On the State of the Missouri Synod and the Problem of Christian Education in Our Congregations
When I learned that the September 2012 edition of the Lutheran Witness was going to address the current state of the Missouri Synod, I waited with eagerness to read its analysis. The magazine is chock full of statistics that all Lutherans need to know, and, as you might imagine, the statistics do not paint a very pretty picture. Within its pages is the outline for a restructuring and regrouping in our Synod organized around six “Mission Priorities”. Here are the announced priorities:
Mission Priority 1: Revitalizing Churches
Mission Priority 2: Expanding Theological Education
Mission Priority 3: Human Care Ministry
Mission Priority 4: Mission Effectiveness
Mission Priority 5: Nurturing Church Workers
Mission Priority 6: Enhancing Education
Each of these priorities is intended to address a glaring problem: our numbers are down. As a Synod, our financial numbers are down, our membership and baptism numbers are down, our school student numbers are down, our missions numbers are down. This is no secret. It’s something that’s been happening for a while, and most of us know it. Even without a single statistic, we can feel it. Now, the wise among us will be quick to point out that numbers aren’t everything, that statistics can be misleading and even downright contrary to fact, that faithfulness is the primary goal, and that some numbers can go down for reasons unrelated to our efforts. And at various points, the latest Lutheran Witness acknowledges most of these things. Yet, even after we take into account all of these points, it doesn’t eliminate the problem, and denying the problem is just an exercise in whistling past the graveyard.
I was pleased to see some of the efforts that the Synod intends to make going forward, and I hope that they will be implemented effectively. I don’t want to be one those negative nancies who sits on the sidelines and naysays the efforts of those who are at work to address the problems. Frankly, we have far too many of those people already. The truth is, it’s far easier to find fault with another’s efforts than to actually make an effort yourself.
Addressing a Greater Need: Christian Education in the Local Parish
While I think that some of these priorities will help to improve our Synod, I’m convinced that they have ignored one of the biggest problems facing our Synod, and thus with it, the biggest solution. I read in hope that the various authors would mention the solution that I believe will really address the core of the problems facing our Synod, but sadly, they didn’t mention it.
The fact is, we could improve in all of the “mission priorities” of the Synod, but unless we correct the deep lack of Christian education in our parishes and our homes, we’re going to continue to bleed. I have spoken to enough of children and youth in our churches to get a sense of how little biblical literacy and theological understanding there is among our children Synod-wide. In what follows, I’ve chosen to use the words “education” and “instruction” instead of “catechesis” since, unfortunately, in the minds of many “catechesis” strictly refers to a two/three-year period of instruction in the Small Catechism.
By way of example of the problem, I recently taught a group of confirmation students at another parish in their first confirmation class. In order to establish a baseline of their understanding, I asked a couple of general questions. When I asked them if we are saved by our works or by God’s works. I received three different answers spread quite evenly across the group. Some said we are saved by our works. Some said we are saved by God’s works, and some said we are saved by both our work and God’s work.
Now here is one of the most basic truths that our kids need to know. It’s perhaps the most defining doctrine of the Reformation. It’s a doctrine to which our ancestors dedicated their very lives so that we could be here to still confess it, and these kids are collectively ignorant of it.
Now I know that one of the purposes of confirmation is to cover doctrines like this, but honestly, if they don’t know the answer to so basic a question as this by 7th and 8th grade, we’ve got a big problem.
These are kids who have been in a Lutheran church for years — many of them for all 12 and 13 years of their lives — and they know next to nothing about the faith they claim to believe. This is far from being merely anecdotal. The lack of knowledge of the basic content of our faith is multiplied throughout our congregations. The kids I taught are by no means the exception to the rule.
There was a time a number of decades ago when we could get by without teaching our children much, and they would nevertheless remain in the church. The cultural pressure to be Christian was so great enough to keep people in the church. But those days are very much over. The glow of an age in which it was considered a kind of cultural requirement to go to church has faded, and going forward, those who remain in the church will more and more be those who know what they believe and know why they’re here. They will be those who understand what the Scriptures teach and have thought through the Catechism and the doctrine of the church. But if we aren’t actively, purposefully, aggressively teaching them from the earliest age on we’re going to have very few of those kinds of parishoners.
Proverbs 22:6 tells us that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not depart from it. So, by inference, when we see thousands upon thousands of our children abandoning the church this tells us something about our training. It tells us that we haven’t been training up our children in the way that they should go because if we did, they wouldn’t be departing like this. Now, I recognize that there will always be some that will not remain in the church no matter how well they have been taught by their parents and their churches, but they won’t constitute an epidemic. They’re going to be the exception.
How We’ve Been Teaching Our Children
For a long time now and to an increasing degree, I’ve watched as we’ve communicated to our children that learning the Word of God is a real headache — a real misery. We’ve done this by shrouding our attempts at Bible teaching in a thick layer of entertainment in order to maintain their interest. Through these methods we created an expectation that the Bible has to be a into a kind of fun if they are have anything to do with it. What was once an expectation has now become a demand. Simply teaching the Bible to a group of children raised on a steady diet of entertainment in the church simply doesn’t move the needle. They are bored to tears by it. If you doubt what I’m saying, just look at much of our Sunday School and VBS curricula. They are full of gimmicks, games, and crafts. They are sadly short on sustained Bible teaching, Scripture memory, and catechesis. At some point, the medium becomes the message. How we package our teaching can actually speak louder than what we’re trying to teach. For many children, learning the Bible just becomes the means to an end of getting the piece of candy, or being entertained. Sooner or later, every activity becomes cashed out in terms of its amount of pleasure.
What to Do Going Forward
The only solution to the demand to be entertained is to back up and scrap the whole approach of packaging all of our Bible instruction with a craft, a puppet, a cartoon, or a game. The more that we introduce entertainment into the equation, the more that we reinforce in children’s minds that the Bible and Christian doctrine is a bitter pill that can only go down with a heavy spoonful of sugar. We’ve got to get away from shallow, pleasure-based Bible teaching and start teaching our children that hearing from their creator and redeemer in his Holy Word is its own reward. We have to teach them that something greater than candy and entertainment is here. And if we are afraid to unleash the Word and let the Spirit pique the interest of our children, then we might need to reevaluate what it is that we honestly believe about the Bible and our Lord.
The best of Bible teachers know that you can take a group of regenerate kids and teach the Scriptures with a passion and love for God and His Word in an informed and knowledgeable way and actually hold their interest. This is what our church at its best has done throughout the centuries. The Bible doesn’t need gimmicks to sell it. It is our job to teach it well, and the Spirit will sell it to the hearts of Christ’s people.
In this post, I’m only addressing the problem of our shortcomings in instructing our children in the church. There’s an equal if not greater problem with the lack of instruction in the Christian home. The Small Catechism which was originally designed for home instruction has been entirely relegated as the duty of the church to teach. This has not happened without consequences for our Synod as a whole. I will address this in a subsequent post.
The most fitting place in LW to address our lack of Christian education in the church would have been Bart Day’s article on “Enhancing Education” (p. 16). However, all of the focus was on education in our schools. Day presents a five prong approach to improving education in our schools:
1. Be schools of academic excellence
2. Be distinctly and unapologetically Lutheran
3. Embrace the rich ethnic diversity
4. Use technology as a means of collaborative learning
5. Explore new funding models
Certainly our schools are deserving of increased focus, but to whatever extent we improve the education in our schools, it will have little impact on the biblical literacy problem we face in our churches. Furthermore, if Day is interested in improving schools, he has overlooked the fact that a significant step toward that goal is improving catechesis and biblical instruction in our churches.
In the entire LW issue, the closest we get to an acknowledgement of the need for better education in our churches is a single line from John Pless in his article “Revitalizing Churches”. He writes, “Revitalized congregations are catechetical congregations” (p. 11). He’s exactly right, but we need to hear much more.
We didn’t get here as a church by instructing our children at the low degree at which we’re instructing them now, and we won’t survive as a Synod unless we improve. There is simply no substitute for intensively educating our people in the Word of God.
Associate Editor’s Note: With this post we introduce Pastor John Fraiser to the regular writers here at BJS. Pastor Fraiser will be writing about Lutheran history and systematic theology among other things. Here is a little more about Pr. Fraiser:
Pastor Fraiser grew up as a Baptist and received his M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Following his seminary studies, he began reading the writings of Martin Luther and became convinced that Lutheran doctrine was a faithful presentation of the doctrine of Scripture and addressed many of his perplexing Baptist questions. After joining the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, he went on for graduate philosophy studies, while also taking post-graduate courses at Concordia Seminary. Though he intended to teach philosophy in a university setting, he also applied as a candidate for ordination through the Synod’s colloquy program with the plans of bi-vocational parish ministry. Following colloquy, he assisted in a vacancy at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in LaGrange, Kentucky where he was eventually called as pastor. Pr. Fraiser was ordained on Luther’s ordination date – April 3rd – in 2011. Pr. Fraiser is married to Emily, and they have a four-year-old daughter named Jillian.