The Cost of Christian Education
The thought of watching my youngest pick up her high school diploma tomorrow has started me pondering educationin our nation and in the church.
I've been concerned about both, and I'm hardly alone. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators all can wax eloquent about the problems of public education. And anyone who has taught Sunday school knows that the joy of being with children during that hour is accompanied by concern about what exactly is being accomplished. In many churches, Sunday school feels like baby-sitting with a lesson attached.
Sensing a problem, we've created other venues to educate childrenVBS, AWANAs, and so forth. Mostly, the church tells parents (rightly!) it is their "teaching" that ultimately matters the most. Yikes! This sends a bolt of fear through every parent's heart. I have a seminary degree, and I can tell you that I was often clueless about how exactly to teach my children about the faith.
One reason we feel inadequate is that we have inadvertently imbibed a sub-Christian notion of what it means to educate our children in the faith. This is natural, given the culture we inhabit, but it doesn't need to paralyze us. A 2001 essay by Debra Dean Murphy that originally appeared in Theology Today, "Worship as Catechesis: Knowledge, Desire, and Christian Formation," clarified some of my thoughts about Christian education.
Murphy argues that in the industrialized West, education normally takes place within the structured environment of a classroom, where a teacher makes use of various tools and techniques to transfer content to pupils. Knowledge has been mostly considered a repository of neutral facts conveyed by an expert in teaching technique, and mastery of these facts is the goal of education.
Murphy calls this an objectivist view of learning, and while it is being challenged in many quarters, it is still deeply embedded in our educational system, as well as in the larger movement we call modernity: the quest for objective truth and individual autonomy.
This movement, as many have noted, originally developed as a way to avoid authoritythat is, tradition, history, and community. Murphy notes, quoting another writer, that this was a "retreat from the medieval world of connectedness and interdependenceof organic unityinto the modern, clinical universe of purity, clarity, and objectivity."
Historically, especially for American Protestants, Christian education has followed this model, with its priorities of classroom instruction, curriculum development, and dependence on an expert teacher (even if the expertise is based on merely doing the teacher prep in the curriculum). The objectivist model is also a favorite of traditions that place the pulpit at the center of worship, giving priority to teaching by a "dynamic, effective communicator." Do note: This approach is not without its merits! It is an efficient way to impart many Bible facts, a Christian worldview, and core doctrines. And who does not like to sit at the feet of a gifted teacher or preacher?
Still, we recognize that a purely objectivist approach can actually make it harder for people to be converted to God. It tends to make faith mostly a matter of the mind and divorces it from spiritual experience. If the supreme knowledge for Christians is, as outlined by Augustine and others, a personal, experiential knowledge of God, then we need something more.
The educational system of Jesus was rooted in an utterly different approach: living in and with a community, so that theology was not only taught but also lived in the context of community prayer. Jesus' educational system is not objective in the leastit is decidedly not interested in knowledge that helps us remain unbiased and neutral about life. Instead, it is profoundly subjective, that is, concerned with creating an irrational loyalty to Jesus and over-the-top concern for others. It is not the mind that is the center of attention but the whole personmind, body, and spiritand the whole person in community.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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