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The Educational Ministry of the Church


published in Theological Digest & Outlook (Burlington, March 2000)

The Educational Ministry of the Church



The problem with the person suffering from amnesia isn’t that he can’t remember where he’s left his umbrella and will have to spend another $15 to replace it. The problem isn’t even that he’s going to get wet and will be inconvenienced before he arrives home. The problem with the amnesiac, rather, is that he doesn’t know where home is and therefore will never find his way there. More tragically, the person with no memory doesn’t know who he is. No less tragically, the person with no memory can’t be trusted. This isn’t to say that the amnesiac is unusually nasty. It is to say, however, that the person with no awareness of his identity behaves erratically, and behaves erratically just because he has no sense of anything that might be “out of character.”

The church’s educational ministry seeks to prevent a similar development from overtaking the church. A congregation or denomination that suffers from collective loss of Christian memory lacks a Christian identity. Lacking Christian identity, it can only behave erratically, all the while thinking itself to be the soul of consistency. Once again, this isn’t to say there’s treachery here born of mean-spiritedness, but it is to say that without a Christian memory people meander without knowing themselves to be meandering, forever losing their way without knowing the way.

Concerning the church’s educational responsibility, the Protestant Reformers liked to speak of the church as “the school of faith.” While “school” may call up “schoolish”, replete with associations that many find dull if not distasteful, our Reformation predecessors were at least aware that the church’s educational ministry has to do with truth, with substance, with elementary beginnings that develop cumulatively with the result that “everyone may be presented mature in Christ.” (Colossians 1:28) Our foreparents knew, as did the Hebrew prophets before them, that the living God is anything but ephemeral, vague, “will-o’-the-wispish”, abstract. The Holy One, rather, is concrete, denser than the utmost density we can imagine, opaque, solid, substantive. And not only dense but so very immense too – filling all space – that God is the one prophet and apostle know to be inescapable. God can always be fled, to be sure, but not escaped. Then who this God is whom we can’t escape and who – thanks to the Son’s absorbing in himself the God-forsakenness of Gethsemane and Golgotha – will never forsake us; who this God is is the “Other-with-us” in which the church endeavours to school its people from the youngest to the oldest.

Mind and heart must be steeped in the truth of God as relentlessly as a youngster learns the alphabet, then assembles words and phrases, then grasps something of the grammar that orders human discourse and without which what is known can never be communicated profoundly. That’s it! It’s only as grammar is learned too can we commend to others what we’ve come to comprehend for ourselves. And of course we soon discover that to commend what we comprehend is to find our own comprehension gaining depth and breadth. “Force-feeding”, however, is like “cramming” for exams: the momentary glut disappears as quickly as it was acquired. Better by far is the gradualist approach that Isaiah cherished when he spoke of “teaching knowledge” and “explaining the message”: “For it will be precept upon precept…line upon line…here a little, there a little.” (Isaiah 28:10) Surrounded as he was by Canaanite nations, Isaiah knew that that as surely as the unique substance of Israel’s faith thinned out through dilution, distraction and detraction, “faith” would become indistinguishable from the idolatry that faced his people wherever he looked.

It is God who is to be loved with the mind. Apart from the church’s ceaseless effort at educating its people, the Holy One won’t be loved with the mind; which is to say, won’t be loved at all.

With respect to children, I still think Northrop Frye’s advice to be sound: there’s no substitute for scripture’s delight in story telling. The stories are to be told and re-told at every age and stage of the younger person’s development. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that the stories are to be regurgitated year after year in mind-numbing monotony, devoid of subtlety, sophistication and application. Neither does it mean that these stories only are to be told. But it is to say that regardless of pedagogical technique, and regardless of the much-needed variety in the content and manner of presentation, somehow the ongoing educational task of the church always manages to recycle the “old” stories. For to recycle the stories is to find them newly pertinent to the newly-recognised problems and perplexities besetting humankind. Northrop Frye argued that only as these stories sank down to the bottom of the English student’s mind and remained embedded there – but not buried “out of sight, out mind” – would that student have any chance of understanding the tradition of English literature and of western culture in general. How much more is it the case that only as these stories remain embedded in the developing Christian’s mind can they be revisited at any period of that person’s life and be found to speak with ever-fresh relevance. More to the point, because they speak with conclusive relevance they are acknowledged to speak authoritatively.

Admittedly, at first the youngest child won’t be able to make much of many of the stories, despite the best efforts of parent or Sunday School teacher. Still, as long as the stories remain part of the hearer’s mental (and cardiac!) furniture, the stories can be probed in ever-greater depth as the hearer is granted ever-more intimate access to the One of whom they speak.

Think of the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. For the many the story’s grotesqueness will be bizarre at best; for others, repulsive at worst. Still, for good or ill, the story is a vivid aspect of the church’s memory. Abraham, the prototype of the person of faith, has been promised spiritual descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore. If the promise is to be fulfilled, then two conditions must be met: Abraham must persevere in faith (or else he can’t be the foreparent of descendants-in-faith), and Abraham’s son, Isaac, must survive (or else there won’t be descendants-in-faith.) Abraham, then, is wracked with this dilemma: if he obeys God and offers up his son Isaac, then God’s promise is null and void, since Isaac hasn’t survived; if, on the other, hand, he second-guesses God and preserves Isaac, then God’s promise is null and void, since his disobedience exemplifies his unfaith. Abraham’s obedience nullifies the promise as surely as his disobedience nullifies it. With an anguish that the old story heightens by means of such literary devices as “Take your son, your only son…” (Genesis 22:2), Abraham decides to stake everything on trusting God to fulfil God’s promises in ways that Abraham can’t even imagine at this point. He will obey God even though such obedience, from a human perspective, ensures the non-fulfilment of the promise.

Years later, the child-become-adult, now part of a church growing ever smaller in a secular society, understands with fresh comprehension the force of Christ’s promise concerning the inviolability of the church before the powers of death. (Matthew 16:18) The child-become-adult is equipped, able to assess assorted responses to the church’s retraction. Some responses, of course, are gospel-generated; other “solutions” are little more than techniques, tools, gimmicks of one kind or another. Of all the proffered programmes for assisting the church today, which are to be endorsed and which declined? The person possessed of Abraham’s faith will continue to uphold the gospel, even though it is fidelity to the gospel that appears to be shrinking the church in an era and a society that insists the gospel to be obsolete. The dilemma, again, is Abraham’s: do we obey God, counting on God’s fulfilment of the promise concerning the church, or do we second-guess God, assuming we “know better”, preferring to do what we think will ensure the church’s future, even though this latter approach entails forfeiting the gospel? Abrahamic faith means that we trust God to fulfil God’s own promises in ways that we can’t imagine now.

While it’s one thing to speak of the need to preserve biblical substance in the church’s educational ministry, finding the vehicle for this is another. Twenty-five years ago, in one of my postgraduate courses, James D. Smart, well-known bible scholar, theologian, translator and Christian educator, commented that any minister would be fortunate to find 10% of the worshipping congregation in an adult study group. The 10% of 25 years ago has shrunk, I fear, to 5% in 1999. Still, there remains a place for the small group. Streetsville congregation had a C.S. Lewis reading group that met monthly for four years, reading its way through all of Lewis’s popular writings. Alpha and Bethel courses in our congregation continue to help many. Again, our congregation has had a bible study that meets one Sunday evening per month, or meets Sunday morning before worship for six consecutive Sundays only. (People will commit themselves to a study programme with a predetermined conclusion when they often won’t to one that remains ongoing.) I have found that the latter arrangement (Sunday morning) attracts far more people, since they were coming to worship on Sunday morning in any case. (Modernity’s busyness finds even Sunday evening too much for many to manage.)

While not unappreciative of the vehicles I’ve just mentioned, I have yet found, over a 21-year ministry in the same congregation, that the Sunday morning sermon remains a most effective “delivery system.” Each autumn for over a dozen years now I have placed a small insert in the bulletin, “I should like a sermon on….” Worshippers fill in the insert and place it on the offering plate. These requests are gathered up and become the roster for my preaching throughout the following spring. In addition to providing “fodder” for sermons, the requests tell me where people are living, what they are thinking, how they are suffering, and why they are perplexed or angry or anxious. The requests vary from the expected (the struggle for faith in a world riddled with evil) to those that I didn’t foresee (the neurophysiology of endogenous depression.) By means of this vehicle I’ve found myself schooling the congregation in such matters as euthanasia, the sin against the Holy Spirit, whether the bible should be censored, the nature of psychopathy, angels, life-as-relationships, gossip, the meaning and timing of confirmation, the ethics of organ transplants, and even “revival and Jonathon Edwards.”

The opportunities here for deepening a congregation as contemporary issues are related to the “old, old stories” and such stories are seen to be normative; such opportunities are limitless. The congregation also prints each sermon for pick-up the following week. With the chance to read the sermon at their leisure, people find they absorb far more than they do when they hear it from me once only at 130 words per minute. Frequently the vehicle of the sermon fosters another vehicle; namely, formal and informal conversations on the same topic.

Evidently the educational ministry addresses two kinds of needs: the perennial human need rooted in the human condition, as well as contemporary needs arising from the modern-day situation. The human condition – we are fallen creatures, alienated from God on account of our defiance and disobedience – is the deeper of the two. In other words, the human condition always underlies the human situation, while the situation, changing from era to era, finds symptomatic expressions that vary kaleidoscopically. Still, in addressing the situation the educational ministry has every opportunity to address the human condition.

Yet in all of this we must take care to understand that the educational ministry of the church isn’t one-sidedly cerebral. (I say “one-sidedly” rather than “over”: since God is to be loved with the mind and is never honoured by slovenly thinking, we can’t be over-cerebral, whereas we can always be one-sidedly so.) Jesus both taught and healed. His teaching rendered his healing intelligible, while his healing embodied his teaching. If he had merely taught, his kingdom would have remained unembodied, a “head-trip” for amateur, armchair philosophers who like to muse on religious themes. If he had merely acted, his action would have remained ununderstood with respect to the kingdom. The kingdom of God (which is to say, the whole creation healed), is found in the singular fusion of his head, heart and hand. Throughout Christ’s public ministry the person healed (or in need of healing) was related to the community and restored to the community, as was the case with the Gadarene demoniac, now found not only seated and right-minded but clothed; i.e., he belonged to that community to which he had been readmitted. (Mark 5:15) Community ever remains essential to the educational ministry of the church. Without community and the suffering found in it, the educational ministry of the church will inevitably slide from a much-needed reasonableness into a dry-as-dust rationalism. If this happens a Christian anthropology is denied, for then reason, rather than spirit, has come to be regarded as the essence of humankind; and reason, rather than spirit (Spirit too), has come to be viewed as both ultimate reality and the access to it. The community ever remains the venue of the church’s educational ministry; which is to say, human suffering is always the context that lends the educational ministry of the church as much credibility as it will ever need.

The collective memory of the church is like the ballast in a sailing ship’s keel. The ballast consists of lead, isn’t particularly pretty, and is found below the waterline in any case. Without ballast, however, the ship, top-heavy with sail, capsizes in the first squall. Everyone knows that the more sail a ship carries above the waterline, the more ballast it needs below it. A ship with no sails never leaves the docks. Herein it resembles Admiral Nelson’s Victory: the brass is polished every day, the ceremonial cannon is fired for reasons of nostalgia, people even pay significant sums of money to climb on board – but the ship never goes anywhere. A ship with no ballast, on the other hand, naively thinks it can best the sea, only to find that the first storm leaves it foundering. The lesson here for the church is plain.

The church today is eager to hoist sails to catch the wind of the Spirit (not always recognising, however, that some spirits are less than holy) while disdainful of adding weight to the ballast. The educational ministry of the church, however, always pertains to both sails and ballast. And in our era, impatient with history and tradition and anything substantive, renewed attention must be given to ballast. For the neglect here has been long and persistent. We aren’t the first generation of Christians. Appreciating the wisdom of those who ventured before us will ensure that our immediate parents in faith weren’t the last.

Victor Shepherd

May 1999