The myth of the “salt and light” argument

It typically goes like this: “We have decided to pull our child out of Christian education because we feel that the Lord is leading us to have our child be salt and light in the public schools.” At this point the teacher or building principal realizes that arguing this point with a parent will potentially jeopardize all future interactions with the student’s family. This is an increasingly common scenario, so let’s examine the “salt and light” argument used by many parents so those of us committed to Christian day school education can better articulate our stance and convey this information proactively with parents.

  1. Some initial questions: Are children called to be “salt and light?” Let us ask this another way: To whom was Jesus speaking when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14)? Was it not to his disciples and then by extension to his church? How about the Great Commission? Does Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 28 to make disciples of all nations override Yahweh’s injunctions to parents in Deuteronomy to teach their children to love and serve the Lord? Are parents to send children out rather than have them receive instruction? If so, wouldn’t the Deuteronomy passage go something like this: Teach your children so that they may go and be salt and light to the Canaanites and all the surrounding pagan nations? (In fact God through Moses and later Joshua told his people to do just the opposite—not to intermarry or intermingle.) If children are to be “salt and light,” why not send them over to the local mosque or Buddhist temple to be salt and light? On the other hand, couldn’t children attending a Christian school have the opportunity to be “salt and light” with the Saturday city rec soccer team—wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds? If children are out all day being salt and light at school, when is biblical training to be accomplished? Furthermore, some biblical scholars have pointed out that the “salt and light” metaphor is a corporate metaphor, not an individualistic idea (note the plural pronouns in “You [all] are the salt . . . You [all] are the light . . .”). Does it not take a community of redeemed persons loving one another as Jesus did (John 13) and exhibiting Christian unity (John 17) to give the watching world a foretaste and preview of what the kingdom of God is like?
  2. The Bible is clear that the training of youth happens on a daily, relational basis through the big and small events of life (see Deuteronomy 6:7–9) Since we no longer live in societies where most parents can do this on a daily basis, many of us need to entrust much of this training to other Christians—the Christian day school’s raison d’être. Is there any denying that those who spend the most time with our children have the most opportunity to impact them? Is there any denying that those who teach the students in their care teach from their own particular conception of how life functions, i.e., their “worldview”? What views of life and the world are kids learning, and can they effectively detect and counter those views that conflict with biblical values in their efforts to be salt and light? Do they have the training and level of discernment needed to defend their faith from attack? Can we afford a casual approach to a child’s education any more than a casual approach to church or home instruction? The “salt and light” argument seriously underestimates the power and volume of the messages—intentional and unintentional—that are conveyed hourly in a public school setting. Plus, a few hours of Sunday school, church services, and youth group activities hardly competes with the 30 or so hours spent in public school each week.
  3. Often the lack of diversity in a current Christian setting is cited as another reason why children need to go somewhere else to be salt and light. This assumes that students cannot develop an appreciation for diversity within a Christian setting, even though the primary value underpinning the virtue of tolerance is the biblical teaching that every person bears the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). Furthermore, should the opportunity for a child to experience diversity be valued more highly than obtaining wisdom and receiving instruction in God’s Word in order to develop a discerning spirit and a heart attentive to God and his creation?
  4. Going “out” assumes that there are few if any such opportunities to be salt and light in Christian schools. Not true—not only are there opportunities within Christian schools to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to kids there who are not believers, but the schools themselves help students to practice engaging the culture outside the school walls through a variety of means, such as service projects, community involvement, and other forms of outreach. Guided practice in these engagements is far more likely to produce better results than isolated “sink or swim” situations kids must face while trying to be salt and light on their own in a public school environment.
  5. Is there evidence that kids being “salt and light” at school is effective? Not according to Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching research (the largest-ever survey of U.S. teens ages 14–18): “Although most U.S. teens report that schools are not hostile to teens who are seriously religious, only about one in ten teens expresses their religious faith at school a lot. . . . Thus the visibility and perhaps the significance of religious faith and practice for U.S. teens seem to drop off markedly in spheres outside of religious congregation and family. . . . Nearly half take a live and let live approach to faith in which believers should not try to convert others to their faith—honoring the ‘seeker’ mentality.” (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, p. 70ff.) Having worked in public school settings at elementary and middle school, I believe that this research finding is an accurate assessment. It is tough enough in some peer groups in Christian schools for kids to be comfortable sharing their faith. After all, not all kids in Christian schools have committed their hearts and lives to Jesus Christ or are seeking to become his disciples. Yet in the Christian school there are dedicated teachers modeling their faith in the classroom every day.
  6. Are teenagers equipped to be salt and light in public schools? Again from the Soul Searching research: “We also found the vast majority of [U.S. teenagers] to be incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives. . . . Mainline Protestants were among the least religiously articulate of all teens.” (p. 131) “It became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply don’t care to believe it. . . . The net result, in any case, is that most religious teenager’s opinions and views—one can hardly call them worldviews—are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion.” (p. 134) In fact one of the most troubling themes coming out of this research is the confusion of teens about truth—among conservative Protestants half of the respondents said that many religions may be true, and more than one-third say that one can pick and choose one’s beliefs. Additionally, if there is no Christian school involvement, all of the equipping needs to come from the home or church. However, recent statistics indicate that students are spending less time in conversation with parents and that church ministries are fragmenting with changing adult attendance patterns.

Conclusion: It is the rare child who is well-equipped and effective as salt and light at school—the exception rather than the rule. Even in the best of these cases the parents are trading off the opportunity for their child’s Christian worldview development when they cut them off from the godly influence of Christian teachers who are eager to unfold to them the exquisite beauty and coherence of God’s creation. Add to this multiple opportunities to pray, worship, and connect with other believing students in the Christian school community. Removing Christian education from the child is a precarious and risky ploy that leaves the child’s spiritual and moral development hanging in the balance. Sometimes it is hard not to be cynical about the real motivation of parents who make the “salt and light” trade-off with their children, particularly when one senses that materialistic or selfish reasons are prompting them to spend money on themselves rather than on tuition. Our North American culture can be seductive that way. While the “salt and light” argument may be well intended, it is a deficient and marginally effective model. At best, a decision by parents for their child to be salt and light diminishes the child’s opportunity for biblical training; at worst it’s a lie that parents tell themselves to rationalize shortsighted, consumeristic desires.

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3 Comments

Filed under distinctively Christian, student outcomes

3 responses to “The myth of the “salt and light” argument

  1. Vince Bonnema

    Excellent post Dan! Having heard this reason many times, I indeed have felt that the comment can be difficult to discuss…especially since by the time it is shared the decision has often been made. Perhaps thoughts such as those shared in this posting can best be shared early and often with the entire school family as a form of encouragement.

  2. Dan;

    Appreciated your comments greatly. Very well put. What is amazing to me is this salt and light arguement is seeming to disapate. Parents seem to not even be spending the time trying to justify it other than by using the comment; “We let our child decide.”
    I find that there are an increasing number of parents willing to abdocate decision making to 4th – 5th – 6th graders. Which to me is absoluting amazing.

  3. Roger Roelofs

    Dan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. You are correct that parents sending their children out as missionaries is often unfortunate. You are also correct the being salt and light has a strong corporate component. However, the family, is the most basic corporate unit established by God to reflect His character. Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbor doesn’t exclude neighbors who think differently than we do. How are we, as a family, going to live out God’s character with our neighbors if we live in separate worlds? I’m not at all minimizing the risk to our children. Going the public school route takes a lot of work and prayer. But, it is a viable option to which God has called many families.

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