by Fabrizio Toni
Fabrizio and Elaine, along with children Rebecca (5) and Leo (1), serve the Lord at Grace International School in Chiang Mai.
After my conversion, at the age of 27, I had a growing desire to study God’s Word and mature in my relationship with the Lord. Early on in my Christian life, I sought my elders’ permission to attend Bible college in the UK. Four years later, in 2009, I left Italy to study at Tilsley College in Motherwell, Scotland.
During this year, I sensed the Lord drawing my heart to full-time Christian ministry. This required further study and so, after finishing one year at Tilsley College, I attended International Christian College, and in 2012, completed a degree in Theology with Pastoring and Preaching.
While at Tilsley, I met my wife, Elaine, and we were married in summer 2011. She, too, had a deep desire to serve the Lord in full-time Christian ministry and, early in our relationship, we prayed that the Lord would guide us to wherever He wanted to use us. At the start of our marriage, I sensed a growing concern for my own country, Italy: a country where fewer than 1% of the people describe themselves as evangelical Christians; a country in desperate need of Christian work, ranging from pioneer mission work to church work, youth work and discipleship. We prayed and pushed doors to see whether the Lord would lead us there. All doors closed and so I trained to be a Secondary Religious Studies teacher at the University of Strathclyde. This was followed by a year’s probation, and another year of supply teaching in and around Glasgow.
To be honest, these three years were very difficult spiritually. We sensed a lack of vision, confusion as to what the Lord was doing and rejection at not being used by God. The time came when I applied for permanent teaching posts and this brought fresh hope; we prayed that the Lord would guide us to where He wanted me to teach. I applied to many different schools in Scotland as well as Christian schools in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Italy, trusting that the Lord would open and close doors as He saw fit. During this period, we became aware that Grace International School (GIS) needed a middle-school Religious Studies teacher. Since teachers at GIS are volunteers, we asked our elders for permission to apply and quickly received their commendation. I was given the job in March 2015. We arrived as a family in Chiang Mai in July 2015.
Why GIS? Why Religious Studies?
GIS is a Christian international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is known as the gateway to Southeast Asia. It is strategically located for the spread of the gospel. Within a two-hour flight from Thailand, you can reach one third of the world’s population – many of whom have never heard of Jesus. That is why there are thousands of mission families living there today, working in over 20 countries and serving in many different ways, including anti-trafficking, Bible translation, children’s ministry, church planting, medical ministry, prison work and business as mission.
In 1999, leaders from five of the major Christian agencies recognised the need to support these mission workers through offering their children a quality, Christian education; and so, the vision of GIS was born. Nineteen years on, the school has 600 pupils, of whom 90% are the children of mission workers. These pupils come from 29 different countries, and represent 350 missionary families working in and around Thailand.
We desire Christ-centred living for our pupils not just more head knowledge
GIS is keen to help fulfil the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, to make disciples from every tribe and nation. The school plays its part, not only through supporting missionary families but by making Jesus central to all that goes on in the school. As part of GIS’s desire to have a Christ-centred curriculum, Religious Studies play a vital role in the school’s timetable.
It has been a privilege to teach Religious Studies to middle-school pupils for the last two years. To teach God’s Word has been my dream since leaving Italy to study at Tilsley College. Religious Studies classes are taught across four out of the five school days and I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing my pupils on a more regular basis than was the case in Scottish schools. Not only does this allow me to teach more of the Bible but it also encourages deeper relationship building, which I consider essential in this type of work.
Over the last few years I have taught through Genesis, Judges and Acts, as well as a course on The Life of Christ. I have also taught studies from the book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christby Dallas Willard, as well as biographies of George Müller and Hudson Taylor.
Sharing About Jesus
With 90% of my pupils coming from missionary families, it would be natural to assume that many of these young people have made a personal profession of faith in the Lord Jesus. However, I quickly realised that many of them have not. The 80 pupils who sit in front of me regularly, represent a wide range of spiritual maturity. Some are atheist, some are indifferent and some are Buddhist. Some are Christians, but not actively pursuing God, and others are wholehearted and committed disciples. This makes lesson planning challenging! At the end of each school term I need to assess each pupil’s knowledge of the subject. However, I long for a much deeper impact than mere academic knowledge. I desire that my pupils will fall in love with God – but this is very hard to assess.
For that reason, I was keen to add discipleship to the prescribed Religious Studies curriculum. For one semester, I took the opportunity to teach through the youth edition of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. This is a very practical course that enabled us to study aspects of our being – such as our will, heart, body and mind – how each aspect is affected by our fallen nature and how to bring it under God’s control. We also used this time to learn about different spiritual disciplines that encourage a deeper personal relationship with the Lord, such as journaling, meditation, reflection and memorising Scripture. There have been other opportunities outside the classroom that have allowed me to disciple pupils in a deeper way. Every Wednesday night I oversee a Bible study group for Grade 7 boys, aged 12-14. The study is led by three older GIS pupils, whom I mentor once a week. During my time with the older boys, I am able to provide leadership training and prayer to enable them to lead the Bible study on a Wednesday night with the younger boys. Last year we studied 1 and 2 Peter, and selected chapters from Joshua, Judges and Ruth.
The future of Religious Studies in schools is changing. The Religious Studies department is starting to see the limitations of teaching a Bible curriculum like any other academic subject. We desire Christ-centred living for our pupils not just more head knowledge! While investigating how to incorporate discipleship into the Religious Studies timetable, I had the privilege of visiting another international Christian school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Over the years they have moved away from a grade-based curriculum and we hope to be able to apply the changes they made to the programme at GIS.
I would appreciate your prayers as we seek the Lord’s way in this proposed change: that the leadership would welcome new ideas and that the Lord would bear fruit for Himself through a more discipleship-based approach to teaching Religious Studies.