utilized all three.”
Mike Eells, a TEDS graduate and pastor of the Atlantic Gospel Chapel, recently preached a whole sermon series on unity in which he stressed the distinction between essentials and nonessentials. In that series, he intentionally addressed educational diversity as one of those issues where believers should agree to disagree.
Second, be balanced. Church leaders must intentionally treat the different educational options with evenhandedness and respect. Whether it’s back-to-school time or graduation season, promote unity by simply acknowledging the variety of options.
“We intentionally celebrate all three approaches,” says Dave MacKinnon, senior pastor of Westchester EFC in Des Moines, Iowa. “It does get complicated at times, because [different groups] can become quite passionate about what they do. But for the most part we have found a sweet place of peace between them all.”
Greg Braly, pastor of family and children at New Hope Church (EFCA) in Minnesota, agrees: “We have not allowed superiority attitudes to develop. It takes intentionality and a willingness to address those attitudes when they do arise.”
“We strive to be pro-kids, wherever they are being educated,” adds Guy Fisher, lead pastor at First Assembly in Atlantic.
A second problem that educational diversity can lead to in our churches is disengagement from the community of which the church is a part. If a church is perceived as being opposed to public schools, for example, they are going to have a hard time reaching families that attend public school. The same is true if a church favors public-school families to the exclusion of home-schoolers, or is perceived as being so committed to a private school that it does not care about the rest of the community.
The church I lead has been especially interested in avoiding this danger. Atlantic, Iowa, is a close-knit agricultural town of about 7,000 people, and our public school is in many ways the epicenter. We see it as essential for our witness, therefore, that our reputation as a home-school church not lead to disengagement from the broader community.
As I talked with other church leaders, there was one overriding piece of advice: The most important way to keep educational preferences from leading to disengagement is to stay focused on the mission of Jesus. Jesus commands us to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16) and to make disciples among all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). These mandates certainly include our public schools.
“Building bridges to the public-school community is key to our mission,” says Jim Levitt, pastor of teaching and discipleship at Harvest EFC in Story City, Iowa. “For about half of our life, we worshipped in two of our local public schools. The church worked hard to develop a quality relationship. Even now, more than a decade later, we host an annual banquet at our expense for anyone who works in our public-school system.”
Scott Hatton also strives to keep his Fort Dodge church focused on Jesus’ mission when it comes to this issue. “I never rip on the ‘godlessness’ or ‘immorality’ of our public schools,” he explains, “because there are teachers and administrators in front of me! I know these people and I know where their hearts are, and I’m glad they are impacting our community.”
The variety of educational choices available today means even greater opportunity for our witness. We simply need to be intentional in our role as church leaders to lead by example—building unity within this diversity, and staying focused on our mission to be salt and light in our cities, towns and neighborhoods.
Youth Groups and the Home-School/Public-School Debate
Hey, EFCA youth leaders: How have you seen the diversity of educational choices affecting your ministries? What challenges does that diversity bring? How do you ensure unity? Add a comment below.