If I bring my children to your church every Sunday and Wednesday from birth until they leave home for college, what specifically ought they to know when they leave? And when I say "specifically," I mean items so specific that you could develop a standardized test (not that we ever would) with precise questions regarding items that you meant to teach.
I think that's a pretty important question. In my mind, it raises several other thought-provoking points to ponder, so I'll pass them along to you in the hopes of launching a conversation:
Whose job is it to ask this question? For many years I operated on the assumption that I didn't have to ask this question because somebody, somewhere in Nashville was asking and answering that question on my behalf. All I have to know is that I'm purchasing Lifeway literature, right?
But now I'm convinced that it is my job as pastor to ask and to answer that question. It isn't Lifeway's fault that I had that false impression before—Lifeway's own mission statement clearly states their role as a helper to churches, not as some sort of vicar for designing and implementing our discipleship responsibilities as a church. It is my job to know what our church is trying to teach and Lifeway's job to provide biblical solutions to help me lead our church to accomplish our goals.
The sort of thoughts that I posted in the first post of this series have arisen in my mind because I've been thinking more and more about the question at the top of this post and relying less and less upon other people to do this thinking for me.
How, specifically, does the work of the church dovetail with the work of parents and school in discipleship of children? As big a fan of church as I am, all of my "train up a child" eggs are not in the church-program basket. Most of them aren't there. My children are receiving deliberate biblical and devotional education at home. I regard such things as Sunday School and AWANA or TeamKid or Upward as resources in this overall task.
But we have kids here whose parents are lost. And I'm not sure that we can assume that every family attending here has any sort of deliberate spiritual education ongoing for their children. How does the program of spiritual equipping in our church programming dovetail with home, or at least, how ought we to plan for it to interact with things going on at home as a basis for our church planning?
Tracy and I are homeschooling. We have a lot of homeschooling families in our congregation. We have a lot of children in private Christian schooling in our congregation. We have a lot of children in our congregation who attend public schools. Each of these methodologies takes a slightly different approach toward spiritual education.
And church programs do interact with a child's schooling. It may be as subtle as the fact that we start to presume at some point that the students in the classroom are able to read. One factor that impacts the design of most youth ministries is that assumption that youth are facing a barrage of temptations facilitated by their schoolday interactions. When you start to have a significant number of students who are studying the Bible in a structured daily curriculum, that impacts what you can expect of students in Sunday activities.
So, when I ask myself what students ought to know when they go off to college, how much of that is the church supposed to accomplish, how much of it are the parents supposed to accomplish at home (ideally), and how much of that ought students to pick up in their formal education (however it is accomplished)? And how can the church communicate with these other institutions so that each of us knows what we're trying to accomplish?
Is attendance a large enough goal for discipleship? I don't think so. But I confess that it is easy to obsess over attendance. When our Sunday School directors meet to evaluate our Sunday School, we largely evaluate it on the basis of attendance. Johnny Hunt's poignant sermon at the Pastor's Conference in Indianapolis described a crisis in his own pastorate and his church over the fact that their attendance experienced a slight decline.
But once we get those people to come, what are we doing with them? Do we know? Are we doing a good job at it? What's our goal? The question at the top of this post points in the direction of these other questions, and leads us not to stop looking at attendance, but to see attendance as something more important than a means toward self-aggrandizement—these are the people taking part in this marvelous journey of discipleship to which Christ has called us, which we have embraced, and which we are tackling in these specific ways.
Since we don't test, how can we measure our performance? Our state employs standardized testing not only to measure the performance of students but also to measure the performance of teachers and schools. Debate exists in the public schools as to whether this is the best way to evaluate teachers and schools. What about at church? Are we going to ask ourselves whether we're doing a good job? And if we will, how will we answer that question? And I mean not just the questions of whether this teacher is well-prepared, interacts well with parents and students, is doctrinally sound, shows up dependably, and all of the other things that we must watch and measure. Eventually, we have to ask the big question—is it all getting through to the students like we hoped it would?
What about those who show up in the middle of the process? Remediation is a big factor in determining a church's goals for spiritual education. How big of a factor ought it to be? Ought the church's programming to be "dumbed down" and designed especially for novices to the detriment of those I mentioned at the top of the post, whose children will be here weekly throughout their childhood? On the other hand, if your faithful core are going to be effective witnesses, isn't it going to discourage the fourteen-year-old friend whom they lead to Christ when that new convert perceives that he's in a decade-plus deficit that will take him years to overcome? Does he go into a different track? Or can the church achieve something of the ideal of the one-room schoolhouse, where we all mingle at different stages along the way, interacting with and helping one another? I think we can—that sounds pretty biblical to me. But it affects the way that we design discipleship, doesn't it?
I confess that I come to these questions with opinions the prejudice me. I found a great deal of my childhood at church to be unduly repetitive and boring. It seems to me that, since then, we've accommodated by adding glitz rather than substance. There are things that I didn't learn until Ph.D. studies that I think I could have (and should have) learned in Junior High. The Southern Baptist Texan published a special report two years ago on Biblical Literacy, and I am convinced that our efforts in biblical education for the past few decades leave room for improvement, not in sincerity or in the dedication of those involved, but in effectiveness.
And now I'm curious to hear from you. To get the conversation started, I pose a few pointed questions to guide our comments:
- Does your local church have a detailed goal that defines what you're trying to teach and accomplish in the lives of students?
- How does your church evaluate its progress in discipling students?
- If you are a parent, what part do you see church programs playing among the other resources contributing to the spiritual development of your children?
- How easy or hard do you think it is for new believers to "catch up" with more mature believers in your children's and youth programming?
UPDATE: My VBS-related workload has increased toward the end of this week. I may not get to participate much in the discussion, but I'm confident that you all can carry on well without me until I get back to it.