The Christian-Education Rut

The difference between a grave and a rut is that a rut still provides an option. Although Christian education in the local church may be in a rut, it is neither dead nor hopeless. The tragedy is to be in a rut and not know it or to recognize the rut and make no effort to escape it.

Many ruts in the traditional programs of Christian education develop through neglect of the principles of learning that the word “education” implies. An effective curriculum measures up to the standards of continuity, sequence, and integration.

Continuity means that a common thread of meaning can be detected in learning experiences at all levels. The Word of God, for example, is an excellent learning text because it has the continuity of the redemptive theme running like a thread through every book.

Sequence is the principle of learning that implies step-by-step progress. Motivation for growth requires a current task that a student can master as well as another step just beyond his reach. The student who said that his freshman course in Bible was taught like a Sunday-school class was complaining about the lack of sequence in his Christian education.

Integration is an equally important educational principle that speaks of the wholeness of knowledge as seen in the connections between learning and life. A specialist in the segments of knowledge is a sad figure in a world where the dominoes stand or fall together. Integration is protection against ruts in Christian education because it permits no segregation of knowledge from experience, hearing from doing, or believing from witnessing.

Ruts in the Christian-education programs of local churches are best reflected in the opinions of young people who are trying to escape these programs. If pressed for a reason, most will say that Sunday school is meaningless, boring, and unrelated to the real world. Perhaps we are teaching without a clearcut purpose, expecting loyalty without challenge, and assuming that students can put together the pieces of the puzzle called “The Christian Life” without help.

To get out of the rut, we need to exercise the options open to us. Establishing continuity in Christian education is no more difficult than defining the end product of our programs. “What are we trying to do?” is a question that ought to be asked at the annual planning session of every board of Christian education. “Is our purpose to produce new Christians, new members, or new witnesses? Can we find this thread of purpose running through every program in the church?” One church that asked this question discovered it had an unusual opportunity to serve the families of a bedroom community adjoining a great metropolis. The Christian-education program was shifted to an emphasis upon the Christian family, and the new common motive transformed the church. The rut of meaninglessness can be escaped if the product of Christian education in the local church is defined and kept always in view.

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All education is plagued with the problem of progress. That is why there will always be some kind of grades, diplomas, and degrees as recognition of educational accomplishment. The local church cannot offer the rewards of dollars, jobs, social status, or academic recognition in its Christian-education program. It must rely mainly upon the intangible and long-range rewards of the effective Christian life for its success. Yet there can be developmental tasks and rewards for progress.

Robert Havighurst, in The Educational Mission of the Church, has applied his thinking about developmental tasks to the local church program. Beginning with the early task of the formation of the moral conscience, he climbs through the learning steps of sociability, moral autonomy, identity, intimacy, parenthood, productivity, citizenship, social responsibility, and retirement. In an evangelical Christian context the developmental steps might be conceived as Christian commitment. Christian living, and Christian witness. Progress along these steps should bring some recognizable reward, such as public reception into Christian fellowship, church membership, and responsibility for work in the church. With some attention to the principle of sequence the local church might successfully dispute the charge that after age twelve Christian education is a matter of spinning your wheels in a rut.

The deepest rut in the traditional programs of Christian education seems to be the failure to relate the Word to life. Marshall McLuhan has said that a child stops learning when he enters the public schools at the age of five. He means that the preschool child is engaged in a total learning experience that captures all his senses, particularly through the images of the television tube. School, however, forces him into the narrow and isolated track of sight and tongue called, “Run, Dick, run.” McLuhan’s point, though overstated, suggests questions to be asked about education in the local church. Children of the television generation, youth of the now generation, and adults of the anxious generation are expected to participate in programs that are both internally segmented and disconnected from the impact of the secular world. To use a McLuhanism, the secular world is an “anti-environment,” and it must be considered as a counter-force to Christian education.

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A beginning step out of the rut is to integrate the learning experiences of the church. In most churches, the programs of Christian education, worship, fellowship, and work are unrelated. There are no connecting lines between the study of the Word, the proclamation of the Word, and the application of the Word. One of the most important lessons learned in the attempt to educate disadvantaged youth has been the need for a broad approach to the total environment. Otherwise the learning of the schoolhouse is vetoed by the forceful lessons of the home and the street.

Christian education must learn the same lesson. Inside the church, all the resources should be unified for a total impact upon the learner. These will lend strength to counter the veto groups and values of the “anti-environment.” Otherwise, our feeble attempts to be relevant are washed away in the mainstream of counter-currents both outside and inside the church.

Continuity, a thread of purpose; sequence, steps in progress: and integration, a web of relationships—these are interlocking principles of education. The way out of the Christian-education rut can be discovered through careful consideration of the questions, “What is our common purpose? How do we recognize accomplishment? And are we organized for a broad attack upon the gritty issues of an opposing world?”—

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