I watched a documentary once about Eastern European Jews who moved to The United States after World War II. The interviewer asked a group of rabbis why they thought this particular group had been able to retain its values and community even after living several generations in this country.
“We made an important decision,” one of the rabbis said. “We saw how Christians and earlier groups of Jews in America had invested in large and beautiful sanctuaries. They poured most of their resources into adults. We decided to build simple worship spaces so we could invest most of our resources into our children. In fact, most of our rabbis worked secular jobs so we could pay pay our children’s teachers well.”
In short: Hasidic Jews built schools. They used their tithe to support education. They focused their energies on equipping children to thrive as Jews in a secular environment.
I thought about that documentary recently as I drove to a speaking engagement at the Agathos Classical Christian Academy banquet in Colombia Tennessee.
As I drove that an hour or so to the banquet, I passed numerous churches. Many of them were large. Most of them were empty and dark. It dawned on me that these campuses represent a vast physical resource which, in most cases, is grossly underutilized. Meanwhile, schools like Agathos struggle to do something most churches no longer really do: instruct Christian children in the values and beliefs of Christian faith.
I realize I am in a decided minority when I claim that the greatest single tragedy of modern American Christianity is the loss of catechism. What I mean by catechism is simply the intentional instruction of our youth in the principles and values of the faith. Modern church work simply does not value that. Nor do we tend to value those who do it. Pastors, including children and youth pastors, are rarely judged by how well they instill the lessons of scripture in our children and youth. They are judged by how many people they attract to the church, people who will hopefully pay the bills that support the church’s campus and programs. Why that is even important if we don't know what we believe is not a question we often stop to ask.
Many, if not most of our children grow up in an “effective youth group” without ever really learning the essence of Christian faith. They usually make some sort of profession of faith along the way, (whatever that means in the long run) they hear warnings about the dangers of drugs and sex; they just don't learn how St. Paul’s Book of Romans remains relevant in today’s world.
Even after our our kids began studying trigonometry and the principles of abnormal psychology at school, our churches keep leading them in singing emotional ditties, listening to empty platitudes and clichés, and then inviting them to eat pizza. That is supposed to keep our kids convinced that our faith is about more than maintaining our large church corporations, remnants of ancient and unreflected myths that have little to say to today's world.
I know, church leaders often moan and groan about the loss of our young adults. We usually determine that the cause must be the lighting, the music, young peoples’ lack of opportunities to enter church leadership – anything other than the fact we might be losing young adults because what we say and do doesn’t seem to have much substance once one becomes a mature, educated adult.
Historically, Christianity placed a high value on learning. Christians founded a huge percentage of the world’s universities and other kinds of schools. Many colleges in non-Christian nations have Christian foundations. However, for several generations now, we have been playing the fool when it comes to education. There are large and influential parts of our faith in the United States that see no connection between subjects like science, math and the like and faith. Is it any wonder then that we lose some of our most intellectually gifted children, generation after generation?
What should we expect?
Ok. At this point I am cursing the darkness. This is an old complaint and repeating it once more doesn’t really help.
People like the folk at Agathos are doing something more. They are lighting candles.
I wish you could meet their students. These normal American kids study their lessons and learn their material. They are also Christians, preparing to live and behave as believers making a contribution within an increasingly secular world.
I see this quality often in children who go to classical schools. These schools produce children who make friends with adults, who express clear opinions, and who learn how to respectfully disagree and debate their options. In other words, these schools produce educated, mature Christians. That is something our churches are not doing nearly as well.
As a pastor, I cannot help but think that if we turned even a third of our church campuses into good schools, or even turned over our church campuses to these schools during the day, we might do immeasurable good for the future of our faith.
It goes without saying that Christian schools need to actually educate children. Christian brainwashing is not really education. Education is the process of teaching people how to think for themselves. That is why I insist that the classical model is the quintessential model for delivering a quality Christian education. It doesn't always produce believers because when a person really learns to think he or she has a real choice to make about faith. However, those who do authentically chose the faith are actually making a choice; they are not merely going to church occasionally to keep mom and dad happy.
If our faith is actually true and not merely comforting; if it still has the power to produce a Bach, an Aquinas, a Mendel or a John Adams, then it is time that we get back to doing the kinds of things that encourage such people to development.
So here’s a shout out to the folks at Agathos and all the other great schools in our area. You are lighting candles and a few of us see them. And here is a plea to our pastors and other Christian leaders – lets help these folk build up the future of our Lord’s church in this country. Let’s share our resources with them. Let’s keep them encouraged by acknowledging their enormous worth in advancing the cause of Christ.