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Back to school for churches

Phillip Blackburn encourages rural churches to embrace the start of the school year. Can we learn something new, too?

Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

We seem to mark time in America, at least secular time, with the school calendar. Going back to school stirs fond memories for many: smell of fresh school supplies; the excitement of the first day in our new room or school building; catching up with friends we haven’t seen over the summer; the anticipation of a new year ahead.

I recently asked a group of rural church leaders about what their congregations were doing to mark the back-to-school season. Most of them don’t have a lot of children in their congregations, but they all wanted to do something. From Morrilton to Elkins to Prairie Grove, the little congregations of Arkansas gathered school supplies and blessed backpacks. One even had an ice cream social. It was fun for me to hear their practices and stories.

But it also was a reminder to me. What is school about? Is it about seasons or supplies? Not really. Those things are incidental. It’s about learning. Adults know that kids will learn over the course of their school years things that will shape their entire lives. The opportunity and expectation to learn as a child in our country is a great gift. It can also serve as a reminder to us grown-ups in the church. Hopefully, we don’t stop learning when we leave school — and hopefully, we don’t stop learning as congregations.

Hopefully, we don’t stop learning when we leave school — and hopefully, we don’t stop learning as congregations.

First Presbyterian, Alma, which has a worship attendance of ten people, planted a blessing box outside their sanctuary this past year. It was the first stab they had made at mission in their community in a while. They are in downtown Van Buren and there is quite a lot of low-income housing around them. They learned that when they put goods in their blessing box like non-perishable food items and water, the items went fast! During this ministry, they met some of their neighbors, so when they started thinking about back-to-school, their commissioned ruling elder Jan Enke wrote this: “Alma had a back-to-school event where we served hot dogs and hamburgers, made bookmarks and played some games. Also handed out school supplies. We focused on the people who take advantage of our blessing box. We had a few to show up.”

I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing, but I am so proud of First Presbyterian, Van Buren. In the Presbyterian Church, we don’t just serve Jesus by learning theology or Greek, we serve God by learning about our neighbors and our community. Sometimes we forget this. Sometimes it seems hard, scary or daunting, but First Presbyterian, Van Buren managed to do it.

Will this lead to some sort of membership boom? I don’t know. What I do know is their practice of outreach paired with relationship, even if modest, was deeply faithful. They learned about some of the people right next to their church.

A faithful congregation is a learning congregation.

As we mark back to school in our congregations, may we be reminded that learning is a lifelong process. A faithful congregation is a learning congregation. I hope all our congregations, but particularly our small, rural churches will use this season to learn more about their communities. Learn about your neighbors. Learn about the strengths and weaknesses of your town. Learn about people’s lives. It doesn’t really matter what you learn, but let’s learn something new in this season. In short, don’t just send the kids back to school.