Editor’s Journal: Feeding, learning and leading
In 2006, Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia joined other members of the United States House of Representatives as they worked for the passage of a bill that would allow the Ten Commandments to be hung in the House Chamber. When interviewed by none other than Stephen Colbert, he struggled to list the Ten Commandments. He only managed to name three in random order. From that moment forward, all his efforts seemed to ring hollow regarding his interest in the Law of God and its potential impact on American public policy.
Yet I wonder: if the same experiment were to take place among the members of your congregation, would they do any better? Would they be able to name the Ten Commandments in order as God gave them to Moses? Furthermore, would they not only be able to recite them, but would they also be able to explain the significance of the Decalogue as it fits into the grand narrative of Holy Scripture?
Educationally speaking (even among Christian educators), teaching has become more about technique than knowledge, more about process than goal and more about feelings than facts.
Every year, the University of Chicago hosts a lecture for all its incoming freshmen called, “The Aims of Education.” In 1998, Professor John Mearsheimer stated this to the incoming freshmen:
“There is a powerful bias at the University of Chicago against providing you with the truth about the important issues we study. Instead, we aim to produce independent thinkers who can reach their own conclusions. Not only is there a powerful imperative at Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, but the University also makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution.”
We rightly cringe at such statements. What Professor Mearsheimer actually said without coming right out and saying it was: There is a truth here at Chicago: you should not teach truth.
But what if the same ideas were said a bit differently before congregations by people like you? What if a Christian educator were to stand before a congregation and state something that eerily resembles what Mearshemer said, only with Christian verbiage camouflaging the same intent as the pagan professor? Imagine if the congregation heard something like this statement:
“We simply do not believe in teaching hard-line Christian doctrine to our children or our youth or even our college students because simply providing them with information isn’t going to change their lives. We want to produce Christians who change the world by being active, not necessarily by knowing a lot about the Bible. Sunday School or small groups isn’t about teaching the Bible. Small groups should be about fellowship and making friends. After all we are family.”
I have heard such statements in many churches I have visited across the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a growing trend. For all of our talk about the Bible, we simply do not know it ourselves and we certainly do not teach it to others. There isn’t much school in Sunday School any longer.
Perhaps I am overstating the case— avoiding various shades of nuance in order to make a point. I will concede that might be true, but if I may, I believe God calls each of us—especially as ministers of the Gospel and you as Christian educators—to be intellectually rigorous. C.S. Lewis stated:
“He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim. God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.”
Of course you as trained Christian educators and ministers could certainly speak more cogently and precisely about the various competing philosophies of education and the integration of knowledge, behavior and change—of metaphysics, logic, aesthetics, ethics and even epistemology.
Yet, I do believe there are some key ideas and pedagogies that should be revisited and reworked into the modern church if we are going to see any hope of renewal and revival.
1. The Great Reversal—Restoring the Gospel to Its Rightful Place
Tim Keller has rightly said, “If you think you understand the Gospel, you do not understand the Gospel.” As we are victims of the noetic effects of the Fall, we constantly, in the words of Luther, “need to beat the Gospel into our heads” until we get it.
It truly is amazing that in all the world religions, Christianity is put forth in terms of news. As someone in the news business, I marvel at such a category. For something to be news, it must be —new. It must be a development that has been known at least in a certain iteration of thought or deed in time and space. While news might be similar among cities, countries, corporations, families and individuals, there is an aspect to news that is simply a recitation of events. This happened here at this time with these people.
When you think that the Gospel actually means good news (euangellion), you come to realize very quickly that most religions of the world are anything but good news. Perhaps they are good techniques, good advice or good ideas, but not good news. To quote Michael Scott Horton in his new book, The Gospel Driven Life:
“The heart of Christianity is good news. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed and achieved everything for us. It is about God and His faithfulness to His own purposes and promises.”
Christianity is not merely an educational resource, but a reality that is predicated on the understanding that Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary, lived perfectly, died vicariously, rose victoriously, ascended gloriously and will return powerfully. These facts are the rudiments of the Christian faith—THE faith—as Jude says, which was entrusted to the saints.
The applications of that accomplishment of Jesus is what Christian education is all about—how the facts of the resurrection impact the daily trials of modern life. The problem is we attempt to tackle problems armed with no knowledge resulting in no power available to make progress in the Christian life.
We must get over very quickly the tendency to moralize, and rather learn to theologize, or our children will continue to walk away from the faith because they realize (even as we do not) that their professors are smarter than their pastors; and their coaches are more serious and inspirational about football than their youth pastor is about the Gospel.
We have removed God from the center of Christian education and replaced it with fun, technique and games. And we wonder why we have such serious problems with children, high school students and especially college students.
Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel, but I am afraid that we are ashamed of the Gospel; else we would teach it more.
2. The Great Enterprise—Mission as Action
Have you noticed that everyone today is now missional? What was once a deadly word in the Southern Baptist Convention is now the hot topic.
I spent time at the U.S. Naval Academy, and watched and taught midshipmen very closely. They were working for what they called—integrity. By this they meant both personal and conceptual integrity. In other words, they wanted to be in private what they were in public; they wanted to understand and include all that they were learning in the classroom on the battlefield or on the seas of battle so that they would not be fractured and find themselves out of control when the bullets starting flying.
Are you a person of integrity? Are you teaching for the mission? Are those under your care as a Christian educator critically engaged with the mission by integrating what they know with what they do, or are they simply involved in meaningless activities which are really weakening them and causing them to become prey to Satan’s strategy of being very religious without being godly?
We hear so very much about the Great Commission these days—and rightly so. But unless there is a mission that regulates everything you do and everything you teach; unless the mission integrates your life, Holy Scripture will remain, in the words of Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George, inert.
You may believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but if you are not integrated with the mission of God, the Bible is and will remain inert to you. It will do nothing for you.
I would encourage you to read Christopher Wright’s book, The Mission of God. Wright states that Jesus insisted that his disciples read the Old Testament both messianically and missiologically. The reality of God’s mission is seen through the mission of the church.
3. The Great Escape—Teaching for Change
II Peter 1-11 provides a key understanding of exactly how God requires that progressive sanctification work in the life of every believer.
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
Our goal as Christians is to escape the corruption of this world through the knowledge of the promises of God. But if you do not know them—how will you escape? We are commanded to learn, work, apply truth and grow.
How exactly does that happen? For learning to take place—some sort of knowledge must be transmitted. Yet, we work not to teach doctrine.
Children in Southern Baptist life were once catechized. No longer. Educationally, we aren’t even able to teach any longer because, in many ways, we can’t even read the Bible, because in the words of Mortimer J. Adler, we have lost the ability to “read” a text. Christianity is a textual faith. Even in the face of literary deconstruction by skeptics who seek to eviscerate the Bible of its power, the Bible can and should be taught in ways which would result in an escape from this world system and put students of Holy Scripture on the path for change and action in this present world.
We need to get our facts straight. So many of us are working to technologically communicate that we are failing to theologically communicate.
And this must change for us to help fellow believers escape the corruption of this world.
(Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from an address given during a gathering of the Oklahoma Baptist Ministers of Education Association at the BGCO Annual Meeting Nov. 9)
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.