Cardus' Cofounder Ray Pennings on Schooling & Spiritual Development
This blog represents the opinion of Barna’s research partner for this study, Cardus. Cardus is a non-partisan, faith-based think tank and registered charity dedicated to promoting a flourishing society through independent research, robust public dialogue and thought-provoking commentary. Barna president David Kinnaman served as an early advisor on the Cardus education study, one of the first of its kind to look at the empirical outcomes of Christian education in North America.
Funding for Barna’s research was made possible by Cardus’ generous support. Barna was solely responsible for data collection, analysis and writing of the release.
Navigating the issue of children’s spiritual formation can be difficult in the current North American context. Clearly, church and family play a primary role in this area, but many voices compete with church and family for children’s attention and affection.
One interesting finding from new Barna research, conducted in partnership with our think tank, Cardus, is that there is some noticeable discomfort among church leaders surrounding the influence schooling has on children. Notably, two-thirds of Protestant pastors and half of Catholic priests perceive school to be a negative influence on a child’s spiritual formation. Respondents to the Barna survey didn’t specify which type of school they had in mind—still, given that the majority of the students in congregations are likely to be attending public schools, chances are many church leaders are referring to that sector.
This suggests that there’s a disconnect (or perhaps just ignorance) among church leaders, parents and schools when it comes to the question of how schooling potentially affects students’ spiritual formation.
There is other research available to suggest that the American Christian school sector plays a positive role in the spiritual formation of its students. For example, the 2018 Cardus report Walking the Path: The Religious Lives of Young Adults in North America found that attending an evangelical Christian school had a measurable effect on graduates that is distinct from the influence of family, socioeconomic background or church life. Among the findings were three key ways in which graduates of Protestant Evangelical high schools were different from public school grads:
- Christian school graduates reported significantly higher belief in orthodox Christian teachings, such as the belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and that the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and practice.
- Christian school graduates were much more likely to pray, read the Bible, attend church regularly and tithe.
- Christian school graduates were less likely to switch religious affiliation or to turn from the faith of their childhood.
This suggests that, if parents are feeling concerned about the spiritual formation of their children, Christian schools can be important spaces of spiritual formation. Children flourish and grow spiritually when they are immersed in a community of faith; cultivating church-home-school relationships is integral to forming this community.
So what do we do with this information?
First, we need better awareness. Church leaders and parents need to know how schooling can influence spiritual development. They need to see that schooling can be a very positive partner in children’s faith formation.
Secondly, we need to start talking. Schools and school associations need to advocate for the role they can play in children’s faith formation. Further, church leaders and parents need to be in conversation both with schools and each other about these issues. After all, the Barna data show that nearly half of non-mainline and Catholic clergy say a parent has asked them for advice regarding schooling.
Finally, we believe church leaders, parents and educators must work together to ensure that the option of attending a Christian school is possible for as many families as possible. This includes both the availability of such schools, as well as their affordability for average American families.
If church leaders, parents and schools come together on the issue of education, our kids will be better off for it.
Cofounder and executive vice president of Cardus