Wait, is Waterloo a Christian High School?

October 24, 2022 | Craig Doerksen

Dead Poets Society SQUARE

When we think of a Christian school, we tend to think of a few common features: Christian teachers and staff, Bible and Apologetics classes, weekly chapel, and frequent prayer and Bible studies.

A few other images may sneak in from private school culture: conservative prep-style uniforms (blazers on chapel days), prefecture and school houses (hello, Hogwarts), and other Neo-Classical elements, including shields, crests, columns, and branding that fits right in with Oxford and Cambridge and Dead Poet’s Society.

If this is what makes up our image of a Christian high school, Waterloo does not appear to be one. Instead of those classes, chapels, uniforms, or classical architecture, we meet in a mid-century building on the SoCo strip in Austin; our students dress like the tourists and creatives around them; and our classes (while personal and unique in their theme-driven, project-based nature) do not include mandatory theology training and Christian programming.

So what’s the deal? Is Waterloo a Christian school?

The answer is a resounding “yes,” and it starts with our teachers and a model built around relationships.

School looks a bit different at Waterloo, with a diversity of convictions, questions, and life journeys.

Being a relational (versus institutional) Christian high school

What we mean when we say we are a Christian school is that we have Christians teaching and mentoring our students. We are teachers living our their faith and vocation as followers of Jesus.

For us, being Christian is more about personal relationships than institutional identity.

On a philosophical level, the only Christian things are people, the church, and theology. As C.S. Lewis notes, only souls are immortal: “Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal.”

From that perspective, a school is not properly Christian. It cannot be — no more than a business, a t-shirt, or a nation. There is only one church, and while individual teachers are members of it, the school they work at is not. We want to free our identity as an organization and institution to be a great school — and free the Christians within it to live their faith honestly and personally.

The challenges of institutional Christianity

Our mission is to use academics to mentor students into a healthy relationship with themselves, the world, and God. We don’t want to introduce elements that could work against that.

In our many years of teaching, mentoring, and leading teenagers, we have found that a strong experience of institutional Christianity in schools can sometimes inhibit teenagers from figuring out what they believe and how to live. Reasons for this are complex and include a growing cultural distrust of any institution, religious or otherwise. But regardless, recent research by the Barna Group shows us one way this looks like for teenagers and faith: students are open to questions of truth and Jesus but less trusting of the church’s answers to those questions.

It’s common for students to learn all the “right answers” quickly — and discover the benefit of giving them even if they don’t think they’re true. They learn there are some things you should say regardless of what you believe. They also know there are some things you cannot say or ask — if you don’t want to feel judged.

This is a challenge every Christian educator (and pastor and youth pastor!) faces — earning the trust of students and young people in order to hear their thoughts, beliefs, hopes, and desires. This is an inherently personal and relational challenge. A strong institutional Christian culture can help establish common beliefs, expectations, and standards, and the formative influence of those is significant. But the relational work of earning that trust is still person-to-person, and sometimes what is experienced as Christian culture is an obstacle to personal trust. Sometimes students perceive faith not so much as a reflection of personal belief but as it is a commitment to the institution.

Waterloo curriculum gives students room to learn how to perceive the world — sometimes literally! These two Waterloo students are working on a pinhole camera project.

Making room for personal faith to flourish

Over decades of teaching, many of us have discovered something surprising: the increased quality of conversations that often happens between teachers and alumni. The graduate can be much more frank, honest, and personal. They can ask questions and share doubts and challenges with the teacher they trusted all along — but with whom they could not process honestly because they were at a “Christian school.” In short, the relationship of a mentor becomes more possible.

Why wait until after graduation to “get real”? Why not foster that kind of environment here and now?

What started as a theory has already blossomed into a unique new reality at Waterloo School. We’re not forcing spiritual growth to happen within a framework — we’re making room for it to happen organically.

Students from all traditions, beliefs, and faith backgrounds engage with meaningful content and big issues that are baked into our curriculum — a curriculum rooted not in an outline of topics and subjects, but in the realities of making sense, beauty, and value in our 21st-century world. They have open conversations with teachers and peers in class, in the halls, and at lunch. They bring their ideas, perspectives, and understandings ‘to the table,’ to their projects, and their creations. They learn the joy and freedom of pursuing knowledge and understanding with honesty, openness, and humility.

We are a Christian high school in this way: we are Christians — every teacher and executive and vision-level board member — who are all seeking to help students discover and grow into their unique value, beauty, and place in the world through our personal vocation as educators.

We think there are advantages and opportunities to being Christians who educate rather than branding a Christian high school experience.

What kind of school is best for you?

Different kinds of schools meet the needs of different kinds of families. Traditional institutional Christian schools provide a strong and valuable education rooted in Christian culture and conviction. Non-sectarian schools provide an environment for an educational experience that excludes questions of faith and religion. Diocesan and denominational schools provide yet another valuable formative opportunity within specific faith communities. And Waterloo? Waterloo is actually a blend of many different inspirations: project-based learning, design-thinking, Anglican formation, micro-schooling, and Classical education, and research that shows we learn more easily when we’re laughing and playful. Each model provides a valuable alternative — the breadth of options is what you find in a healthy, pluralistic society.

We encourage you to take a look for yourself. Visit Waterloo and check out several other Christian and non-sectarian high schools in Austin as well. Ask them what faith looks like at their schools. Where can kids go with questions? What opportunities do they have to take ownership of their beliefs and convictions?

Whether your family (or your student) is devoutly Christian, faith-minded, or simply wants an environment where you can share and explore what’s important to you, you are welcome at Waterloo. And that’s not just the superficial kind of welcome. We make time and space for each student’s unique convictions, questions, and life journeys. Feel free to ask around and find out for yourself.

Whether you are a long-time Waterloo family or are just visiting, don’t hesitate to reach out to us to schedule a conversation over coffee or over Zoom. It’s our great honor to partner with parents and play a role in their kid’s faith journey for this important season of life.

Craig Doerksen

Craig Doerksen

Prior to becoming the director of Waterloo School, Craig provided leadership for a number of prominent institutions, including Regents School of Austin; the Bluetower Arts Foundation in Eugene, OR; and Trinity School in Raleigh, NC. Craig holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Ireland and graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English.