Often coffee breaks in our offices in Beirut allow time for reflection. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “Why in the world did the Baptist missionaries found the Beirut Baptist School 60 years ago? Why did the Presbyterians start schools over 100 years ago in the Middle East region?
Was their goal conversion of students to Protestant Christianity? Or were they primarily interested in the educational dimension of the work?
Then another question arises: Why didn’t the Baptist and the Presbyterian missionaries build more schools? Those questions are difficult to answer today, they need historical research. It remains the case, nevertheless, in Lebanon, that Evangelical institutions continue to have a high reputation for the quality of their education and for their role in community development.
Schools were not the missionaries’ only contribution towards education. They also founded three prominent Lebanese universities: the American University of Beirut in 1866; the Lebanese American University in 1926; the Haigazian University in 1955. These institutions still testify to the strategic role of evangelical education in Lebanon, despite the fact that AUB and LAU are no longer governed by the churches (Haigazian University still operates under the auspices of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Lebanon).
Evangelical schools in Lebanon struggle to make tough choices regarding their priorities. Should the stronger emphasis be on education or faith?
It has been very important for us this year at the Beirut Baptist School to re-visit our Mission, Vision and Values. What are the relative places for academic and universal values with respect to the Scriptures and spiritual values? How do the arts, such as dance, music, theater, sculpture, fit into the program of an evangelical school? Should direct biblical teaching hold a primary place in our curricula? How do we foster balanced growth of the human soul, mind and body in the lives of our students, Christian and non-Christian?
The major concern, however, could be stated as follows: Given the fact that 80 percent of the students of the evangelical schools in Lebanon are Muslims, what is our spiritual vision for the ministry in our schools? How should we therefore express our spiritual mission? What values should be highlighted in this specific student context?
The 140 years of ministry through evangelical schools have been mostly a success story. Families have supported and appreciated our Christian values, and their children attend chapel and Bible classes willingly.
During the 16-year civil war in Lebanon (1975-1991), and during the following years of rather constant tension (1991 to the present), we have not heard of one single BBS graduate becoming involved in sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing or war-related atrocities. We have not heard of even one BBS alumnus who became a member of a hate group or a militia.
Significantly as well, the impact of this educational process–both at BBS and in other evangelical schools–has involved and touched the lives of teachers and staff who are both Muslims and Christians.
Educators in Lebanon today are worried about the future of our country. They are concerned about the profile of the average graduating student. There were days when private schools owned by the Christian churches–Orthodox, Catholic or evangelical–had a relatively easy time in exposing their students, Muslim or Christian, to the values of respect, peace making, justice, mercy, citizenship, equality between men and women, tolerance for diversity.
Today the picture is changing. A growing number of students are now going to schools affiliated to their own respective denominations or religious groups and as such have little or no exposure to other points of view or doctrines–an aspect that may restrict their level of tolerance or acceptance of the other.
This is especially of concern when some schools go so far as promoting violence and intolerance towards others that are considered “enemies.” All of this increases the need for Christian higher education while making it more difficult to deliver; the same circumstances that drive greater need also create greater opposition. So it has ever been with Christians: opposition accentuates the need and opportunity to communicate biblical values.
Lebanon is today experiencing unprecedented, drastic social, demographic, religious, and cultural changes. The middle class is rapidly declining in numbers compared to the lower socio-economic levels. Whereas in the 1950s Christians formed the majority of the Lebanese population, today Muslims constitute approximately 70 percent compared to 30 percent Christians. It appears that the Lebanese, Christian and Muslim, are becoming more religious yet less spiritual. Sadly, religion has generally become a justification for conflict rather than a reason and catalyst for reconciliation.
What can, or should, we do about this situation? What kind of society will Lebanon experience in 2025 if students are not exposed to the universal values of tolerance, appreciation of diversity and peacemaking?
Just thinking about the future brings fear. The race for the hearts and minds of young people is on. The competition is fierce. A cultural war has erupted in Lebanon. What could then make a difference? Who can change this situation? Evangelical schools can. Evangelical schools do. What better investment could we make in the future of our country and our region?
The evangelical community in Lebanon has no better channel or venue to communicate Jesus’ values of love, respect and acceptance than its schools. Through high academic standards and reasonable costs, evangelical schools can win the hearts of both Christian and Muslim families alike, and through their values, they can make their way to the hearts and the minds of the students.
Evangelical schools can preserve these students from the hands of religious fanaticism and help to save the students, their families and the country of Lebanon from religious hatred and animosity.
Those working in Lebanon’s educational sector know that an alarming number of schools in Lebanon today have been hijacked by groups that promote religious extremism. I call upon all who can help. The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth have been a source of inspiration and transformation for hundreds of children and their families across religious and denominational barriers.
We are committed to staying and living in Lebanon to serve, regardless of the political and economic destiny of our country. During my studies at BBS in the past, I remember enjoying discussing differences, challenges and possible solutions with my numerous Christian and Muslim classmates and friends at BBS. Will we allow for the days of moderation for both Christians and Muslims in Lebanon to be those of a bygone era? Not so long as we are given breath!
We want schools that teach students how to build consensus, to make and keep the peace, to achieve reconciliation, to appreciate diversity, to accept differences, to resolve conflict, to reject fanaticism–and above all, how to discover, accept, enjoy and live out the love of God forever.
Nabil Costa is general secretary of the Association of Evangelical Schools in Lebanon and executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, also known as the Lebanese Baptist Society.