I suspect that like many of you, I have a few key quotes that have stuck with me over time and provide me with guidance, encouragement and reorientation. Many of these quotes are posted on the wall or bulletin board beside my desk, and over my next several blog posts, I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour of my bulletin board!
Second up is an oldie! I’m not sure of its origins, but I heard it from one of my early mentors, Lee Hollaar: Christians are called to be both different and relevant. Different so that we have something to say. Relevant so that people will listen.
As I have lived with this quote for a few years, I think its “secret sauce” is the connection of the two of concepts and the tension created when trying to embody both of them at the same time.
At times in my career as a Christian school leader, I found myself slipping into behaviours and decisions that tended to minimize the differences between my school and non-Christian schools. At those times, the “success indicators” that the general culture used to describe schools were tempting to adopt for my community. The competing stories that were around us (to reference the work of James K. A. Smith) and within us if we are honest, would pull at us. The competing visions of an excellent and thriving school were tempting for us to buy into: a growing enrollment, a big building project, a group of very generous donors, high student scores on standardized tests, and the best arts/athletics programs (or choose your own competing story!). And if I’m honest, often we were not even consciously aware of the competing stories we were living in and advocating for. And that’s even more dangerous territory, isn’t it?
But every once in a while, I would look up from my desk and see this section of the quote from my mentor: Christians are called to be different so that we have something to say and I’d be reminded of the call for Christian schools to be different, distinct and even peculiar! Our “success indicators” need to be reflective of a God who is establishing an “upside down Kingdom” in which we as his people are called to be a demonstration plot of redemption, restoration and reconciliation. As a Christian school leader, I was responsible for calling myself and our community back to the need for us to be peculiar, not just in the fact that we offered a Bible class, held weekly chapels and took kids on service trips. We needed to be different in ALL aspects of our operations because then God’s transformational power would be working through us and be a beacon to those around.
But the call to be different is only half of the quote, with the other part being: Christians are called to be relevant so that people will listen. Sometimes Christians have a reputation for not being different, but instead being just weird. When we move into that region, we are in danger of not being a voice worth listening to. We have lost our relevancy and thus minimized or eliminated our ability to impact the world, to be God’s transformational hands and feet in the world. Thus, we have a challenge to ensure that our Kingdom message as a school is relevant to the community around us.
This call to relevance needs to shape the teaching and learning within our schools. Our students need to be part of a school environment that not only talks about the Christian story but immerses them in opportunities to practice playing their part in that story. The students must see how the content and curriculum they are learning is relevant to God’s unfolding story and how it equips them to play their part.
At the leadership level, this means that while the vision statements of our schools may remain consistent over time, school leadership is tasked with determining how to ensure that amid the cultural changes, the purpose of the school is articulated in ways that are relevant to the current students, families and staff. In this way, the “WHY” stays consistent from year to year, but we must be constantly updating the “WHAT” and the “HOW” to ensure that our students are equipped to live transformational lives now and in the future.
This challenge to be both different and relevant at the same time is complex and requires leaders to live within the tension, leading our communities with a great deal of wisdom and discernment.