Growing up, I was the kid who was at church “every time the doors were opened.” Since my Christian school was a ministry of our church, my school and church schedules never conflicted, and I never had to choose between two masters. Wednesdays were “no homework nights” because everyone was expected to be at the mid-week services. The family schedule deferred to the church calendar, meaning that Sunday worship, mid-week services, and volunteer service in ministries were non-negotiables. Twenty-five years later, however, most Christian classical schools and homeschool groups are not affiliated with a particular church or denomination, forcing families to choose between the two. Add to the struggle an inscrutable nexus of events on the school calendar for each child, and the result is that the school has replaced the church as the center of the family’s life.
And who’s blaming them? Children who grow up in church, even those who attend Sunday School and youth group faithfully, will likely go to college and find themselves biblically illiterate. At the classical school, on the other hand, a child can learn a good catechism, study the Bible on a timeline, read the church fathers, and practice apologetics. Instead of “Father Abraham” and “Oceans,” students learn to sing ancient hymns in Latin. Why would anyone miss the parent book club featuring The Abolition of Man to attend their church group currently reading It’s OK Not to Be OK? Who wouldn’t travel to Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb to escape that annual trip to Sight and Sound?
I once left a faculty Christmas party in Manhattan to attend a weekly prayer meeting where I listened to graphic details of strange illnesses and for the first time seriously questioned why I had married a pastor. Later, when I had to leave the classroom to make more time for my responsibilities at church, I stoically resigned myself to work that was thankless and frustrating, for instead of serving people who paid me to teach their children five days a week, I’d be volunteering to help people who couldn’t arrive on time once a week, if they bothered to show up at all.
Faced with putting my heart into aimless projects with dubious results, I had to rethink the place of the church in my own family’s life. How much time did I owe the church? How much study time should my children sacrifice when college applications were on the horizon? What I discovered is that, yes, the church is flawed, and that immediate returns on investments are low. Christ’s imperatives to prioritize the church, however, remain. The New Testament calls to community are not really about bonfires and art shows; they’re about sacrificing and submitting to a group of people who have covenanted together in specific ways prescribed in the Scriptures. The virtuous life lauded by the classical school can’t be lived apart from that community.
If what happens on Sunday is not the most important thing that happens all week, then teaching classically throughout the week is pointless. Our entire project hangs on the belief that God is truth and that he has spoken. If we don’t believe this, then we’re living in the Enlightenment dream that we can use our reason without God and without his blessing. If Sunday is not a glad acknowledgment of Christ’s lordship over the earth, then classical education will follow the path of conventional education, becoming analytical, utilitarian, and unenchanted.
In a classical school, we ask students to submit to the authority of the great tradition, but that tradition doesn’t have any authority if it is not derived from God’s revealed Word. On Sunday, members of our multi-ethnic Brooklyn church read the Scriptures in a variety of charming accents and end with the phrase, “This is the Word of the Lord.” This is the Word of the Lord! We stop our work and leave our entertainments because we must hear the Word of the Lord. If we model to students that faithful Sunday worship is good, but optional, then we can’t justify asking them to submit to Augustine, or Milton, or ourselves. We, too, must be as the Roman centurion, men and women, teachers, parents, who are under authority.
Just being under the authority of any church, however, isn’t good enough. By giving extra credit to students who turned in their sermon notes on Monday morning, I learned a lot about my students’ church-going habits, namely that it’s possible for some churches to undermine a classical education. The student who is entertained on Sunday isn’t ready to contemplate on Monday. The student who hears only self-help sermons will flip through Dante looking for personal, real-world applications, and the student who is told that grace is messy will not understand why he has to keep his hair and locker in order.
It’s easy to roast the church, but we need to realize that if we are the church, then we are the problem. Perhaps the reason for the shallowness at church is that the most committed and mature are using their talents elsewhere. If we have learned anything of truth, goodness, and beauty at our schools, then surely we have something to contribute in our churches. Instead of abandoning our churches, we can be leaders and serve them, using our ideals to reform Sunday School, discipleship, worship, and evangelism. David Hicks asks us to consider why our brightest students are the least humble, and I think a fair application for us is to consider why our best and brightest are not turning their attention to their churches.
When the Israelites returned home from captivity, they got busy building homes and vineyards, but they neglected the house of God. When the prophet Haggai points out their mistake, they repent, and God blesses. We have been very busy building schools and educating our children. If want God’s continued blessing, then we would be careful not to neglect worshiping and laboring in the house of God.