An American idol

One of the idols in American culture that we must constantly battle is the pre-occupation with measuring worth by whether institutions are growing or not. In our conversations we are immediately impressed by a school’s numerical growth, but do not go on to ask whether the result produced is high quality. Why when we consider education do we put a value on the quantity of students served, but not as much on the quality side? Is it simply because the quantity is easier to count and evaluate than measuring whether we are meeting our mission in qualitative ways?

If Jesus measured his ministry by our numbers standard, he certainly would have felt like a failure – in the end the huge crowds dwindled down to a small band of sleepy disciples who fled or denied him. If Jesus had been about the numbers he certainly could have worked 24/7 – yet he rested in being obedient to his Father. He did not see a quantitative result in his lifetime here on earth. Yet we buy into the North American success model in both our schools and our churches. We so much want to rest in our own hard work and accomplishments – to hear the comment, “Well they must be doing something right over there!”

Since our schools and our churches are so connected, it may be instructive to consider what one observer of church life has to say about the modern definition of success.David Fitch, in his book The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism and Other Modern Maladies (Baker, 2005), lists several problems with how we define success. He raises several thought provoking questions in a chapter subtitled: “When Going from Ten to a Thousand Members in Five Years is the Sign of a Sick Church” (27-46):

  • Do numbers reveal if a church is functioning as the body of Christ?
  • What is the size of the actual functioning body?
  • Is our focus on numbers rooted in our sacred cows such as the autonomy of the individual and our organizing for economic efficiency? In other words, “How can we best organize to produce the largest amount of decisions (for Christ) and the best quality of services for Christian growth most economically and efficiently to the largest number in this geographical location?”
  • Do decisions (for Christ) count where there is no sanctification?
  • Is salvation preached as more than “as a personal ticket out of hell but as the entrance into the reality of the lordship of Jesus Christ where God is working to bring about his kingdom?”
  • How could we use qualitative measures of community and ministry such as saved marriages, reaching out to the poor, restoration from drugs and alcohol, amounts of giving, inviting in the stranger, etc.?
  • Why is it that pastors of large churches are more willing to build bigger building than empower a group of forty to fifty people to plant another living body of Christ?

What can we learn from Fitch’s questions about churches when applied to our schools?

What questions should we be discussing about the decline or growth of Christian schools?

Should we be more concerned about, and put more energy into, planting new Christian schools than growing our current ones?


Filed under book, distinctively Christian, mission development, student outcomes

6 responses to “An American idol

  1. Dan has listed intriguing questions, including “Why when we consider education do we put a value on the quantity of students served, but not as much on the quality side?”

    If we want to emphasize “quality,” we need to define quality. To define quality, we need to get answers to questions like:
    * What does it mean to achieve the mission of Christian education?
    * What would the outputs look like?
    * What would the inputs look like?

    To what extent would defining quality (achieving the mission of Christian education) help us to refrain from being preoccupied with, as Dan puts it, “measuring worth by whether institutions are growing or not”?

  2. Gary Duthler

    This article provides good food for thought. My experience with a multitude of schools is that growth is linked to financial viability. In short, we get desperate about growth when we can’t meet the budget. This means that we don’t recruit students: we recruit tuitions. How sad. May our school grow because we are faithfully carrying out our mission and God wants to bless the community through our faithfulness.

  3. Matt Covey

    Very intersting blog. Especially conisdering the emphasis Christian Schools put on the size of the incoming kindergarten class. Growth within in a school does not necessarily mean you are fulfilling your mission or that proper emphasis is being put on fulfilling the mission. Although, growth as a school is not a bad thing especially if your school is striving to fulfill a Christian mission that is a blessing to Christian families. The question that each school needs to ask themselves is “Do we want to grow because it will fulfill a fanancial need at our school?” or “Do we want to grow because we care about the community we live in and we feel our school can have an impact in Christ’s advancing kingdom?” When growth becomes more important than mission then I fear we are treading on sinking sand.

  4. All I can say is, “quality over quantity”. I have seen the trend where churches are baptising left and right without giving thought to the person’s spiritual condition. I guess the it all goes back to the parable of the seeds and what ground they fall on.

  5. Great discussion! Growth versus mission? If we want our schools to be healthy organizations we need to focus on “growth”. Do we find ourselves equating growth with increases in enrollment because we haven’t defined what “growth” is for our schools? And wouldn’t a clearly stated definition of growth for a Chrisitan school eliminiate the perceived dichotomy between growth and mission?

  6. Leah Pizza

    This is an interesting topic that seems to come up in church and in schools. It is important to have growth in our schools, but we also need to consider the kinds of children our schools are producing. I think that more emphasis needs to be put on making the students the best that they can possibly be, rather than the numbers the school is producing. Not only does the school need to nuture the academic side of students, but their social and spirtiual side as well.

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