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    Cultivating Civic Trust

    by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director  ◊

    How is it that graduates of Christian schools are more likely to believe that general society is hostile to their views? What does this say about our teaching, learning, and school structures?


    Trust is defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. This belief in the reliability of someone or something is a foundational aspect of our interpersonal relationships, our social fabric, and our civil society; indeed shared life is impossible without trust! When trust is eroded it has a deep impact on both our interpersonal and organizational relationships.

    Trust is also a foundational aspect of our faith. The Bible speaks often of trust including this well-known reference in Proverbs 3: 5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

    In her YouTube talk, “The Anatomy of Trust,” Brené Brown quotes Charles Feldman who characterized trust as “choosing to make something important to you, vulnerable to the actions of someone else.” Brown contends that when we trust we are “braving connection with someone or something.”

    Sadly, it seems that trust is in short supply today, perhaps in a more striking way than many of us have experienced in our lifetime. High divorce rates, broken friendships, and estranged families disclose a lack of interpersonal trust while alternative news networks, protests, accusations of electoral fraud, insurrection, conspiracy theories, and cancel culture divulge our lack of collective or civic trust. When trust is lost, we all pay a heavy price as our mistrust breeds suspicion, anger, accusation, acrimony, and division.

    The Cardus Education Survey – 2018 BC Bulletin* provides some fascinating research on trust:

    Trust is the bedrock of a shared life together. Without it, we cannot live with one another for long. In terms of graduates’ civic orientations, our survey seeks to find in what (or in whom) people trust. Overall, our findings indicate that religious school attendance doesn’t reduce overall trust except trust in neighbours for evangelical Protestants, who are much more likely to believe the general society is hostile to their views; however, the non-religious independent schools have done a good job in cultivating a higher-than-average sense of civic trust.

    Evangelical Protestants are less likely to trust their neighbours and strangers; however, the non-religious independent and independent Catholic are more likely.

    As someone who has spent his life’s work in evangelical Protestant schools, this research stings! Graduates of the schools I served display less civic trust, trust of neighbour, and trust of strangers than graduates of other independent schools, including those which are non-religious! My initial reaction to this research was one of shock and disappointment. These findings do not seem to resonate with our lofty mission statements that laud Christian schools’ transforming impact on society.

    How is it that graduates of Christian schools are more likely to believe that general society is hostile to their views? What does this say about our teaching, learning, and school structures?

    Christian schools intentionally isolate students, often referring to biblical passages such as Deut. 6: 5-9 to justify this type of segregated organizational structure.

    The Cardus research indicates that Christian schools may be effective at segregating in order to nurture, but perhaps have lost their way somewhat with respect to our connection and engagement with the broader culture. Could it be that over time, we have become increasingly isolated and less concerned or willing to engage with the society in which we live? Could it be that we have become overly insular in our schools and overly suspicious of the other in our teaching and learning? Could our compelling vision of the opportunity of impacting the world for Christ have been exchanged for a vision focussing on the threat and hostility of society to our faith?

    Perhaps we need to recalibrate our thinking and practice to enhance our students’ civic trust. History has plenty of examples of the dangers of either blind trust or rampant mistrust of civil authorities. We should work hard to avoid these extremes while heeding the Bible’s call for the faithful to engage, recognizing that we are blessed to be a blessing. It is impossible to love our neighbours if we don’t embody appropriate civic trust. Could our lack of civic trust belie a lack of trust in the sovereign God?

    We approach the threshold of mature faith when we come to the realization that God does not need us—he wants us. He does not rely upon our service or protection, but delights in our presence and love. If your faith feels like a heavy burden, and if you feel the constant need to defend God’s honour, could it be because you have been carrying a false god?
    —Skye Jethani

    Jeremiah 29: 4-9 can be instrumental in helping us recalibrate. This chapter is a message from God to his people, who are in exile in Babylon. God’s people are confused, defeated, fearful, and mistrusting. Their destiny as God’s chosen people seems to have been turned upside down as they find themselves captives in a strange and hostile land.

    This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they, too, may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

    This message likely shocked many of God’s people in Babylon; think of the sentiments expressed in Psalm 137. Despite being a conquered people in a strange and hostile land, God’s message to his people is to engage – build houses, settle down, plant gardens, marry your sons and daughters. Then he goes further commanding his people to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city … for if it prospers, you too will prosper.” God does not want his people to isolate in protective bubbles; he wants them to be engaged with society and to work towards peace and prosperity of the other!

    God also warns of those who give a false message about what to do in Babylon – although they claim to be delivering God’s message they are deceivers! Today there are many proclaiming contrary versions of what God is calling us to do. We need the discernment of the sons of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32) to sort out the messages that reflect God’s intentions from the false manifestations.

    God’s message through Jeremiah is clear: avoid the extremes of isolation or assimilation and engage,seeking the blessing of the city. God promises that his people flourish when they contribute to the flourishing of those around them.

    How are Christian schools seeking the blessing of the cities and regions in which we find ourselves? How are we engaging in the public sphere, seeking to bless those who may have differing opinions, values, and lifestyles? We live in times of increasing secularism which many Christians view as a threat to communities of faith. When facing a threat, the natural inclination is to shelter in place, creating barriers and protections as we isolate with like-minded folks. Perhaps, despite our lofty mission statements about engaging culture, many Christian schools have increasingly become protecting bubbles of safety, shielding ourselves from “the other.”

    In such circumstances, it is no surprise that graduates of Christian schools demonstrate a lack of civic trust. If we are not active in our communities, connecting with institutions and leaders outside of our homogeneous faith community, then we will lack relationship and trust. John Mark Comer, in his book Garden City, shares a beautiful understanding of the Bible’s clarion call for Christians to be active participants in all aspects of God’s creation, including civic institutions.

    May we, as Christian schools existing in a secular and pluralistic society, engage in our communities working, praying, and actively pursuing the common good so that our communities may be blessed. The rich promise of Jeremiah 29 is that our flourishing will follow.