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:

11 thoughts on “How the Church Can Improve Christian Education, Part 2

  1. Enjoyable and thought-provoking as always – thank you.

    There’s a huge amount I could discuss in there but just a couple of the things that jump out:

    First of all, I’m not quite sure I buy the idea that the rote-learning of truths of the faith up to (say) c19th could be the right model now. We are in a much more epistemologically pluralist governing paradigm now and it’s going to be a bit hard to say what those truths are in order to impart them. You could argue that truth as a concept doesn’t make much sense to a c21st person (except a c21st evangelical, we’re always a century behind on this stuff) except as something which is apprehended in a process that necessarily involves the recipient of the truth. I suppose what I’m saying is that I agree with your ideas about “heart” learning but that there isn’t a separate category of “head” learning.

    It’s not that there’s no truth, but there is a difficulty with starting from an abstract set of truths and then sharing it out, particularly when you trace those truths back to their geneses and find that they are often provisional judgements of a church council with only arbitrary authority. People are instinctively suspicious of aithoratitive truth claims now.

    The second point is about discipleship and I totally agree with what you’ve been saying here and in earlier posts about the reluctance of church leaders to – how do we put this? – make any effort whatsoever in this area. A lot of my generation feel totally abandoned by the way that our parents’ generation seems to have swapped personal relationship, apprenticeship and discipleship for corporate managerialism. Which, to state the obvious, doesn’t really work to help people understand themselves as precious children of God. It is very encouraging to see someone else addressing this issue. Personally I’m struggling to write about it in anything other than a very bitter way because I feel so hurt and angry about the lack of commitment to Christian “parenting” within the church. In the UK, some of the ideas about new monasticism are helping address this, but there’s a long way to go before the mainstream starts improving.

    • Daniel,

      We have to start somewhere in Christian education, and that, by necessity, means embracing basic truths! We can’t, for instance, claim that maybe Jesus is God or maybe He isn’t. We have to say He is and why He is. At some level that must come down to truths from Scripture about Jesus’ divinity and why it is important. It doesn’t matter how many troubles people have with truth claims, their troubles don’t make truth claims null and void.

      I would also say that heart knowledge and head knowledge don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Nor is there some lesser status ascribed to head knowledge. If I’ve memorized a Bible verse, that’s a head knowledge action, though it has effects on my heart as well.

      Though I do not stress apologetics on this blog (as that is too often the default setting of some Christians), we MUST have a solid apologetic and worldview. I don’t see any way to instill that without some kind of basic teacher/student model that incorporates a Platonic methodology, which is (in part) what Jesus Himself used with His disciples.

      As to the new monasticism, I think that’s a dead-end path. If anything, it’s a further individualization of the Faith at a time when a lack of decent community is hurting us deeply, not only within the Body, but also as part of our engagement with the world. A bunker mentality at this time will only bite us in the long run. What will fix the “parenting” problem is a pull-back from time-wasters and a new commitment to growing up the next generation. We have to value that and make it work!

  2. I think I agree with you more than I disagree. But for me the key is in the phrase “we have to say He is and why He is” – in discipleship and teaching I’d want you to be saying both of those things to me. But the person doing the saying is an irremovable part of that; my trust in what you are saying is based on my perception of you as the sayer of it.

    I know it’s a post-modern, Douglas Coupland kind of cliche to say that these days truth is people’s stories, but it is an informative comment. Because if I have the choice of trusting you, because you have taken the time to tell me what you believe and why you believe it; or trusting an institution that has told me what to believe because that’s the institution’s statement of faith, I know who I will be suspicious of and who I will trust. The best thing I can have is honest, open engagement with a number of people’s interpretations so I can understand and respect how they get there. At that point I’ll probably believe the same thing as them too.

    Basically there are a lot of steps to get from “Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to humanity” to any given doctrine and I want to take those steps with someone who’s already walked that way, not just be told to live with the answers. Which is a pretty Platonic (Socratic?) methold ideally.

    New monasticism – think I’m being imprecise with my terms if it generates that reaction. I’d see it as a drawing-together of genuine committed community, not a drawing-away into individualism; think the Boiler Rooms of the 24-7 Prayer movement as an example. They tend to be deeply missional and engaged with “tough” communities, so really the opposite of a bunker mentality.

  3. Swithun Dobson

    I think one of the main issues with teaching basic doctrine is that it ought not to taught as if it were hermetically sealed from biblical theology. I think if we rediscover the basis of systematic truths from a properly exegetic biblical theology we will synthesise narrative (the postmodern’s favourite) and propositional truth (the modern’s favouirite).

  4. alan


    Thanks for this well-researched and well-reasoned piece.

    Somehow the local church (universal) must realize the need for some type of Christian education strategy other than the shotgun strategy employed by many local bodies. There is a staggering amount of Biblical illiteracy abroad among many who self-identify as believers. Striking the proper balance between rote and “spirit-led” is a difficult ideal to achieve, but we must at least try. One approach (not the only approach) is quality expositional teaching from the pulpit – as opposed to topical teaching.

    Sadly, many local bodies don’t even realize the need for sound Christian education, and until that realization occurs little progress will be made.

  5. JoelMawia

    when i read your about your ministry it is so great mission congratulation for that and may our God bless . I have new student in Rakhine state Myanmar, there is no school, they go and study in the other village and when they get to height school they went to Town there is monastery school if they study there how can improve in christian life or eduction can not chose their wanted to study subject, so how can you help and i do not know how to do. I would like to call out them to Yangon(capital city of Myanmar)i was missionary in Yangon right now, but it is not easy for me without partnership pray for me.
    Joel Mawia

  6. Stu

    The great majority of Christian churches in the USA are geared toward Sunday evangelism where people invite their friends to church so that the pastor can save them through the preaching of the message. This takes the onus off of average believers to know what they believe and why they believe it and to communicate their faith to others. Compound that with the emphasis on making converts rather than true disciples results in the woeful state of Christian education.

    • Stu,

      That’s part of it. I think, though, most churches have no coherent, cradle-to-grave Christian education plan. I also think that most churches do with Christian education what they do with everything else connected to faith in Christ: take a “every man for himself” perspective. All the responsibility is tossed back to the individual. Just as we are told to bootstrap our own miracles and sufficiency, we’re told to bootstrap our own Christian education. Guess what? That almost never works.

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