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:

11 thoughts on “How the Church Can Improve Christian Education, Part 1

    • Laura,

      It’s funny that you say that (and I’ll talk about this more in future posts in this series), because most Christian homeschooling material operates from a behaviorist model of education. Ironically, most Christians would react strongly against the educational philosophies of someone like B.F. Skinner, yet much of the curricula designed by Christian homeschooling companies is Skinnerian to the core (at least it used to be, and given the companies’ philosophies, probably still is). It’s the kind of material that Ken Robinson would claim only furthers the problem.

  1. Chris

    Great topic, Dan. My wife and I recently started re-working one of our churches curriculums, when I realized that after 12 or so years of church education, the kids reach adulthood without ever hearing a coherent presentation of the Gospel. It’s all just disjointed stories told out of order to keep them occupied! Glad I’m not the only one with a bone to pick with our education “system”.

  2. When I was eighteen and no longer part of my church’s youth group, I sat in the back of my church’s sanctuary and watched the current youth group put on a skit about one of the parables. It then hit me that I had been performing and watching these skits almost all of my life, from preschool through high school, and I still had no idea what the parables were about. I soon quit my church and its denomination.

  3. Linda

    Hi Dan,
    I listened to most of the video you post here. This gentleman has a very nice humor side to his speaking. Quite funny in places!

    My thinking that the best place for Christian education of kids is in their homes. There are some teaching benefits outside the home for sure, but teaching in the moment by persons who have the authority and trust of their children is fantastic. Can’t have a better education platform than that.

    As for teaching outside the home, academics in my thinking, needs to be expounded upon with experience and stories to tell of how God worked in our lives. These stories would be mostly historical in that they have already happened. We can’t predict how God will respond toward every believing person, but we can give examples of how God worked in the context of our own particular story and experience.

    If you will permit me saying, Paul was not prophecying. He was telling the sailors what he had experienced and heard from God. The dream (or vision) that he saw and heard. He was giving testimony and wittness.

    In my experience, prophecy is an immediate word from God. Not necessarily predicting an upcoming future event. Prophecy is an encouragment to the saints. Paul says that believers should ALL have the ability to prophecy. Not all believers are prophets, but ALL can and should be able to prophecy God’s word, mind and Spirit to other believers in the context of a gathering. (and outside of a gathering I suppose also). Paul was giving testimony and wittness of God (or the angel) telling him that all the people would be saved but the ship would be lost.

    Prophecy centers on God’s word for the season and the moment in time when the prophecy is given to the saints. This is why prophecy is not the same all the time. Prophecy in my experience almost never gives direct instruction to a saint. In Pauls case, the one who prophecied to him going up to Jerusalem gave Paul information that Paul already knew. God was preparing Paul for his arrest and imprisonment at Jerusalem. The resulting response from the believers was that Paul should spare himself and not go up to Jerusalem.

    My computer is acting up and about ready to crash. I will have to get to the local library to read your posts for now until I decide what to do about my home computer situation.

    Sorry for the long comment again.

    • Linda,

      The one rule of Christian Education: There is no one rule. While it may be true that parents should be the first line of teaching, not all kids respond to their parents. They just don’t. Sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt. A parent may create a worthwhile environment for Christian education, but it may not be the environment that causes the best growth. The history of the Christian faith is one of people being influenced by others outside their immediate families. In fact, outsiders often seem to be the greater influence. Parents may help establish a baseline, but it seems to me that it is almost always someone outside the family who kicks a kid’s spiritual growth into high gear.

      There is no one educational style.

      There is no one type of superior instruction.

      There is no one kind of effective teacher.

      People are just too varied to respond to any one thing.

      And I think this is God’s wisdom. It forces people outside the familiar. It pushes people to rely on God for their needs. It pushes us to connect with others and to be observant of what is happening around us. It makes that one brief, shining moment of “Ah, hah!” so much more crystal clear.

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