Guest Outpost blog by Alex Becker
One of the wonderful things I inherited from my dad is a love of Pink Floyd. He has vinyl and I have digital, but the music is classic no matter how you listen to it. Case in point: the song “Another Brick in the Wall.” You might remember the refrain:
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
(Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!)
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.
The music video (and movie) that goes along with this song is disturbing: children march along conveyor belts, being carried along through the factory while sitting at desks, wearing masks. Eventually, they fall into a giant meat grinder until a whole classroom erupts, destroying the factory and tearing down a wall. The implication is that the main character in the song has been taught not to feel, to conform and to isolate himself – but maybe there is hope for others if they can escape the one-size-fits-all education that is forced on them.
How does Jesus have such learning, when he has never been taught?
Would it be heretical if I suggested that Christian education looks like the factory schoolroom of Pink Floyd?
Granted, some Christian education is fantastic. But the vast majority is not – and I don’t think it’s the intention of our Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders and preachers to provide suffocating and constricting education. We’re trapped in a feedback loop that reinforces conformity and makes it difficult to innovate.
There are (at least) two causes for this, from my perspective. First, especially in small churches where Sunday school and Bible study are lacking or non-existent, Christian education is a one-room schoolhouse. For many churches, Sunday morning sermons are the extent of Christian education, which means preachers have the unenviable task of providing Christian education solely by preaching a sermon that reaches 3-year-olds and 90-year-olds, people with doctorates and people without high school diplomas, life-long Christians and new believers – and everyone in between. Thank God for the Holy Spirit who makes such things possible, but the situation is not ideal.
A second cause for our restrictive mode of education is our history of teaching to a specific set of learners. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences clearly exposes the gaps in traditional Christian education. We teach well to people with high verbal/linguistic and musical/rhythmic intelligence, but we don’t teach as well to those who have higher visual/spatial, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. And in so doing, we build walls around Christian education.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
So how can we break down these walls?
We have to know that the walls are there in the first place. Being aware of the problems of one-size-fits-all education can help us look for more robust ways to educate. Is the sermon not reaching everyone? Maybe there are supplemental resources to provide, or volunteers willing to lead a follow-up Bible study, or ways to host a pre- or post-worship discussion. Are we only providing Christian education via monologue? Maybe there are visual media that can help make a point, or opportunities to do mission work that reinforce a sermon series, or ways to order worship to allow for personal meditation or small group discussion. Is everyone getting restless in worship? Maybe there are resources (like those at activelifechurch.org!) that can help get people moving. Solutions are contextual and won’t work everywhere, so awareness of your specific challenges is essential.
We can also break down our walls of conformity by empowering students. In the music video for “Another Brick in the Wall,” it wasn’t parents, school board members or outside consultants that broke down the wall. The children freed themselves with their own strength. I believe that many adults pull back from Christian education and many educational opportunities because of what adult education implies: that I am either ignorant or wrong. When children become students, they only admit that they haven’t been around long enough to know enough. When adults become students, they perceive that they are admitting that they’ve never been educated on a topic (say, the letter to the Romans) or that what they have learned is wrong. Educators know this is a false dichotomy: knowledge can be improved, sharpened and deepened. Being a student is a humbling process, but it is also incredibly rewarding – and it reflects our Presbyterian commitment to be “Reformed and always reforming according to the will of God.” Perhaps, in order for Christian education to be invigorated, people have to be given space to discover that being a student does not necessarily mean being ignorant or wrong. Those walls have to be torn down (by children as well as adults) so that people can avoid letting their schooling get in the way of their education.
There are endless ways to improve Christian education. But starting with knowing where the barriers are and empowering students to break them down will allow for some great progress. Let’s get people off the conveyor belt and away from the meat grinder – and into a deeper relationship with God.
ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.