Grading Spiritual Growth


education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

What would happen if we expected Christians to actually grow and mature? I was thinking the other day of how we separate our faith from virtually every other aspect of our life. It seems that when we enshrined “separation of church and state” into our national consciousness we enshrined it into our practice of faith as well.

 I have growth and maturity in mind here in particular. What would happen if we had graded classes for every year that a person was a Christian, and they could not be “promoted” until they had mastered the material they were supposed to learn? We see a hint of this in Heb. 5:11-6:3. The author would like to move on to some real meat, but he is frustrated that the Christians to whom he is writing still demand pabulum. I fear we are not much, if any, healthier.

 It is embarrassing when members who have been a part of the church for 10, 20, 30 or more years have such a pitiful grasp of fundamental Christian history and doctrines. Why is it that in an average adult Bible class that we have to spend so much time repeating the same basic facts over and over again? I am not talking about esoteric concepts here like the difference between Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality. I am talking about really foundational facts like the types of literature in the Bible and what difference that makes in interpreting the different types; like the basic chronology of the biblical story and how major characters fit into that chronology; like the ability to locate a verse of Scripture and how to interpret that verse in context. These are not graduate school level issues. What does it say about our teaching when we have 60-year-old members who have been in Bible classes since they were suckling infants who think that Saul of Tarsus was the first king of Israel?

Does that mean we are not listening to the classes and sermons that we hear? Does it mean we are hearing weak and beggarly sermons and classes? Does it mean that we simply do not have a hunger for genuinely challenging classes and sermons?

 I believe I can say that, from a teacher’s and preacher’s standpoint, we are demanding far too little from our students.  How many times do we as teachers (and preachers) actually demand that students perform up to the level that they should be performing? How many times do we assign homework, and then follow-up with tests that reveal whether our students completed their homework? This does not have to be all academic. In fact, it should not always be academic. If you are studying a book of the Bible there should be physical applications that come from that text. So, are we demanding that our students actually go out and do what they are learning (see Matthew 7:24-29!)? But, on a foundational level we must know the text that we are studying, and that means academics! Very often that requires some significant background investigation. Just one simple example will suffice – you cannot even begin to understand the book of Revelation (a favorite text to kill a few hours during a 13 week study) without knowing the language of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah at the very least. A teacher who attempts to teach the book of Revelation without a thorough background of exilic and post-exilic prophets, and the language of apocalyptic, is simply wasting his or her time. And that requires that he or she demand a high level of attention and commitment from his or her students.

However, I must add that as a church we are demanding far too little from our teachers and preachers. Woe be to the teacher who assigns his or her class members to purchase a text-book to study for a quarter.  I am not talking about one of those 75 page, fill-in-the-blank type books with 13 chapters so each Sunday all the teacher has to do is read-the-question kind of books. I am talking about a $25-$50, peer-reviewed text-book suitable for an undergraduate college class. If such a demand was made I can envision several different responses. One would be howls of protest – “why, how dare you expect us to spend that kind of money on a book!” Another response would be of the “I can read my Bible on my own, I don’t need some egghead to tell me what to think” kind of response. However, I think the most common response would be the “blank stare” response where there would be no attempt to purchase the book and no response during the class period where the material was discussed. The point is that if a class, or the entire adult education program, or the entire congregation for that matter, does not demand classes and sermons that are the result of first-rate study and that do not demand equal participation from the class/audience, then that class, program or congregation will get exactly what they deserve – pabulum.

I believe that if the church is to begin to thrive as it should several changes need to be made at the level of our teaching and preaching. Maybe the particular congregation where you attend has implemented these or similar changes, and if so thank God that you have spiritual leaders who are guiding you to greater maturity and service in the kingdom! If your congregation is stagnant, or if it has slipped into a gradual decline, then perhaps you need to consider the following remedial steps:

  1. Demand that your preaching minister preaches sermons that are thoroughly accessible, but are challenging for every member. We as preachers do not have to be so esoteric that we confuse the angels, but if we are not creating an increasing hunger in the members who listen to our sermons then we are failing miserably at our task. Jesus preached lessons both profound and attainable. That should be our goal.
  2. Stop putting men (and women) behind the lectern as teachers who are simply not qualified to fill the job (James 3:1). We have fallen into the “any warm body” mentality and that is fatal to any educational program. Teachers should be (1) qualified to teach the subject they are assigned or that they wish to teach, (2) highly motivated to teach that subject, and (3) willing to spend the extra time and effort to generate interest in the subject and to follow through with livable applications for his/her lessons. We demand that our doctors and accountants and airplane pilots all learn from qualified and competent teachers. Why do we allow someone to teach from God’s word who has not prepared him or herself to do the job? We must get away from the idea that anyone with an opinion and a verse from the Bible is qualified to teach or preach.
  3. Demand growth and maturity from class members and the congregation. Make entry and exit tests a regular part of your curriculum. Chart growth for children and adults! Most professionals have to undergo yearly job evaluations. As a pilot I had two federally mandated evaluations every year. Is it too much to ask our students to take an entry test and an exit test to see if (1) we are teaching anything and (2) they are learning anything? If an eldership is not demanding that its congregation grow and mature, exactly what is it demanding? Mediocrity? Laziness? Sloppy teaching, preaching and learning? I really do not believe these are qualities that should be hallmarks of the Christian faith.

What would change if we actually graded our students (adults and children) before we allowed them to progress to a higher class? What would change if we actually demanded that our teachers demonstrate a fundamental level of proficiency before we allowed them to guide a class full of students? How many of us would still be in the first grade? How many of us could teach? At the very least, these are questions worth discussing.

About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on June 1, 2012, in Church, Education, Leadership, Spiritual Formation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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