Character, Poverty, Health & The Gospel
Note: This article is adapted from Russ Gregg’s opening address to the staff and faculty of Hope Academy on August 18, 2014.
Fifteen years ago, Jeff Bird and I were in a cabin on Lake Huron talking about how to start Hope Academy. We made a roaring fire, but as we put on a few additional logs, the fire was smothered. We took this as a sign that however Hope Academy was would grow, we were going to grow slow, with the gospel as our fire.
While we have grown slow, today it is hard to believe. We started with 35 students in grades K-2, and today we serve more than 400 K-12 students, 200 families, we have nearly 70 staff, a $3.3 million budget, and we are helping lead an education reform movement around the country. Today, I believe more strongly than ever that the Gospel is the source of our success. Let me explain.
The Gospel & Character
This summer, our teaching staff read How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Writing about education reform, Tough rightly puts forward the character hypothesis over against the intelligence hypothesis. He writes:
When looking for root causes of poverty-related under-achievement, we tend to focus on the wrong culprits and ignore the ones that science tells us do the most damage. The science is saying that conservatives are correct on one very important point: character matters. There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths of conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.
However, from my view, Tough is relatively clueless about how to develop this hidden power in children.
Ultimately, he believes character is developed by:
The mundane, mechanical interaction of specific chemicals in the brains and bodies of infants as parents lick and groom them like rats, so that their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well.
A chemical and genetic view misses the source of how character is formed.
True grit, Biblical grit, is not primarily genetic trait. It is an acquired character trait that is forged in the fires of adversity and faith in the gospel.
One writer, Jon Bloom at Desiring God, put it this way,
The Bible’s terms for grit are steadfastness (1 Cor. 15:58) and endurance (Luke 21:19). Steadfastness is the determination to remain at your post come what may. Endurance is the determination to keep moving toward your desired goal despite external challenges and internal weariness.
True godly grit is able to strive hard and stand fast because it is empowered by God’s grace. That’s why Paul could say things like, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”(1 Cor. 15:10).
The Gospel & Poverty
So we possess the most powerful weapon in the war on poverty and character development—the gospel.
In Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice, Keller quotes an essay by Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf.
After visiting an inner-city ministry, Volf began to imagine for the first time how the gospel could change the self-understanding of the poor in life-changing ways.
He discovered how the (seemingly) dead doctrine of justification by grace contained untapped resources for healing:
Imagine that you have no job, no money; you live cut off from the rest of society in a world ruled by poverty and violence; you are pre-judged for the color of your skin—and you have no hope that any of this will change. Around you is a society governed by the iron law of achievement. Its gilded goods are flaunted before your eyes on TV screens, and in a thousand ways society tells you every day that you are worthless because you have no achievement… But the gospel tells us that we are not defined by outside forces. It tells us that we count; even more, that we are loved unconditionally and infinitely, irrespective of anything you have achieved or failed to achieve. Imagine now this gospel not simply proclaimed, but embodied in a community. Justified by sheer grace, the community seeks to “justify” by grace those declared “unjust” by a society’s implacable law of achievement…. A dead doctrine? Hardly!
We, at Hope Academy, already possess the most powerful weapon in the war on poverty—the completely unmerited grace of God. And paradoxically, it often produces the fruit of achievement that society is looking for, but with a radically different source.
The Gospel & Healthy School Culture
The gospel is not just central to character and poverty, but organizational health as well.
Our leadership team is reading Pat Lencioni’s The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else.
Lencioni makes the case that organizational health surpasses all disciplines in any organization as the greatest opportunity for competitive advantage.
We may be smart at Hope Academy, but we are not much smarter than our brothers and sisters down the street.
Our real advantage is the health of our community—our spiritual and emotional health.
According to Lencioni, a healthy organization is one that has all but eliminated politics and confusion from its environment. As a result, productivity and morale soar, and good people almost never leave. Health is as tangible as anything an organization does, and even more important. Why? Because the smartest organizations and schools in the world will eventually fail if it is unhealthy.
By God’s grace, Hope Academy is a relatively healthy place, but I am proposing the following eight commitments to strengthen and sustain the health of our school.
Eight Commitments of the Hope Academy Community
1. We’re going to express our love for God and our dependance on him everyday together.
2. We’re going to invest the precious time needed each day to really listen to and care for one another.
3. We’re going to actively collaborate to help each other become the best teachers and leaders we can be.
4. We’re going to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus to the students and families we serve.
5. We’re going to celebrate the work of the Spirit, whenever we see one another caught in the sacrificial act of laying down our lives like Jesus.
6. Even when it’s difficult, we will endeavor to speak the truth in love to one another, seasoned with grace and generosity of spirit.
7. When sinned against, we’re going to forgive one another just as God has so lavishly forgiven us, in Christ.
8. We are going to faithfully honor our commitments to one another and invite one another’s help in holding ourselves accountable.
What an advantage these eight commitments would give us! If we live them by God’s grace and wield the gospel in all things—God will continue to grow character and end the cycle of poverty in our community.