On Urban Christian Schools

Dave Larsen, Ph.D.

Director, The Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education

April 2011

On paying attention:

“. . .I recently viewed a video of an interview with Eugene Peterson—another seminary prof and author of “The Message”– as he reflected on his years in the pastorate. Along the way Peterson suggested that the purpose of a pastor is simply this: “Someone has to be set aside to pay attention.” That’s what our seminary prof was doing in this building with his students. And I’d like to suggest that this is precisely what you are doing in providing Christian education in this neighborhood with Living Stones Academy. You have been set aside to pay attention.

I want to suggest that in order to sustain a vision for urban Christian education, we need to find ways to instill evangelical empathy and encourage orthodox outrage over the state of urban education in America and the injustices too often inflicted on students who have no other options. We’re paying attention, you see.

First, school climate and culture are powerful educators. Schools like Living Stones love children as Jesus would, view them as image bearers of God, and do all they can to see that children flourish.

When schools in the city grow disciples, develop character, engage creativity and critical thinking, we are providing what children need to flourish, and show that good schools make for better neighborhoods.

Second, there are too many Christians—in cities and suburbs and rural areas–unaware of these dynamics and the powerful record of urban Christian schooling. We need to work together to change this.

Urban Christian schooling is in many ways invisible, operating under the radar in the broader Christian community. Most schools can’t afford the staff it takes to publicize their achievements. K-8 schools typically don’t have the athletic teams which generate publicity. So, out of sight, out of mind. We must continue to find new and creative ways to tell our story, because when visible and noticed, support follows because of our track record of student success with very limited resources.

Third, urban Christian schooling holds promise in part because the city is where pluralism meets the road, and where Christian education has a unique role and a bright future.

Everyone today experiences pluralism—where cultures meet and exchange ideas and values—largely because of the information explosion through technology and from learning to live together across racial and ethnic and economic class lines. But nowhere does this happen quite like the city.

Nationwide, housing costs are declining less in cities and, according to an article in a recent Atlantic, “urban style housing in walkable neighborhoods is what’s in demand today.” And people move where schools are good, and good for their neighborhoods.

Fourth, if urban Christian education is to go beyond “survive” to “thrive” it will take the deep support of the broader Christian community.

We need churches in the city and suburbs to come alongside and pay attention: look at what’s at stake here. Kids lives! Am I right?

Brother and sisters in Christ, what we are taking on when we get involved in urban Christian education is a long obedience in the same direction. A long obedience in the same direction. That’s a wonderful phrase from one of Eugene Peterson’s books. Urban Christian education is more like a crock pot than a microwave. It takes time to simmer and breathe and become flavorful for kids and neighborhoods.

I began by describing an interview of Eugene Peterson. At the end of that video interview he was asked a very simple question: “Are you hopeful?”

On “hope”

Are you hopeful? I notice that “radiating hope” is part of your mission, your definition of what Living Stones Academy is all about. That’s a bold statement, by the way. But when you see children grow in their academic life, in their life of faith and discipleship, in their confidence, and into a promising future, how can you not be hopeful? Those who hope in God have the right to expect justice and equity and promise.

St. Augustine is often quoted on the subject of hope: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.” Sounds like something Living Stones Academy understands.

You walk out the doors of your churches into your neighborhoods and open the doors of a Christian school as a gift to those in this neighborhood. With Living Stones Academy you set up a signpost of the kingdom. You are intentional about what you hope to see. Radiating hope is a powerful phrase. Radiating hope. What you are doing is fed and nurtured by the church but it’s not limited by the church. In its vision it is broader; in its reach it is deeper; in its dreaming it is larger than any one church.

The Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education
1550 S. State Street
Suite 107
Chicago, IL 60605