Teaching That Transforms

Author Interview

[Teaching That Transforms]

Open, Honest Conversation About Mennonite Schools, Nature of Christian Witness Needed

John Roth is a committed supporter of Mennonite schools as someone who attended Mennonite schools; as a professor at Goshen College, where he teaches history; and as a parent—his four daughters all attended Mennonite schools, and studied at Goshen College. He took time in December to reflect on the challenges facing Mennonite schools today, and his hope for their future.

What are the key challenges facing Mennonite schools and colleges today?

There are lots of challenges. There's the issue of affordability—it can be hard for people to afford the cost of a Mennonite school or college. Demographics are also a factor; family sizes are smaller today, and there aren't as many children in Mennonite churches. For colleges and seminaries, there's the challenge of delivery; more people are asking for distance education options, since they can't relocate to attend schools.

Last, there's the question of mission focus. How do schools balance their Anabaptist-Mennonite identity with being open and welcoming to those who may not share those values?

How can Mennonite high schools and colleges respond to these challenges?

It starts with good leadership. We need to attract the best and brightest to positions of leadership at our schools and on the boards. We need people who have deep Christian convictions, but who are also nimble, adroit, flexible and adaptable.

Second, educational institutions need to be open to making changes. This is a challenge, since schools are notoriously resistant to change. It's not a matter of putting our fingers into the wind and following whatever new current comes along. But schools have to be willing to make changes if they are going to be successful in the future.

Third, schools need to do the best job they can to communicate with potential students, parents, supporters and alumni. There was a time when schools could assume that Mennonite students would go to Mennonite schools; those days are over. Today schools need to make a clear, convincing and cogent case for why students should choose them over other options—why they are worthy of the additional cost.

Why should parents send their children to a Christian school?

Parenting is one of the most delightful but challenging undertakings a person will ever be involved in. Among other things, it's our responsibility to pass along values and faith to our children. Parents can't do that alone; we need help from other adults, from the church, and from schools.

Of the three, school may be the most important. After the age of five, we turn our children over to other adults for six to eight hours a day. Whom do you want spending that much time influencing your child?

This is all the more important in the modern context, where the pressures of mass media, peer culture and the adult world press down on children. Parents need the confidence that their children are spending time in the company of adults who share their values. Of course, there's no guarantee that everything will turn out the way we hope; this is just a way of tipping the odds, of putting our children in an environment where they have the best chance of developing a solid Christian worldview.

What about the question of cost?

Those of us who work at Mennonite schools can sometimes be guilty of being too casual about that question. Paying for education at a Mennonite school can be hard for many, especially for those who are struggling during this recession. But I know of many people who have made sacrifices to send their children to Mennonite schools, including our family. It isn't always easy, but ways can sometimes be found.

I think of it as investing in the future—of my children, and of the church. The money I spend now has the potential to transform a life. I think that's worth it.

That said, I also believe that churches can come alongside parents who want to send their children to a Mennonite school, but who can't afford it. In the end, it is the church that can benefit the most from having children grow up strong in the faith; they should be keen to invest in their own future. We have a shared fate, after all; renewal of the church and the success of Mennonite schools and colleges are linked, in my opinion.

What is the main theme of your book?

My central argument is that there has been a paradigm shift in almost every level of Mennonite education. Mennonites started their own schools to protect youth from the influences of the world; today schools exist to engage the world.

Today most of our schools have a significant percentage of students who don't come from Mennonite backgrounds. The focus now has shifted to a more missional role. Now we have an opportunity to share the good news of our understanding of the gospel with others, and offer our view of education to a wider cross section of people.

You say in the book that we need "an open, lively, vigorous and honest conversation about the nature of our Christian witness to the world and our assumptions about the future of the church." What do you mean by that?

We need to be honest about the challenges facing our church. We are an aging denomination. Membership is declining, as is denominational loyalty. Sunday school attendance is falling. And enrolment at Mennonite schools, colleges and seminaries is not where it could be. We need to honestly name these issues, in a public and confessional way—not by scolding or blaming, but by acknowledging that things are not as good as we would like them to be.

Are you hopeful for the future of Mennonite schools?

Yes! We have much to offer, and there are growing numbers of people looking for exactly what we have to offer—a tradition of peace, service, justice, community and deep faith in God. Of course, as Mennonites we are only one small corner of God's great kingdom, but we can openly, confidently and graciously proclaim our distinct approach to education—a way shaped by a Christ-centered way of reading Scripture, a Christ-centered understanding of relationships with other people, and a Christ-centered view of the church as the visible form of the resurrected Jesus in the world today.

Click here to order Teaching That Transforms: Why Anabaptist-Mennonite Education Matters. Price: $12.99 USD/$14.99 CAD.

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