Educating the local church

The starting of a series worth following by Brian LePort at Near Emmaus  log

Educating the local church (Pt. I): introduction.

St. Paul begins his lecture on the circumcision of the heart hesitantly. This shibboleth has cause some of his conservative peers to question his orthodoxy.

A few years ago I was teaching an Introduction to New Testament class for my local church. We would meet for two hours every Wednesday evening over the summer months. Some nights there would be fifteen or more people present and other nights it would be three or four of us. It didn’t matter who was present (though I wanted people to be there, the crowd size wasn’t important…at first) as long as we enjoyed learning together.

Two things upset me though:

(1) A “leader” in the church went out of his way to inform me that it would be a waste of time to come hear me teach when, “I can listen to [insert a prominent evangelical scholar] on my iPod.” Sure, I knew the person he referenced was a far more learned man than myself, but did he have to say that to me? What about learning as a community? What about supporting a twenty-something seminarian that could use the inspiration that comes from knowing people appreciate what you are doing? Those words stung for a while, especially as the the summer progressed and the class began to dwindle before its assigned completion date.

(2) There was a leadership meeting that same day of the week the hour prior to my class. If it were not for the words of one leader I may not have been bothered as I saw leaders leave the meeting headed toward their car rather than the sanctuary where I was teaching. I began to wonder if more people thought about me the way this person did.

I began to question whether or not one could do serious educating in a church context. I was convinced that if the leadership thought the classes were irrelevant then most people in the church would think the same. I know people go crazy on Sundays when the pastor preaches David v. Goliath type sermons, but it seemed like the average Christian has little interest in topics like the historical background, literary outline, and themes of the Book of James. I knew better than to delve into deep speculative things like the formation of the Pentateuch. I was aware that this type of pure academia was meaningless to most Christians. I wasn’t teaching that kind of content though. I thought I was teaching people how to be better readers of the Bible.

Admittedly, I set my eyes on teaching in an academic context someday. I knew that as a student I was appreciative of my professors and I was willing to spend a lot of money to hear them teach. Why should I waste time teaching people who don’t care?

Now I am not saying that I won’t teach in an academic context someday, but as I’ve grown older and matured (a little) it has become painfully obvious that it is not as simple as (A) go to seminary + (B) go earn a doctorate + (C) make some connections and apply for jobs = viola! employment teaching biblical studies. I know that it is a saturated job market with few openings and I am aware that there are people who are far more intelligent and qualified than myself seeking work.

This may be a good thing for the local church though.

Wouldn’t the local church benefit from having highly qualified resident scholars directing their education departments or functioning as teaching pastors or associate pastors?

Then the horrifying memory of being considered irrelevant by the leaders of my church returns to my mind. Maybe the local church  has no interest in these types of people. Maybe the paranoia caused by pastors who speak against education of this sort has inflicted so many congregations that there is no more room in the church than in the college or seminary?

Is it possible that doctrinal wars will make it as hard to find a job teaching in a local church as it is to find a job teaching at a seminary? Won’t nasty words like “inerrancy,” “evolution,” “emergent,” and “love wins,” cause people to reject you before hearing your thoughts on this or that matter?

Since I am unemployed I have a lot of time to think about topics like this one. I may as well blog about it, right? And if you are thinking about it let me know your thoughts.

This is how I aim to approach it:

Pt. 2: What are pastors seeking as concerns the education of their church?
Pt. 3: What do congregations need to know?
Pt. 4: How do teachers educate the church, introduce them to important topics, yet avoid drowning people in jargon?
Pt. 5: How can teachers present the thinking of biblical scholars (especially the ideas presented by critical scholarship) to the church while recognizing that the church is a community aimed at strengthening people in their faith, not eroding their confidence in the Gospel?
Pt. 6: How can teachers educate people without conforming to the pressure to provide quick-and-easy apologetical answers (something like what you’d find in a book written by Josh McDowell) that come across as disingenuous to people who are critical thinkers in our local congregations?
Pt. 7: Should a church budget to hire educators when administrative pastors, small groups directors, and other “titles” seem to be more conducive to “building a church,” at least as many Christians understand the aim of their church’s existence and growth?

Note: I am not a fool. This series of posts will not be providing answers as much as asking questions. Remember, I’ve done several years of graduate school and I can’t find a job with a community college, a church, or anywhere in the great San Antonio area. Obviously, I am not an expert, but I do want the best for the church, and I do want to be intentional when it comes to educating members, and I think that critical thinking about our faith is better for discipleship than purely apologetical thinking.

Any thoughts?

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It’s about the resurrection!

by Brian LePort at Near Emmaus

“Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead (Acts 26.8, NASB)?” – Paul

This summer I have been reading through the Book of Acts. I should be done this week (and I hope to post some thoughts on the blog). Toward the end of this narrative the Apostle Paul is depicted as giving several speeches in his own defense. He is accused of many things. In 17.16-34 some Athenians claim he is introducing “new deities.” In 19.23-41 a silversmith named Demetrius rallies the Ephesian crowd to accuse Paul of blaspheming the goddess Artimes. In 21.27-36 his fellow Jews accuse him betraying them and the Law of Moses. In every occasion Luke doesn’t deny that Paul’s preaching has “turned the world upside down,” but he does defend Paul against lawlessness. Paul has done nothing against Caesar, or Rome, or other governing authorities, or the Jews.

For Luke the opposition may think this or that is the reason for their animosity against Paul, but it isn’t. Paul is presented as saying so in his speeches. In 22.1-21 Paul’s fellow Jews listen to the defense he gives after his arrest in the temple until he mentions going to the Gentiles with his gospel. This throws the Jews into a fit. Yet Paul does not change argument. It seems that he is convinced that the heart of the matter is his proclamation that God raised Jesus from the dead.

In 23.1-11 Paul splits the Sanhedrin by causing the Pharisees to sympathize with him against the Sadducees because Paul affirmed the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in a final resurrection; the Sadducees did not. Of course, Paul’s main concern is the resurrection of Jesus. In 24.21 Paul defends himself before Felix the Roman governor saying that his opponents are upset because he affirms the resurrection. This is what perplexes the next governor Festus as well. He tells King Agrippa in 25.19, “…they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive (NASB).” When Paul gives his defense before Agrippa asks those present, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead (26.8, NASB)?” After recounting his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he presses his point before Agrippa and Felix: This is what Moses foresaw, this is what the prophets foresaw, I (Paul) am not saying anything out of line with the hope of Israel.

Luke’s Paul has a straightforward message: It’s about the resurrection! Paul did not believe that the accusations against him addressed the real problem. It wasn’t about the polity of Athens, or the economics of Ephesus, or the customs of the temple in Jerusalem. It was about the resurrection. The resurrection has changed everything. As Paul told the Athenians, “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead (17.30b-31, NASB).” The resurrection means Athenian philosophers, and Ephesians idol makers, and pious Jews must reckon with God’s apocalyptic action as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is what it is really about at the end of the day: Did God raise Jesus from the dead? If so, what do you do with that?

The church is different, but in what sense?

Thoughts that correlate to some I have been having as I study some of the history of the Anabaptists and their thoughts on the church are these by Brian LePort in his Near Emaaus blog

Early in his book The Drama of Doctrine (pp. 3-4) theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes these two challenging chapters:

Each new Christian generation must grapple with the question: What has the church to say and do that no other human institution can say and do? Nature and society alike abhor a vacuum, and there are many ideologies and agendas waiting to rush and fill the hearts and minds of the uncommitted. Bereft of sound doctrine, the church is blown about by cultural fads and intellectual trends. Indeed, this has largely been the story of the church, and of theology, in the modern world. There has been an atrophying of theological muscle as a result of too many correlations and accommodations to philosophical and cultural trends.

What the church uniquely has to say and do cannot be reduced to philosophy or politics. The church’s unique responsibility is to proclaim and to practice the gospel, to witness in its speech and life to the reality of God’s presence and action in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The theologian’s unique responsibility is to ensure that the church’s speech and action correspond to the word of God, the norm of Christian faith and practice. A number of contemporary theologians are not sure, however, whether to invoke the notion of authority or, if they do, where to locate it:  in the history of Jesus Christ, in the biblical text, or in the believing community.”

I am interested primarily in the opening sentences of both paragraphs. In these sentences we are asked, essentially, what makes the church the church and not something else. Then we are told the church has the unique responsibility of spreading and enacting the gospel.

Yet, as Vanhoozer notes, we are often not even sure of what that means or where our definition is to be found. We are not in agreement as to where to find an authoritative answer. I am wrestling with this even now.

What does it mean to stay faithful to God in Christ? What does it mean to be led by the Spirit? Where do we find these answers?

For a few years I have tried to dig behind dogma in order to find a more pure, more original Christianity. I was not successful. I am thankful for all those studying the historical Jesus and the historical Paul, but if we stop there it has become my conviction we will forget the active, living Spirit and the Scriptures and the unity of the faith. We cannot think that our nifty historical reconstructions are a sufficient foundation for living the gospel. We can’t do this without denying, in essence, that the Spirit has been active in the church for these last two millennia and we are not the first generation to “get it”.

This doesn’t mean the church finds shape in traditionalism, but maybe a little more tradition; we are not limited to Catholicism, but maybe catholicism. The church must find her grounding and wherever that grounding is to be found there must be the impetus for mission and gospel-centered living.

The church will never be more “intelligent” than the university; more gifted in music than the world; more creative than marketing companies; better at gaining crowds than professional sporting events, but we do have the gospel. That makes us different. Now I need to go think some more on this.