CHINA—After service on Sunday at a large house church in China, congregants gathered in the sanctuary to share their thoughts about the sermon they had heard. One woman stood up and expressed her gratitude to American missionaries John and Betty Stam, who were murdered by Communist Chinese soldiers in 1934 while bringing the gospel to the Chinese people. “We used to see [Communist General] Fang Zhimin as a hero, but now I realize that he killed so many people,” she said. “It makes me wonder how much of what we learned in school was incorrect.”
It’s this distrust of the government-controlled public-school system, along with general critiques of Chinese education’s grueling test-driven instruction and cut-throat competition, that has brought a quandary to the growing number of new Christian parents: How can we obey God’s Word to raise up our children in the way of the Lord in an education system hostile to that message?
Unlike American Christians who may send their children to public school, Christian or other private school, or teach them at home, Chinese Christians have only one legal option: state-run public school. Classes often span six days a week, stretching from the early morning to 7 or 9 at night, then compounded with tutoring, homework, and studying. The pinnacle of education is to score well on the gaokao, an annual college entrance exam that dictates a student’s college prospects, thus his or her future career. As most Chinese parents only have one child, it becomes all the more important to ensure their children do well and get high-paying jobs, so they can one day take care of their aging parents.
But a batch of brave souls are bucking the status quo by creating their own education options, in some cases homeschooling their children, opening Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) schools that use a self-paced English Christian curriculum, or starting Christian schools within their house church. The risks are high, as alternative schools could be shut down at any time, and the results are uncertain, as Christian schools lack accreditation. Yet for many Christian parents, it’s a risk worth taking.
“We felt we had no other choice,” said Matthew Su, who started a classical Christian school at Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu. “We couldn’t bear to send our kids to any other type of school.” (The relatively few parents who defy China’s one-child policy also have little choice: Second and third children often don’t have household registration and aren’t allowed to attend public schools.)
The exact number of unregistered Christian schools is unknown, although one person in China familiar with the issue said a conservative estimate puts the number in the 200 to 300 range. Some of these schools consist of a handful of students meeting in an apartment, while more established schools have more than 100 students gathering together. Yet the movement is in its infancy, with most schools open for less than 10 years, and it faces numerous roadblocks ahead.
Two big challenges arise even before children step into the building: Finding teachers and finding curriculum to teach. As many in the Chinese church are first-generation believers, most have only experienced public-school education and few understand how to incorporate a Christian worldview into the classroom. Public-school teachers are often well-paid and must take a significant pay cut to join church schools, which often run on donations and meager tuition dollars. To combat the lack of experience, a couple of organizations have developed Christian teacher trainings, borrowing from the experience of veteran overseas educators. Trainings vary from weekend workshops to year-long programs, with one group providing instruction at a master’s degree level.
Yet for Peter Johnson*, who works at one of these training centers, the bigger deficit is the lack of Chinese curriculum. Some schools translate material from English sources, such as Veritas Press, a producer of classical Christian curriculum. Others use public-school curriculum for subjects like math, then create their own curriculum for other subjects. Many schools start with only kindergarten or first grade, and write curriculum as they add on new grades. “What’s needed,” Johnson says, “is an indigenous curriculum in China, by the Chinese, for the Chinese.”
At Su’s school, teachers use material from Veritas Press in the three grades they’ve started last year. The school follows the classical Christian education model—based on grammar, logic, and rhetoric—because Su believes “if what the Bible says is true, then the only way to change and grow and find truth is through Christ. Then Christian education is the real education.” From a young age, students learn not only Chinese and English, but also biblical Hebrew and Greek so they can better understand the Bible and one day become leaders in seminaries and house churches.
Yet there’s material Su wants to teach that just doesn’t exist yet. “One thing that has not yet been done is [a curriculum] looking at Chinese history through a Christian lens,” Su said. “This is something that we hope to do down the line, to see Christianity’s influence on our culture.” He plans to write textbooks that can be used among schools around the country.
Teachers at Su’s school all have advanced degrees in their fields and spent time in the church’s seminary, an anomaly in the burgeoning Christian school movement. Yet still they’ve faced difficulties starting a brand-new school with few existing resources. None of the founders have experience running a school, and once the school year started, the middle-school teachers found that their own education was lacking. Taking the issues in stride, they’ve had to teach themselves the material before turning to teach the students. Also parents unfamiliar with any type of Christian education constantly approach Su and the faculty with questions and concerns about their children.
One bilingual Christian school in eastern China ensures that its students receive an education academically on par with local public schools by using the same curriculum to teach math and Chinese, as well as preparing their students to pass tests like the gaokao, even if they aren’t allowed to take it in the future. For other subjects, the school uses Veritas material, along with science and fine arts curricula written by a group of Christian educators in China. The school, which is not affiliated with any specific house church, started with about a dozen students three years ago and has now grown to 120 students.
During the bilingual school’s first year, neighbors reported the school to authorities, who sent over officers to threaten the school. But by the grace of God, co-founder Jerry Wolfe* said, the school was able to stay open and eventually moved to a new location where it continued unmolested. Other schools report similar stories: One school closed down, moved, and reopened eight times in five years.
Even as schools survive government harassment, an ominous question looms over parents and teachers alike: What happens when students graduate?
While graduates may have better language and critical thinking skills than their public-school peers, the schools are not recognized by the government, so students are barred from taking the gaokao or getting into college. Without a college degree, students are relegated to a life of low-paying jobs. Students from well-to-do families can take the SAT to test into Christian colleges in America. But leaving the country has a hefty price tag, and a growing number of students clamor for spots at these Christian schools each fall. Su’s school is putting together its own college, and the church already has a seminary that students could attend. Another group of Christian educators is working to start a Christian university, noting that this could also be a way to train the next batch of Christian schoolteachers. Some are touting vocational schools that will help students start their own businesses when they graduate.
Others hope and pray that the government will have a change of heart and legitimize religious schools by the time their children graduate, as Confucian and Buddhist schools are also gaining steam. And it’s not only Christians frustrated with the lack of school choice: A 2013 McKinsey report found a “growing concern, among parents, employers, and policymakers alike, that the emphasis on rote learning and high-stakes exam taking does not foster the mental agility and innovative flair that the 21st century economy will need.”
Yet until things change, Wolfe is preparing his students for all their future options by partnering with Veritas’ accredited online program to provide students with diplomas. It’ll be at least five years before the school graduates its first class, and he realizes there’ll be plenty of other unexpected hurdles before then.
“One thing that is known is that God is going to work in the lives of the parents who have stepped out in faith into that [educational] void,” Wolfe said. “He’s equipping them to make more risky steps in terms of bringing faith into the public square. … Those kids are going to have a huge role in what God does in China.”