Dr. Bryan Smith
The modern Christian school movement (in America at least) started in the late 1960s. It began with high hopes. “We will teach our children the Bible every day,” early proponents announced, “and by the time they enter adulthood, they’ll know the Bible better than any generation since the beginning of the Christian church.” It didn’t happen. Why? For one thing, this was a superlative promise, and superlative promises are rarely kept. But there’s another reason: the movement lacked the vision needed to deliver on the promise.
By the time the Christian school movement was off the ground, many were succumbing to defective reasoning. Concerned that students might view Bible as “just another subject,” administrators stripped Bible classes of any significant academic requirements. Tests, if required at all, needed to be easy. Teachers were sought for their ability to relate to students, not for their skill in the Scriptures. The days of instruction for Bible were reduced, only two days a week in some schools. By the 1980s and 90s, many schools had no overarching plan (K-12) for their Bible instruction, few (or no) qualified teachers to do the instruction, and few assessments. In other words, they were teaching Bible as they would never teach math, history, English, or science.
What was the result? Schools were graduating students who didn’t know what they believed. By the early 2000s, administrators often lamented that their graduates were easy prey for the unbelief of our age.
But there was healing in those laments. Many began to put together a plan for solid Bible education. Over the past several years, I’ve been encouraged to see a number of schools turn their Bible programs around.
With the remainder of this article, I’d like to offer some advice to those who are trying to do the same. Here are three essential marks of a solid program of Bible education.
The teaching of Bible should be characterized by academic rigor. I’m not saying that we need to make Bible as difficult as it can possibly be. By academic rigor, I mean instruction that is carefully planned and appropriately challenging. A Bible program has the right kind of academic rigor if it has three characteristics.
First, it needs to cover the entire Bible. I know the book of Proverbs was written with young people in mind, but that doesn’t mean students should study that book for five years straight. Paul was committed to teaching “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and so should we. By the time students complete the 12th grade, they should have been exposed to every part of the Bible and every part of biblical teaching.
Second, a solid Bible program should be grade-level appropriate. First-grade students should not be required to tackle 12th-grade questions; neither should a high school student be given assessments that belong in elementary school. The plan for grade-level appropriateness we are following at BJU Press has students memorizing a catechism in the lower grades, surveying the Old and New Testaments in the middle grades, and in the upper grades studying Bible doctrines, ethics, and a critical examination of world religions. Each level is well-structured and appropriately challenging for the students.
Third, the Bible should be taught in a way that develops critical thinking. It’s not enough for students to memorize verses. They need to know what those verses mean, and they need to know how to use those verses in real-life situations. Students need to be able to analyze the difficult ethical issues they will face in life. They need to be able to figure out what’s wrong with faulty doctrinal claims. And they need to know how to defend their faith.
Some see the importance of critical thinking in science and history but doubt it’s necessary in Bible class. But what’s more important: being able to defend your analysis of the Great Depression or being able to defend the claims of Scripture? Both are important, of course, but the latter is far more important. This ability, however, will not develop without an academically rigorous Bible education.
A solid Bible program focuses on biblical worldview formation. A worldview is a set of basic beliefs and values that arise from one’s orienting narrative. We all have an orienting narrative—a story playing in our head, helping us navigate the challenges and questions of life. A Christian should derive his orienting narrative from the storyline of Scripture, and he should develop his beliefs and values from that storyline.
The Bible should be taught in a way that emphasizes the Scripture’s overarching narrative. Teachers should present that narrative clearly and never let the students lose sight of it. Students shouldn’t learn about David and Goliath in isolation. They should learn to connect that famous event to the overarching “one story” of Scripture. Students should also be taught to use that “one story” to analyze and evaluate the controversies of our day—gender identity, pop culture, the role of science and technology in our lives. As students come to see all things from the perspective of the Bible’s story, they develop biblical wisdom for life.
Finally, a solid Bible program must aim for student transformation. Our goal is not to produce young people who know the Bible but live for themselves. Our goal is to see students become devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Of course, only God can make this happen. Nevertheless, we—parents, teachers, and administrators—are responsible for being appropriate tools in God’s hands.
What are we responsible to do? We ought to teach with academic rigor and worldview formation, all the while impressing on students that the Bible is meant to change us. We do this by being transparent with our young people, admitting that we too have struggles and are, by the grace of God, being changed into the image of His Son. We also do this by repeatedly asking students how they plan to respond to the challenges and the grace that confront us on every page of Scripture. We do this, finally, by getting students involved in the disciplines of godliness—prayer, Bible reading, journaling, evangelism, ministry—in the hope that the Spirit of God will make these disciplines life-long habits.
Recently, I was dismayed to read a post by Tim Challies, a well-known Christian blogger. He confessed that he was coming to the conclusion that Christian education was not very important. He argued that, in his own experience, Christian young people who go to a Christian school for twelve or thirteen years turn out the same as those who go to a public school.1
I have two responses. First, Challies’s argument is based on anecdotal evidence, and something this important (how we raise our children) should be based on careful statistical analysis. What sort of Christian schools does he have experience with? Do they have solid Bible programs? And that leads me to my second response: Christian schools that do not take Bible education seriously will fail to deliver on their promises. A quasi-Christian school is not much better than a public school. In fact, in some ways, it’s worse. So, it’s no surprise to me that Challies finds some Christian schools to be ineffective. But that does not mean Christian education must always be ineffective. A Christian school that follows the Lord’s leading and maintains a solid Bible program will produce a different kind of person than the public school system. The Word of God bears fruit (Isa 55:11; Matt 13:18-23). If we sow it in faith, we will reap a glorious harvest.
Dr. Bryan Smith has worked in Christian education for over twenty years. He has been a classroom teacher as well as a textbook author. Currently, he serves at BJU Press as the Bible Integration Senior Manager. In this position, he assists authors and teachers in the work of integrating faith and learning in the classroom. Bryan holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation. He and his wife, Becky, have six children.
1. Tim Challies, “What If God Doesn’t Care a Whole Lot about How You Educate Your Children?,” Challies, October 4, 2019, https://www.challies.com/articles/what-if-god-doesnt-care-a-whole-lot-about-how-you-educate-your-children.