catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


How do you see teachers carrying out the task of spiritual formation?

Al Boerema (, associate professor of education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, asked the Dot Edu panel to discuss the following: 

One of the important roles that Christian schools play is in the spiritual formation of our students. Yet, this is often not part of the curricular program of the school. How do you see teachers carrying out the task of spiritual formation?


June 16, 2008

Christian Altena starts off:

Hello, all. We in Christian education continually ask ourselves what it is, exactly, that makes us different from the public school down the street. Other than the size, likely, one could not tell merely by looking at the building, until a sign is spotted, or one notices a preponderance of “telling” bumper-stickers on the vehicles in the parking lot. Moving from the outside in, one might spot a few Bible verses painted on the walls, a Bible class in session, or the student praise band rehearsing. In any classroom, at the very least, one could witness first-period devotions, or overhear a teacher say, “Welcome class, let’s take a walk through God’s garden of mathematics!”  Although these are unique and valuable aspects of a Christian school education, none of them, by themselves, can carry an individual very far down the road of spiritual formation by themselves.

What I think does promote spiritual formation is relationships: sustained, empathetic, and grace-filled relationships among and between teachers and students. Through these relationships we teach each other what it means to be in communion with Christ and his will. And while this communion is often strained throughout the course of a school year, our hourly words and actions towards each other, especially in times of stress, go further towards the teaching of a “spiritual curriculum” than merely any chapel or Bible class.

Teachers play a critical role in this process. The students perhaps study us more than any other subject. Do we consistently model the truths we seek to instill in our students? When they look at us, what do they see? Do they see individuals living in the sunshine of God’s grace, or in the fog of doubt and apathy? I think we can do considerable damage when we are perceived as having “bought into” the very things we frequently rail against: materialism, selfishness, the culture of complaint and negativity. It is important that the relationships we build throughout our brief years together are based on the understanding that we are responsible to each other through Christ.

It is in these relationships that we instruct each other repeatedly that the spiritual life is not confined to Sunday morning or spiritual emphasis week, or the opening 5-10 minutes of first period. We remind each other that the use of our minds in our academic classes can and should be understood as an act worship; that the use of our bodies on the field of play is to his glory; that the words we say to a friend’s actual face, or to her virtual face(book) should be those of Christ (mention this last part to a class, as I did recently, and watch the cringefest). In every hour of every school day, regardless of subject, regardless of location within the school, we strive to teach these spiritual lessons. (Read: every square inch of this world belongs to God – Abraham Kuyper.)

We don’t often formally evaluate these relationships (though my children’s report cards do have a “Life Skills” section evaluating, among other items, “Christian character through speech and behavior”), but we are sometimes blessed with seeing profound changes within students over the course of their time in our classes. More often, we hear about such changes from students years later, and sometimes through their own children.

Ultimately, it is not for the academics, athletics, and atmosphere that we believe in Christian education and sacrifice for it, it is for the raising up of a generation who will continue to testify, bravely, in the face of myriad voices to the contrary, that “our world belongs to God.”

- Christian


June 18, 2008

New panel member Bruce Wergeland adds another approach:

Spiritual formation is an ambiguous expression because this concept echoes an ideology of Christian modernity: an empirical formula for spiritual growth that can be measured separately from other forms of personal growth. 

The spiritual essence of our humanness is not a quality that can be separated from the whole person who has been created in the image of Elohim, for eternity. Genesis 2:7 is a powerful reminder that the breath of God is our spiritual marker – a gift which forever binds us to himself. Each person is spiritual by conception, not by choice. Without becoming entangled in the depths of a worldview debate, one must establish some notion of spiritual formation so that there is a possibility of identifying providential situations or even intentional activities that focus on the spiritual soul – the essence of an individual – when teachers and students are actually engaging each other in their Christian faith, together.

Character development seems like a natural starting point for this discussion because character traits (even though they are completely assimilated with the spiritual) are attributes that can be recognized and perhaps measured through the spontaneous responses to a personal crisis or through vulnerability that is fostered in a genuine relationship. For educators, character development is really a paradox, because they rarely organize curriculum and learning activities that intentionally focus on this aspect of personal growth. But everything they teach, dismiss or emphasize in the classroom reveals their own character and shapes the character of their students. Ultimately, the primary outcome (another modern formula) of Christian education should be character development; really, it is unavoidable in the transmission of our own personal story via the knowledge and skills that our society so highly values. But when do we deliberately pursue moments of character development that reflect a propensity for the spiritual, or the eternal priorities of life?

There is nothing more memorable, engaging and influential than the personal narrative; the parables of Jesus, throughout the gospels, attest to this relational tool. Humorous stories from the lips of any teacher are great connecting points for students, but it is the stories about loss, brokenness and vulnerability – which allow students to understand better the life journey of the human creature that they see at the front of the classroom – that provoke the mind to reconsider, stimulate an unfamiliar emotion or strengthen personal integrity. The narrative never disappoints because the reality that everyone shares through nature is embodied by the spiritual: Yahweh, the God of the present.

Spiritual formation is not something to be assigned, completed or measured, rather, it is a consequence of one’s faith in the spiritual attributes that connect each person to their Creator. This elusive concept takes sanctuary in the messy interaction of daily relationships and presents extraordinary glimpses of realization during the learning activities of classroom curriculum.

- Bruce


June 20, 2008

Jolene responds:

So if teacher-student relationships and personal narratives are so important in the spiritual formation of each student, how are we examining ourselves as teachers in order to be strong models of spiritual maturity? How are we keeping ourselves on God’s path, avoiding traps such as materialism, selfishness, the culture of complaint and negativity so that our students are also learning to avoid these things?

My ideas for promoting our spiritual maturity include, among others, individual and communal prayer, worship, and conferences. If these things move us towards God, then the question is, do we engage in daily personal prayer?  And do we set up times for communal prayer with our colleagues?  

I’ve often felt an inner nudge to challenge our Christian school staff to put stronger emphasis on attending to this need in their lives to foster a culture of spiritual maturity. We need to give ourselves to God. We need to remember that this work we do is not for our benefit but for God’s kingdom. If it really is the spiritual maturity of the teaching staff that ministers most to our students, then we need to carefully deepen that maturity. Do Christian schools around the country acknowledge this goal and schedule it on to their calendars?

And a further question: how do teachers bring their stories about communal prayer, worship, and other experiences into their classroom? How can we better portray the positive effects of spirituality in an adult life to our students?

All this said, I don’t want to write off those planned, structured and even assessed activities designed to aid students in their spiritual formation. Though at times students can blow off these activities and assignments as meaningless, I still believe that they can create inner change in some students. I think particularly of those students who do not have habits in their home or their church lives which help develop a deep Christian spirituality. I believe that Bible stories, service learning projects, classroom reflections, and ethical talks with youth and similar activities do foster reflection in students that can spark spiritual growth.


June 30, 2008

Tony jumps in:

Good day, everyone. I would like to throw in a few comments. I may be spiritually challenged in that I am not always sure what our spirit is or how to direct its formation. When we teach students something about proper nutrition or responsible consumer behavior (e.g. what they should consider when they buy shoes or a car) – this is spiritual formation. If we were to graduate a group of students who wondered at how their relationships to God, others and the creation are influenced by the things they do and don’t do, I’d say we’ve done something significant in regards to their spiritual formation.

Fret not if your students haven’t had a warm fuzzy feeling for a week or two in your class – that may not be because you have neglected something essential. It may be that you’ve helped them understand their spiritual walk as something less influenced by Romanticism and more influenced by a book that talks about this being part of your getting up and your lying down - the regular activities of life.

Maybe this line of approach would mean that some of our students wouldn’t get so nervous about the lack of emotional intensity in their Christian walk, either, and they can come to appreciate different expressions of human relationship with God without the implied judgment that some of us are missing something essential.

When it comes to the spiritual formation of our students, intentional and regular consideration of what our relationship with God, with others and with creation means for our daily walk is good; overheated focus on the emotional nature of our relationships is bad.

- Tony


The panel consists of:

  • Pam Adams (, professor of education at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Christian Altena ( teaches history at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illiana.
  • Tony Kamphuis (, executive director of the Niagara Association for Christian Education, Smithville, Ont.
  • Tim Leugs ( a fifth-grade teacher at Legacy Christian School, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • Jolene Velthuizen ( a second-grade teacher at Rehoboth Christian School in Northwest New Mexico.
  • Bruce Wergeland ( teaches Grade 8 at Langley Christian Middle School in Langley, British Columbia

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