As a kid, I was bookish. I loved sports. I took piano lessons. I participated in 4H. I liked to hang out with my friends. But I also loved to read. Sometimes I got so absorbed in what I was reading that my mom or dad had to almost shout to get my attention.
Reading helps to develop imagination, which worked in me, I think, in one specific way. It illumined ideas and relationships, that, in the normal course of life, pat answers and careless thinking overlook. I remember many times in Sunday School classes when I had the impression that we weren’t really talking about what the Bible passage was talking about. Yes, we were dutifully following the curriculum, but on fairly regular occasion something still seemed off to me. As a kid I didn’t have words for this sense. Today I might say that those Bible passages were a pre-text for a pre-digested, moralistic lesson, rather than an encounter with God through the text. But then, I just had a feeling that something was missing.
I think there are many kids in our churches who feel similarly, especially these days. They see incongruity and feel the strains between church life and the rest of life. They have questions and thoughts that go unvoiced. And not only kids. Grownups do, too.
This sense that there is more, this hunger to go deeper than we typically go, needs encouragement. We need school-like churches.
A school-like church has a culture of study, which is not (necessarily) the same as a church having a bunch of study groups. (How many Bible studies have you been in that didn’t actually study the Bible?) A culture of study means that the congregation as a whole takes serious and sustained study as a normal part of their communal life. In a culture of study nobody is surprised or intimidated when a Sunday School class member makes reference to what Augustine or Wesley or some present-day scholar/leader said. Hearing the names of well-known Christian thinkers, on whose shoulders we stand, is taken as par for the course in the Christian life.
A culture of study allows people to recognize various degrees of growth and maturity without awkward feelings. In the Christian life, we start at different places and we grow at different paces. We don’t compare ourselves with each other. We compare ourselves to Christ and give thanks for his gracious Spirit who enables us to grow. A culture of study helps people assess where they stand in growth to maturity, encourages commitment to grow, and provides guidance and support in that aim.
I’ve been pondering the idea of school-like churches for a while now. Some of what follows is part of a working paper that I’ve written in support of a proposal for helping churches who want to become more school-like.
The church, as a community of disciples, is a community of learners. Disciples of Jesus are students of Jesus. A church is certainly more than a school, but it is a school. The church must include the seriousness and rigor in its culture that we conventionally associate with “school.”
In seeing this need, it helps to understand the historical context in which the church began. The New Testament mentions Stoics and Epicureans, for example, philosophical schools that, along with others, served as early precursors to the modern university. Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life) has narrated how these schools, rather than dealing only with the critical analysis of ideas (our modern view of philosophy), thought of their work as spiritual exercises. To enter into one of these schools was to take up a comprehensive way of life. Each school had a view of reality that called for living in a way that reflected its teachings. The Christian faith does the same. Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians) observed that pagan neighbors often regarded churches as philosophical schools rivaling the ones just mentioned. What would it do for us today to think of our congregation as something like an ancient philosophical school?
Another model for the early church is the synagogue, especially since the first followers of Jesus were Jews convinced that he is Messiah and Lord who fulfills the scriptures (Old Testament). According to Lee Levine (The Ancient Synagogue), the synagogue served a number of purpose, one of which was as a place of study. People gathered to study the scriptures and other works and sought to walk faithfully in their light. The earliest Christians, Jewish believers in Messiah Jesus, naturally followed synagogue practices. Imagine Acts 2:42 from that angle, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” in this light.
We need to regain this vision. In our modern obsession with what we think is “practical,” we have lost a sense of the value of the type of study falsely regarded as only what academics and professionals do.
Congregations need to develop a culture of study. It needs a group (or groups) of people engaging in serious, sustained, probing, prayerful, responsive study of the scriptures and other resources. More people need to move from reading the Bible only for devotional purposes and add study. By all means, keep having your devotions, but spend time studying, too.
For congregational leaders who recognize the need to move in this direction, what do they need? I have a few basic ideas.
- The purpose of all study in the church is to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Let’s be careful not to equate being well-informed or knowledgeable in content with spiritual maturity. Being a knowledgeable, well-informed church member is a by-product of serious commitment to studying with Jesus.
- Start with the openly, knowingly hungry (you only need a handful, even two or three) and agree to a habit of study. Ratify the commitment with a covenant. Participants agree to modify their routines, if necessary, rather than constantly shifting the group’s practices to accommodate busy schedules. This is a crucial shift. Participants need several hours per week for study.
- Pastors convene this group, not as teacher, per se (we are trained to take the role of expert in these situations), but as a convener and co-student. Pastors lead first by example. Teachers are learners. Lay people, not formally trained, have insights and teaching gifts of their own.
- On the other hand, pastors do have training and knowledge to share and group members should (and will) ask questions. Striking the balance between sharing from one’s store of knowledge and taking over the class as teacher is a very important goal.
- Current discipleship groupings in the congregation (Sunday schools, various study groups) need practice in thinking about the reason they exist and the purpose they serve. Encourage seeking God for guidance about how they contribute to a congregational culture of study and how they probably need to adjust in light of the vision.
- Accept from the start that this process involves hard work and risk. Sometimes confusion and consternation will happen. Sometimes rabbit trails and dead ends will frustrate the study. Sometimes discouragement sets in. Group members accept this challenge and persist in prayerful study.
- Remember: the goal is to hear God speak and to respond faithfully. All other aims and hopes serve this priority.
There is much more to be said and thought about with school-like churches, but this is surely a start. As I shared earlier, as we think about our present cultural difficulties, it’s time for the church to lead. Let’s start with doing our homework.