For the last month, I’ve been writing about the dire state of education in our Christian churches. People don’t know their Bibles, don’t know what their churches believe, don’t know how their Faith intersects daily living in 21st century America—in short, I will venture to say that the average adult Christian sitting in the pew of an American church today has less understanding of God than the average 10-year-old did 100 years ago.
And that’s pathetic. Whatever Christian education initiatives we’ve been foisting off on the people in the seats aren’t working. And they haven’t been working for a long time.
Truth is, I could write about this issue forever. It might become all I ever talk about here at Cerulean Sanctum. In reality, if you go back over past posts, the emphasis at this blog has always been to understand why so many people in the American Church today feel lackluster in their faith and what we can do about. So perhaps this current series is just a synopsis of six years of writing about discipleship. (I’ll let you read through the archives and draw your own conclusions.)
What follows below are ideas I’m convinced are a right start. They’re haphazard and not fully developed in this post, but I’m convinced that if we started doing these things in our churches, we’d gain the forward momentum we so badly need.
If I had to find one fault with the way we teach people about the Christian Faith, it’s that nothing we say this week reinforces what we said last week. In the same way, education in our churches fails on every level to reinforce what the Christian Church for centuries believes.
Why is it that nearly everything we do educationally within our churches reduces to gossamer that blows away at the slightest breath? How then can we expect people to withstand the gale force winds that exemplify our times?
Is it any wonder that no one evangelizes anymore? We say that what we believe is a matter of heaven or hell, but if we don’t know the basics of those beliefs, why would we want to parade our ignorance before other people?
Our young people who go through years and years of youth group graduate from high school and immediately shipwreck, with (depending on whose figures you read) anywhere from 50 to 85 percent falling away within a few years from the faith they supposedly once held deeply.
Is any of this resonating?
I think it all goes back to reinforcement, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly reiterating what we know and why. This takes the truth of God and packs it down deep into every nook and cranny of the soul. It gives people truth to fall back on because they continually hear it.
Learning is a relentless reinforcing that happens on every level of one’s interaction with the world. And we Christians can either reinforce the Kingdom of God in each other, or we can let the kingdom of the world plant its payload of corruption in our very hearts 24/7/365.
One of those kingdoms will win in the end, and I prefer it be God’s.
What follows is my take on just that kind of reinforcement as it plays out in a hypothetical church that I call Faith Fellowship.
When you walk into Faith Fellowship for the first time, on the left wall of the lobby is a massive poster that lists the 10 key beliefs of the church. On the right wall hangs the huge poster containing the corresponding 10 ways the church lives out those beliefs in practical daily discipleship.
The leadership of Faith sought the Lord concerning these 20 total statements, and every member of Faith had some say in their creation. Together, the people of Faith seek God to help them live out these 10 beliefs and 10 discipleship statements. Their shared statements are core to the purpose and heart of the church, reflected in every piece of the educational program.
You simply cannot miss those posters when you walk in. In addition, the pastor of Faith preaches twice yearly on the purposes of the church as espoused in the beliefs and discipleship statements, and the statements are taught age-appropriately at all levels within the educational system at Faith.
Because of Faith Fellowship’s conviction that education is critical to presenting men and women mature in Christ, the church has both adult and child Sunday School programs. In addition, it is assumed that additional educational opportunities will exist through small groups, formal midweek classes, and outreach opportunities that put what was learned into practice.
Faith Fellowship maintains at least one year-round Bible overview course that teaches a Christian worldview based on creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. In addition, a “jump in at any time” class covers the major themes of each book of the Bible, with a systematic chapter by chapter walkthrough. These classes are taught by those in church leadership who have shown themselves adept at handling the Bible. A course on how to read the Bible and correctly study it is also ongoing.
Because Faith believes that truth must be reinforced, the Christian education department at the church constructed a church-year curriculum in conjunction with pastors and preachers that teaches the same message age-appropriately through the sermon, midweek teachings, and all Sunday school classes.
How this works at Faith Fellowship is that the morning message delivered in the service may be on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Sunday School classes that follow the service offer a further unpacking of that parable’s message. The preacher is made available to interact with adult Sunday School attendees to field questions and to work with teachers to make sure the parable is grasped.
In addition, the children’s Sunday School classes also discuss the Good Samaritan, ensuring that parents and children have been taught the same material. This allows families to further discuss the teaching during the week (rather than putting parents in the weak position of having to dredge out of their kids “what they learned in church today.”)
Faith also believes that families should worship together regularly, so the children stay for the entire service on the first Sunday of the month. At these times, they receive a children’s sermon geared for their understanding that reinforces the preacher’s message.
The teaching cycle at Faith allows for a mix of straight Bible book/chapter/verse exposition and also topical messages. The leadership believes that a methodical teaching through the Bible is essential to grasp the entirety of the Bible’s message, while also understanding that topical series are necessary from time to time to address specific issues of the day. Faith believes that an either/or approach, as other churches often justify, only weakens overall understanding.
Also, because the leadership at Faith affirms the leading of the Spirit, cycles may be disrupted when the Spirit puts a particular message on a preaching/teaching leader’s heart. In those cases, Sunday School leaders may elect to follow the leading or substitute any of several general lessons that would apply at any time in the teaching cycle.
Unlike some churches, the youth ministry program at Faith Fellowship maintains a teaching cycle consistent with the overall teaching cycle of the church. Faith’s leaders also recognize the true purpose of the youth pastor (and children’s Sunday school leadership) must be to instruct parents in how to teach their own children the truths of the Christian faith. (This goal is assisted by the teaching cycle of the church, asit constantly reinforces the message age-appropriately, ensuring parents are more likely to know how to answer children’s questions on what they learned that week in church because the parent’s themselves received the same teaching, albeit at a more challenging level.) The youth pastor and children’s Sunday School leadership offer classes for parents on how to become better teachers within the home, and they work alongside those households missing a parent by offering supplemental help through a volunteer program that enlists others to help teach with the single parent.
The youth ministry program at the church also includes a catechism and/or “rite of passage” program that works to ensure core doctrines of the church (especially those reflected in the 10 beliefs and 10 discipleship statements) are both understood and lived in measurable ways that qualify youth to be full-fledged members of the adult congregation. Upon completing the catechism, youth are directed into adult responsibilities within the church as fitting to their identified spiritual gifts, but only after successfully passing the program to the satisfaction of church leadership.
The most controversial aspect of Faith Fellowship’s educational program is that it understands that church discipline is essential to ensuring the growth of people in the church. Full membership in the church requires that a set of educational standards be met and upheld by each prospective member. Growth isn’t a recommendation but the sign of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the believer. For this reason, the leadership will work in any way possible with those who fail to meet agreed-upon educational standards of the church. And even in those cases when no agreement can be found, the leadership of the church will work within the situation to help find a less demanding church that may be better suited for the individual. The leadership of the church doesn’t flinch from the reality that many are called, but few are chosen.
Faith Fellowship has many other aspects to its educational program. The people of Faith have refined these teaching standards to a place where people within the church grow and mature according to the Scriptures and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It’s a successful direction that has made Faith a force for the Kingdom of God for the last 20 years.
I believe such a church as Faith Fellowship is possible—but only if you and I are serious about discipleship. As I noted, I’ve left much out of this discussion of this hypothetical church, but the fact remains: We Christians have got to start someplace, and I believe this is a good start, especially when coupled with the ideas I presented in a previous post in this series, “Equipping the Saints: What We Must Expect…and When.”
I won’t sit here and claim that implementing an educational system like Faith Fellowship’s would be easy. It wouldn’t be. It would require everyone put down his or her own agenda and focus on what matters. It demands a lot from the leadership and the people running the educational program. It demands a lot from the people in the seats. It’s not easy. But then again, growth isn’t easy.
Look, we can play at church for the rest of our lives and remain dabblers who don’t know what we’re talking about. Or we can grow up and leave infancy behind us.
The choice is ours. Now who out there is bold enough to start getting serious about discipleship?