I’ve been thinking about Søren Kierkegaard lately, especially his beer parable: SK describes a vendor who buys his beer wholesale at five cents and proceeds to sell it to his customers for four. The vendor is elated with his excellent sales: “Isn’t it great? Look at all the people who are buying my beer!”

We might laugh at the vendor’s foolishness, but Christian educators make a similar mistake. We can think we’re succeeding because we attract a large following, when all the time we’re cheapening the product. In fact, we forget that our product is priceless. Nonetheless, we sell it short and bubble with enthusiasm, “Isn’t it great how I’m using this Christian bestseller for my curriculum? Everyone’s coming to the church! Who cares if it’s Christianity Lite? We’ve got boatloads of people coming in our doors!”

I returned to my Kierkegaard texts when I began my work last December in a new call at Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian Church in Chico, California. (A university town, Chico is nestled in the upper Sacramento Valley about 90 miles north of the state capital.) As I organized the books on my office shelves, unpacked my bags, and learned members’ names through a daily devotional with our pictorial directory, I set my mind toward creating a durable, transformational adult education program. To accomplish that task, I pulled together three strands:

  1. Some classical sources for Christian education, with particular attention to the New Testament
  2. My experience with the Center for Christian Studies at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City (my previous pastoral call)
  3. 3. An exegesis of the culture of Chico and Bidwell Presbyterian

Jesus’ Ministry of Education
To become a better educator, I needed to become a learner. But frankly, the process started in discouragement. I began by reading the latest literature in Christian education. It was fluff—management manuals wrapped in paper-thin theology. So I kept going back in time, reading more and more classics from the greats like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. The closest I could find to a respectable contemporary was Dietrich Bonhoeffer—eminently respectable, but hardly contemporary. (One pertinent vignette here: A colleague recently taught a master of divinity course at a well-known seminary. When he sought to include Bonhoeffer’s Life Together on the book list, the powers-that-be replied, “No, that book is too difficult for our students.” If pastors never learn to read more thoughtfully, how can they lead their congregations into deeper waters?)

I finally arrived at Jesus.

Is it an exaggeration to assert that Jesus’ whole ministry was about education? Consider this: In the famous final command to his first followers in Matthew 28:18-20—the Great Commission—he charged them first that, by going into all the world, they were to make disciples, then baptizing them and teaching them. Grammatically, the way the Greek functions in this sentence, it has only one primary verb with a series of derivative verbal participles. That one verb is therefore the key to focus on: “to disciple.” The participles are “going,” “baptizing,” “teaching.” (This latter word is more specific and serves as a way of intensifying the main verb). Secondly, “to make disciples” literally means to make learners or followers. It has an active, personal connotation. So in a word, one of Jesus’ final recorded statements is a call for the church to educate.

Yes, it’s a bit of an exaggeration to claim that this was his whole life’s work. Jesus also concerned himself deeply with saving lives, with proclaiming social righteousness, with healing, to name just a few of his deeds. But let’s not forget that Jesus’ final proclamation focuses on discipleship or learning. Education therefore represents a central component of Jesus’ mission for himself and for us.

In fact, education is mission. The “missional church” is a pretty hot concept today. Its basis is the missio deo, the “mission of God”—that God is always sending us into the world. Karl Barth, for example, emphasized that this missional nature is the very definition of the church. In his Church Dogmatics IV/3, for example, he described “The Sending of the Community of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the very nature of the church is to be sent into the world. In a world that is moving away from Christendom (the linking of social-political structures with the church), we can no longer expect our congregations to grasp basic narratives of the Bible or church teachings. Here’s one statistic I learned from George Gallup: 80 percent of Americans say they’re Christians, but 4 in 10 don’t know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Our specific role as educators, then, is to teach the basic content of our faith and to assist our congregations in seeing their lives as Christians who enter into the mission of God. Our education work resides in training our congregations to grasp that their lives are missional.

Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 further define the church’s educational mission and underline the mind’s role in this process: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Naturally faith does not equal knowledge. Nonetheless, I italicized two key phrases to demonstrate that the mind is important to God. “Reasonable worship” (which could also be translated “rational worship”) and “renewing your minds” point to the call for our entire being to engage the gospel. When the church sacrifices the mind, it loses integrity. Not everyone in the church is called to a life of the mind, but some of the church certainly is.

In addition, I realize with Paul that our call to education is a constant process of transformation, which can be accomplished only by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we have no reply to Kierkegaard’s haunting question, “Can Christianity be taught?” So a caveat: True Christian faith cannot be taught merely by programs. Unless we’re involved in the Spirit’s work of changing lives, all programs are worthless. For that reason, we are constantly called back to worship and prayer.

An Openness to Substantive Theology
Pastoral ministry in Manhattan might fit a paraphrase of St. Sinatra, “If you can save ’em there, you can save ’em anywhere!” Working as a Christian educator in Manhattan took all my available energy, creativity, and collaboration. That realization ought to be a central lesson for all Christian educators.

In the heart of the Big City, I realized that basic doctrines still have appeal. One day in 1999 I got a call from New York magazine. Out of the 95 classes the church’s Center for Christian Studies presented that program year, which one do you suspect the writer chose? It was an inquiry into the Apostles’ Creed, “Theology Through the Creed: Bringing Belief to Life.” (Incidentally, one of the worst-attended classes I ever put together was on the church and homosexuality. Since it has been a hot potato in our denomination for decades, I prepared myself for crowds and controversy. Judged solely by the response, it was a flop.) Our creeds are not boring! Remember that many died to confess the theology we often hold casually. I believe that same power can communicate today.

In Manhattan, I learned we do well to engage the media in “getting the word out.” New York magazine later named our center “one of the great ba
rgains in continuing adult education”—an invaluable endorsement for sure. I carried this lesson to Chico, where breaking through the static is considerably easier. As I prepared to teach a class called “Creation and Science: Perfect Together?” I decided to call Chico’s Enterprise Record. The paper ran a favorable full-page story. The first night, I found myself suddenly swamped not with the 30 participants I had anticipated, but something like 175. They came excitedly to hear how Big Bang cosmology relates to the doctrine of “creation from nothing”! The whole experience simply confirms that people are fascinated by faith that engages substantive issues.

It helps to break programs into comprehensible units. At Fifth Avenue Presbyterian I discovered that we needed to make our vast education offerings understandable. So we broke them into various disciplines (following, and extending, the classical four in theological education): the Bible, theology, church history, practical theology/Christian living, and the arts/literature/music/drama. We also created four levels (100, 200, etc.) to offer a progression that the students could work through.

Building an Adult Discipleship Program
Bryant Kirkland, the former pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, had the habit of walking the streets of Manhattan and pondering the people who passed by. As the busy tourists and shoppers of Fifth Avenue hurried past, he watched and reflected. What were they thinking? What worried them at night? How would the gospel reach their lives? I find myself now doing the same thing on Chico’s West First Street as I watch the undergrads sauntering by our sanctuary and entering the campus at Cal State Chico. Why is that guy wearing blue hair? What books are they carrying? Why all the tattoos? Does our church offer any hope of spiritual fulfillment?

This practice has led me to an obvious and basic conclusion about our congregation: it is populated by teachers, administrators, and professors who do not need to be convinced of the need for education. Seventy percent hold college or graduate degrees. We are also quite literally next door to a 15,000-student public university. I have realized that we have not only an embedded commitment to education, but also a wealth of potential teachers.

Finally, Bidwell Presbyterian has also compiled a recent history of small-group ministry, which is extremely important. I see this component of adult discipleship as critical to creating authentic community. Small groups certainly “help the church grow smaller as it grows larger.” But one of the weaknesses of small-group ministry alone is pooled ignorance. So I’ve learned to build on the strength of small groups with adult classes. They are indeed the two legs of our adult discipleship ministry.

Digging More Deeply: A Goal for Pastors
In closing, I add one component: we as educators too must desire deeper waters. Consider call for pastoral depth by the esteemed New Testament scholar N. T. Wright in The Challenge of Jesus: 

If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many of the other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light. It has far too often been assumed that church leaders stand above the nitty-gritty of biblical and theology study; they have done all that, we implicitly suppose, before they come to office, and now they simply have to work out the “implications.” They then find themselves spending countless hours at their desk running the church as a business, raising money or working at dozens of other tasks, rather than poring over their foundation documents and enquiring ever more closely about the Jesus whom they are supposed to be following and teaching others to follow. (p. 31)

Statistics bear out Wright’s assertion. As I prepared this article, I considered the results of a survey of pastors’ reading lists that appeared in the August 23, 2003 issue of The Christian Century. Having carefully described the results—for example, the top 10 books that liberal Protestants, Catholics, and evangelicals read—Jackson Carroll offered this analysis: Most of the books church leaders study are highly pragmatic. His conclusion? “Although one hesitates to pass judgment on pastors with their busy lives and constant interruptions, the overall impression is that clergy do not read very deeply” (p. 33). If you, as a pastor or Christian educator, want to take your congregation further into the riches of our tradition, there’s no replacement for personal experience. I know one thing: I’m going to make it a mission to help my colleagues in education read more deeply—or I might start selling beer.

Eight How-To’s 

  1. Pray! And cultivate others who will pray for your education program.
  2. Read at least one thick book a year in theology or biblical studies.
  3. Assemble a working team of laypeople and church staff in creating your educational offerings—the sum is greater than the parts!
  4. Recruit local teachers, professors, business leaders, and various other professionals to teach classes in their respective disciplines.
  5. Structure the classes so that they’re understandable: Create from three to five disciplines (currently we use Bible, theology, church history) and from two to three levels of study.
  6. Think strategically: What does our church have to offer in this city that’s unique?
  7. Make use of the media: If you have money to buy ads in magazines or newspapers, do it. Otherwise, try cultivating interest through news stories or radio public-service announcements or e-mail announcements.
  8. Integrate small groups and adult classes into a unified whole of adult discipleship.