Thursday, June 10, 2010

If Churches Educated Instead of Indoctrinated
I am reading a great book by Stephen Prothero entitled Religious Literacy. In it, he makes the case that it is bad for our civic development to be so passionate about our religion, and yet be so woefully ignorant about religion - ours and everyone else's.

I have often lamented how unfortunate it is that our churches do not spend more time on religious education. Many churches teach their own view, but leave their congregation completely ignorant of other views and perspectives.

Mason over at New Ways Forward addressed this recently on his blog.  He suggests we start by ramping up our Sunday morning sermons:

"You don't want to alienate people who are visiting or new to the faith. But that might not be as much of a danger as you think. Give your audience the benefit of the doubt, chances are they can handle a lot more than you think. Technical language might lose them, but depth? If they can follow LOST they can follow your sermon."

Later he says:

"And a suggestion for [bible] classes, don't give just one side. All too often there seems to be a reticence to discuss more than the approved position on a given question and a tendency to present straw men of the opponents. But quite frankly to people of my generation that doesn't make you look strong and assured, it makes you look weak and scared that we'll ditch your views if you're honest with us about the other perspectives."

I think very few churches feel comfortable presenting anything but their own view. How many sermons have you sat through where only one view of ecclesiology, atonement, scripture interpretation, eternity, etc. is presented? The church view is often taught not only as the preferred view, but as if no other view exists.

This is not education, this is indoctrination. Do churches believe that ignorance is bliss? Or do they fear members discovering more compelling alternatives? Is it just easier to keep it simple? I saw a movie about the Civil War where a plantation owner said, "We like to keep the slaves ignorant... they're happier that way".

I try to model varied viewpoints in my own philosophical and spiritual instruction with my children. On a given topic, I articulate how other denominations, religions, or atheists may perceive that issue. I might have an opinion, but I point out to my children people we know who would see the topic differently. My view is not the only game in town.


R-Liz said...

Although I agree with you in theory, I don't see how this can truly be carried out in practice at your garden-variety, Evangelical church.

For one, other views and perspectives are just as nuanced as Christianity. I'm not sure any two people of any faith believe the exact same things all the way down. So although one could give a general idea of another point of view, unless that person believes it themselves or has someone else who does present in the room, it will probably come across as relatively vague and lacking.

Second, I don't think it would set up a conversation so much as it would set up a debate. Even if that wasn't the presenter's goal, many folks in a church setting have been trained to dog all other points of view. And people, in most cases, expect some sort of conclusion if many points of view are raised-- a conclusion where one point of view is seen as 'better' and others are seen as 'lacking.' Leaving a discussion about religion open-ended won't sit well with most.

Third, many people really don't care to understand or change. Sure, there's a handful in most Evangelical churches who enjoy a good discussion, but most folks who go to church don't care to understand anything outside their doctrine. It's unfortunate, but true.

Fourth, paid church leaders are not paid so they can teach congregants about something outside their own dogma. They're employed b/c the congregation has been taught to feel SO passionately about 'their' side, they feel it's necessary to employ people to help them stay on that path, and win others to that path. Even if someone in leadership could see the benefit in doing something like this, I doubt it would ever come to fruition because it could potentially chip away at the reason why people are employed by a church. (Or because they also know it could really piss people off and that has also been known to lead church staff to being fired.) This reason alone, to me, is why having a discussion like this in a church is vastly different than having a discussion like this in one's home.

But tell me what you think about the points I raise-- do you really think this could practically be done at the church level? For instance, at your church? And if so, how?

Andrew said...

Gee! When you put that way! ;)

You're right, this cannot be carried out with a garden variety evangelical church. I have been having a prolonged Facebook discussion with a relative which reminds me again why most churches could never make this move. The level of offense that comes from questioning long cherished positions can be quite surprising. To question certain doctrinal positions is translated as being anti-christian.

This is what is slowly pushing me towards an anti-church position. I am not really wanting to head in that direction, but it does seem to be a training ground where people are instructed how "to dog all other points of view."

I think the paid clergy is a BIG inhibitor to this; I agree with you totally.

I would say that my church, for the most part, doesn't give multiple perspectives. They did a series last fall where each week they answered a question that people tend to ask about God. I don't think I agreed with one of their answers. Not that I have to agree, but it bothered me that no alternatives were (or hardly) mentioned... there were so many things that could have been said to educate our congregation... instead, we told them how to think. :(

I think your points are excellent - they are a blog entry waiting to happen... you should write those up. :)

OneSmallStep said...

Perhaps part of the problem is due to the black and white thinking. A lot of times, the more educated someone is, the more they think in shades of gray, and the more they realize how relative a lot of situations are.

For instance, take the idea of "Murder is wrong." That's a black and white statement, and for many people, that's a black and white concept. But actions in war qualify as murder. But war isn't seen as wrong. Killing someone (at their request) who has a terminal illness is murder. But many don't see that as wrong.

Exploring the meaning behind "murder" and "wrong" lend a huge complexity to what was a black and white concept. And then one's belief in that concept might become shaky, because they're entering relative ground.

And conservative Christianity doesn't mesh well with relativism (in certain aspects. Unless discussing unsavory elements in the Old Testament).

Andrew said...

Oss - Yeah, when talking with someone who is putting a given topic in an either/or context, it is almost as if two different but parallel conversations are going on.

R-liz - I also think a lot of churches think similarly to a what a friend of mine said at a bible study I was at years ago. I was telling the group that I was concerned about how to go about educating my children rather than indoctrinating them. My friend said (in all seriousness)"What is wrong with indoctrinating them if you know you are right?"

R-Liz said...

Can you tell the purpose of church is something I've thought about often? :-) My husband was a pastor for many years, and then he stepped back from ministry last year. Now it looks like he might be entering the ministry again, but part-time and at a very different church. So all these thoughts, struggles, etc., are back at the forefront of my mind.

As much as I would love to blog about this kind of thing (believe me, I would LOVE it), our ties with the Evangelical church are still a little too recent, and I don't want to worry some wonderful folks we served alongside for many years with my current thought-process. Although at the time we were among them we were generally of like-mind, now we are not (but we still love and care for them deeply). It's hard to know how to engage that because I seriously doubt I'll change minds. I'll only cause concern and heart-ache.

Maybe sometime down the road I'll re-open the ol' blog...

Andrew said...

R-Liz - Isn't is a shame that Christianity, of all groups, can't handle honesty and transparency? Some Christians become so agitated when a friend starts to take alternative paths. They probably would state that it is out of concern, but I think the reality is a little more primal than that. It is almost like you started rooting for the opposing college team... there is a tribal, competitive, team mentality that has developed in Christianity... and someone who starts questioning what we believe or how we do things is not being LOYAL.

Jon said...

Thanks for this Andrew and everyone. I remember reading something a while ago - perhaps it was Howard Snyder - about how one of the big changes in church life over the past 50 years is that now many congregational members are more educated than the clergy - not necessarily in theology, but in general education. Yet we still have a model of church teaching which has the clergy speaking and everyone else listening as if they were empty vessels ( I think that one comes from Paolo Friere).

Of course there's a difficulty when you have a mixed congregation, because some people will be chafing because things are oversimplified, while others will chafe if they are too complex. Some people are secure and welcome discussion, others are insecure and need comfort. Maybe what we need is a church service practice which is directed towards worship and encouragement, and a seperate teaching process at another time directed towards shared learning, instead of the two being glued together as they are in most churches.

Don said...

Andrew- What you are saying here is exactly why I left my denomination and the IC altogether. I agree with R-Liz here. I just don't think that this practice can be carried out in an evangelical church. I came to that conclusion over four years ago after being a devout Southern Baptist for 59 years, as well as a deacon for 17+ years. I tried to discuss things with my excellent Sunday School teacher, who promptly warned me of the liberal "slippery slope" I was about to find. I chose not to confront him with my "real" thoughts and beliefs any further because I knew him to be the most "liberal" thinker in the church. I chose to leave and pursue my journey on my own.

Anonymous said...

What you are talking about would be my ideal church - one that allows us to ask open questions about some of the beliefs and interpretations. I don't think we all need to agree to get along. If this were the case, society would be a lot worse than it already is.

I am aiming for this type of development in churches as well, which is why I appreciate your blog - it is moving the conversation in the right direction - change. The church hasn't much changed since the 70's. Like pond water stuck without a place to move, it's getting stale.

"I'm not sure any two people of any faith believe the exact same things all the way down" (R Liz)

True, but why do we need to agree on everything? Isn't just as good to be kind to one another - even in disagreeance? Don't we function this way in society all the time?

"Leaving a discussion about religion open-ended won't sit well with most" (R Liz)

Agreed, but then again most people resist change because it's a 'change'. If there is nothing 'wrong' with the discussion of various viewpoints then I am not sure it shouldn't be happening. If it is actually 'wrong' to do, which I think it isn't, then I agree - strike it down...but if not...we must go this direction or the church will become more and more irrelevant.

"Third, many people really don't care to understand or change." (R Liz)

True, but the fault lies in them and not in the others who are willing to change IMO. I think all most people are asking for is real diversity to be represented in the church again and not just uniformity. The gospels themselves represent a diversity, put them alongside the letter of Paul , James, and John and we do have varying viewpoints in the same 27 books and letters. Honestly, isn't it time we embraced that part of our biblical history within the same church?

"They're employed b/c the congregation has been taught to feel SO passionately about 'their' side, they feel it's necessary to employ people to help them stay on that path, and win others to that path." (R Liz)

True. But the pastor is a sheperd, not a Capitalist (something lost in Western Christianity which see's only a 'job' and not a 'calling'). I see a job aspect, but I see the more sheperd aspect - doing what is best for the sheep's lives (so they can live full lives). If a church fires a pastor for having an opinion or seeking movement (from pasture to pasture) that will help the sheep, that church is not functioning in anyway under the calling of God...I believe money is their god at that point.

R-Liz said...

Jon-- You bring up some interesting points. The fact that the congregation is generally more educated than clergy, but the model of church is still clergy teaching down to the congregation is spot-on. Since my husband I have had a chance to visit different churches this past year, the whole concept of "experts" being behind the pulpits while the peons watch and participate has really stood out to us. A minister will be gone for a few Sundays, and they go outside the congregation to find another, fellow ordained minister to fill their shoes rather than asking someone in their congregation to do the job. It seems ludicrous and really makes no sense. But these churches recognize some sort of spiritual chasm between clergy and lay-persons, and the chasm becomes inescapable in your experience at the church. As a lay-person, you feel totally useless.

I'm also intrigued by your idea of separate church services with different functions/goals. In some ways I think this already exists, depending upon the church/denomination. A trend I've noticed in visiting churches is that the more "open" churches (more okay with difference and unanswered questions) tend to have services that are more straight-forward. For instance, the intention of singing isn’t to evoke strong emotions from the congregation. Instruments can play beautifully, but are generally pretty simple. Meditation thoughts, although inspired by the week's lectionary reading, are on a more cerebral, collective-experience level than a "personal" level. Really, it’s all not too different than the stories and music you'd here on your local NPR station. ;-)

Evangelical churches, on the other hand, generally have a lot of focus on music that affects the emotions-- many singers, lots of musicians, usually some percussion in there to really get the emotions moving. Sermons are more about "you and God" and your relationship with Him (always the male pronoun used). If your emotions are not evoked, then the service has failed because God is primarily felt and worshiped in the “warm-fuzzy.”

It's very hard for two very different people to find one common service that satisfies (or doesn't offend) both. Some friends of mine also set out to find another church this past year, and he really wanted an open church (like a Christian Universalist church), but she really wanted that emotional music experience that you generally get at the Evangelical churches. I honestly don't know if they’ve been successful so far in finding such a mix. In my experience, it's not possible b/c I think the "cerebral" churches view church choruses as overly simple, repetitive and unnecessarily loud, whereas Evangelical churches view piano/organ/orchestra music as boring and void of emotion.

Lots of generalizations in all that I just said, but you get the idea.

societyvs-- What I was stating was what I see as reality in the Evangelical church today. Do I like all of it? No. But I was telling Andrew why I think his proposal can't work in the garden-variety, Evangelical church.

Related Posts with Thumbnails