Today Emily and I met with a gifted and talented coordinator
for the local school district regarding our oldest daughter, Anna, who is
obviously (at least to her mother and I) academically further along than her
grade suggests. She plays the piano, reads books that are standard in grades
5-6 with relative ease, and can multiply. She knows the capitals of all 50
states and nearly every foreign country. She is in Kindergarten. She is far smarter than I was at the same age, and this
makes me beam with fatherly pride. At the same time, the meeting this morning took
me back to my own educational experience.
I entered Kindergarten early, and was
identified as intellectually gifted by the school system after first grade. I
spent the rest of my pre-High School years moving from school to school, as the
school system struggled with what to do with me. If they put me in regular
classes I would get bored and goof around. If they put in advanced classes, I
tended to not like what I perceived to be the snobbery of the kids and teachers—most
of whom were from a higher socio-economic background than I—and hate it. Furthermore,
even in elementary school I had a knack for pushing my teachers on the
conclusions they had reached—shocking I know 🙂 It isn't that I thought I knew better than they did. I often had no better answer than they did. I just got the sense that there might be another answer.
This drove some of my teachers crazy, especially in the humanities
and social sciences, where concrete answers are harder to come by. I was told
that I was young, and needed to learn more before I began questioning people
with greater education and experience than I (not exactly a really high standard
when speaking to a fifth-grader).
I got along just fine, but it wasn’t until High School that I really enjoyed the
educational process. I enjoyed it because in High School, we were taught how to
think and the freedom to think…not told what to think unless the answer was
quite mechanical – gravity, geography, etc. We were taught the facts about the
universe, and how to think freely and inquisitively about history, literature,
art, and politics. This gave my intellectual life some air just as it was suffocating. This got me thinking about adult education in churches, because many churches I know of are struggling with it's future.
It seems to me that some churches offer to little, or too dry a material to actually teach
and shape people. Others control thought in such a way that people won’t grapple with what they just learned beyond the final bell. Yet, I still believe the church needs to grow
it’s spiritual mind. I don’t believe it must take a particular format, but
loving God with our minds and seeking His face through learning more about Him
and His Word are part of vibrant discipleship.
The educational world and the church world are somewhat
different, but are in some ways the same. In church, we need to help people
understand what to think. However, it seems to me that some churches struggle
with people who either express different opinions or who are more spiritually mature. These are not
the same thing. Nevertheless, we don’t know what to do with free thinkers, or the
“gifted kids.” This holds us back.
In some churches, in an effort not to alienate guests or
newer Christians, a lowest common denominator approach has been adopted in
adult and children’s education. In such churches, facts about the Bible and
Christian doctrine are presented at only the most basic level, so that people
won’t feel lost in the woods. The intent here is good. However, what this does
ultimately is put a lid on the church’s support for the spiritual growth of
Christians who might be classified as “meat-eaters.” Can’t we allow for the
continued spiritual growth and development of those who are “meat-eaters”? Or,
will we simply offer only milk or vegetables – suggesting that those who want
to go deeper will have to do so on their own. When people go out on their own
completely, they miss the refining influence of Christian community as they
shape their ideas about God, church, and world. This doesn’t make much sense to me.
At the same time, we need to make sure that we don’t shoot
way over the head of babes in Christ. Perhaps we can tier classes (if our
self-esteem can bear it) and offer a broader spiritual diet. Perhaps we could at
least offer the deep end of the pool as an elective to those who are able to swim, rather than
insisting they wear floaties all their lives.
In other churches, the thought police rule the camp. There
is no room for theological exploration, thoughtful questioning of church
doctrine, or margin of error. Everyone must be correct on every jot and tittle
of church teaching…even if that teaching goes beyond what is actually taught in
Scripture. Epistemic humility is strikingly absent because we believe we’ve
learned all there is to know, and there is no chance we could be wrong or learn
something beyond we already know. Don’t get me wrong here, the church shouldn’t
operate in a gray haze where there isn’t a sense of absolute truth or right and wrong. What I’m speaking of is the humility to
acknowledge that our understanding may not be complete. God hasn’t been
exhausted as a subject of exploration. Scripture continues to live and breathe—it
is a living Word. And, if the apostle Peter’s understanding needed correcting
by both Jesus and Paul—I should acknowledge that my own understanding may need it from time to
time as well.
In order for churches to foster an environment in which real
spiritual growth can occur, we must teach relentlessly the Scriptures and
Christian doctrines, while allowing the freedom to explore new horizons even as
we check what’s over the horizon against the teachings of Scripture. Let’s
rethink how faith, reason, and spiritual growth intersect, and allow people to eat spiritually
age-appropriate food—seeking to sustain a vibrant, growing relationship with
God and His Word from which we never graduate. Let’s stay humble and open to
growing in ways we may not yet realize we need to grow. Let’s remove the lid.
It seems to me that what is needed is a transformational approach to the studying and teaching the Scriptures…but that discussion must be reserved for another post.