Are all Christian schools created equal when it comes to the spiritual formation of kids? Our guest, Dr. Tim Dernlan, researched this important question and gathered the hard data to prove a difference between classical Christian schools and non-classical, or modern, Christian schools. Tune in to hear the results of this rigorous doctoral study…and what this means for you when choosing a school!

Dr. Timothy Dernlan serves as the Head of Schools for Reach Christian Schools  where he leads four distinct PK-12 Christian schools partnering together to serve over 1,000 students. Dr. Dernlan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Education and Communication at Purdue University, a Masters of Education in Educational Leadership at Lehigh University, and a Doctor of Education in Leadership Studies at Ashland University.

Dr. Timothy Dernlan is a visionary leader and is passionate about advancing Christian community and culture through education. He taught theater, math, rhetoric, physical education, personal finance, communication, leadership, and systematic theology before turning his focus to school leadership.

Much of his early life was influenced by the sport of wrestling. He won All-American honors while at Purdue University, represented the United States as an athlete around the world, and competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Trials. He coached at Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State, Lehigh, and Ashland and was named the NCAA Midwest Region Coach-of-the-Year in 2008.

Dernlan and his wife were married in 2000 and have four children.


Evidence That Classical Christian Schools Excel at Spiritual Formation – Dr. Tim Dernlan

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
– Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia

BaseCamp Live guest, Dr. Tim Dernlan, sounds more like an investigator than a Head of School. Putting on his Sherlock cap, Dernlan gathered and analyzed critical data to determine if Christian schools make a difference in the spiritual lives of students.

Lifeway and Barna studies show that around 70% of Christian students walk away from the faith after graduation, so parents want to know what model offers students the best probability of keeping and maintaining their faith.

Comparing classical Christian w/ non-classical Christian schools

Specifically, he wondered if students who attend classical Christian schools are better at retaining long-term faith after graduation than students of non-classical or “modern” Christian schools.

The bottom line:  Are all Christian schools the same when it comes affecting students and their spiritual formation?  What he found surprised him.

How do you measure spiritual formation in a scientific study?

When he began the study, Dernlan had not yet enrolled his own children in any kind of Christian school, nor did he think there was a difference.
To conduct a legitimate quantitative research study, Dernlan needed a reliable tool to measure Christian faith commitment. Since none existed, he developed a tool consisting of an in-depth survey.  Nine versions later, and after running it through the Human Subjects Review Board and testing for reliability to ensure qualitatively significant statistical differences, he began collecting data.  He measured the spiritual formation of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students in comparable schools selected from a pool of classical schools and a pool of modern Christian schools.

Three areas measured: knowledge, belief and action

The study measured the students’ responses in three specific Christian areas: knowledge of the Bible, belief that the Bible is true, and how strongly those beliefs affect one’s personal life.  The effectiveness of each school was compared to other Christian schools, both Classical and non-classical or modern.

The desire to live like a Christian is higher in the Classical Christian school

The data revealed various differences and trends as students transitioned to higher grades.

Surprisingly, fourth graders showed a higher commitment to the Christian faith in modern Christian schools.  By the time they entered 12th grade, the trend line went down in modern Christian schools and up in classical schools where almost 100% of students reported a strong faith in Christ and a desire to live like a Christian.

According to Dernlan, this finding suggests,“How important it is to stay through 12th grade and not leave in 8th grade; if you make it through the logic stage, and you leave, then you leave before it’s all put back together.”

Additionally, when asked how often their teachers talk about faith and God, the trend was up in classical schools and down in modern Christian schools.  These results correlated strongly to the student’s responses about their faith.

Seventy percent of students in classical Christian schools reported that their parents were the #1 influencers of their faith compared to thirty percent of students in non-classical schools.  The findings may suggest that CCE schools are better at supporting parental authority, as well as encouraging non-parental mentors.

The data shows…classical Christian schools excel at spiritual formation

Dernlan’s data goes a long way to show that Classical Christian Schools help students go the distance spiritually and that modern Christian schools are not as effective.

While we might be tempted to agree with the Austrian physicist Ludwig Bolzman who said that, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory,” we know better.  In the spirit of  Sherlock, our theories must fit the facts, not the other way around.

Even then, because our ultimate standard is Scripture, and all science is under its authority, Dernlan acknowledges in his book that, “Faith formation comes from the work of the Holy Spirit and cannot be fully measured by a survey or produced by the work of people.” (Pazmino, 2010)

Key takeaway

The data could be considered the fruit that reflects what God is doing in our students’ hearts.  To learn more about this in-depth study, as well as recommendations and practical applications to encourage spiritual formation by graduation, read Dr. Tim Dernlan’s book, Spiritual Formation in the Christian Schools: Modern vs. Classical.

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