Tim Freeman
M. S. Thirumalai

The paucity of good education for the poor and needy in many countries of the world is being addressed in many locations through the starting of new schools by missionaries, resulting in great blessing, but also raising questions about this strategy by those who recall the checkered history of “mission schools”. Many of these started long ago with a thorough Christian educational orientation, but slowly morphed into schools that evidence little or no passion for the Lord. In this article, we address some of the issues involved with the hope that it may point the way forward for those contemplating community development through education.

Questions Relating to Secular Schools Started by Missionaries

Sometime ago the All India Christian Council, an organization of Christian activists, came out with a strong statement questioning the policies of enrollment adopted by Christian schools and colleges in India. According to the statement, Colleges and schools that bear Christian names and were originally started by Christian Missionaries are now more interested in providing secular education to more affluent parts of society. They have thus lost their original focus of serving the poor and needy and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. This charge is not new for India, and is heard as well in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Should Missionaries Start Secular Schools? A Historical Debate

Historically, we notice that serious questions have been raised as to the desirability of missionaries starting secular schools for the education of people in the nations they serve. Additional questions were raised as to the validity of “imposing” the European model of education, which was rapidly becoming more and more divorced from Christian thought and action. Another question raised was whether these European models should be allowed to replace the traditional model of education in these nations. The traditional models had as cornerstone the notions of “honor and respect”, whereas European models emphasized empirical studies. Those who opposed European models feared that traditional arts and professions, as well as the time-honored technique of memorization, would be neglected and soon forgotten.

Imposing European Models of Education?

The European models, particularly those brought from England, encouraged the learning and extensive use of English for all purposes of governance, education, mass media, etc. For instance, Lord Macaulay, who had a very poor opinion of Eastern arts and sciences, sided with those who advocated the teaching of European sciences with the extensive use of English. His authority as a member of the Governor-General’s Council finally settled the educational debate in favor of the European sciences and models of education. The Christian schools and colleges meekly followed the government instructions in India and in the British colonies.

Welcome to English!

Although there was much debate about the perceived forced imposition and subsequent irrelevance of these imported models of education, current generations in the nations that adopted models of European education now rely very heavily on these schools for their economic progress. The craze for English is more intense than ever, long after the end of European control over these nations. Education in the Muslim nations around the world is no exception to this trend. Globalization is bound to increase our dependence on English and models of empirical education.

In most cases the same political parties that opposed English as a medium of instruction are now in the forefront demanding English be taught even from the first grade of elementary education. Parents have gone one step further. They demand that English be taught right from the pre- and lower kindergarten classes! English is now chosen voluntarily as the preferred medium of education. Empirical education has become the standard. Schools with Christian names have become a hot choice. Strangely, non-Christians also have begun to start secular schools with Christian names and with names of European leaders, places, etc.

Missionaries Should Continue to Start Secular Schools

The Love of Christ constrains us to start schools and colleges to serve the poor and the needy. Missionaries are constrained to work within the parameters of pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies all over the world.

Problems Faced

Governments have their own legal code of education, prescribing curriculum, teacher-student ratios, class sizes, classroom size, vacation schedules and so on. Governments have their own Inspectorates or Directorates to regulate and implement their educational policies. Governments also prescribe or produce textbooks that are required for classroom teaching. Examinations for higher classes or for the school finals are conducted by the Boards of Examinations set up by the government. Only diplomas issued by these Boards are valid documents. Obedience to these government dictates is most often not optional; additionally, schools must be registered before formal education can be undertaken. Not only does this registration process take time and personal interaction with officials, but often requires significant funds before accreditation can be obtained. Other challenges include opposition from resurgent non-Christian religions and the consequent assertion of religious identities. When coupled with anti-Christian political activism, it becomes difficult to establish and run schools under Christian names in several parts of the world.

Apathy Among Christians

The erosion of Christian content in the curriculum, coupled with lack of discipleship among staff, is at least partly due to the above constraints. Add to this a growing apathy among national Christians, and the result is a significant decrease of Christian content in the Christian schools and colleges earlier started by missionaries. Today the reversal of this erosion is left to groups like the All India Christian Council as they labor through activism to return to a strong Christian structure in the educational process.

Education is Political

Once an educational institution is established anywhere in the world, it more or less becomes a political institution. Institutional politics are played out in areas such as: which curriculum should be adopted, who should be at the helm of affairs in the school, what kind of students should have preference for enrollment in the school, how are the holy days of the non-Christian religions dealt with, how is the study of the Gospel integrated into the curriculum, how frequently is the Lordship of Jesus Christ referred to, who should be appointed as teachers (and can non-Christian teachers be appointed), what balance can be struck between the non-Christian and Christian teachers, is Christmas celebrated, are prayer meetings conducted where all the teachers participate and wherein Jesus is glorified, should there be special preference given to the children of Christian parents, and so on.

Loss of Interest in the Original Vision

In addition to the above problems, there is a natural fall or fading out of the original vision. As denominations become more lethargic and expand only through biological growth, there is no or little seeking after the will of God and often no seeking after the dynamic ministry of the Holy Spirit in their endeavors. Denominations also become group-oriented. Certain groups such as castes or regional and/or ethnic identities come to dominate the church affairs and the affairs of the schools and colleges under its administration. Group rivalries have also resulted in physical violence in several parts of the world. Schools and colleges become a source of employment, income and demonstration of power and social status for the members of these groups, and not a means to evangelize the unreached in their communities.

What Can We Do?

Each challenge is an opportunity for positive progress. If we do not meet the challenge with appropriate creative responses, Christian education in pluralistic nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will become more difficult. We must be creative in our implementation of education for those who need it. There are ways by which we can introduce the story of Jesus, His teaching and His Lordship over all humanity and all creation. School Assembly is an important part of students’ daily life in any school, and this presents an excellent opportunity to share the Gospel. Recitation and citation of verses from the Bible is very appropriate in such assemblies. 

Story-telling is another part of the class schedule in lower grades, and these stories can contain much biblical content. Additional Christian reading materials in the form of stories, videos, DVDs, comic books, etc., can be supplied in classes and made available in school libraries. Those relating to Christian morals and ethics will reach the minds of the young with great effect. In the higher classes, clubs for various activities with Christian values can be developed to great effectiveness. Voluntary prayer groups to pray for the needs of students, their families, the school and the community foster social consciousness even as these help students and parents understand the Word of God and the redeeming power that comes from it. School leaders could also consider starting a campus Church, provide for summer camps for the students, and do Vacation Bible Schools. At the higher grades and in higher education, the goal should be to encourage and activate Christian young people to become agents of change, enabling them to use opportunities that come their way to give the gospel to their friends and contacts. 


The atrophy of certain mission schools of the past can serve as lessons to the missionaries of today who have a passion for Christian education for the poor and needy. The historical weakening of these so-called “Christian schools” (now unrecognizable as such) should not discourage today’s missionaries from providing strong, transformative Christian education through the formation of new schools to meet the needs of today’s young people.

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Tim Freeman
Bethany International
6820 Auto Club Road Bloomington, MN 55438 USA tim.freeman@bethanyinternational.org

M. S. Thirumalai
Bethany International
6820 Auto Club Road Bloomington, MN 55438 USA msthirumalai2@gmail.com

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