Back to school, back to basics

By Matt Sapp

My calendar says that it’s August 5th—almost the exact middle of the summer—but we here in Cherokee County, GA are undergoing a seasonal change of sorts.

That’s right, it’s back to school time for parents and grandparents and students and teachers all over Georgia.  So no matter what the sun or the calendar says, summer is over. School is back in session.

Back to school season means getting back to basics.  Once upon a time, children learned the three “R”s of education: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, right?   Now, our children tell us that the three R’s include, “reduce, reuse and recycle,” a quick reminder about how much education has changed over time.

But what are the basics for church and for life?

One of the ways to make sure we’re still focused on the basics is to go back and ask, “Are we still aiming to do the things we initially set out to do?”

At my church, Heritage Baptist Fellowship, the basics of faith include worship, discipleship and service.

We are committed to developing holy habits in worship.  This means making connections with holy things and the Spirit in an increasingly secular world.

We were created to live in fellowship with our creator. Worship fosters a connection with the holy that is essential to a well-lived life.

We are committed to the process of discipleship. For one, discipleship is not possible in isolation.   Healthy Christian relationships are key components of biblical discipleship.

Christian relationships rooted in the foundation of the local church are one of the best ways to make sure that we maintain mental, spiritual and emotional health and balance. Christian relationships also support our physical health, particularly when we face health challenges.

We are committed to Christian service and evangelistic mission. We are surrounded in this world by broken people. Many in our churches walk into worship on Sunday with shattered lives barely held together in their hands.

We have a tremendous opportunity and God-given responsibility as servants of Christ to bring wholeness to broken lives.  We cannot live whole, Christian lives unless our focus turns increasingly outward toward service to others.

So, while our children return to school, God calls us to a new season of turning back to the basics that make our faith in Christ worth while.

Common Core Christianity

spiralstairs

By Joe LaGuardia

There is no little controversy surrounding education reform of late, particularly as it relates to Common Core, an education initiative originally proposed by governors across the nation.  Common Core, though confused by myths and misnomers, provides nationally-recognized benchmark standards and competencies in mathematics and language arts.

When I taught high school social studies, I saw the value in having standards-based benchmarks.  Everyone knows that if you learn history any given year, you will never finish an entire textbook.  How many of us grew up learning about world wars and the Industrial Revolution, but failed to learn anything past the Eisenhower Administration?

For every chapter of a textbook that I taught, I had to narrow down the content by asking, “What do students need to know?  How will this help students become critical thinkers with both the big picture and small picture of history?  How will this inspire students to be life-long learners?”

These questions usually garnered three or four “standards” that formed a common core of competencies my students had to learn and assimilate.

Now, years later, public education has become muddied by standardized testing and haphazard teacher and student assessments.  Things got in the way.

Likewise, just as there is a crisis in public school education content, there is also a crisis in faith formation and Bible education.  Christianity, in particular, has become muddied by other priorities.

When you have more people gather at the ball field or the local diner on Sunday mornings than attend church, you know you have a Bible crisis on your hands!

Some seminaries have confronted the lack of Bible literacy by encouraging pastors and other leaders to focus on Bible education in the pulpit.  As a result, it is not unusual to find pastors preaching for over thirty minutes in an expository, verse-by-verse “teaching” style.

I hear many people complain that the length of these sermons is cumbersome; but, for many churchgoers, the sermon is the only time during an average week that a Christian learns about the Bible.  It’s not a pastor’s fault that she has to compete with sports, work schedules, extracurricular activities, and dwindled loyalty.

The little, precious time that Christians now spend in Bible study or groups focusing on the Bible has forced many churches to develop a common core Christianity.  We only get families for one hour a week: What is needed in every age group?  What biblical lessons take priority when it comes to faith?  What content is summarily left out?

Churches come to different conclusions about what competencies parishioners should learn.  In Catholic and Episcopal congregations, for example, emphasis is placed on liturgy and sacraments.  Evangelicals focus on community service and personal virtues.  Mainline churches err on the side of social activism and community faith formation.

This is not unusual, for there seems to  be just as many competencies in the Bible.  The book of James, for instance, is very practical and teaches lessons for both community and individual growth.  The Old Testament prophets call God’s people back to the basics of caring for the poor, obeying God, and living a life of holiness.

Even the gospels are diverse in their common cores.  Matthew stresses Jesus’ righteousness and right living.  Mark’s gospel encourages unwavering faith in Jesus’ lordship.  Luke emphasizes hospitality and social justice.  John focuses on individual devotion and spiritual intimacy with Christ.

In these days of busy schedules and declining church attendance, narrowing down Bible education into a type of Christian common core is unavoidable.

This will require prioritization, but it will also require churches to teach people the most important lesson of them all: That nothing can replace an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus; and that no amount of churchgoing can replace a believer’s in-depth personal devotion and study of God’s Word on a daily basis.

Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  His book of articles and homilies, Awe and Trembling: Reflections for the Christian Journey, is now available online.

Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.