Back-to-school happens every year, but not like this. At two of our Anabaptist schools, here is the news: Students and professors are breathing the same air.
It’s all part of the new world of COVID-era education, where a sophomore might feel like a freshman.
“Grebel is welcoming second-year students who have never set foot on campus,” say the writers from Conrad Grebel University College in Ontario.
Most Anabaptist schools didn’t shift their classes almost entirely online in 2020, as Grebel and Fresno Pacific University did, but all have endured a year and a half of pandemic disruption.
They’ve done more than just survive or muddle through. As their writers report in our Sept. 17 issue, Anabaptist schools have learned and innovated. The pandemic has spurred improvements, ranging from expansion of online learning options to development of new spiritual-formation activities.
With flexibility and creativity, staff and students have learned skills that will serve them well far beyond the current crisis.
At Fresno Pacific, which nearly emptied its five campuses when COVID-19 erupted in March 2020 — faculty member Katie Fleener describes the growth that has emerged from a year of remote instruction.
“We are stronger,” says Fleener, dean of the School of Business at the Mennonite Brethren institution, which comprises a university and seminary. “We’ve learned how to use technology to improve how we educate.”
Technology is both expansive and limiting. It erases distance but can’t replicate the campus experience, where a spirit of community makes all the difference. Learning in isolation can be boring, as many a remote student discovered last year. From cities like Fresno and Philadelphia to small towns in Ohio and South Dakota, our schools form communities of learning that develop young leaders and spread Anabaptist values.
The decline of Christianity in North America magnifies the importance of this dual mission. A Barna Group survey showed 35% of Gen Z students (born since the mid-1990s) are atheists, agnostic or have no religious belief.
For Anabaptist churches to thrive in this context, doing the same old thing is not going to work.
Might the skills and lessons learned during the pandemic apply beyond the campuses? These are lessons about not just continuing to do what is comfortable but changing to do what is necessary to meet people’s needs.
While congregations may have allowed some of their ministries to go dormant over the past 18 months, the schools haven’t had that luxury. They’ve needed to get creative to keep moving at full steam.
As the places where Anabaptism intersects with thousands of young people — most of them not Anabaptist — our church schools hold the keys to the future.
Rather than trying to figure out how to make the church attractive to the young, we should learn to harness their ideas, energy and leadership.
Anabaptist schools are the places where this happens. Academic and spiritual growth blooms in an environment of care and belonging. This fall it is happening everywhere face to face, which we no longer take for granted.