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Fall 2012 · Vol. 41 No. 2 · pp. 258–266 

What I (My School) Would Like the Church to Contribute to the Relationship Between Church and School

Gerald Gerbrandt

Questions of how the church and school intersect have been important for me for many years, so I consider it a privilege to think about them together with you this morning. When I look around the room, however, it is very obvious to me that I approach these questions from my particular context—a Mennonite Christian university located in Winnipeg. I have studied and worked at church-related institutions in the United States, so I have some sense for the realities there as well. But I know that the realities you face in Paraguay, or Ethiopia, or Lithuania are very different. The larger academic context for your schools is different, the language and culture are different, and the agenda and challenges faced by the church are different.

The church is there to contribute to God’s mission in the world. The church created our schools as a way of working at this vision.

I thus recognize that when I share about what I would wish from the church, I am doing so from a very particular context and story. I cannot claim to be speaking on behalf of other schools. My hope is that perhaps some of my comments arising out of my own situation here in North America may be translated or adapted so that they have some significance in your settings as well.

What do I mean by “Church”?

Before I speak to the question directly I want to reflect briefly on what I mean by the term “church.” The term is used in so many different ways that some clarification is needed before I can helpfully point to what I want from the church. I was struck by that again recently when reading a book on Old Testament theology. At one point the author used as a subheading the words “Toward the Church.” Much to my surprise, the section had nothing to do with how Old Testament theology might shape a community of Christ, but rather focused only on the relationship of Old Testament theology to the church’s confessions and creeds. So some further refinement or spelling out of what I mean is needed.

I am sure there are multiple ways of slicing up the term “church.” For today let me point out three meanings.

First, and perhaps most foundational, the term has a theological meaning where it refers to the universal body of Christ, the body of believers not confined by time or denomination or geography. Think of 1 Corinthians 12:27 (ESV) where we read: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Similarly in Romans 12:5 (NRSV)—so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. These verses can also refer to smaller groupings, but make much sense when thinking of the whole body. My primary focus today will not be on this meaning, and yet we always must remind ourselves of this foundational reality—Mennonite Brethren, even all Mennonites, are only a very small part of this universal body of Christ.

Second, there is the institutional “church,” or “church” as organizational units. Church as institution exists in many different forms or structures. Consider the following:

  • There are what might be called global denominational bodies, as in the worldwide Lutheran communion, or perhaps a worldwide Baptist association, or even Mennonite World Conference. These bodies may focus more on an identity and self-understanding, but often do have some program. And yet there is an institutional quality to it.

  • Then there is church as a denomination or denominational sub-group. ICOMB, or the Mennonite Brethren Churches of Canada, or the parallel body in the United States would be examples. But so would the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba, as well as other regional bodies. Many programs are delivered on this level, and so they tend to have more institutional structure than the previous one.

  • And then, of course, there is the local congregation, here in Winnipeg or in Asuncion or in Shamshabad.

  • Might one at this level also include an almost unlimited number of agencies and boards formed for delivering specific programs, some accountable to conferences or denominations, some of a more para-church nature? Mission agencies, relief agencies, homes for seniors, and even schools fit here.

    Church as institution has become huge, as it is through institution that program is often delivered, at least here in North America, whether in evangelism and missions, relief and help to others, or support for its own members. Interestingly, this is also the level which young people today are often most critical of.

  • And finally, there is church as the individuals and families who make up the congregation and are the real content of the other structures. In some ways this level is the same as the first, and yet the emphasis is different. Whereas in the first the focus was on the worldwide, cross-denominational identity of the church, here the focus is on the individual people who make up this body.

A church school has the possibility of relating to a number of these levels of meaning. A careful discussion of the topic thus should make it clear which meaning one is referring to, since these different levels relate differently to church schools, and vice versa. Perhaps I might already make one observation related to my assignment. It is my conviction that the more levels of the church a school has contact with or works with, the more it will be able to contribute to the church’s mission.

And that leads me to my final preliminary observation. To speak of the church is to speak of a body serving the mission of God. It is to speak of a community of God, with the mandate or mission to reach out beyond itself in witness and service to the world. God did not create the church as a lifeboat to save us from the world, but as God’s means of reaching the world, of being salt and light and blessing in a hurting world. A school thus can only claim to be a church school if it shares and contributes to this mission. And given the mission of the church, it must always have its vision focused on the world and the church’s outreach mission to the world.


There are four things I wish the church in its various forms would give to the school. I wish, first, that the church would appreciate the church school as an arm of the church, with a particular or unique commission which contributes to the larger mission of the church.

I find Romans 12:4–8 (NRSV) instructive:

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

That same logic can be applied to the larger work of the church. The church has many parts, each contributing on the basis of its task and special grace. We have program structures which focus on foreign missions, we have program structures which focus on children in summer camps, we have program structures which deal with stewardship matters, we have program structures which deal with supporting pastors. I invite the larger church to acknowledge the church school as an arm of the church with a particular mandate.

But what does this mean practically? Let me suggest a few things that come to mind.

It means acknowledging, formally and emotionally, that the church school is integrally part of the church, within the church rather than an entity external to the church. I do not mean to read too much into the language we use, but part of me is always a little uncomfortable when I hear the school and the church spoken of as two separate entities. Even the question I am addressing feels not quite right. Do we have parallel consultations on the church-mission board relationship? The question does work as a short-hand, but at the same time it runs the risk of creating distance. Instead of asking, what does the school wish from the church, perhaps we could ask, what does the school wish from the conference? Or congregation? Or denomination? I admit I am not consistent here, but I tend to prefer images and metaphors which tie the church school integrally to the church rather than keeping it at a distance. Although I am not offended when we speak about the school as the servant of the church, I much prefer to speak about it as an arm of the church. And as soon as one thinks of an arm, it is no longer easy to imagine the arm apart from the whole person, or the whole person without the arm.

For this to have meaning requires formal structure. No doubt there are many ways in which this can be done. But without a formal connection, the relationship is undermined. Formal connections, or structures, are both ways of representing what we think and of fostering a way of thinking.

It means appreciating the particular nature and mandate of the church school. A college or university of the church is still a college or university. The particular nature of the institution flows from that identity, even though the way it works at this mandate is profoundly influenced and shaped by the fact that it does this on behalf of the church, contributing to the mission of the church.

It is common to speak of the tasks of a post-secondary education as three-fold: (1) teaching, or learning—passing on the knowledge and wisdom of one generation to the next, through conversation between the generations; (2) research, or the growth and observation of new knowledge or wisdom; (3) service to the community. Whether you use the word “university” in your name or not, I expect these three roles are present in some form or other in your institution. Further, I believe all are critically needed by the church. The church needs places where young people are taught about our world and life in it in a setting where the work of God and Christ is part of the conversation (cf. Ps. 78:2–4, 6). The church needs places where students are inspired as well as given the knowledge and skills needed for leadership in the church. The church needs places where citizenship in the kingdom of God is taught. I expect in most of our schools this educational mandate receives the majority of our energy. A similar case can be made about research, and service, or resourcing the community. This is our task.

It means appreciating the particular stage of life of the students we tend to work with. Here I am thinking primarily of those schools that work with the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old young adult. This is a difficult age, during which (at least in North American culture) tremendous transition takes place. Careers may be selected; new friendship networks are formed; marriage partners may be found; new identities may be developed. And during this time, young people ask hard and critical questions of all structures and organizations, including the church.

I have said that it is an amazing privilege to work at a place where students enter as overgrown teenagers and exit as mature adults (at least many of them). I have also said that the single most satisfying aspect of work here is seeing a person make this transition to adulthood with a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ and the body of Christ, the church. But at the same time, the most distressing aspect of the work is seeing students during this time reject this direction. When that happens, we have the responsibility of asking whether we could have done something differently.

But I remind us of this to highlight what so often happens during this stage of life. The pressures on young adults are huge. And that is true whether they attend our church school or the public university or enter the work force.


My second wish is that the church would assist the school in its educational task. I will not take a lot of time on this one, but I do think the church has a role to play in helping the school with its educational task. And when I speak here of “the church,” I probably am thinking most of the church at the level of the local congregation, although not only.

A common reality, at least in North America, is that the young person leaves home to go to college or university. Often that means leaving the home congregation, and often that results in a significant loosening of ties with any congregation. I admit, it is my impression we schools have not found an effective way of nurturing good relationships between our students and local congregations. No doubt some of this is our fault, and some of this relates to the stage of life these students are at. And once they have developed the habit of not participating in the life of a congregation, it is hard to change this after leaving school. This is not unique to church schools, but it is there as well. This is a real concern for me.

I wonder whether church and school could work together more closely at finding a way of addressing this reality. Here at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) I have wondered whether we should have an on-campus church, which sees its special gift or calling as providing a home for students. In such a setting the questioning style of young people, as well as some of their other mannerisms, would need to be accepted. Or is there some other way of working at this task?

A more focused way in which the church can help the school in its educational task relates to the preparation of future church leaders. Future leaders need settings or congregations where they can test their calling and improve their skills, places where mistakes can be made without rejection. Only so much can happen in the classroom.

Let me be clear, I am here not saying the church isn’t doing this, but it is something I consider to be very important, something I continue to want from the larger church.


Third, I wish the church would partner with the school in the task of thinking. This may be the most complex issue. Earlier I noted that one of the tasks of a university and its faculty is to do research. Some senior faculty at major universities do little else. It is accepted, at least within Western society, that universities must be hotbeds of innovation and knowledge creation.

Some of our schools may not emphasize research, but doesn’t the term really only mean thinking critically, systematically, and perhaps imaginatively about any and all aspects of life, never being satisfied with the status quo, or simple assumptions? Not surprisingly, when this happens, differences of opinion and conviction are inevitable. School-based thinkers will tend to test new directions; organizationally based thinkers will tend to affirm the old.

But if society in general benefits from such careful thinking from its universities, doesn’t the same hold true for the church? This past year I attended a conference sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada on where the church is going in the twenty-first century. The conference was called “Hinge” because of the conviction of the EFC that the church is at a crucial hinge moment. In order to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ into the postmodern context, the church will need to be creative, with the old ways simply inadequate.

The church school, I maintain, should be an integral part of this process. But I emphasize the word “part.” Some theological traditions speak of the “the university as the place where the church thinks.” But that is not our tradition. Unlike those traditions in which the scholars are expected to give the final answers, we have emphasized the hermeneutical community, the contribution of the practitioners of the faith, those who live faithfully the message of the gospel. Scholars do have their role, but they should not play this role on their own.

That is why I say that one of the things I would wish from the church is a partnership in this careful thinking process, a partnership in considering the key issues facing the larger church, and what faithful responses might be.

And I suggest this must be an entrepreneurial process. It may sound strange to import a term which we usually associate with business. Let me explain. A presentation at a MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) conference in San Jose by the West Coast editor of the Wall Street Journal suggested the reason the Silicon Valley was so successful was that people there had come to terms with failure. They recognized that most business initiatives failed. But they kept trying, recognizing that failure was an integral part of the whole process.

The same, I suggest, applies to the research agenda of a Christian university. I have sometimes said that “Faculty have a right to be wrong.” In fact, I might put it even stronger than that: If our faculty members never make mistakes in their theological reflection, then they are probably not asking new questions, or testing new ways of understanding our world as Christians, new ways of following Jesus.

What I ask of the church is appreciation of this reality, and even more, partnership with us in this careful, systematic, and imaginative thinking process. I do not think the future of the church rests on this; that future is in God’s hands. But I do think our small part of the larger body of Christ will be a more effective part of that body if we find a way of working at this together.


Fourth, I wish that the church would support the church school. Support can come in many different forms, but I list a few of the more important ones here.

Through exhortation and challenge. It may sound strange to begin this way, but I really do believe this. Each part of the church needs to be open to hearing from other parts of the church where it could and should do better. As any other arm or agency of the church, schools tend to see things through their own clouded lenses, and as such need others to help see things more clearly.

I would consider some of the comments made by David Wiebe in his paper as exactly that. His encouragement to the schools to work at discipleship formation more systematically, or to add asset instruction to deconstruction-based instruction deserves attention. Schools regularly receive comments like this from individuals, sometimes from individuals who are friends, sometimes from those who aren’t. That can be the church at work, but it is only one level. We invite that.

Through encouragement and counsel in the face of pressures to conform. In a recent book called Realizing our Intentions: A Guide for Churches and Colleges with Distinctive Missions, Al Meyer speaks about the powerful external forces pushing post-secondary institutions to greater conformity with each other. Not only is this true of public institutions, with the differences between them decreasing as they look to each other for models, this is also true of church institutions which constantly experience pressures to conform, to be more like the college or university next door.

This is clear when one observes the history of institutions, with most faith-based institutions over time having become secular, at least in the United States and Canada, but it is also true today. Our faculty are trained in state schools; students expect similarly styled programs; accreditation agencies use similar standards, etc., etc. At the heart of Meyer’s book is the warning that, given this tremendous pressure to conform, if a faith-based institution wants to retain a distinct mission, one shaped by the mission of the church, tremendous vigilance is required.

I affirm that. We schools must always be aware of this. But at the same time, I invite the church to help us deal with this pressure. Withstanding this drift toward conformity is virtually impossible without constant dialogue and support from the church.

Through financial support—conference, congregation, and individually. (You knew I would get to that, didn’t you?) Schools need resources to work at the mission. How those resources are generated varies tremendously from country to country, and according to the type of school it is. Even how church resources get to the school varies, depending on tradition and context.

I am not here to pronounce how this should happen. I would, however, make the case that the relationship with the larger church will be stronger—with the larger church having more ability to influence—if these resources do not only come from the church via supportive individuals. True, this is still “church support,” but the message the institutional church sends to a school and its students when it doesn’t become involved financially is also significant.

Through prayer and advocacy. I conclude by inviting the church, as individuals but also as structures, to support the work of the church school through prayer and advocacy. Your prayers make a difference, and your advocacy is needed within the various parts of the church, whether it is a congregation or conference body.

A University of the Church for the World

A phrase I use for CMU is “A university of the church for the world.” I use it to highlight our identity as a university, that we are “of the church,” not in the sense that we are owned by the church as you may own a car, but in the sense that we are part of the church, as your arm is part of you. And it reminds us of the goal of our work. The church is there to contribute to God’s mission in the world. The church created our schools as a way of working at this vision. My prayer is that we schools contribute to this larger mission as effectively as possible, and that through our joint work Christ may be glorified and his mission served.

For most of his working life Gerald Gerbrandt, PhD, has been involved in Christian higher education in Canada. He served in various capacities, including academic dean and president, at Canadian Mennonite Bible College. When that school joined two others to become Canadian Mennonite University in 2000, he continued to serve as president, retiring in June 2012. Currently he is writing a commentary on the book of Deuteronomy.

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