Lecture hall

Sitting Through God School

In the beginning, when the Church-as-We-Know-It was invented, somebody asked, “How should we design this thing?”

I imagine someone looked around and said, “Our job is to propagate the faith. We should do that like you propagate other subjects–like literature, or mathematics, or history.”

Most likely, the committee chair said, “Good idea.” So they set up the Church-as-We-Know-It like you would any other academic institution. With faith as the subject, they found learned professor-types to stand before the unlearned and dispense information. The lecture halls were set up with pupil seating in neat rows facing the learned ones. It was the professors’ job to lecture. It was the pupils’ job to sit still, be quiet, and appear to be listening.

And so it was that the Church-as-We-Know-It became an academic institution.

The early designers were successful in establishing faith as one more academic subject. Even to this day the people recognize faith–or religion, as they call it–one more subject to study. And the Church-as-We-Know-It does everything it can to foster this academic reputation.

  • The people gather at the appointed time, file in, sit in rows, and stare silently at the lecturer.
  • The preacher thumps a book and refers to the “text” of the day.
  • The “teaching pastor” provides a printed outline with fill-in-the-blanks for easy answers.
  • The grown-ups go to Bible “study.”
  • The young ones go to age-graded Sunday “school.”
  • Sunday school “curriculum” utilizes word scrambles and other schoolish busywork.
  • They call the teenagers “students.”
  • The Christian “education” department organizes “classes.”
  • Kids compete in Bible “quizzing.”
  • Discipleship means attending a 6-week “course.”
  • “Deep” teaching involves lectures filled with layers of biblical facts and historical minutiae.
  • They call the church property a “campus.”
  • The sign out front says, “A Strong Bible-Teaching Church.”

Academic institutions serve their purpose. Subjects get taught. But when it comes to the church, there’s one problem. Faith is not a subject.

Faith is a relationship.

In fact, we often talk about the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s a relationship.

And if we want to help people pursue a relationship, why wouldn’t that look like how people pursue a relationship? Think of any good, healthy relationship. How does that develop and grow?

Joani and I have been married for almost 30 years. Our bond is not an academic subject. Our relationship did not develop through a series of academic classes. Had that been the case, our relationship would’ve been dead on arrival. Had one of us stood and lectured, while the other passively listened, our love could never have grown. Had one of us handed out little worksheets to fill in while the other spoke, our dating life would have crashed at Date #1.

Our relationship is not built on mastering loads of historical facts and bits of information about each other. In fact, to this day, we still can’t do a great job of keeping each other’s relatives straight. Our love is not built on an academic historical exercise. It has developed and deepened through an ongoing series of shared experiences, rich and honest conversation, and working through the thick and thin of real life together.

How would the church look if we pursued its mission like one pursues a healthy, growing personal relationship? How would the world react if we introduced our friend Jesus not as another subject to be mastered but as a master to be befriended?

33 Responses to “Sitting Through God School”

  1. Best example yet!!! Makes me review what it is I’m doing with my room (class) full of children (almost said students) and how I’m introducing (teaching) God to them. Now, to translate that concept to equip my fellow leaders (teacher training).

    Thanks,
    Terri
    Disciple of Christ (Professional Children’s Minister)

  2. Very valid thoughts, but we do need to remember that faith teaching has long been practiced. Even Jesus’ disciples gathered at His feet to learn. Isn’t there a healthy balance in “academics” (ie sitting at His feet) and deepening the relationship?

    • Yes. I appreciate this balancing comment. I realize the church has long over-emphasized information at the expense of relationship, but we can’t overlook that Christianity is also a word-focused, book-focused, proposition-focused endeavor. Of course, there is a lot of relationship-oriented teaching and training demonstrated throughout the Scriptures and church history, but no one can negate the large group lecture format as one of the acceptable and appropriate methods of church leaders without abandoning the scriptures. It’s a both/and equation.

  3. I am so glad the conversation discussing the validity of the church-as-we-know-it has been started. It makes me think hard and long about what is best. As LRM stated above, there is a place for meeting at His feet and learning. Just as valid though, there is a place to take a walk and build a relationship with each other as we “do” life.

    What does the church of the future look like? Is it a cookie cutter assembly? Is like minded in homes? Is it a discussion cafe? Is there one answer? Should there be one answer?

  4. Thank you Thom and Mark. Let us be courageous and bold to ask questions, explore possibilities, risk new ways of engaging with others, and discover what “church” in the 21st century could be when the radical love and grace of our Savior guides the way.

  5. Interesting and challenging thoughts. Now I’ve been married for twenty-three years, and one of the things we are constantly doing is telling each other things about ourselves – either things that we did or experienced before we met each other, or things that we’ve experienced recently when we weren’t both present. It seems to me that that is (at least part of) what faith education should be – telling each other what Jesus has done and is doing, and helping each other understand what that means for us. Now whether an auditorium with a projector is the best setting for that conversation is another question which we absolutely need to explore.

  6. I appreciate this inquiry so much! The deep yearning for meaningful relationships and connections with Life is what brings so many of us to a faith community. Here we get to practice what it is to treat each other with love, respect and honor – so that we can take it into our lives of family, work, and the world. It appears to me, that it is no longer enough for us to be told about faith, having a divine life purpose – ‘we’ want to take action, demonstrate our understanding, put it into practice. Being in relationship with Christ today is about having an active role in that relationship and not just hearing about some other ‘great preacher or leaders’ good idea.
    At some point all of the lectures saturate the listener and they (we) have to do something with all of that inspiration. Our role as leaders is as much to be led as it is to lead and thus to listen (witness) as much or more than we speak. To recognize when the level of saturation is pushing, pulling or calling to that student to get up and give back is my job as a teacher and leader today.

  7. Thom – I greatly appreciate the urgency of your tone, and your courage to “speak the truth” about these church stresses and strains. You are right – the faith Relationships are everything. If I want to learn in a more academic way about the bible or Christianity in general, I can do that with a quick Wikipedia Internet search. Look up Christianity and then follow thousands of links.
    I believe that many folks in the church have no idea about the emotional pain the “people on the edges” are going through. My own denomination (PCUSA) has an upcoming conference this summer where gay marriage is likely to be approved. This is obviously dividing congregations, but more painfully hardening party lines. Because of the sadness and pain, at church gatherings we are ignoring the “elephant in the room”. The younger and more liberal attendees are a huge flight risk and they want to talk about it. But the conservative folks don’t want to talk about it. They want to focus on other things – hoping to save the church by doubling down on scriptural “truth” and focusing on mission activities and evangelism. So painful, so very sad. Absolutely heartbreaking to watch.

  8. As someone stated before balance is a necessity. I would inject the other side to think on is that for some, our versions of “relationships” are very shallow. Thus is we focus only on the relationship with God we produce very shallow and uneducated Christians. For example, in my youth ministry I can’t tell you how many times a youth/student/adolescent/person in the room, who calls themselves a Christian, has said when speaking on a biblical story or belief drawn from scripture “I didn’t know that was in there”.

    When we walk around calling ourselves Christians it is important to know just what that entails as best we can. I would love to think that people are going home and googling and studying on their own the things of Christ but I am a realist to a fault and I know that is not true.

    Also it should be noted as well that many times people want head knowledge before they make such a life changing decision. I spoke with a man in his early 40s just the other day who said “I am learning all that I can right now and am waiting for God to show me something big later”. He wants to learn. His world view is that relationships are easily broken therefore he would not fit this mold of relationship first, knowledge second approach.

    All that to say is don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. People are still finding Christ in churches today. Don’t let Satan convince you that the whole thing is broken.

  9. Also – I think that those of us who wear the “church leader” hat (myself included) are very comfortable seeing ourselves as “above” others. We can be tempted to view the role of the “leader, preacher, teacher” as above and intellectually superior to those “below” us. I am the “mature” Christian – you are the “baby” Christian. I teach – you listen, I preach – you follow. I will “fake listen” to you because you are not a person with equally valid ideas about spirituality, you are a “potential convert” that needs to be “educated and then saved” and checked off my list. “Next in line please!”

  10. Church and our relationship with God are two separate things. You can have one without the other, both or neither. One of the questions I ask myself being one who no longer goes to church but occasionally considers it, “What does going to church have to do with my relationship with God, now?” I pray and I read my bible to hear from God. I get my learning or refresher in at this point. When I look online at the sermon topics of area churches, I feel like I’d be going back to 3rd grade. If I had the talent to teach, I love to teach anything and everything revolving around having a relationship with God, much like Dr. Charles Stanley does. I listen to him because he backs up everything I am living when it comes to my relationship with God. Like the bible says and it can be played out, church should be a place for Christians to encourage each other and with the direction this country is going, I can see it becoming that as I see the day approaching for this country.

    • Ryan, you ask very valid questions! Whatever you want to call it the gathering together, the bible says to not forsake the assembly of christians one with another, Hebrews 10:25. I believe God meets us where two or more are gathered differently than an individual alone, yet both are important. Also the knowledge and experience you have is not being shared with others who need it if you are not investing time with others. 2 Timothy 2:15; Joel 1:3; Romans 10:14-15. I encourage you to find a group of believers and get to know them. Share life with them. Just maybe you may find that they have something to share back. I don’t believe our sovereign God wastes opportunities for people to meet and love on each other.

  11. These are challenging thoughts for sure. As a Sunday School leader, I do desire to give the kids a sense of how much God loves them and how I love them also, but we do learn how to use the Bible and try to find some practical truth in each lesson even at young ages. I love how my church family does many outreach activities that really bring us, the Body of Christ, together to serve and work to the Glory of God. I’m still wondering what you might suggest the local church should look like….

  12. As I have been thinking through this, I am reminded that the Bible is our best offensive weapon The bible is also the main method in which the Holy Spirit touches our lives speaking directly to us. The bible also shows us the full Armor of God and how we can and are to use it. Anything that the “new Church” starts MUST include reading, teaching and memorizing, at least familiarity with the Holy Scriptures.

    • The bible is a good offensive weapon if you know how to use it correctly. Using it correctly is to kill off evil desires and thoughts of the heart that would cause ourselves to act out in negative, evil ways. In other words, we use it against ourselves, our own evilness. I see the bible so misused all the time on blog sites where Christians are hacking and slashing each other with bible verses. When it comes to talking to people, like here on web pages, it’s best to just talk and discuss on a human level. It’s best to resist the urge to jump on people like Jeremiah the prophet with “Thus saith the Lord, …” which is ‘offensive’ in the wrong way. I completely agree with the ‘must’ on reading. Prayer alone, is a one-way relationship which is really a half a relationship. God speaks to us and to our hearts through His word. It’s better to just encourage people in their relationship with God than to try to jump in and do what only the Holy Spirit can do from the inside out. On the other hand if you have a relationship with someone, they will be more apt to listen when you point to scripture and in that pointing to God.

      • Ryan I see the Bible being used wrong too, always has all through history. This is why I think this whole discussion is valuable. As online becomes a more popular way of getting church we lose the war. 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly tells us what the bible is good for, Proverbs 27:17 tells us we are to maintain, lean on, and build each other up.

  13. It is interesting in all this talk about the church, I don’t think that I saw anything about the body. I think people are talking about “body life” (relational as opposed to merely instructional), but I have not come across the concept in these postings from a I Corinthians 12 perspective. The church has, and probably always will take on some of the culture it finds itself in. I think the key thing is to study the way that God intended it to be by looking at the scriptures. Then have your local body structured so that the reasons God created the church (which you will find in the scriptures) can be occurring in that local body life. This whole conversation takes me back to the 70′s when body life became a big thing in churches. I am not a church history expert, but I wonder if the church keeps going through the same cycles. Praise God that I do know, God created the church (local and universal) and while we may screw things up, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

  14. Are people still finding Christ in the churches today Jo Beth? A very reliable source said that only 1% of churches in America are growing so…….a few churches are attracting new converts, most aren’t.

    Joan, the gates of hell will not prevail against….HIS church, not ours.

    I would challenge anyone to measure up their church activity with what happened in the New Testament Church. Youth Ministry…in the New Testament Church (NTC)? Paid preacher in the pulpit…in the NTC? Fancy buildings costing millions…in the NTC? Sunday School….in the NTC? Church Camps…in the NTC? Hymn Books…in the NTC? Ministers in dresses…in the NTC? The gifts of the Spirit…in the NTC? Prayer…in the NTC? Acts of mercy…in the NTC? Having a daily quiet time…..in the NTC? Ignoring the gifts of the spirit…in the NTC?

    When all is said and done, more is said than done and if any churches stripped away anything that was not NTC living there would be very little left

    What that means is that it would have plenty of time for that which IS in the NTC and if it did that, then it would start changing the world for the better.

    • @RealityCheck, can you give us a practical example of what today’s church would look like to you? You mention a lot of negatives. What does work? What is practical?

    • Just from being out in the world, the reality is I doubt there is much for converts out in the world. There are a lot of things I don’t like with the institutional side of church with the fact that its life blood is money. I agree, when you strip all the extras used to draw people in and keep them going, there isn’t much left. As I am living having been out of church for 4 years, life with God alone is quite simple and don’t see that people need to spend their whole lives in “God school”. The bad thing is churches barely hit the nail when it comes to having a relationship with and living with God. There is a lot of focus on other ‘fyi’ things that don’t profit and deceive people into believing that attending church is required and detrimental in a persons relationship with God. Gathering with other believers is not bad or wrong… in fact it’s a good thing but a persons relationship with God is no better or worse with or without gathering. I can see there needs to be a platform for preaching the gospel and teaching to do all the things Jesus commanded but the problem with as soon as you get a few people together, no matter how well we try, our humanness makes gathering messy in a short time as seen in the NTC. What is your take? How do we bring back the sense of NTC to our culture and keep things as clean and mess-less as possible?

      • Before I construct a model for a New Testament Church I must remember the words of the New Testament itself. I cannot cherry pick some parts because it is comfortable for me. The Bible is all or nothing, ignore some parts and I can no longer have a solid basis to believe the other parts.

        In regards to the assembly, this video is a great message as to what we are leaving out of life. Open your mind and listen to the message. I go to church every week and don’t have a cell/smart phone and this impacted me. It challenged me to actively seek out and engage with others more than I thought I did. http://blog.petflow.com/a-video-everyone-needs-to-see/

  15. Mario Simonelli Reply May 11, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Mark You wrote: ” I cannot cherry pick some parts because it is comfortable for me. The Bible is all or nothing, ignore some parts and I can no longer have a solid basis to believe the other parts.” By saying and doing that you show that you love the book and not God as you should. The written word has been subjected to man for the last 2000 years and has suffered much by the hands of men. Our God is a living God and He longs to give us understanding of His true word. Here is a challenge for you: I believe that by His grace was given to me to understand the NT, and if it is true, it will not only challenge but change the church. I give you two examples with which you can judge me by.

    This devotional sacrifice has been hidden from the faithful for centuries, in it is revealed an exceptional way of self-denial with which we get closer to our Lord, for we read in 1Corinthians 7:32-38: “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;

    33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided.

    34 And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.

    35 And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure SOME BELIEVERS FOR AN undivided devotion to the Lord.

    36 But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly towards his CELIBACY, if HE
    should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does
    not sin; let HIM marry.

    37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own BODY, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own BODY CHASTE, he will do well.

    38 So then both he who gives his own BODY in marriage does well, BUT he who does
    not give HIMSELF in marriage will do better.”

    As you can see, the last four verses 35-38, with the inserted ITALICS are the obvious restorations needed, which enable us to understand the connection and the true intended meaning of the previous verses of 32-34. Thus if any person, male or female, is willingly prepared and able to freely undertake the sacrifice of celibacy as their
    sacrifice of worship, that sacrifice is acceptable to God, this is confirmed in
    Matthew 19:10-12: “The disciples said to Him, ‘If the relationship of the man
    with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.’ But He said to them,
    ‘Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been
    given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb;
    and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs
    who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is
    able to accept this let him accept it.’”

    II) The following verses forms a riddle which without the inserted words we also cannot understand. for in Mark 4:24-25: “Jesus was, saying to them, ‘Take care what you
    listen to. By your standard OF GODLINESS it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you beside. For whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what GOOD he has shall be taken away from him.’”

  16. @ Mario Simonelli, I’m sorry but I have no idea what your point is. Can you explain further? Are you saying the Bible is not complete but is somehow to be interpreted as a living document, changing as needed based on a man or woman’s interpretation at that moment?

    • Mario Simonelli Reply May 12, 2014 at 1:58 am

      Thanks for responding; No Mark, I meant to say if you believe the bible without understanding your faith is no complete. Part of Proverb 9:10 says “the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Please re-read my post and compare it with any bible.
      Also I am saying that is no okay to hold the bible higher than the Holy Spirit. In other words our God is a living God and the bible is not Him. If you hold the bible higher than the Holy Spirit; He cannot teach you. The two examples of understanding that I gave you was given to me by His grace and there is no other interpretation that suffice.

      • Hi Mario, while I understand the nuance you are trying to say, the bottom line line is the Bible IS the word of God. Through the Holy Spirit I am shown my sin and given my faith. However the Holy Spirit is God as is the Son, yet ONE GOD. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” If God is the same then His Word, the Bible is the same and can be trusted. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.”

        In regards to the Bible being “subjected to man”, many translations into other languages have been made of the Bible because so few speak its original languages and dialects. Yet most translations have come from the original preserved manuscripts, not an interpretation of an interpretation. Proverbs 30:5-6 says, “Every word of God proves true. He is a shield to all who come to him for protection. Do not add to his words, or he may rebuke you and expose you as a liar.” and also in Revelation 22:18, it says, “And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book.”

        God and the Bible are one and the same Words of God. When I personally understand a new aspect of God and His work in me I can verify its source by comparing it to the Bible. If it is in conflict with the Bible then I know the new revelation TO ME is either from my own making or from Satan. I hope this clarifies your view of my faith.

  17. Mario Simonelli Reply May 12, 2014 at 7:44 am

    Mark Yes you are correct that in Revelation 22:18, it says, “And I solemnly declare to everyone who hears the words of prophecy written in this book: If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book.” Just for a moment I like you to consider that this warning is in there to let us faithfuls know that to had or take away words from the bible is possible.
    The good pastor sow the good seed, but His enemy came and sow tares also; now if you believe that, you would know also that His enemy would not be worried by the extra plagues. We all know that only with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we can rightly divide the word.
    Do you understand 1Corinthians 7:32-38; and if so, do you agree with the above rendering?

  18. What are you getting at? How did marriage get into the picture? I am very happily married and intend to stay that way, I do not have the choice to divorce after I am married, nor would I want to. My wife completes me and together we are stronger than apart. She is my best friend, lover

    This passage pertains to marriage and it’s part and/or hindrance to ministry. Not sure how this helps us with the issues of the modern church?

  19. 2 Peter 1:5-8 NIV
    [5] For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; [6] and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; [7] and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. [8] For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    See knowledge in there? It occurs three times. Christianity is a relationship, but it is also a religion. Nobody is out there asking you how you can believe that your wife exists.

    That said, I think you’re right that we need to work on proper discipleship, but I’m afraid that improper relationship teaching is found more often than the ‘academic’ teaching you are criticizing. I hear a lot about choices, relationship, hearts, and all that, but when does our pastor talk about pride, understanding, honesty, accountability, or any of the other things that the knowledge of which will bring us closer to God? Too often relationship talk manufactures feelings, while biblically-grounded teaching produces disciples,

  20. I really do appreciate your thesis that our faith is a relationship. I became a Christian 37 years ago, at age 30. So, I do remember a time when I had a basic set of culturally acquired facts about Christianity, but no relationship. Of course, these 37 years have been an era of growing to know and trust my God. However this little scrap of Evangelical lingo, “personal relationship”, is little more than an Eastern mantra without the written and read Scripture. My Bible, and the word preached is my source of knowing God and my check to not be deceived. By default that makes all the functions of my church a teaching exercise. This can be artfully done or ham-fisted, but it is manifest that we are people of the Book and our faith is based on historical reality. Those things imply a lot of schoolish activities. I’m reminded that Jesus modeled that for us when he was 12 years old (Lk 2:46). Years later he inserted the word “mind” (Matt 22:37) into the Shema (Dt 6:4-5).

    Our Existentialist age responds to touchy-feely and must learn to think about God. The above posts touch on wrenching issues in the church from Biblical criticism to the Gay controversy. They are all mind-engaged searches for God’s Face and benefit when undergirded with a familiar presence of the Paraclete.

    On another note…you say we don’t do a great job of keeping each other’s relatives straight. That is indeed true. However I think it should be convicting. My grandparents could explain every cousin in their rural county – and the list was extensive. That we don’t is a symptom of the fragmentation of our families and of the extreme individualism of our world. It is our loss. And it implies other areas of cultural degeneration. If we don’t know (about) them, maybe we don’t care.

  21. Great article… One of the hurdles to overcome in accomplishing any sort of positive change would be the seven deadly words “We’ve never done it that way before.” Our allegiance to tradition and habit can often outweigh our recognition of the need to adapt and change. You may want to check out the new faith-based movie Seven Deadly Words ( sevendeadlywords.com ), which addresses quite a bit of these issues.

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  1. Why 2/3 of men are unhappy in church - May 14, 2014

    […] friend Thom Schultz recently wrote an insightful blog post, “Sitting through God school.” He laments how the church has evolved from a relationship with God into an institution that […]

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