Stand at the doors of a high school on a Friday afternoon and you’ll observe the gamut of student emotions on display. For one group there is sweet relief that the school week has come to an end: their time once again belongs to them. Another group walks away with their heads down and their bags full of textbooks ensuring little relief and respite from the grind of education. While some delight in school and already anticipate Monday’s return, for many, the joy and purpose of their schooling remain elusive.
One reason some students appear jaded is because they are jaded. Schools do students no favors when daily learning targets emphasize finding the right answer rather than asking the right questions. Students disconnect themselves from their schoolwork because the work has often been disconnected from their imaginations; what is being taught has few implications for the next sixty minutes, let alone the next sixty years. How can we recapture students’ imaginations and help them appreciate how writing an essay, solving an equation, or shooting a basketball invites them to be co-creators with God, today and forever?
In Work, Play, Love: A Visual Guide to Calling, Career & the Mission of God, Mark Shaw attests to the importance of finding delight and joy in vocation. Shaw’s book, which contains delightful sketches that playfully illustrate the thrust of each chapter, reminds the reader that finding joy in one’s work allows a person to experience the baraka of God. Baraka, from the Hebrew word berakah, originally referred to “blessing,” yet Shaw uses the Swahili spelling—baraka—and defines the word as “all things made new.” A life void of delight or joy makes it impossible to partner with God in this baraka. Consequently, Shaw suggests that our work is no longer baraka but Babel—“anti-work,” as he puts it. Babel takes root when people believe that “God is the problem and humanity is the solution” and the work of people is to fix the mess that God has created. Babel turns humanity into an idol by centering vocation on self-reliance and self-glory. In this context, Shaw’s book has some serious implications for education; for it is in schooling that students will form the habits that lead to either baraka, co-creating with God to make all things new, or babel, living only for the self. So his invitation to work, play, and love is an occasion to rethink how we learn.
While our strategically crafted mission statements might promise a school that invites students to co-create with God in the making of all things new, often schools bow down to the Babel of standardized test scores, college entrance requirements and state championships. Of course, pursuing and achieving excellence in academics, athletics, or in any vocation has the potential to be an endeavor that strives to be baraka, the partnering with Christ in making all things new. But sadly, school practices often indicate that some generic excellence is the chief end of man. Our students’ hearts are not restless until they rest in God, but until personal achievements are attained. Thus Babel becomes the telos of education: we achieve excellence in academics and athletics for the purpose, pursuit, and glory of self.
It is not the mission statement, but the practices of a school that will determine the formation of a baraka or a Babel-oriented citizen. In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf describe work as “rearranging the raw material of God’s creation in such a way that it helps the world in general, and people in particular, thrive and flourish.” Schools should become the training ground for students who will desire this type of meaningful work beyond their school years.
One mandate of Christian education is to form peculiar kingdom builders who understand that their calling is to participate in creating cities of delight. It is foolish to hope that our students, upon graduation, will suddenly transform from Babel mentality students who conjugate verbs and perform long division simply to attain well-paying jobs into kingdom-building baraka citizens. Christian schools must consider Shaw’s essential question: “What is the best way for us to do life and work and play?”
Inviting our Students into the Eden Story
Christian schools need to explicitly place the student in God’s story. As Shaw puts it, “[L]inking our little stories to a story of cosmic scope seems to be one of the golden keys to happiness.” Sarah Arthur, in Distinguishing Dragons: The Importance of Story in Faith Formation, claims that we are a story-formed people. Our lives are shaped by an overarching narrative, not by facts or rules. People long to live a worthy life and begin to do so when they start to see their lives within the larger story of redemption.
When understanding their place within God’s story, students begin to co-create with God in “Eden’s work,” which Shaw describes as the “meaningful combination of beauty and utility. Utility is doing that which leads to human flourishing. Beauty is surrounding the flourishing with wonder and order.” Yet Shaw’s reference to “Eden’s work” falls a bit short. Vocation oriented to the kingdom of God is not just returning to Eden; it looks forward to—and seeks to be a foretaste of—the “even more” of the kingdom to come. This means helping students understand the serious implications of school work—a kindergarten student reading their first words or partnering with a First Nations community is an opportunity not to just look back at Eden but to help students long for the kingdom to come. For teachers, this work demands that teacher practices—assessment, reward systems, classroom management, reporting—must be coherent with God’s restoration plan as well. Incoherent practices lead to a Babel mentality, a competing story to the grand story, and one that perpetuates the reductionist perspective that education is ultimately about achievement, and mostly about achieving a good job that pays well.
For example, Teaching for Transformation is an approach to Christian education developed by the Prairie Centre for Christian Education. In this approach, teachers ground the lessons in God’s story while also allowing students to deconstruct the competing Babel story. It is through the critical step of lesson planning that teachers are able to present and invite students into the garden of delight that is the Eden story. When learning is rooted in this narrative, suddenly conjugating French verbs, studying the War of 1812, and learning about photosynthesis enables both teacher and student to delight in the vocation that is learning. By practicing co-creation, Christian schools educate for life by forming citizens that contribute to the common good.
Real Work that Meets a Real Need for a Real Audience
Shaw points to the call of wisdom in Proverbs 8 to delight in whomever we are working with, wherever we are working, and in whatever we are doing. Shaw’s reference to this “triple delight” is integral because God is at work everywhere and forever. This delight is only possible when students understand how their learning can be real work that meets a real need, intended for a real audience beyond the classroom teacher. This real work described by Shaw is essential because “the only kind of work we can do is to join a God who is already working, getting things started, doing the heavy lifting.” When students understand they are co-creators, students have opportunity to understand that all work has the potential to restore. At a kindergarten level, students discuss how creating beautiful things can be a gift to others. This can lead to art works created in their class and given as a gift to their friends at the seniors’ home in the community. Secondary students who study why so many people in the world go without clean water might design projects that address this deep need.
This type of learning allows students to understand that schoolwork is real work that has real meaning in the community. Christian education falls short when schoolwork is simply about preparing students for the “real world,” as if the learning that takes place now is for a world that does not exist. Yes, schools must train students with one eye on the future, but they must also be diligent in helping students understand what it means to be a faithful 8-, 10-, or 16-year-old disciple of Christ. Often the message students receive is that their work does not matter and can have little-to-no impact on the community in which they live. This view of education and schoolwork not only dishonors students and teachers, it dishonors the very God who calls these students to be active participants in His world.
While in Desiring the Kingdom James K.A. Smith challenges us to rethink Christian education as a formational rather than an informational process, in Imagining the Kingdom he goes further by arguing Christian education needs to be about the acquisition of a Christian habitus. “Might we not better capture the essence of Christianity,” he asks, “in the ‘between’ concepts of habitus—as an orientation to the world that is carried in a way of life and oriented fundamentally toward action, toward tangible being-in-the-world?” Christian education is a starting place for students to practice and form these habits.
Smith and Shaw are both suggesting that real work involves the formation and practicing of habits that point to and participate in the Kingdom. Students become justice seekers because Christian schools give them opportunity to practice and form habits of justice seeking. Students become beauty creators who delight in making beautiful things for the glory of God. Furthermore, Christian schools need to recognize that this message of serving others and the Kingdom is countercultural to the message that these students are receiving beyond the walls of the school; only through practice are these desires to engage God’s world in the servant way of Christ formed. It is through these opportunities for practice that Christian schools become relevant to the communities they serve and students themselves become village builders.
Becoming Village Builders: Students in Relationship
Shaw introduces the idea of “village builders” by showing the reader King David as someone who sees the value in people for who they are, who seeks others to strengthen relationships, and who is part of a community who care for each other. This baraka view of relationships is in contrast to the Babel view that society often presents to our students: people are commodities and only to be sought out when useful. Could we imagine a shalom-centered school where students practiced building meaningful relationships as they might a free throw? This is the village that God intended.
Teachers at Christian schools need to model village building; they need to be aware of how they talk with and about people. Furthermore, real work that meets real needs for a real audience should provide opportunities for students to form a baraka way of being with people. As students get to know the people in their village, both within the classroom and outside, they will practice loving them. Celebrations of learning become important rights of passages for Christian schools that form village builders; these are opportunities for students and their families to celebrate the individual successes of others and the collective successes of their classroom, sports team, mission teams, and school at a large. These are a response against the Babel mentality of self-reliance and self-glory that goes against Kingdom building.
Students strive for delight when they understand their classroom is embedded in the village and the work of the classroom contributes to authentic village building. This village building then extends outside of the class and into the family and the community. Schools become villages when students invest in the community. This might involve schools who partner with local agencies to contribute to the common good. This might look like a primary class having a buddy class at the local Muslim school only with the goal of better understanding their neighbour. It might even see senior students assisting in cooking breakfast for children in the community who may start their day without food.
When students delight in their work and connect classroom learning to village building within the Eden story, Shaw reminds us that these young people become part of the ekklesia and help others come out from under the grip of sin and death. Shaw’s call to work, play, and love is a call to live in this triple-delight and to participate in the resurrection project. Answering the call opens students up to the reality that their work matters because it is integral to God’s unfolding story or redemption. Schools then work alongside the home and church in the formation of peculiar people, a people who delight in the whomever, whatever,and wherever of work, and a people in whom God delights.