I’ve been looking at the sad state of Christian education in the United States in two previous posts (1, 2) and wanted to conclude this limited series with solutions to the problems I raised. If you haven’t read the previous posts, please do, because understanding them will make the solutions more vivid.
Right now, I believe that no other issue is as critical to the modern American Church than educating its people. Yet too many churches approach Christian education with a haphazard, also-ran mentality. Churches dedicate themselves to fighting the culture wars, being “missional,” maintaining the status quo operation of the church, and a million other causes that supersede knowing the Faith. Sadly, in our modern age, nothing is deemed worse than ignorance, and unschooled Christians become antiwitnesses against the Lord because so many don’t comprehend the priceless truths they supposedly believe.
Here is what I believe we must do to fix the problem of a broken educational system in our churches:
1. We must get a vision for education and make it a priority.
I don’t like The Message, but this Message-ified translation says it all about the state of Christian education in America:
If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.
If that doesn’t describe where we are with educating people in the Faith, I don’t know what does.
What is our local church’s vision for its discipleship program? What is God saying to our local church leaders about how they should be directing education in the church? What is our church’s cradle-to-grave education program? What does that program look like at every step in the disciple-making process?
If we can’t answer those question immediately, our educational programs in our churches are in trouble—and are probably failing altogether.
Some people will cry that the whole revelation/vision thing is too charismatic (which I’ll address further down), that we have to be practical. Okay, fine. How then is it that we aren’t serious about these words from the lips of Jesus?
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
How’s that for a start for a vision? Somehow, we have instead let everything else intrude on the simple job of making disciples.
What if we stopped all the other distractions and focused everything we had on educating people in the Faith? What if we stopped directing so much time and effort to fighting the culture wars and instead got serious about ensuring our people actually know what they believe? In the end, isn’t the equipping of the saints the beginning of any effective ministry? How can one even fight the culture wars or be “missional” if one has no clue what one believes (and can support that belief with deeply ingrained wisdom)?
I think all of us, church leaders especially, need to repent of the red-headed stepchild approach we’ve taken to teaching people. We need a vision for education. Otherwise, we will continue to keep stumbling over ourselves and continue to bring up Christians who have no idea what they are talking about.
2. We must start listening to the Holy Spirit.
One of the oddities of our present age is that a lot of church people say they are sympathetic to listening to the Holy Spirit, yet at the same time they recoil at the thought of anything charismatic happening in their churches. Sadly, this is even true of some churches that claim to be charismatic.
The upshot is that we’ve gone deaf to the Lord.
Sure, we may glean some general truths from the Scriptures, but too many church leaders have no specific direction for ministry within their churches because they’ve stuck fingers in their spiritual ears.
That has to end.
We live in challenging times. I believe the Lord wants to mobilize people, but we need to hear the specifics of those marching orders. I don’t believe that “one size fits all” in the Church because God shows preferences repeatedly in the Scriptures, and if we’re deaf to individualized instructions for specific purposes within the Body of Christ, we will miss out on vast swaths of ministry opportunities.
No area of ministry shows this deficiency more than Christian education. One church’s educational program may be different than another’s because one church’s people may have different needs than another’s. Don’t believe me? Well, check out the Lord’s letters to the churches in Revelation. Those churches don’t sound very cookie-cutter, do they?
It’s time to acknowledge our error in turning down the volume on the Holy Spirit. We need His direction now more than ever. The churches that succeed in opening their spiritual ears will be the ones God uses to advance His Church. All the others will fail.
Church leaders: Open the Scriptures and start refamiliarizing yourselves with what they say about the Holy Spirit, His guidance, and how the gifts work in the Church. Work to develop your spiritual ears. There can be no alternatives.
3. We must rethink our church staffing priorities.
How is it that we have paid administrative pastors, counselors, secretaries, youth pastors, and a billion levels of associate, assistant, and emeritus pastors yet most churches can’t hire someone to implement the educational direction for the Church?
The most epic fail in Christian education in the last hundred years has been the wholesale dismissal of paid education staff. Churches damaged their own destinies as effective ministers of the Gospel by tossing out trained educators.
If so much is riding on educating our people, then the most important staff members are those charged with that task. Where are they then?
Churches, get a clue on this! You want to know why you can’t hold onto visitors? Want to know why your young people succumb to worldliness? Want to understand why your church is so dry? It’s because your educational direction is nonexistent and no one is charged to correct that lack.
If a church does not have at least one paid staff member who does nothing but manage and direct the educational vision for the church, that church will fail to educate its people. There’s no end-run around this.
“But,” some will interject, “we have volunteers to do this.” I contend that in most churches the volunteer model for educational staffing doesn’t work either. It’s time to stop lying to ourselves about this. The need is too great and volunteer leaders cannot devote the time to make an overhaul work. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can deal with the enormity of this issue without a monetary cost and by relying on people with divided affections. The people charged with education have to be all-in, because part-timers who are worried more with putting food on the table and keeping their outside jobs intact will not have the heart to tackle the vast educational task within the average large church.
I understand that many churches are small and don’t have a huge payroll. Nevertheless, the minimum staffing at a church should include at least one paid Christian educator.
4. We must know the distractions and eliminate them.
If one word describes America a decade into the millennium, it’s distracted. Increasingly, we can’t focus on tasks. Studies are showing that multitasking is a lie that leads to poor outcomes. We simply cannot juggle multiple projects and do any of them well.
Worse, studies are showing that the techno-world we live in that depends on cell phones, computers, and other tech gadgets is rewiring our brains to make us even less attentive. One particularly dreary experiment with e-readers showed that a person using a Kindle (or similar device) so often jumps out of a novel’s text to pursue other data hyperlinked within the text that comprehension of the novel’s story plummets by half.
Considering Jesus’ call to us to make disciples, do we devote any time and effort to His call? Do we even know the Faith enough to be called disciples ourselves? If eternal life is knowing the Lord, are we sure we’ve spent enough time to actually know Him?
At some point, enough is enough.
If keeping up in this techno-world means we can’t keep up with the call of Jesus, then the techno-world has to go. I’m increasingly convinced that Christians have to withdraw from the elements of the techno-world, refocusing on what is good and true and worthwhile.
I’ve cut my Facebook presence significantly. Our household has one cell phone for emergencies, and that’s how it’s used. I can’t recall the last time I made a call on it. I don’t spend as much time on blogs or even blogging.
Each of us will need to examine his or her own life to find what needs to be cut or curtailed. We need to also go back to activities that keep us focused on a task for hours. Education demands that we have that kind of focus; we simply can’t flit here and there and learn anything as vast and comprehensive as the Gospel story and a godly worldview unless we stay attentive.
The next step is to use that extra time for what really matters: knowing the Lord and serving His people.
5. We must alter our entire perspective on our lifestyles.
What is the purpose of life? A lot of us, even Christians, don’t know because we’re not being educated for a genuine purpose.
For most of us, life consists of getting up to go to work, spending most of the day focused on a task that makes money, spending some time with our kids (if we have kids), and pursuing leisure. If the studies are to be believed, kids and leisure are losing out to work and its extensions.
If knowing Jesus is the be all and end all of life, then how are we getting people there? Will more money to buy us more stuff help us? Will our slavish devotion to our jobs get us to that goal of knowing Jesus?
The Bible says we should set aside those things that distract us from our mission. What does a life reconfigured to the task of making disciples (and being one ourselves) look like? Sadly, I’m not sure our leaders have that answer.
In keeping with what I wrote in #4, I think we must start with putting educating ourselves in the truths of God so that we can better know Christ at the top of the list, necessitating making hard decisions about anything that gets in the way.
This has ramifications for our employment, housing, childrearing, personal relationships, and so on.
What those ramifications are and how we must address them is not easy, because each church out there will be different, as will the people that comprise it. Any betterment will look different from church to church and person to person.
Still, change starts by asking the same question: How then shall we live?
Do we need to live in a big house? Is our big house a distraction from knowing God? Do we spend too much time trying to keep that house looking perfect? (On the other hand, perhaps having a house that is too small distracts us, so we’ll need a bigger one. What is God saying we should do?)
Working 10 hours a day at a job will leave us little time for the work of making disciples. It just won’t, not with all the other things we attempt to cram into our lives. And Americans are nearly at that 50 hours per week level for work. Add in increasingly long commute times and the fact that our computers and phones keep us connected to work all day all the time, and what’s left for the mission of the Lord? Frankly, I’m amazed that ANY church life exists outside of Sunday mornings, much less anything devoted to learning more about our Faith and Lord.
Christians have to find ways to avoid getting sucked into the mindset that everything depends on our jobs. We just don’t believe that God will provide for us. We also don’t believe that we can live on less.
6. We must alter how we view community.
The Body of Christ grows because it is a body.
We in America, with our rugged individualism and self-made man mentality, hate that idea of being a body. Yet it is inescapable that cultures that are vital are so because of the depth of their community attachments. This especially holds true when it comes to transmitting the core values of a culture to the next generation. The stronger the community’s attachments, the more of that community’s values the next generation receives.
We don’t assemble much anymore in our churches, at least not apart from Sundays. Small groups aren’t doing as well as they once did. People aren’t meeting in each others’ homes. Heck, one book I read said that people are afraid to go into another person’s house.
But we must. None of us is an island, and our community of faith weakens when we don’t get together. No matter how fantastic we might think our insular homeschooling efforts are, adding even one outsider’s experiences broadens our kids’ knowledge. Yet somehow, we don’t see similar value in what someone else knows about Jesus. Worse, we don’t see how having that person in the midst of our community adds anything to our individual growth.
I want my kid to see how other Christians live. I had that experience as a kid and it changed me for the better. I may consider myself a fine upstanding member of the Church Universal, but if my kid only sees me, he is not getting the fullness of the reality of the Church. He’ll be worse off for that lack.
And the weird thing is, I will be worse off too. Iron sharpens iron, and if there’s no other iron around consistently, the sharpening won’t happen. I won’t know as much about the Faith as I should if your knowledge of the Faith isn’t added to mine. If we don’t get together, then we will all be diminished.
I could make recommendations here, too, but the reality is that each of us has to find the best ways to improve community. If that means developing a Christian commune, then great. If it means getting a dozen families to commit to meeting twice a week for dinner, then great. We have to see what the Lord is doing and then do it without excuses.
7. We must repent.
No great change in the Church happens without seeking the Lord and repenting. And when it comes to educating the Body of Christ, we have a lot of repenting to do.
What if our church leaders called for a time of repentance for our lacks in educating ourselves in the ways of God? I hear all sorts of call for repentance for allowing same-sex marriage or abortion to persist in this country, but I’ve never heard a Christian leader call for us to repent of our own ignorance of the Lord.
So how about we repent of our lackadaisical attitude toward what comes down to genuine life or death? Because it seems to me that the main reason people go astray in life is lack of knowledge of or about Christ. Fix that, and a whole lot will fall into place.
I struggled enormously to complete this series. The struggle came mostly because people want specific answers. They want to be told how to do this or that. A lot of specifics banged around in my head too. I wanted give granular answers.
But the one thing I believe God showed me about fixing this problem of ignorance of Him and His ways is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The only best answer is to listen to the Holy Spirit and do what He says to correct the problem of education right here, right where we are, with the fixes that meet our individual church’s needs.
Obviously, it starts with catching a vision and working toward a cradle-to-grave educational plan. But from there it will diverge to meet the needs of each church community.
The one thing I know will test us in this is that we’ve opened a kind of Pandora’s Box in how we educate people. Getting the escaped pieces back into the box is ridiculously hard, which is why no one is attempting a fix. Still, it has to be done.
The cost of fixing the broken educational system in our churches is enormous—though I’m not talking about money. Honestly, money is the least of it. Time and availability are the two commodities most lacking. If making disciples is really important to us, then we’ll find both. And if we don’t, we can’t expect our lampstand to stay where God once put it.
The complete series:
6 thoughts on “How the Church Can Improve Christian Education, Part 3”
I like your thoughts. One thing i would add is that we need to “sell” the idea of education, or in other words, spend effort in convincing the average churchgoer that they should want to be educated. I think that Christian education is frequently relegated (consciously or subconsciously, i don’t know) to people whose official vocation is “making disciples”.
Also i want to remind that education/knowledge does not by itself transform lives. It is a necessary part of transformation–the other parts being active two-way communication with God and obedience–but when the knowledge of God and the personal experience of God get out of balance, we have all kinds of problems.
My personal experience growing up in church was that Bible knowledge was too highly valued. My concept of the Christian life was to memorize verses, know who crossed the Red Sea and who died on the cross, go to church, give ten percent, pray for stuff, and do Christian things. This doesn’t total up to knowing God. Not only do church leaders need to listen to the Spirit, but lay Christians should be encouraged to do the same.
Thanks for writing!
“Obviously, it starts with catching a vision and working toward a cradle-to-grave educational plan. But from there it will diverge to meet the needs of each church community.”
There IS a cradle-to-grave educational plan. God gave the vision for it, He called it a Family. Discipleship begins with fathers impressing on their children (Deut.6) as they rise up and walk through their everydays,using teachable moments to make faith real, and speak of the wonders of the Creator. It ends with Fathers modeling perserverence under trial, and finishing the race well, and leaving a legacy. Fathers answering the hard theological questions even very young children aak (Our daughter asked this when she was three, “If God said everything was good in the garden, and the snake was there, was the snake good, too?” Nothing gets you to deeply study your Bible more than the theological quandries brought up by a child!)
So I agree with many of your points, especially regarding the foolish busyness the family of God is addicted to, but I think the reason Christian Education fails in the church is because families are failing in the church. (Divorce rates equal to the world, no-one is ever home–so how does Titus 2, the model for the early church, and it’s very effective educational program originating from the oikos, supposed to happen? I mean this model:
“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.”
So, I say, instead full-time Spiritual Formation Directors or whatever,lets pool that money to get the young mothers back at home; lets call the older women out of ElderDisneyland and wean them off the anti-depressants, and cry out for God to do a sovereign work of setting both young and old men free of their addictions to pornography, and so to be self-controlled. Then we will not be losing our youth, who are sick of our hypocrisy, at the disheartening rates all the polls describe. Then the world will truly see something different in the church–winsome, welcoming homes that exhude the fragrance of Christ.