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Home Sweet Home School

Michelle VanLoon

The smells of urine, detergent, and tired flesh met the group of moms trailed by a noisy group of their children, who ranged in ages from 6 months to 11 years.

"It smells funny in here," one little girl remarked loudly.

"Not to Jesus, Honey," her mom whispered, unzipping her daughter's coat. "Let's get ready to sing with the people in the day room up the hall."

The children's ministry at College Evangelical Free Church had faithfully visited Fair Oaks Nursing Home every Christmas, presenting a concert for the residents. When church member Susan Ewen called to schedule the yearly visit, the nursing home activity director commented that she wished she could get groups to come in for regular visits during the year. The nursing home was always flooded with visitors during the holiday season, and though they were grateful for the outreach, the lonely residents could use a child's hug or smile even more after the holidays passed.

"We have a number of home-schoolers in our church looking for service opportunities that they can do as families," Susan told her. "Let me talk to them to see if we can get a group together that'll commit to coming in every other week."

Several home school families signed up, creating a simple bridge for ministry between the church and the residents of the nursing home that eventually included pastoral visitation and hands-on practical help with the residents' shopping needs.

At Southside Bible Church, the youth pastor walked by a tight circle of teenagers chatting animatedly in the hall after Sunday services. They glanced at him and nodded politely, but he got the feeling for about the fiftieth time that he was from another planet. Something inside him snapped.

"The home-schooled kids in this church have a 10-foot-thick wall around them," he said hotly in the next morning's staff meeting. "They seem to like living in their own little home-school world, separate from the rest of the kids here. They've got these intact, strong families who've given them incredible amounts of attention... you'd think they'd have more to give to others, but it seems as though they have less. They keep a hands-off approach to the kids in public school as if they somehow don't want to be contaminated. They're polite enough one-on-one, but they seem to have their own little home school zone that has a 'Hey, World: Keep Out!' sign posted!"

The senior pastor nodded in agreement. He'd been a fan of home schooling; his wife even educated their two children at home for a couple of years when they were younger. But lately, he'd seen some of the same dynamics at work in the home schooling parents that the youth pastor was describing among the kids. What was going on here?

ANYONE AT HOME?

If it's true that Christianity functions as a subculture, then Christian home-schoolers form a strongly defined subset of that Christian subculture. And this Christian home schooling subset stands out clearly against the backdrop of its relationship with the local church.

Twenty years ago, when a family chose to home school, the parents were likely to have incredibly strong faith convictions.

They certainly needed those convictions then because in many states home schooling was illegal.

Today, home schooling is legal in all 50 states, with an estimated 1.6 million children being home-schooled during the 2006-2007 school year. The home-schooling movement has moved from the domain of a few committed families to a much more diverse group that includes Christians as its largest percentage. There are also secular, Mormon, Islamic, and Jewish families who've chosen this academic alternative.

The common thread that links all these home-schoolers together is some degree of frustration with the public school system, whether it's on the academic, social, or moral front -- or a measure of all three.

Of those Christian families who are making the choice to home school, they're usually strongly committed to their faith. Because other outside influences are limited by the choice to home school, what goes on at the local church can take on increased importance for these families. Home-schoolers can either become a vital part of a local church's ministry or function as dead weight, sapping life and energy from the rest of the body.

ROOM IN THE MIDDLE

In extreme instances, home-schooling families may call for a paradigm shift in the way a church does ministry, insisting that the established programs within a church such as Sunday school and youth ministry (with their attendant time demands and age-segregated offerings) are unbiblical, since these home-schoolers believe that Scripture indicates it's solely the parents' responsibility to train their children.

In the case of Southside Bible Church mentioned at the beginning of this article, many of the home-schooling families had been reacting to a youth group that seemed to attract more than its share of troubled kids and endless calls for staffing church programs that seemed to drain precious family time. A vocal segment of the speakers and writers addressing home-schooling parents through books and conferences tout idyllic, family-centered fellowship (and home birth, home-based businesses, and home churches) as God's Perfect Answer for the way the body of Christ should function, giving these Southside families justification for their emotional withdrawal from church life.

One pastor put it like this: "There's a tension between living the Great Commission and living holy and separate lives. It is both-and not either-or. I've known quite a few home-schoolers who tend to be drawn to the holy part and have pulled away from the Great Commission calling. It's tempting to resolve this tension by moving to one extreme or the other."

Jesus invites each of us to pitch our tents on the fault line of this "both-and" tension -- an important corrective term for all those who ache for sanctuary, comfort, and protection in a decaying culture.

There are thousands of home-schooling families living creatively on that fault line by serving as foster parents, church cleaning crews, casserole preparers, or tutors for neighborhood children, thereby integrating themselves seamlessly into the ministry of their local churches and finding ways to transfer an active, passionate faith to their children.

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