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The mission of Adventist education

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Archives / 1990 / June



The mission of Adventist education

George H. Akers

George H. Akers, Ed. D., is director of the Education Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


The problem with most mission statements is that they are written in the "is" mode, the descriptive. But the whole intent of writing a mission statement is to focus on the "ought," which is prescriptive. So the primary question to be addressed is not "What is it that we traditionally do?" but rather "What is it that we ought to be doing to accomplish our objectives?"

Like chart and compass, mission statements are indispensable in helping us determine if the winds and tides of time have blown us off course. And more important, to prompt us to action, to make mid-course correctional maneuvers when they are needed.

This article is unapologetically written in the ought mode. Enunciators of mission are vulnerable, easily tagged by the front-line soldiers as romantic visionaries who are out of touch with the realities of the current battle. I hope, though, that this partial recital of bedrock commitments in Adventist education can help us refresh the vision together.

Ideally, a mission statement should be condensed to one or two short declarative sentences, or at most to a brief paragraph. I have had to struggle to achieve the brevity and clarity necessary to capture in so few words the Seventh-day Adventist mission in education. Our philosophy of education is comprehensive and complex and doesn't easily yield to the forces of super-reductionism. I am well aware, too, that oversimplification is dangerous because so many subtle and necessary nuances can fall through the cracks. But here goes:

The primary mission of a Christian school is to produce Christians and in our case Christians who are thoroughly grounded in historic Adventism.

Second, it endeavors to provide our children and youth with quality basic education so that they might effectively cope with their world.

At the college and university level, it undertakes to prepare professionals for service to the world church.

Administrators of Christian schools face the great challenge of ensuring that the mission priorities stay in that order. If we fail here, the creeping secularism and humanistic relativism of our times will swamp us. It is not easy to keep a school theocentric these days. It takes real effort by everyone involved with the institution—faculty, staff, board, and parents. Without constant reflection on and evaluation of our mission, Adventist education will fall into that almost incurable malady called institutional drift.

The true measure of a school

The real measure of a school is what is happening to students there. That is, what kind of mind-set is the total press of the institution developing in its students? One that is selfish, secular, and materialistic? Or one that is deeply spiritual centered on God? Are the students coming out of the place committed to selfless service to their fellowman and extending God's kingdom on earth, or are they just looking out for "number one" ? One doesn't need a Ph. D. in institutional analysis to find the answer to these questions.

A recent article by R. C. Sproul in Christianity Today echoed my concern in its title, "You Can't Always Tell a Christian College by Its Label." Students spend half their time inside classrooms, and what goes on in a Christian school's classrooms has to be qualitatively different from what happens at a good private or pub lie school or the school is not really Christian. But it is not only the in-class perspectives that we must look at. The cocurricular activities are important too: the campus values, student heroes, and a multitude of other influences combine to mold the students' general outlook. In his article Sproul says that the most important question we can ask about the place is whether the students emerge from it with a Christian world view the ability to see everything from heaven's point of view. Everything else is mere scaffolding and props. This is why we are told that the work of redemption and education are one. The apostle Paul surely must have had this in mind when he appealed to the church at Rome to permit God to completely transform their whole outlook, so that they could begin to see things as God does (see Rom. 12:1).

This is indeed a tall order, but in the final analysis the overall purpose of our Adventist schools, from kindergarten through graduate school, is to give our young people a distinctly Bible-based, Christ-centered worldview to teach them to "think Christian," if you please. And that mission certainly includes in stilling in them the vision of a finished work of God on earth, and calling to each student to respond personally to the gospel commission.

Our people have their antennas out, and they instinctively recognize whether our schools are fulfilling their mission with respect to making Christians. Consequently they expect that everything in the Adventist school should be focused on that overall objective. They know when a school has drifted off course or has selected another agenda. And it is they in the end who write Ichabod over the doorposts of a spiritually effete school.

Sensing this responsibility keenly, our deeply committed Christian administrators and teachers labor prayerfully to prove worthy of the sacred trust. They certainly deserve our support and words of encouragement. Have you hugged a teacher lately? Or in your personal devotions prayed earnestly for one?

A blurred conceptual model

Too many Christian educators, I fear, believe that a good Christian school is essentially the same as a good secular school except for certain influences in the environment. To them it is the social context, the religious add-ons in structured campus life, such as Bible classes and required religious services, that give the institution its Christian influence. This approach reduces Christian education to mere social engineering and fails to get to the heart of things education ally. Worse yet, it bifurcates a school, partitioning it unnaturally between the secular and sacred. This sends a false message to students, denying the integrated wholeness of all life under God. If schools can be divided and managed that way, so can individual lives, and students don't miss that not-so-subtle lesson. Such a ruptured campus scenario produces six-day secular Christians who have developed the fine art of playing church one day a week.

Partitioning religion off into one corner has a negative impact on faculty as well. It gives the impression that some of the faculty may be excused from being true ministers of education. It places responsibility for the spiritual nurture of students on a specialized segment of the staff—the dorm deans, religion professors, and chaplains.

A partitioned campus does not fulfill the real mission of Adventist education. All of our teachers need to be involved in the spiritual guidance and development of their students, utilizing every opportunity, both in and out of the classroom, to nurture the faith life of their young charges. Christian teachers are in the inspiration business as much as or more than the information business. This is essential to the accomplishment of education's sacred mission to turn on lamps for God.

So we are quite fussy about the caliber of people we permit to teach in our schools. They are modeling the gospel at close range before callow, impression able youth. We are well aware that we are dealing in soul stuff when we select teachers, and that we dare not be casual.

Knowing, doing, and being

Every school, or school system, revolves around one or two, or at most a few, central organizing principles. Discover these tent-pole tenets and you know what makes the whole place tick. If I were to choose a conceptual model for education in general, it would probably be an ellipse built around two organizing centers: knowing and doing. These two principles seem to hold all conventional schools together and focus them on their mission.

In a typical secular school the Siamese twins of educational purpose, knowing and doing, are very evident. After all, coming to know is what schools are all about, isn't it? One goes to school to learn something, to gain useful information for coping with life, and hopefully along the way to gain an appreciation for the world's cultural legacy. The doing embraces the acquisition of skills necessary for survival in today's world. This, then, is the straightforward mission of a secular school: to insure that its students acquire both knowledge and skills for coping with life.

Who could argue with these relevant, laudable goals? They are educationally sound, right on target, as far as they go. But are they complete? More and more Americans are answering "No," There is a deepening disillusionment with their public schools. They sense that some thing vital is missing, that the American dream in education has gone sour. Just learning information and acquiring job skills is not enough; there must be more, much more.

Let us acknowledge quickly that Adventist education certainly embraces the ideals of knowing and doing. But the knowing and doing of Christian education extends upward to a special kind of knowing: that of knowing God person ally, coming into a saving relationship with Him, and knowing that He can be trusted to guide and keep us. It also includes knowing about God's reasonable expectations for our participation in the divine-human partnership for salvation, and knowing about the supernatural assistance available to ready us for graduation from earth school to the school of the hereafter.

Christian education has its own brand of doing too: students should learn to do the Master's work and get practice in helping God to extend His kingdom on earth. They should learn to serve man kind selflessly and to live totally for God's glory. Adventist schools, then, are also assayed in terms of the extent to which their special genre of knowing and doing is accomplished.

Christian character development

But Christian education has a third ideal: that of being. Although implied in the religious faith/experience cited above, yet it is singled out for special attention in the school program. With this as the final complement, you might say that the tent of Adventist education has three poles: being, knowing, and doing.

What we're talking about here is a primary emphasis on Christian character development in every facet of the pro gram of the Adventist Christian school. We extol it, study it, reward it. It might not be too strong to assert that this is the very cornerstone of Adventist education, captured best in the slogan "Character Determines Destiny."

Mission statements for good secular schools often focus on the marketplace, "the good life," or admission to graduate school. We don't deny these as legitimate goals, but our educational mission is for our students to end up at the New Jerusalem, with admission to the heavenly school, with Christ and the angels as their tutors, to grow and learn forever. That's the cosmic dimension in curriculum planning. And that third dimension, being expressed in Adventist Christian education as conscious, focused attention to the developing spiritual personhood of the student, is what sets our schools apart in the whole field of education. The lack of commitment to this crucial area has left secular education adrift without moral compass.

Because character development is so important, every level of Adventist education is designed to foster it. It is the bottom line in the Adventist educational balance sheet. This emphasis is absolutely central to the accomplishment of the Adventist mission in education. And this brings us to the mighty triad in Adventist education: the cooperation of home, school, and church in training our children for God.

The great partnership Adventist education can never accomplish its mission if the professional educators work in isolation. Home and congregation must be powerfully involved also. Trying to determine which of those three critical components is the most important is like trying to choose which leg on a three-legged stool is indispensable!

If the family's lifestyle is worldly (particularly with respect to unregulated television viewing), the children and youth who attend church school are thrown into spiritual chaos. They find them selves living in two different worlds, each with its own value system. This produces a state of suspension and internal conflict. Many of them do not survive this battle, becoming mere numbers in the church's youth attrition statistics.

Some Christian schools are so earnest about addressing the dysfunction be tween the nominally Christian home and its church school that the pastor and church school teacher visit each home together just before the school year starts. They have the parents sign an agreement, in the presence of the prospective student or students, about home-school cooperation. The agreement obligates the family to support the values and lifestyle requirements of the school in regard to dress, music, drugs, television viewing, and other influences. This procedure makes it abundantly clear that it is the whole family that is being registered into the school. The family enters into a contractual recognition that involves all of them in fulfilling the mission of Christian education.

Children and youth need to know that they belong, that their church family prizes and dearly loves them, that they are truly in the house of sympathetic friends, not harsh critics. It encourages them to know that their Christian education is a responsibility with which the whole church identifies. It brings heart to struggling parents, too. And in this Year of the Adventist Teacher, the slogan "Partners in Service" takes on special meaning as pastors and teachers team up together to minister to the lambs of the flock. As home and church and school pull together, the enemy finds little area in which to work, and God fulfills His special promise to us, "I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children" (Isa. 49:25).

Soon we shall hear the sweet words of commendation from the Saviour, "Well done. The precious jewels, the little ones I entrusted to you, are all in my eternal diadem; mission accomplished!"

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