October 4, 2016

In Finland, a School Flourishes by Being Christian

Trans-European Division

A struggling Seventh-day Adventist school whose enrollment once dropped to 14 students has been transformed into a vibrant success story by enhancing its Christian credentials.

Parents who send their children to the Seventh-day Adventist Christian School just outside Tampere, Finland, understand that their children will get both a first-class education and a safe space to explore their Christian beliefs.

Kimmo Ilola speaks with experience. Fifteen years ago he enrolled his eldest child “who did not want to go to school, who did not enjoy school, and who was frustrated” in the school.Kimmo Ilola, chair of the school's board, a pastor, and Personal Ministries leader for the Adventist Church in Finland.

“In just two weeks, the transformation was amazing,” Ilola said.

The boy graduated with top marks.

Ilola now chairs the school’s board and serves as the local pastor and Personal Ministries leader for the Adventist Church in Finland. More important, he believes in the school, which opened about 50 years ago and offers classes from kindergarten through high school. He sent all three of his children there, as well as three foster children.

“The school is nothing extraordinary,” he said, looking over the building that was a former publishing house and is currently undergoing a 1 million euro (U.S.$1.12 million) upgrade.

“The main thing is that we are openly Christian,” he said. “We want to give them a good education.”

That Christian ethos openly flows through the school and is what encourages parents — Christian and non-Christian — to send their children to the school.

“I send my children because I like the balanced environment for my children,” said Juha Katajisto, a parent.

Students said that nearby schools offer an excellent academic education but they appreciate the Adventist school because they can study there without being teased or bullied over their faith.

“You won’t be teased about it,” said Ryan, 14. “It’s a nice place. Nice friends.”

Fifteen-year-old Sabina agreed.

“You can talk about your faith very openly here,” she said. “Your friends believe in the same things and have the same morals.”

About 40 of the school’s 245 students are from Adventist families. That’s 100 percent of the children from Adventist families in the community in and around Tampere, a city of 216,000 people located 110 miles (180 kilometers) north of Finland’s capital, Helsinki. The other students come from a variety of faiths or no faith at all. While many Finns are nominal members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, only 2 percent of its members attend weekly church services and up to 60 percent of the 5.4 million population are agnostics, atheists, or nonbelievers.

Some might worry that the Adventist school shelters Christian children from the real world and their protected world will be shattered once they leave for higher education. Teacher Ulpu Saarinen would not agree.

“The government has its curriculum that we have to follow, but we also are free to balance it with our Christian beliefs,” said Saarinen, who teaches biology, geography, and health science.Fifteen-year-old Sabina agreed.  “You can talk about your faith very openly here,” she says.

Saarinen believes that this gives the students an advantage.

“They are taught to think, to see things from more than one side,” she said. “If you want to talk to someone about Intelligent design theory or be critical of evolution, you first have to know what evolution is. You need the skills to be able to make your own decisions.”

The same is true in ethics and relationships, areas that are important for principal Merja Kinnunen. She emphasized that the teachers are instructing their students to think — but in a safe environment. She is also very focused on quality.

“All our teachers must be fully qualified, and they all have a personal faith in Jesus,” she said.

That faith is evident in their teaching and in the daily morning worship that they lead in their classes. It seems to work.

Many students, including those from other Christian faiths, see the faith they develop in their school life influencing their free time. They join Pathfinders and often attend church on Saturdays. Even students who have long left the school return for “pizza church,” a monthly Saturday evening event. They feel they belong.

“It is almost like an alumni reunion for them,” Ilola said.

In the midst of the drama, music, and lively worship, he generally shares a solid 40-minute sermon with them.

Viljami, 14, said he enjoys the worship and explained that his main reason for being at the school is Jesus. He is not embarrassed about his faith and uses his drumming skills as part of the worship band in church.

But one other aspect is important to what Kalervo Aromäki, president of the Adventist Church in Finland, calls a holistic education involving body, mind, and spirit. That spirit includes service, which culminates in the final year of school as parents and children work together toward a community service project in Sri Lanka. Joona Päätalo, a student from last summer’s trip, produced a moving and professional video report.

This school, which has a waiting list of students and is raising local house prices as people seek to live nearby, is looking to the future. With the encouragement of local authorities, it has opened a new kindergarten section and transformed a second building to care for pre-school children. After-school clubs operate every day.

The success of the school has also transformed the local Adventist church in Tampere. It used to be an old people’s church, with many members well above 65. Several members older than 100 live on a residential home on the same campus. But now the average age of the congregation has dropped to below 50, with many young families thriving in the worship atmosphere. It is not just the young who are delighted. The older members are too.

“Our church is alive again. We have a future,” a church member said.

There is no shame in being Christian — and a Seventh-day Adventist School in Finland is proving it. (TED)