At the start of his final address to principals and leaders from across Canada, Andy Crouch invited his audience to briefly review the journey they had been on for the past two days. Initially, he had asked them two questions: Why is the job of leaders so difficult? And why is it so important? To answer these questions, Crouch had begun by looking at the outer conditions that make their work hard—working with incredibly gifted and diverse teachers who have a high degree of independence, a high level of expertise, and a wide range of vision. From there he moved inward to recognize that what really makes the work of leaders difficult is that they need to become people of authority and vulnerability. It is this summons to image-bearing—although it speaks to everything deepest in people that wants good, both in authority and vulnerability—that carries fear. To summarize, Crouch emphasized that the job of leaders is difficult because it requires a transformation of their very selves—an excavating of the experiences and stories from their own lives and moments from human history, allowing Jesus to meet them in those places of fear, brokenness, trauma, and disappointment, and heal and equip them to grow into the kind of people that bear the burden of leading in a creative and ultimately flourishing way.
“Our society is currently in the middle of a time of unprecedented collapse of institutions,” Crouch began. Social activist Zygmunt Bauman described this environment by coining the term, “liquid modernity”—the full flowering of the modernist worldview, which believed that all the institutions of western culture were restrictive and narrow. The enlightenment was part of this, and began to “liquefy” everything that had been inherited throughout history. As those in the final stages of liquid modernity, leaders now serve in a culture that questions whether their institutions can, or should, last.
Within this new mindset, even the very nature of “self” and “identity” are called into question. All kinds of things that were considered fixed—the most dramatic being gender, which for most of history has been understood in two categories—are all becoming liquefied. People are trying to personally navigate their own shifting sense of self in the modern world instead of accepting views that were once assumed and fixed.
At the heart of liquid modernity is the belief that there is no ultimate centre to which we can refer, and that we are simply on our own in a very confusing world. One of the great agents of this liquefication has been modern capitalism. Most businesses today do not try to plan fifty years, or even five years ahead—they find it difficult to plan even five months ahead! We live within the belief that the most popular forms of communication and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, will be replaced in the next generation with something completely different (and better). In this “here and now” society, our children have no vision for institutions that will last.
Our institutions need to be different by being intentional about the future. One way we can do this is by passing on artifacts—the “hockey puck”, the “wedding ring”—which are effective in leading people back to an institution. An example from scripture of an artifact that has carried on to the present is the mezuzah—a decorative case affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish household, containing a scroll with these words from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
To this day, Jewish families use these artifacts in responding to this command to institutionalize faith. This artifact continues to create a lasting habit that goes with its people wherever they travel in the world, and will last into the thousandth generation. In the same way that God was deliberate in saving his people from slavery in Egypt, and in the same way that he intentionally sent his own Son to be crucified for the redemption of his people, God wants us to be intentional about building and sustaining culture.
Because of the volatile state that institutions are currently in, there are important areas that leaders need to address in their schools. The first is the reality of idolatry and injustice. Leaders need to ask two questions: First, to what extent have our Christian schools become places for parents to send their children to be insulated from the reality of idolatry and injustice, rather than to actively name it and confront it at great risk? And secondly, what can we do that would radically be a part of God’s redemptive activity—restoring the image that has been lost?
A second challenge to address is the negative connotation that often comes along with the phrase “Christian schools”. For some, the phrase conjures up memories of exploitation and abuse, such as in the case of the First Nations people. What does it look like, especially for the Christian schools who were not legally implicated in these events, to work to change this perception?
Are we pursuing real excellence? This is a third area leaders need to look at carefully. A significant challenge for educational leaders is to find ways to rank talent, ability and promise. Every student is an image bearer, and everyone is part of our community, but they don’t all have the same talents and gifts. Real excellence requires ranking without status—status being the quest to push to the top of the line.
Leaders also need to ask how their institutions can extend themselves to meet the needs of those that liquid modernity deems to have little to no value. As an example, Crouch shared the experiences of his sister as she raised a daughter who suffered with a rare disease, and leaned heavily on medical, nutritional, community, and social institutions. But, in a society dissolving into the individualism and self-pursuit of liquid modernity, society offers less-and-less to those at risk, and believes that they have nothing to offer it in return. “Who will care for the at-risk, once liquid modernity reaches its apex?” Crouch asked. Only the people of God who have kept alive God’s image-bearing nature within their institutions will be in a place to reach them.
Lastly, today’s leaders need to imagine what it would look like to see their institutions working for the common good—as part of a greater public that goes beyond their institution and beyond their community. What if the fact that the public education system is failing in Canada became our problem, instead of their problem? What if Christian schools were committed to the good of all education, rather than just those that are Christian?