Monday, September 8, 2008

He Who Fails to Plan, Plans to Fail

I have been pondering my own education frequently of late, dwelling on both its good features and bad. As an amateur educator, parent, and student, the subject is naturally quite important as I have to take care and fill in the gaps that I currently have. And as my oldest child begins school, the subject becomes more urgent. This week my mind dwells on planning.

It is a good thing that schools plan. After all, if every teacher did something different in a school, each grade ignored what came before and what would come after and nobody cared that the students were getting a well-rounded education, I think we would have little hope for students attending those schools. It makes sense for a 12th grade teacher to teach calculus knowing that students had been able to take algebra before, but not otherwise. It makes sense for a teacher to teach a course on advanced French, but only if there was an intermediate French class the year before. But the planning goes beyond that; there are broad swathes of history that need to be covered before one goes to college, certain books certainly need to be read, and so on. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the material taught is the proper material and in the proper doses (and both of these I doubt in most cases), all of this should be blindingly obvious to anyone who values having, getting or giving an education. We should be thankful that at least some thought has been put into this by modern educators.

For the same reason I am very glad we do the same in the church and in the Christian care and education of our people. I am glad that our churches plan to make sure those under its watch get everything they need to be a proper thinking and acting Christian throughout their lifetime. It is a good thing churches plan so that the whole Bible is known well by the time kids grow up and go off to college. It is a good thing that Christians generally have read widely in good Christian literature and have reaped the benefits of it. It is a good thing that Christian history is familiar and Christians can both reap the positive benefits personally of seeing God act in history, but can also bring this knowledge to bear when those outside get swept up in foolish ideas about Constantine rewriting the Bible or other foolishness written in popular but ignorant literature. It is a good thing that churches encourage the learning of the biblical languages as both a deeper way to appreciate the Scriptures and a tool for better interpretation. It is a good thing that Christian youth have a worldview informed enough to withstand the onslaught of secularist thinking found at most universities. It is a good thing that Christians have been thoroughly versed in theology so that they can move beyond the most basic of Christian ideas. It is a good thing that, after a lifetime of learning, we can look around out our peers and say “Those around me are for the glory of God the wisest, most educated people around, for they are a part of the church of Christ.”

But, then again, you must realize by now that I have either found a fount of Absinthe from which to drink, I am mad, or that I was not serious. Or perhaps in my sarcasm I show that I am quite serious. We all know the above picture is untrue except in the rarest of cases. The reality is that the church has no overarching conception of education and no big idea other than to just teach some Bible to people on their way to the afterlife in the hope that it is enough. Yet for those who believe that we should honor God with our minds, this seems very odd. After all, we have no problem enrolling kids in kindergarten, twelve years of grade school and at least four years of college, so we apparently have no problem with a basic education. But how much time do we spend thinking about it? Planning? In all but the rarest cases, the time spent must be little.

This problem seems so obvious to me, and after only a little reflection, I hope it seems obvious to you as well. There are a plethora of things a Christian can learn throughout life for his betterment and the advancement of the kingdom. But without a conscious thought or plan about how to be a thoroughly learned Christian, why do you think anyone has much of a chance of becoming one?

But recognition of the problem is but only a small step towards the goal and the easiest part of the race. The next step is a big one, which is the question “Where do I start?” What is the answer to that? Are you going to have to figure it out on your own or can you ask somebody? Perhaps the person you ask will be a fellow novice with no more of a clue than you, but who is still under the delusion that he knows something. Or will you happen to stumble upon a coach?

And continuing with the metaphor, finding a coach is a big part of the problem. One does not wake up one day and say “Well, I am going to coach the Dallas Cowboys” and get hired unless he has the requisite background. But who has it? When several generations drop the ball (this metaphor just goes on forever, does it not?) and fail to pass on the necessary wisdom and know-how, you should not expect to be able to just pick up where the learned left off generations ago. If you start anywhere, it will be from a place of ignorance.

And that is where we find the church. It has many teachers, but how many people does the church have that can really put together what the education of a good Christian looks like? It has its pastors, but can they look beyond the next few months and come up with a good educational philosophy for their people long-term? It has its education ministers, but can they think beyond next year’s curricula?

For some the answer was Christian schools, but the idea in and of itself is just a facile answer that actually fails to solve the problem. The educational dilemma is larger than these this. It is bigger than creating Christian schools, though that is theoretically helpful. It has to do with Sunday teaching times. It has to do with parents and their children. It has to do with developing a culture of learning in Christian adults. It has to do with the rethinking of educational patterns, practices, and structures. It has to do with rethinking, or in most cases, thinking about for the first time, what it takes to make educated Christians.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this for me is that I know I do not have the answers. I feel similarly in this regard as I do with my back and neck pain. I know the problem is there because I feel it every time I move my head. I know some things I can do to make things better like exercise, good posture, and stretching, but what I do does not make the pain go away completely. I know some things that help, but I do not know how to solve the problem myself. That is why I go to the chiropractor. But who will be my educational chiropractor? Who will be that for the church?

So then what is a Christian philosophy of education? We have survived for a while without one but we are not better for it. If we can come to the point of seeing that there is a problem, pray tell, what is step two?

Eric B. Sowell


Hal Brunson said...


Your essay is not only very well written and depthful, it is also convicting.

I have a couple of questions for you:

1. What do you think Paul meant when he told the Ephesian elders that he had declared to them "the whole counsel of God" in a brief span of three years? Do you think that anyone other than Paul is capable of a through explication of the Divine Counsel in such a short tenure? And what would be the nature and content of such a brief but thorough declaration of "the whole counself of God."

2. How would you counter the argument that a pastor's long-term planning of sermon topics neglects (a) the importance of a pastor's discerning eye towards the specific, evolving needs of his congregation, and (b) a more "mystical" approach to sermon selection based upon immediate spiritual impressions of texts as a basis for selecting sermon topics (I know this sounds existentially risky)?

3. Given the popularity of verse by verse, book by book expository preaching as the shibboleth of modern seminaries, why do you think that perhaps the majority of history's greatest preachers, i.e., Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, never followed the expository model but in fact seemed to conform to the pattern of Question 2, as well as advise their students to follow that pattern?

4. Could your remarks be more apopros to the broader educational ministry of a church, such as their Sunday School program, as opposed to pulpit preaching?

By the way, I don't expect you to answer those questions; they're just fodder for thought; but you have certainly made me think, and I thank you for that.

By the way, I have an idea stimulated by your essay. Why don't we-you, Edward, and I- compose and post on our church website a list of what we think are the most important books our congregation should read to be well informed Christians? I think that could be very beneficial and edifying for us and others.

Here's a quick list of some of my picks:

"The Imitation of Christ" - Thomas A'Kempis

"Pilgrim's Progress" - John Bunyan

"All of Grace" - Charles Spurgeon

"Morning and Evening" - Charles Spurgeon

"The Reformers and Their Stepchildren" - Leonard Verduin

"The Death of Death in the Death of Christ" - John Owen

"The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination" - Lorraine Boettner

"The Sovereignty of God" - A. W. Pink

"The Holy Spirit" - Pink and Owen

"Mere Christianity" - C. S. Lewis

"The History of the Christian Church" - Williston Walker (a brief classic)

"The Universe Next Door" - James Sire (cursory but adequate treatment of competing world views)

"The Institutes of the Christian Religion" - John Calvin

"The Bondage of the Will" - Martin Luther

"The Origin of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration" - Bruce Metzger

"The Bloody Tenet of Persecution" -Roger Williams

"Letter to the Danbury Baptists" - Thomas Jefferson

"A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists" - Isaac Backus

"The Right of Inalienable Conscience" - John Leland

"Summa Theologica" - Thomas Aquinas

"The City of God" - Augustine

"The Works of Jonathan Edwards"

I'd better stop.

Grace and Peace,


Eric Sowell said...

Thanks for the comments. I will answer them as well as I can, but since I am trying my best to think through these things and figure out what is best I can't say I have too much confidence in my own ideas. Like I said, I see the problem, but I don't claim to know enough to fix it :)

1. Three years is a brief span if Paul preached once or twice a week for a total of about 45 minutes. It would be difficult to cover "the whole counsel of God", however you define it. But I doubt that is the case. He says that he did not cease exhorting them night and day, and from what I gather, that is more literal speech than it is hyperbole as they probably did meet every day. So if he preached and taught every day for an hour for three years, well, that is a lot of time to communicate ideas.

But what does the "whole counsel of God" mean? Is it an exposition of the Old Testament? I wish I knew.

2. I would not counter that at all. That is a fine way to preach. What I am referring to is not just the task of the sermon but the larger issue of getting a good education in things biblical, theological, etc. Though the pulpit will be an essential part of that it is not the only tool to accomplish that. And since we only go to church once a week (or twice for some churches), I don't think it can. Some think that you can get all you need in terms of spiritual education from listening to sermons on the Lord's Day, but the task is much bigger than that.

Take our church as a specific example. I would not recommend you change your sermon preparation to fit larger educational goals, though if you did sometimes that is fine. It is not the sermon and its foci that I take issue with. It is that we (and by that I mean every bit of Christendom I have come in contact with) do not think critically and corporately about what it would mean for us to be educated Christians. And, if we don't do this, we will likely not get where we need to get.

3. The fascination of expository in the modern seminary and pulpit is a result of brain rot :). The best preachers probably did not preach in an expository manner because they saw that in practice it is thoroughly un-apostolic. There is more to say on this (perhaps a post on its own) but we are in agreement here.

4. Yes, it has much more to do with the broader educational ministry of the church, the role of the parents in a child's education, and perhaps school as well. This was not a post about how our pastors are failing us in the pulpit. If what I said above wasn't clear, I do not by this post mean to say your task of preaching is lacking (I hope I did not accidentally communicate that). On the contrary, I think you are doing a great job and always look forward to your sermons. And I am not just saying that to stay out of trouble :). It is a critique of everyone's lack of an overall idea of Christian education. And even though there is a higher price on education at our church than at most, I do not think we are doing the job we could be doing. But this post was not meant to be a post about our church; it is a commentary on every form of Christianity I have lived under in my relatively short 32 years.

The great thing is that I think we, as a church, could have some great conversations about this. You obviously have a lifetime of experience in education and a number of people in the church have some as well. And given that we have a large population of families with small children, I think it would be of interest!

I do like the recommended books idea. Your list (and Edward's, I'm certain) will give me some good ideas for my own reading, and I think it could be of use to others as well.