A New Life for the Church and in the Church


These are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 10 April 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14, Romans 8: 6 – 11, and John 11: 1 – 45. I started this last week but didn’t get to finish it because of some other more pressing tasks. The delay did prove to be fortuitous because, in the delay, I was able to find the closure for this piece.

One of the things that happened allowed me to note that some of what I was thinking was not entirely new but rather a restatement of things I had previously written (see “Rethinking the Church” and “To Search for Excellence”). That I reuse my ideas means either I am guilty of what I preach against or we are ignoring the solutions to a problem that has been with us for some time. Let us hope that it is more the latter than the former.

As I noted last week (“The Teaching Fantasy”), I feel that the educational system in this country is slowly being dismantled. In 1963, Clark Kerr spoke of the university (and by extension, all forms of education, as primary producers of knowledge (The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr – cited in http://www.vitia.org/wordpress/2003/09/02/clark-kerr-and-cardinal-newman/). The irony of this speech is that it was used by the free speech movement on the Berkeley Campus to characterize the university as a machine with the students as the workers. Considering the political climate of today, it would seem that is what the whole educational process is today. If current educational reforms are designed to increase productivity and make teachers accountable for what they do, then we have turned our educational process into a machine designed to turn out mindless robots, capable of repeating what they have been told but not capable of any independent or creative thought. And it seems that the attempts to modify this “reform” will cause more damage than is repaired.

We have turned the process of education into exercises of memorization and repetition. All a student needs to do to be considered successful in class is simply repeat, essentially word for word, what the instructor said during lecture. Free and creative thought is discouraged and any class discussion not directed towards the course exams is considered a waste of time, both by the students and the administration of the education factory, whoops, school.

Education should challenge the learner to seek what is not known, to go beyond the boundaries of the horizon. Education should open the mind, not close it. But yet, that is what is happening to so many today. Instead of pushing and prodding us to seek new ideas and new lands, we want education to comfort us and allow us to know only that which we want to know. For too many people, learning stops when the formal education process ends.

Personally, I think it is sad to watch someone who is physically alive yet mentally dead. I have seen countless college instructors, many younger than I, whose only goal in their educational career is to obtain tenure. They use the notes they so ardently wrote down as undergraduate students as their teaching notes and their research has stopped once the Tenure and Promotion Committee has granted them access to the “Holy Grail” of academia. These are the ones who make the argument against tenure a valid one.

But there are many instructors, some who are older than I, who continue doing research and who use tenure as it was meant to be used; for the freedom to seek new things without fearing that failure will cost them their job.

And both sadly and joyfully, I see many in the church, in the pulpit and the pew, who live the same lives. There are those who obtain a level at which they are comfortable and then stop seeking the ultimate truths of life. They learned about the Bible in confirmation class (those in pew) and in seminary (the pulpit) and that is all that they needed to know. One translation of the Bible is good enough for them and anyone who even suggests that other translations may offer new insight are considered heretics. They use the Bible to justify what they believe, even when what they believe is not in the Bible. Those in the pew don’t want those in the pulpit to disturb their sense of the Bible; the Bible was never meant to challenge but confirm. It wasn’t meant to push you into the world but allow the world to be blocked out.

These people often times sound like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and scribes of Jesus’ time. They saw the Gospel message as a threat to their power, their position, and their status.

But there are many (unfortunately, it is a minority of the population) who see the Bible as a living and breathing document. They are like Ezekiel, dismayed at the valley of dry bones that lie before them. They maybe hesitant at first but they have come to know Jesus as part of their lives and they have heard the call of God to prophesy to the dead bones; God has called them to speak out and seek ways to bring those old, dry bones back to life.

It will take more than doing the same old thing, if for no other reason than the same old thing is what caused the bones to dry up and the breath of life to disappear. All the words being bandied about come from those who really don’t have any clue what the person in the pew hears and the person in the pew long ago tuned out the words “spoken from the mountaintop.”

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, there was a movement sweeping the business world to search for excellence. It even came into the science education field (see the reference in “To Search for Excellence”). What came from this movement was the idea that true and effective change came, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Second, even when it didn’t come from the top, it was still critical that those at the top support and commit to the changes brought from the bottom. What happened in too many situations was that upper level management thought of an idea and rolled it out to a big fanfare but then delegated the task of implementing to underlings; it then died on the vine, as it were.

In one sense, that is what God did. He spoke to Moses and Moses spoke to the people. In the end, the people lost interest because the message was filtered too much through the administrators. Ultimately, God saw that wasn’t working and He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live and die with us. And the ones who were picked by Jesus were not the administrators or the powerful; there were not necessarily the best or the brightest but they were willing to listen and learn (though it took them a while). The success of the early church came from the fact that it was first and foremost a community of people, developing ideas on their own. They could not listen to some hierarchical authority because there was no hierarchy.

I have come to a point in my journey where I feel that I am called to prophesy. The other day John Meunier posted a note about some comments that Jay Voorhees had made regarding the Leadership Summit in Nashville (see “A Proposal for Church Development” and the dialogue that Jay and I had at #UMC Lead: The View From Table 9-part 3). Jay’s ideas mirror an idea that I began developing about a month ago to begin a school (only in the sense of an organized collection of classes).

This school will focus on Biblical studies (many of the lay speakers in my district want Bible study), studies on Methodism (you would be surprised how many members of the United Methodist Church do not understand the structure and philosophy of Methodism – see “When Did You Learn about Methodism?” – I would be interested in knowing when you learned about Methodism) and Christianity (each year there is a survey which points out how illiterate we are about what is we say we are) and leadership studies. In his comments, Jay offered some thoughts about books in the area of leadership. What are your ideas? What books have you read that suggest new ways to lead?

I am working with one of the seminaries in the area to find individuals interested in teaching some of the courses; I don’t think that all of them will have degrees in theology and/or divinity. One of the individuals I have contacted about teaching a course in the history of Methodism has a Ph. D. in Pharmacology.

But is the traditional classroom the only way to teach? I happen to like the traditional gathering because I think that the interaction between classmates

Let us bring the dry bones back to life. Let us breathe a new spirit into the body that we call the church. Let us find ways to bring new life and a new breathe in the people who make the church. I would normally say that we should begin that today but it has begun. I am asking that you come along as we seek to bring a new life for and in the church.

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