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.
This approach depends not on teaching technique but on people like you and me who strive to live our lives in Jesus' name. While it's nice to have saints to emulate and great teachers to learn from, most of us on most days simply need fellow believers to help us walk the walk.
All well and good, but how do you live out this profoundly communitarian vision in a highly mobile, technologically-driven economy that tends to pull communities and families apart?
It's not easy, which is why we so easily fall back on other models of education. I want to grow in my knowledge of God and the life he calls me to. But I'd rather do that in classrooms by listening to lectures, or in my study as I read a book. I love knowledge that can get pumped into my headI have a pretty big head, after all. But when it comes to sharing my life with others and letting them speak into my lifethe sort of thing that happens in weekly small groups, for examplewell, that can be a little unnerving, not to mention time consuming.
This type of education is costly in other ways. My wife and I supplemented our children's Sunday school by encouraging their participation in Christian summer camps, running anywhere from two to eight weeks in length. These intense experiences can transform people for a simple reasonthey imitate the Jesus model of education outlined above. But such camps are not cheap, and I have sometimes been sorely tempted to tell my kids to skip them and other similar experiences.
I need to be regularly reminded that the cost of discipleship is not paid just by people who suffer persecution. For people like me, it costs money (maybe even helping other families send their kids to camp!). And it costs time. And vulnerability. In the life of faith, we certainly need classrooms and curriculum. But we especially need community, where two or three are gathered to work out their education in Jesusface to face, so we shall know more fully, even as we have already been fully known.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker). Comments welcome below or on his blog.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Christianity Today articles on education and public schools are available our site.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
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