How the Church Can Improve Christian Education, Part 3


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.
—Proverbs 29:18

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.”
—Matthew 28:19-20

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:

How the Church Can Improve Christian Education, Part 2


In Part 1 of this limited series on how the Church in America can improve Christian education, I showcased two videos by Sir Ken Robinson, a British education expert who seems to be all the rage among the intelligentsia. Included in that post were two videos, which are important for understanding what follows, so I encourage everyone to watch them, especially the first from RSAnimate.

Okay, now that you’ve watched the video(s)…

Robinson states truths that are quite obvious to anyone who has worked in education. One truth is that all learners are different. Another truth is that nearly all children start out with a capacity for creative problem solving, often exceedingly creative. Combining these ideas, Robinson leans toward the kind of educational theory that asks educators to work harder to differentiate learning in learners. It all comes down to accommodating the learner with as many opportunities for self-direction and self-discovery of knowledge as possible.

But there’s a problem with that philosophy.

Certain kinds of rationalistic knowledge can be arrived at rationally. A great deal of how our world works can be deduced through experience, with a little mentoring added in. This kind of learning style has been advocated for years, going back all the way to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile and continuing to the modern day in theorists like John Holt. In short, Robinson advocates nothing new. In fact, that path is well worn in some educational circles.

Christian education, however, can’t be addressed solely through this method. While Romans 1 states that from creation we can deduce some truths about God, we can’t deduce all by observation. General revelation (creation) and special revelation (the Bible, the voice of the Holy Spirit) exist together because of this.

So while it may be possible to observe the world and make deductions about mathematics from it, coming to truths about Christian doctrine requires book learning. At some point, teaching the Christian faith must have some rote element.

That element has been problematic for years, though. Go back a couple centuries and rote knowledge of the Faith was about the only kind one could find. The way we taught our children the Faith felt mostly like a lecture, wherein we drilled the same core truths into everyone. DuncecapFor a long time that method worked, mostly, no matter what Sir Ken Robinson thinks. We did a good job of schooling everyone in basic theology and doctrine.

Somewhere along the line, though, the Church got away from a disciplined methodology for making disciples. Post-19th century, the way we disciple people has become a haphazard mess because we rebelled against any notion of standardizing the way we teach people the Faith. Instead, we’ve left most people to attain depth in the Faith on their own, treating most Christian education as a supplement to what people, even children, are getting elsewhere. The problem is that they are either not getting that instruction elsewhere or the instruction they are receiving is wholly undermining what they should be receiving.

The result? Christians today are staggeringly ill-informed about what they are supposedly to believe about the Christian Faith. When a “mature” Christian can’t lay out a solid presentation of why Jesus is the only way to God, when he or she can’t explain why the doctrine of the Trinity is important, we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. And much of that goes back to a total lack of solid rote teaching.

But poor rote-style teaching is not the only problem. While we may admire Christians of the past for their head knowledge, heart knowledge matters too. And more than that, today’s Christian faces challenges unknown to his ancestors in the Faith, challenges that require bold, creative thinking to resolve.

Learning by rote doesn’t fully work because Christianity is not merely a rationalistic or philosophical exercise. While critical doctrines underlie it, our Faith is not entirely cerebral. Unlike its secular counterpart, Christian education doesn’t come down to knowing what a cosine is or how best to tune a car engine. It’s foundationally relational and spiritual. Adding to that complexity is God’s wisdom in making each of us unique in our spiritual giftings.

That each of us is uniquely gifted to serve the Lord, that each of us has a personal experience of God that must also fit into a corporate understanding of Him rooted in unwavering truths,  presents an enormous educational challenge that dwarfs the challenge Robinson discusses. The problem of education within the Church is so multifaceted that—as I believe—we’ve punted any attempt to make it work at all.

The upshot of the problem in the American Church:

Our people don’t know or understand the basics of the Christian Faith.

Our people don’t know what their personal giftings are.

Our people don’t know how to use their giftings.

Our local church leaders have abandoned their role of helping others to identify their gifts and use them for the building up of the Body of Christ.

Our local church teachers have seen so little advancement in their pupils that teaching becomes a purposeless, dispiriting chore.

Parents in our local churches have no idea how to address the Christian educational needs of their children (and feel even less capable when even the “experts” in the churches achieve such modest results).

Our church leaders address these problems with a “business as usual” approach, even when that approach achieves few results.

Our churches lack a cradle-to-grave plan for education.

A further major hurdle exists, and it’s the backbone of Robinson’s ideas—and a major headache for Christian leaders.

One of the greatest failings of the modern Christian Church, particularly its Evangelical branch, is a wholesale distrust of creative people. We love our doers, our teachers, and our pastors, but someone who creates artworks we may not immediately grasp or who has creative, nontraditional ideas about how to solve pressing church issues gets the evil eye from us. As a result, we’ve driven too many of these folks out of our churches at a time when we desperately need them to help us address needs within the Body in a more proactive way.

Watching Ken Robinson’s explanation of how to right the ship of public education can give us hope. But there’s a gotcha. Robinson’s call for a massively individualized approach to education makes the work of the teacher even more difficult. A 1:1 type of teaching style asks teachers for a huge investment of time to give each student unique direction that best matches that student’s unique gifts.

In light of this, the following questions loom for the Christian Church in America:

Are we prepared to teach a systematic doctrine tailored to a cradle-to-grave plan?

Are we prepared to address the unique needs of each student as God deals with that student individually?

Are we prepared to identify the unique giftings of each student and tailor his or her spiritual direction toward the best use of those gifts within the Body of Christ?

Are we willing to reach out to the creative people we’ve often pushed away?

If we say yes, then we have to be prepared to question every aspect of how we live. If we don’t make the changes to our lifestyles that free us to dedicate the time and energy needed to fix these problems, they will continue to fester, undermining the growth and the effectiveness of the Church.

The secular world WILL address those problems in time. The question is whether the American Church values educating its own as much as the secular world does.

Stay tuned to the next post in this series for solutions.

The complete series:

How the Church Can Improve Christian Education, Part 1


Many readers know that my degree is from Wheaton College in Christian Education. Today, Wheaton labels that same degree Spiritual Transformation. While that’s a spiffy title, it muddies what we’re doing. We ARE educating the next generation. While the goal may be spiritual transformation, unless we comprehend that this is an educational issue, we’ll drift aimlessly and fail to reach that lofty goal.

I like the RSAnimate videos online and have watched them all over the course of this last year. One featuring Sir Ken Robinson surfaced recently, and it addressed the increasingly flawed way we educate the next generation. Robinson also spoke at a TED symposium a few years back, and that presentation is equally fine (and funny). I HIGHLY encourage you to watch both videos (or at least the RSAnimate one), as this limited series of posts will riff on Robinson’s ideas:

Good stuff, eh?

I believe that the Christian Church in America suffers from the same failed outcomes in education, and I think the failure of our general educational systems contributes to the failure of Christian education. In addition, Christian education suffers from its own, peculiar failures.
Here is my take on what is not working:

1. We’re not transmitting basic Christian doctrine to our people.
2. We’ve undervalued and stymied the talents of the more artistic members of our churches.
3. As a result, we don’t connect creative vision with the Gospel, nor do we allow that vision to inform the practice of our doctrine.
4. As a result, we’ve fallen into patterns of operation that no longer work within a changing culture.
5. Because our patterns of operation are less effective and are met with increasing hostility (because they are deficient), we’ve adopted a bunker mentality.
6. Our bunker mentality further alienates the culture at large.
7. That alienation results in a continued loss of existing churchgoers and potential converts, and the people we do manage to keep are less deep in the faith because no greater vision exists.

Let’s start with the most pressing problem: The people in the seats don’t know the basics of the Christian faith.

If you disagree with that statement, I would ask you to ask the average Christian two questions (one simple and one more complex):

1. Why is Jesus the only way to God?
2. Why is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity essential?

I believe that many Christians would flail at the first question and punt the second entirely. Sadly, I think a lot of Christians aren’t entirely convinced that Jesus is the only way to God, which is why that question becomes so damning when asked. And consider that we tend to take for granted that Christians should “just get” the Trinity by some kind of happenstance spiritual osmosis, and it becomes all the more obvious why that question leads to blank stares.

I believe that the greatest educational failure in the American Church is the lack of a comprehensive cradle-to-grave educational plan. This occurs because too many churches have made happenstance spiritual osmosis the primary basis of their educational philosophy.

One verse may be the culprit here:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
—Philippians 1:6

A misguided understanding of that verse is probably the greatest reason that so many churches have an educational philosophy of “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.” And folks, that chancy philosophy is making us stupid, barely there Christians.

The other day, the Holy Spirit walloped me with a passage in Acts that opened up the reason why we can’t rely on happenstance spiritual osmosis as an educational philosophy:

But it was not long before a violent wind (called a northeaster) swept down from the island. The ship was caught so that it couldn’t face the wind, and we gave up and were swept along. As we drifted to the sheltered side of a small island called Cauda, we barely managed to secure the ship’s lifeboat. They pulled it up on deck and used ropes to brace the ship. Fearing that they would hit the large sandbank near Lybia, they lowered the sail and drifted along. The next day, because we were being tossed so violently by the storm, they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day they threw the ship’s equipment overboard with their own hands. For a number of days neither the sun nor the stars were to be seen, and the storm continued to rage until at last all hope of our being saved vanished. After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have sailed from Crete. You would have avoided this hardship and damage. But now I urge you to have courage because there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For just last night an angel of God, to whom I belong and whom I serve, stood by me and said, ‘Stop being afraid, Paul! You must stand before the emperor. Indeed, God has given you all who are sailing with you.’ So have courage, men, for I trust God that it will turn out just as he told me. However, we will have to run aground on some island.”
—Acts 27:14-26

The Apostle Paul stands up and gives an encouraging prophetic word: The storm is awful, but not a one of us passengers will die. God will take care of us.

What struck me about that passage is the massive caveat in that final sentence.

Paul’s prophetic word wasn’t going to come true if the ship remained hundreds of miles from shore. They had to get nearer to land. Your ship breaks up in the middle of the sea in a violent storm and people will die. Get closer to land and your chances increase. You have to take some practical steps to see that vision come true. God asks something of the sailors: Get yourself to a place where I can make this happen.

Right now in the American Church, the educational ship is in a storm in open water. We have got to take practical steps to get that ship closer to land. God WILL make Philippians 1:6 happen, but we can’t be stupid about getting the Church to a place where He can.

In the next posts in this series (2, 3), I’ll talk more about what we can do to improve Christian Education in our churches and what “getting to a place where God can make it happen” looks like. Stay tuned.

The complete series: