As churches look to the changing landscape of the future, explosion of choice is clouding a clear sightline. With so many opportunities for ministry, how do you choose what will make a lasting impact?
Psychologist Barry Schwartz describes the shackles freedom of choice binds us with in his book The Paradox of Choice.
“… choice no longer liberates, but debilitates…But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction…”
Let me highlight what I believe is one of the most critical dimensions of mission activity in the world today. It’s the old-but-new-again concept of schools.
Yes, there has been tumultuous history between churches and church-run schools. But what I’m suggesting is a 21st century iteration of churches serving the global mission field by helping plant schools.
According to Gallup’s chairman—Jim Clifton—in his recent publication The Coming Jobs War, the predominant felt need of our time and greatest global desire is for a good job.
Gallup Research’s World Poll shows that of the seven billion people on the planet, five billion are age 15 or older. Of these five billion people, three billion want a job. However, the reality is that only 1.2 billion have jobs—about one in four worldwide worked full-time for an employer in 2013.
That leaves 1.8 billion people without a job.
And not just any job will do for this generation.
“Students don’t want to merely graduate; they want an education that results in a good job.”
The only way to get a good job is to get a good education. It is the ticket out of poverty into a hopeful future.
In his work to elevate school attendance and the future of youth in Brazil, soccer legend Edson Arantes do Nascimento (better known as “Pelé”) said,
“We believed that, if we could get kids into school and keep them there, we could ensure in the short term that they were eating better, and we could also keep them away from bad influences on the street that often led to crime. In the longer term, we would give them an education—which was clearly a necessary step to pull people out of poverty.” ~Pelé
Knowing the promise education holds, the Church needs to side-step ministry-only directives and begin implementing robust models of education-based ministry. Not only is this an audacious, missiologically-minded and tangible way for churches to serve myriad felt needs of the communities they seek to serve, it’s also a brilliant poverty-prevention strategy.
Urbanization in places like China is inducing a fast-growing need for a more educated population. And with the rise of the middle class—as seen in places like Angola—the lack of schools exposes the severe underdevelopment of human resource infrastructure. These world changes represent an important opportunity for the majority world Church to contribute to the common good of any nation.
In 25 years, the number of sub-Saharan African children enrolled in school has grown from a scant 50 percent to nearly 78 percent. In South Asia, primary school enrollment jumped from 75 percent to 94 percent over the same period. Policy makers understand the role education plays in advancing students and pursuantly, entire nations.
Unfortunately, quantity does not ensure quality. Despite making “…substantial progress around the globe in sending people to school, … a large number of people who have gone to school haven’t learned anything.” says Eric Hanushek, expert on the economics of education at Stanford University.
In the same way that this generation of the majority leapfrogged landlines for cell phones, a parallel action should take place with technology in education and inverted classes. Students will increasingly benefit from a technology-rich education in smaller class sizes taught by teachers who truly care about the whole well-being of their students. A mission-minded school plant done well will ensure that students’ whole being is nurtured; everything from academic achievement to character formation, specialized activities to after-care needs, even standing in the gaps missing from their home lives.
Stepping into the growing vacuum of the educational arena, the Church has a chance to galvanize the re-establishment of positive social influence. Scaling operations to a local level by subsidizing a charter school, championing effective and redemptive models of education already in place or planting a school that offers the best education possible, will open doors to a vast frontier of missional opportunity. Drive by a local public school or do the research on the ratings of schools in your area, and the need will quickly become apparent.
As for the role Christianity has played in the history of western civilization, James Davison Hunter, a leading figure in the study of evangelicalism and cultural change, presents some compelling ideas about the importance of schools in Christian missiology.
Education was exceptionally important, for much of the spiritual and cultural creativity of the church resided in the establishment and transformation of the schools of that time. Schools were established by the end of the second century in all of the major urban areas of the Mediterranean, in most cases by the leading Christian intellectuals… The schools not only were functional in forming potential leaders in the church. They were also the primary settings in which… influence in the culture was exerted. 
Hunter goes on to describe how schools also became a vehicle for the talented among otherwise political and cultural people groups to spiritually and culturally penetrate then impact powerful elites. Over time, these Christ-based schools became the “flesh and bone access to imperial power that came to count”.
By emphasizing education of marginalized people groups, Christian leaders were established with a natural authority that “outflanked the traditional leadership” of the era.
“The influence of the church grew as it penetrated the higher echelons of social life and this was accomplished largely through its penetration and cooptation of the educational system. For all the other problems that followed, the church’s social vision was revolutionary, not least for the way it reached out to the poor and socially marginal”.
Are you starting to catch the vision and see the potential for reaching the mission field in your own community or around the world through schools? What if, as a part of their missiology, established churches planted an excellent school in their community? Or prepared to concurrently plant schools in the communities they also plan to plant churches in?
Seeing the potential for churches planting schools as part of a 21st century missions mindset happens when you see schools as more than simply a junction of learning. Schools should be viewed as the next great mission field. Done well, they become centers to equip young people with viable skills that will allow them to support their families while also accomplishing the work of the kingdom.
- Macro trend: The Emerging Middle Class
- Who likes Sunday School?
- Optimism: Why poorer nations have more of it
Clifton, Jim. The Coming Jobs War: What Every Leader Must Know about the Future of Job Creation. New York, NY: Gallup, 2011. Print, page 12.
 Pelé, and Brian Winter. Why Soccer Matters. New York, New York: Celebra, 2014. Print, p 274.
 Hunter, 2010, p. 52-53
 Hunter, 2010, p. 54
 Hunter, 2010, p. 55
 Hunter, 2010, p. 57