I started this piece because I was thinking about what I was going to write for my Sunday blog. But as I started writing, it took on a life of its own. I do know this; Sunday’s blog will be entitled “By What Name Shall You Be Called?” and it will be about hearing and then answering the call that God has made to you, even if you are not aware of it.
Things are happening in two areas of society that bother me. The first is what is happened to Christianity and the modern church. The other is education and our schools. This rather long post is a discussion of what I think are the problems with both of these areas and what we, the people, must do to fix them.
It seems to me that the theme of the current political campaign is change. But change will not occur in this country at this time because people are afraid of change. Change requires going into areas that are often unknown and that is something many are unwilling to do. Change requires understanding and understanding requires takes both time and effort. This country and this society would rather spend their time doing other things.
Christmas has become a time of frenzied buying of material goods, not a time to pause and wonder at the single star in the sky or the Babe lying in a manger. Memorial Day has become the start of leisure and fun, not a day to pause and remember who has died and what the horror of war really was and is. Labor Day has become the sad ending to a short summer and the beginning of another school year. Every national holiday becomes a celebration of the dollar and the need to buy more material goods. We hold George Washington as the “Father of this Country” and we proclaim Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents ever; yet, we have combined their birthdays into a single holiday and placed it on a Monday so that we can have a three-day weekend and buy things with our credit cards.
I doubt that too many people can remember why we once celebrated the first Monday in September. But then again, we no longer care about workers’ rights; we no longer care about environmental or workplace safety. Management is all that matters and we can always find workers somewhere willing to work for a little less so that the profit margin can be maintained or increased.
It seems to me that one of the political issues that will dominate the presidential election (once we finally decide on the candidates) will be illegal immigration. Everybody is against illegal immigration but the solutions to the problem do not solve the problem.
Why do people immigrate to this country? From the first day that someone from another country stepped foot on the shores of this continent, people came to this continent for the opportunity that this place offers. Most illegal immigrants can get better jobs here than they can in their home countries. And why do we punish people for doing the jobs that we will not do? Why do we not punish the people who hire the illegal immigrants? It seems to me that the solution requires more than simply arresting illegal immigrants and deporting them back to their home country. Building a wall along the United States – Mexican border will not stop the problem. But then again, the actual solution requires a change in thinking and we are not accustomed to such complicated efforts.
We no longer hear about the problems of homelessness, the lack of health care, or the continued inequalities caused by differences in race, economic status, gender, sexuality, or lifestyle. To do so would be reminded that we are not the great nation we proclaim to be; to do so would remind us of the things that we have failed to do and continue to fail to do.
The buzz word for this year’s political campaign seems to be change. We desire change but we haven’t got the faintest clue what it means. That’s because we have changed the things that once were the implements of change.
The church was once the conscience of mankind; now it is the protector of the status quo. Once the church provided hope; now it takes it away. Once education was the way to improvement; now it is simply a way to acclimate children and young people to an almost “1984” mindset of acceptance and mediocrity.
Marketing the Gospel message
It seems to me that too many churches today engage more in marketing the church than they do in telling the Gospel story. Churches no longer look like churches or feel like churches. In fact, many churches have changed their name; now they are worship centers or some sort of variant on that. The word “church” scares people. So we make church a comfortable place.
I am not saying that it shouldn’t be comfortable; believe me, I have sat in many a hard pew and would much rather be sitting in something easier. But there is no sense of holiness when your seats are theater-type seats.
There is no sense of holiness when you cannot tell who the minister is. The minister is apt to be dressed casually, perhaps in blue jeans and the shirt tail hanging out. This is to show the people that they are “cool” or “hip”. But the message is often empty and vague. It is not necessary to be “cool” if you preach the truth. It is not necessary to be “hip” if you speak from your heart and not with your eye on the bottom line.
By the same token, there are many pastors whose clothing budget surely exceeds the monthly salary of many members of the church. Of course, if you preach the prosperity gospel, then you had better dress for success. But that also means that the money that the people are giving in hopes of getting financial rewards is going into the pocket of the minister asking for the money.
And the presentation of the message or the music is adapted to the ways of the secular world. We put the words to the music we are to sing on screens that everyone can see. Since they watch television and videos at home, why not make the Gospel presentation a video presentation? We have changed the nature of church so that it is like everything else. We have changed the nature of what we are saying and doing so that it will fit onto a single slide in an audio-visual presentation.
We live in a sound-bite society; we know put the Gospel into sound-bites or reduce it to bumper-sticker slogans. There is no challenge in the message because challenge requires changing things.
The Prosperity Gospel and Gospel-Lite Message
It seems to me that most of the modern churches today present one of two forms of the gospel message. They either present what is called the prosperity gospel (or “name it and claim it”) or they present what is called gospel-lite. Neither has any relationship to the true Gospel and neither has any relationship to the historical nature of the church. The prosperity gospel says that you can have riches beyond belief if you plant a seed with the minister. In other words, give the minister your money and it will grow. It will grow, all right, but not your garden. The only ones getting rich under the prosperity gospel are the ones who preach it.
If there is any truth to the prosperity gospel, then why are we not hearing their stories?
There are also others who take the substance out of the gospel message and preach a do-good and feel-good message. People like hearing this message because it does not call for them to do anything; there is no need for them to give up anything or take the message out into the world because it is not needed. You will find no guilt in the gospel-lite message of so many pastors because their message is to make you feel good about yourself, not have you worry about the nature of the world.
The True Gospel message was a message of sacrifice and hard work; it was a message of equality and perseverance. There is nothing in many modern churches that even comes close to the true words of Jesus and the apostles.
We have changed the nature of the message and we have changed the nature of the church.
Let’s face it; we like the idea of big. So it stands to reason that we should have BIG churches. It could be that I am uncomfortable with the concept or idea of megachurches because it is possible the membership of every church I have been a member of or served could probably fit into the auditorium of anyone of many megachurches in this country.
Megachurches seem more like office buildings or large amphitheaters than churches. Instead of pews, you get theater-type seats. Instead of an altar, you get a stage. And don’t even look for a Cross or some sign of the presence of God. It might be there but it is off to the side and hidden by the great screens that televise the minister so the people in the far back rows can see him.
If megachurches are to be the 21st century version of 14th and 15th century cathedrals, they fail. The great cathedrals of Europe and America were built by the people for the Glory of God. Perhaps many of those cathedrals shouldn’t have been built but the people built them for God, not for the church or church authorities. It seems to me that many of the megachurches that are being built today are being built to satisfy the egos of the pastors and the congregations, not for the Glory of God.
When you look at the structure and organization of these many megachurches, you find that they have subdivided the congregation into various groups based on common interests. Since a megachurch is actually a collection of many small churches, why not put the time and energy into small churches? Why not put the time and effort into helping put the presence of God where it is needed, not where it can be built. A baseball field was built in a cornfield in Iowa because the people will come. But the people of the inner city or the rural parts of this country can’t necessarily make it to the megachurch in the nearby suburb.
People like megachurches because it is easy to go to one. With so many people present, you can easily get lost in the crowd. With the focus of the service no longer on the True Gospel, you don’t have to worry. You can now go to church (even if it isn’t called that) when you want and feel good when you come out. The problems of the world have disappeared for a few hours and you have had a great time with your friends.
I am very leery when I hear the term praise music. Modern day praise music was developed because people said they were tired of traditional organ music and wanted to hear guitars and drums and the sounds that they hear every day.
Music has always been in worship for the purpose of praising God. I have no problem with bringing new music or new ways to play the music. The lute, the harp, the flute, and the cymbal were all instruments played in the early church. I am sure that when the harpsichord, the piano, and the organ were invented, traditionalists complained about the quality of music. And the players who brought the new instruments into the sanctuary probably rejoiced at the change they were bringing into the worship.
There is great music that can be played on guitars, electric basses, electric keyboards and drums. But, like the music of old, it requires work to achieve the desired goal. Many praise music teams sing great music, music that moves the heart and inspires the soul but it isn’t the music that the congregation sings and this is the problem with praise music.
The praise music that congregations sing is tepid at best. It does nothing to praise God or inspire worship. It merely replaces old music that you don’t like with new music that you don’t like. It has no feeling; it inspires nothing in my soul. With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I would say that most praise music today doesn’t even have a good beat and it is lousy to dance to.
I know that people have complained about the traditional music of the church. Often times, the congregation cannot sing the music because they are not familiar with the tune or the words. Congregations get locked into the songs they know and they complain when they are forced to learn something new. But what is wrong with learning new music? Can we not express our joy in worship with new words, instead of mindlessly repeating old words? Let all of us bring all of our talents into the worship of God and let see what happens then.
The only problem is that when you remove any meaning from the worship service after you have removed the meaning of the Gospel, there is nothing left. This has allowed many, whom I have taken to call quasi-religious, to change the meaning to fit their view of the world.
A New World Vision
I grew up in the South and I heard and saw quasi-religious figures try to use the Gospel to justify segregation, exclusion, and hatred (both organized and un-spoken). But I also saw many in the church who believed in the Gospel message and fought to bring equality to this country. Now, it seems that we have forgotten that the fight for equality is a constant one; those who opposed the efforts of the church to bring equality to this country now seem to dominate. Now it seems that the church is the agent for exclusion and hatred.
It also appears to me that many quasi-religious figures are trying to change history to fit their view of the world. They are also trying to eliminate or alter science so that no questions can be asked about the world around us.
It always amazes me how those who proclaim to know the truth are quite willing to blame others for the problems. They are the ones who complain that their children don’t learn values in school today. They are the ones who say that our schools began to fail when prayer was taken out of the classroom.
But the days of prayer in the classroom were days when the classroom was homogeneous and differences between Christian denominations were minimal. In the South (where I grew up), the classrooms were segregated. Now, the classroom is heterogeneous and there are likely to be representatives from every major religion. A single prayer that accommodates every religion is a meaningless prayer. And prayer must be more than a few moments of silence. Prayer is an interaction between the individual and God; it cannot be done in a few moments of silence at the beginning of the school day.
Who is God?
Is my God better than your God or is your God better than my God? Whether one chooses to use Yahweh, Allah, or God as His name, it is the same God. So Yahweh cannot be better than Allah and Allah cannot be better than God and God cannot be better than Yahweh; because they are three names for God. All that is accomplished when people use the arguments of a superior God is that it shows their lack of understanding about God. Right now, we do not need people who do not know God telling others what to say, do, or believe.
Ignorance, Understanding, and Control
Ignorance is not a lack of education; it is a lack of understanding. There are many who are educated but ignorant. I have known a great number of people whose reading and writing skills were extremely limited yet their understanding of God exceeded that of many educated people.
Understanding requires questioning and questioning requires thinking. If one is not capable of thinking, then one is incapable of truly understanding. If you take away the ability to understand something, then you can exert control. Authoritarianism, be it sectarian or secular, is always marked by the effort to control what the people can think or say.
As long as the people were ignorant, the church could control their lives. It seems to me today that many quasi-religious figures miss the good old days of that control. For a long time the church didn’t want the people to be able read and write. But as people began to read and write, the more they began to understand. The more they could understand, the more they would seek improvement.
In fact, it appears to me that the church didn’t even want the Bible to be available to the people. If you wanted to print the Bible, it had to be in Latin so that only a select few (and not necessarily the local priests) could read it.
But one of the hallmarks of the early Methodist movement was education. John and Charles Wesley started Sunday schools because the people needed to read and write so that they could understand the Gospel message for themselves. The first universities of this country were founded to insure that ministers had the fundamental skills necessary for understanding. It will come as a shock to many on both sides of the political and religious spectrum that Harvard and Yale began as religious supported institutions, institutions that would supply the preachers for this young country.
Those who worked to build this country understood the need for education as a defense against tyranny. Now education is merely a period of time when a lot of facts are presented for memorization and regurgitation on a test, only to be quickly forgotten.
Education was and should be more than simply learning facts. The problem is that education no longer has the stature that it once had.
People complain about the quality of education but won’t fight to improve the quality of education. It seems to me that the predominant attitude about pre-college education today is that “what worked for me will work for my children”. The problem with education today is two-fold. First, the money for salaries and support does not go to the instructional staff but rather to administrators. That is wrong. If you want quality instruction, then you must pay for quality instruction. The salary gap between CEO’s and workers is not limited to the industrial sector; there is and has been a similar gap between school administrators and classroom teachers.
Second, how many classrooms are equipped to meet the needs of the society that the students will encounter when they leave formal education? Nobody seems to care that the majority of classrooms in this country are under-equipped, if they are equipped at all to teach and prepare for the future. Education has always been about preparation but it gets harder when you don’t have the tools.
We have sought to correct the problems of education with testing. But all we have done is prepare our children for things that they will not encounter in later life.
There is also no sense of balance in our education. Our Founding Fathers understood that education covered both the rational world and the moral world. Thinking involved questioning and we do not do enough of that in our educational system today.
We no longer teach critical thinking or ask students to make evaluative decisions because our educational systems fear the backlash that such processes would bring. This is especially true when it comes to values education.
It is very difficult to teach values in the school because those who demand that values be taught only want their values taught. I have come to the conclusion that those who call so loudly for such teaching are insecure in their own beliefs.
Values education cannot be taught from the viewpoint of a single values system. To teach values is to teach children and young adults to think and analyze. It will produce questions and the one thing that those who want only a single value system taught do not want is questions about their value system. Any value system that does not allow questioning is based more authoritarianism and blind following than it is a true understanding and will fail when scrutinized.
I have come to the conclusion that those who wish to impose their value system on others do so out of fear of what might happen if their system were analyzed. Out of fear, we seek to control the unknown but in fear we cannot proceed into the unknown and find out what is there. If our value system is strong, it will endure any questions.
Liberals and Conservatives
Obviously, I am not crazy about conservatives and those who would seek to hold on to the status quo. By the same token, I don’t like people who think that Christianity is what I have described. I don’t like it when people write off Christianity because of what they see on television, hear on radio, and read about in the broadsheets and tabloids of this country. Most of that information is not what Christianity is about but people don’t know or understand that. They are too smug to admit their ignorance and unwilling to find out what the truth really is. I don’t like those on either side of the religious and political spectrum who are not willing to speak to the other side with an open mind.
The Next Step
We are fast approaching a time when the cost of our ignorance, both secular and sectarian, is going to exceed the resources that we have available.
It would be nice if the people of this world would stop for a moment and look at what they are doing to the world and the other inhabitants.
Global warming, though a theory, seems to be the correct explanation for what is transpiring in Greenland, the Artic, and on the Antarctica continent. Divisions between people grow each day; our own national political campaigns have become consistent episodes of mud-slinging, back-biting, and name-calling. Our political campaigns have turned into nothing more than overblown kindergarten disagreements but with far more disastrous consequences.
And we, as a collective society, have allowed this to happen, more out of ignorance than anything else. Keep in mind that most of the children of the world have never had the experience of seeing a person walk on the moon. That means that any political campaigns that they have lived through have been the ones of the 1970’s, the 1980’s, the 1990’s, and now the 2000’s. The only political campaigns that they have listened to or studied have been negative in nature. The winner has often been the one to whom the mud stuck the least.
Computers are not necessarily a part of the instructional process. In most schools, computer education is a period during the school day and/or week. Computers become another thing that must be learned, not a tool to be used.
It is quite easy to get lots and lots of information with computers today. But we have lost the skill of analyzing this information. The rapidity in which we send salacious or vitriolic e-mail messages to our friends without questioning the content of the message has always amazed me. If it comes from a friend and it is shocking, then it must have some truth in it.
All our children know about computers and technology is that you can play games and send quick messages. Their grammar and language skills are limited because instant messages require acronyms and abbreviations. Computers are only useful for playing games and we are beginning to see the effects of the lack of socialization.
Our children and young adults have no concept of what war is, other than reports on television. They see no dead, they see no grieving. War has become nothing more than another video game, bloodless and painless, without suffering.
If we are to change this world; if we are to provide hope and meaning for the days to come, then we must change. We must change our view of God from a multi-fragmented mythical being to the source of our existence. We were created in His image; isn’t it time that we start reflecting that image instead of trying to hide it?
And we must start demanding that education do what education is supposed to do. Through education, we are supposed to learn how to think and imagine, to move beyond the boundaries of our present existence. It will cause many to challenge commonly held viewpoints and it will cause many viewpoints to disappear because people will quickly find out how weak they are.
Society is going to go in one of two directions, either into a new era of discovery and promise or into an era of destruction and desolation. I fear that it will go into the era of destruction and desolation because we are unwilling to change our ways. But if we are willing to change, then we can begin to see a new era of discovery and promise.
So isn’t it about time we change?