Book Review by John Shortt
The London Institute of Contemporary Christianity was founded in 1982 by Dr John Stott. Its aim is to make whole-life discipleship a central component of church culture in the UK, thereby equipping ‘ordinary’ Christians to live and share the gospel in the everyday world in which they live and work. (Further details of its work and the many very helpful resources available from the Institute can be found on its website at www.licc.org.uk.)
Supporting Christians in Education is one of the Institute’s most recent publications. Written by Dr Trevor Cooling of the Transforming Lives Project (www.transforminglives.org.uk) along with Dr Mark Greene, the Director of the Institute, this slender 42-page booklet sets out a big vision for Christian involvement in education and is packed from cover to cover with encouragement and practical ideas for church leaders, youth workers, teachers and parents.
The book begins with an introductory chapter written in his inimitable style by Mark Greene in which he talks about the divide between sacred and secular that hinders Christian churches in fulfilling their mission to the world. He writes, “The question for church communities, church leaders and people should be not only, ‘How can this person serve in the church’, but also, ‘How does God want to use this person in all of their life?’” (p. 6)
Trevor Cooling then takes over the pen and begins to work out what this can mean in the context of schools. In chapter 2, he looks first at the ideological context and he argues that, notwithstanding the fact that, in some ways, Christianity is flourishing in education, “the dominant ideology is secular, which, though it may welcome the moral and social benefits of the Christian life, certainly doesn’t accept the doctrines that give rise to them” (p. 9). In the face of this secularism, Christian teachers and students need to be aware of how it can shape their own thinking too and to seek to be faithful in an alien context as Daniel was.
In chapter 3, Trevor Cooling turns to the pastoral context and he opens with the brief but telling statement that “These are tough times to be a child in Britain” (p. 11). I should say at this point that, although this booklet is written for the British context, I believe that what it says is true in a measure of countries all across Europe and, sadly, increasingly so. Churches need to support Christian children and young people as they grow up in “a culture that generates high levels of stress and anxiety” (p. 11). Teachers too face increasing pressures: more work and higher targets, lack of respect and, sadly, very sadly, lack of understanding and support for their front-line mission from their churches. In the face of these pressures, children and teachers need not only to survive but to move onto the front foot with a positive vision for their role in schools.
Chapter 4 provides an excellent summary of a Christian perspective on the curriculum, showing with many examples, that it is not neutral. The chapter concludes with a brief section on the difference between being distinctively Christian and uniquely Christian. “What makes an approach distinctively Christian is that the teacher or student consciously sets the subject within a framework of ideas derived from the Christian faith” (p. 19) We may have much in common with others who are not Christian but it matters more that we are being faithful than that we are being different.
Chapter 5 tackles the issue of how we are to engage with the religious diversity of our contemporary culture. Trevor Cooling outlines three key strategies: advocating shared values that promote the common good, engaging in dialogue with those of other faiths, and encouraging a distinctive Christian witness. We can be both determined to witness to the truth of our faith and, at the same time, treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.
Chapter 6 is about how churches can support students in schools, colleges and universities and opens with the oft-quoted but very relevant African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child” (p. 24). Detailed practical advice is given on choosing a school, college or university and on how a church community can create an environment in which Christian learning flourishes.
Chapter 7 turns to how churches can support teachers and there are sections on how to create “a learner-centred church” (p. 27), “promote Bible understanding, not simply Bible knowledge” (p.27), “create a context to tackle key issues facing teachers today” (p. 28), and “treat your teachers as mission partners” (p. 28).
Chapter 8 contains five short “good news stories about Christians supporting education” which all come from the English town of Cheltenham where Trevor Cooling lives. Chapter 9 provides suggestions of strategic actions to support Christians in education (these are in addition to the many suggestions already provided in chapters 6 and 7.
Chapter 10 tells “Terry’s Tale”, a true story of Terry, a headteacher who turned a failing secondary school into a successful one. How did this miracle happen? According to Terry, the secret is “principles lived out” and he goes on to say,
“When I first arrived at Bishop Bell School, the children would say to me ‘We’re rubbish. The school is rubbish. Everyone thinks the school is rubbish!’ But as a Christian I believe we are all of supreme value, and that became one of the planks of our mission statement.”
The book concludes with a very helpful list of resources including books on education and on ‘whole-life discipleship’ and of Christian organisations involved in education (including EurECA!). There are also two questionnaires that churches can use to help them (i) to find out about their members’ involvement in education and (ii) to improve the teaching and learning that they experience in church and in the whole of their lives.
At a price of 5 GBP (plus postage and packing), Supporting Christians in Education is available from either the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (http://www.licc.org.uk/bookshop/booklets) or the Stapleford Centre (http://www.stapleford-centre.org/bookshop/).
Although written for the British context, I wholeheartedly recommend this booklet for Christians involved in education in any country in Europe. It throbs with a positive vision for Christian involvement in education which moves to the front foot instead of focussing on mere survival in a hostile environment. It contains true everyday stories that will inspire that vision and practical suggestions of ideas and strategies that will help to put it into effect. The chapter on the curriculum is a gem. And, unlike many books written for Christians in education, it breathes with a concern to see school from the point of view of children and young people.
One last thing: You may be wondering why there is an apple on the cover of the booklet. ‘An apple for teacher’ is a common expression in English because, in olden days, it was a traditional present from a child to their teacher!