“We are living in one of the most opportune times to grow Lutheran education in America.”
Zion Lutheran School, Bridgeport, Ct., is somewhat legendary. In 1904, several local congregations pooled together $400 so Zion could open a school. This is considered by many to be the birth of the church extension concept.
For over 113 years, the school was a pillar in the community—a center for a thorough academic experience rooted in the Word of God, as well as a light of hope for the community. However, in 2015, they had to close their doors.
Zion’s story is not uncommon to The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Since 2005, over 458 Lutheran schools have closed while enrollment has plummeted. But there is hope.
LCMS schools (early childhood, elementary and high schools) are the second largest parochial educational system in the United States. This includes 1,150 early childhood centers and preschools, 793 elementary schools, 86 domestic and 3 international high schools.
1,150 Early Childhood Centers and Preschools
793 Elementary Schools
86 Domestic High Schools
3 International High Schools
9 Concordia Universities
The ten largest LCMS schools in the U.S. have enrollment numbers that range from a healthy 749 students in Oviedo, Fla., to 1,812 at Faith Lutheran Middle and High School in Las Vegas.
Some authorities like Terry Schmidt, former executive director of the LCMS education ministry, believe that “we are living in one of the most opportune times to grow Lutheran education in America.”
What makes Lutheran education unique?
Lutheran schools have a reputation for offering high-quality education. Yet, as Schmidt adds, the schools promise so much more. “We are centered on Jesus and His amazing grace demonstrated on the cross for every child enrolled in our schools,” he said.
Katie Endorf, commissioned teacher at Christ Community Lutheran School in St. Louis, Mo., put it this way: “[Lutheran education] provides unique learning opportunities where children are encouraged to grow academically and to develop their spiritual relationship with Jesus through worship, devotions, praise, service, outreach and other opportunities.”
“It is uniquely Christ’s care as God’s Word is infused daily into the lessons and curriculum of our Lutheran schools that make the ultimate difference,” said Jeffrey Beavers, executive director of Crean Lutheran High School, Irvine, Calif.
Rev. Dr. Daniel Paavola, a theology professor at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, Wis., added, “Lutheran education at all levels teaches and lives out the Gospel message of God’s salvation through Christ.”
This extends to higher education as well.
Dr. Paul Hillmer, who attended Concordia University St. Paul from 1979 through 1982, stated, “I value my time at Concordia St. Paul because I was given the freedom to explore anything I wanted, but within a structure that supported (not regulated) my own spiritual values and journey.”
“I was able to own and articulate my faith in my own words without relying on other authority figures to speak for me,” he said. Hillmer is now a dean and faculty member at St. Paul.
Luther's views on education
Public education was a fruit of the Reformation. Martin Luther and other reformers proclaimed that the neglect of educating common people—a notorious practice during the Middle Ages—endangered the welfare of a state. Instead, Luther asserted, a well-educated youth was an asset to society.
In a letter to German councilmen, dated 1524, Luther writes, “By helping the youth we shall be helping ourselves and all men.” In other words, a well-ordered and stable society must have men and women who are professionally trained in their particular fields. It’s essential because, Luther wrote, “Where there were no people who have been made wise through the Word and the laws, there bears, lions, goats and dogs hold public office and head the economy.”
“By helping the youth we shall be helping ourselves and all men.”
This issue was so important to Luther that he thought it was the government’s general duty to keep children in school. “If it has the right to force its able-bodied subjects to carry pikes and firearms, to man the walls and do other work when fighting is called for, how much more has it the right and duty to force its subjects to keep their children in school.”
There were spiritual implications as well. “The devil would rather have coarse blockheads and people who are good for nothing.” Rather, Luther would have the common people educated to think, judge and act for themselves—that is, developing a sense of personal responsibility.
“The Lutheran heritage is one of open inquiry, vigorous debate and intellectual honesty,” said Hillmer. “Central to the purpose of Lutheran education is a mission to help each individual to find his or her vocation or calling.”
Individuals and society weren’t the only ones to benefit from the general education of children. For parents, it was an investment. “House and home may burn down, but an education is easy to carry off,” Luther said. Yet, if the Holy Scriptures weren’t taught at a particular school, Luther would not advise parents to send their children. He embraced a broad curriculum, but students should also be unceasingly occupied with God’s Word.
Lutheran education in America
Lutherans carried this emphasis on education over to the New World.
In his book Lutheran Education: From Wittenberg to the Future, Thomas Korock explained, “The Saxons [in America] accorded the same priority to education as they did worship. If at all possible, a congregation was to establish a school.”
“In the days of old, Beavers said, “our schools served our historical Germanic communities and provided an education for the students and parents attending a Lutheran church.”
To this day, the rich heritage of faith and learning working together continues at Lutheran schools at every level. However, it’s not uncommon for non-Christian parents to send their children to a Lutheran school. The benefits for these families are enormous.
Keith Goedecke, principal at Trinity Lutheran School in Spring, Texas, said, “The biggest advantage is that we love our neighbor, therefore provide an atmosphere of caring and concern which can make the learning process more effective.”
While non-Christian families find the high academic standards and attitudes that welcome and care for each student attractive, there are other advantages.
“A Lutheran school is a place of joy and grace in a chaotic world where God’s love and grace are shared daily,” Beavers said. That means the focus of Lutheran education has shifted. These sanctuaries in a chaotic world become outposts for the sharing of the Gospel. Beavers stresses, “Our schools are geared to serve these families.”
“A Lutheran school is a place of joy and grace in a chaotic world where God’s love and grace is shared daily,”
“The first twelve years of schooling are critical to faith formation, but the four years our young people are exploring in college are even more critical to their lives and faith development,” Beavers said.
Paavola provided a few reasons why a Lutheran education during the formative college years is important: “It shapes career paths, lives of service, spousal choice and shapes life decisions….”
The Concordia University System consists of LCMS schools that train leaders in all vocations for the benefit of the Church and the world. These students include those who will serve professionally in the Church as pastors, teachers and directors of various church ministries.
“We train students in a wide range of professions,” Paavola said, “so that the students trained today will be the parents of tomorrow’s students, often returning to the same schools for that valued education.”
“Vocation involves the development of the whole person,” said Hillmer, “the discovery, appreciation and development of how one can be God’s hands and feet in the world. It involves preparing one to be the best possible version of one’s self in work, social, familial, civic, religious and other roles and relationships.”
Which should give us hope.
“Schools provide our church body with workers and dedicated lay people who will remain faithful to our Church and our Lord.”
The future of Lutheran education
“I believe that the future of the LCMS is directly connected to the health and vitality of our school system,” Schmidt said. “Schools provide our church body with workers and dedicated lay people who will remain faithful to our Church and our Lord.”
What makes Schmidt particularly optimistic about the future of Lutheran education is “the advent of choice programs, vouchers and tax credits.”
This means Lutheran schools can open their doors for thousands of neighborhood children who might not be able to afford the tuition. This imparts to these students the “influence of teachers who love their Lord and are eager to engage the community with the love of their Savior.”
Hillmer summed up the opportunity we have this way. “If we are indeed to live out Christ’s Great Commission, we can do so in part by seeing that while Christians can go to all the world to share the Gospel, in many ways the world has come here.”
We as Lutherans have a sound and unique Biblically-based culture to embrace others in Christian love. Our unique understanding and open loving arms in
the school context is the key component to the future of the Church.
According to Beavers, “By sharing the love of Christ through Lutheran education to those who come to us others may know of God’s great love and gift of Christ and be healed.”
While we grieve for every school like Zion Bridgeport that closes its doors, yet, we celebrate every new campus that is opened, every new leader trained and sent out into the world and every school that is growing God is good and He does all things well.
Pray with us
Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer, bless our Lutheran schools. Strengthen, equip and encourage all who teach and all who learn in them, so that Your name is praised and honored as knowledge, skill and attitudes are imparted and acquired. Amen.