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.

Generational faith formation makes a difference

coffee-and-bibleI once had an Old Testament professor who was reading through his grandmother’s Bible.  He had read through the Bible many times before, but this one was special because it had all of his grandmother’s hand-written notes and reflections throughout.

He cherished those notes and found that it helped him experience Jesus in a fresh, vibrant way.

Ever since then, I have been intentional about writing in my Bible, not only to keep track of sermon prep and Sunday School notes, but to make a sort of spiritual record to pass on to my children.

It was several years ago that I found out I was buying too many new Bibles to do this.

I, like so many others in our consumerist society, came under the misunderstanding that buying a new Bible would somehow get me to read it more.  I had to decide on one Bible–one made well, that could travel with me to both pulpit and prayer closet–and start the journey of writing, and to do so with my children and (eventual) grandchildren in mind.

I told this to a colleague who is an associate pastor in the city.  She, too, had a professor who stressed the importance of writing in one’s Bible–in fact, he allowed his students to bring notes for tests to class, as long as they were written in a Bible.  He felt that the notes would be accessible to students well after graduation, as well as build an heirloom of learning for future generations.

There is something about a Bible that is passed on to others that symbolizes the power of generational faith education.

Sociologist, Vern Bengston, writing for The Christian Century (“Families of Faith,” 25 December 2013), argued that a child’s religiosity, or lack thereof, is directly influenced by the faith of his or her parents, especially that of the father.  He also wrote that the faith of a child’s grandparents is just as influential, even if the parents are not religious at all.

Several weeks ago, I held a Bible study at a retirement home in Decatur.  We had a new participant in the class, so I made sure to get to know her a little bit.

She told me that she did not grow up in a Christian household.  She did, however, have a grandmother who was always reading or telling stories from the Bible.

Passing on the faith–sometimes in the form of passing down a Bible–is a significant way to teach the next generation the importance of Christian living.

The Bible explicitly commands that we, as God’s people, have an obligation to do this one way or another.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gave Israel instructions related to this command, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (6:4-7).

Teaching children faith–and the Bible–is so very important in our culture today.  A few weeks ago, the Barna group released statistics showing that Atlanta ranked 29 among the most “Bible-minded” states.  That means there are 28 states whose population knows the Bible better than we do.

Can you be counted among the “Bible-minded” in our state?  How do you get your children and grandchildren involved in engaging their faith and learning about the ways and Word of God?  Is it by telling the “old, old story;” or by having a Bible to leave with loved ones after you have gone to be in glory?  Whatever the case may be, God commands us to teach our faith, and we would do well to listen.