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.

As clergy and as God’s “Church,” we have failed our society in so many ways

When I read about shootings at the Game Stop and at a house party last week, I became angry to hear that so many locals were killed or wounded by gun violence in our neighborhood.

I was angry because it hit so close to home. These shootings weren’t in some far off slum, but happened near places where my family frequently shops.

As I prayed about these feelings, I started to ask a different question, one related to my calling as a clergy person “on mission” in an economically and socially diverse county: How have I failed these young people who were perpetrators of such crime and violence?

I certainly know that we are all responsible for our actions. The only person who can pull a trigger of a gun is the one who holds the gun. But, as a Christian who is called to be God’s “light to the world” (Matt. 5:14), how did I fail to shine a light to people who have chosen such unwise decisions before they even reached full adulthood? That I failed the victims and their families?

As a clergy person who speaks on behalf of my profession and the “Church” (with a capital “C”) in my community, I feel that I need to repent for failing these young people, the many like them who are tempted to live such senseless lifestyles, and the victims. (We are certainly our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and their blood cries out from our soil.)

I repent that we clergy have been so focused on building our churches, we have failed to build stronger families for the sake of our young people. God’s basic unit for a stable society is not primarily the church, but the family.

Many children in our community grow up in single-parent households or in poverty, and there is a lack of appropriate resources for negotiating conflicts when they arise. I applaud non-profit agencies like Family Promise that fill the gap and are rallying churches to this cause.

I repent that we clergy have focused for far too long on the ministries of our churches rather than being missional churches. Missional churches rarely focus on programs for the sake of self-serving attendance; rather, these churches reach out to the community in creative ways, like those that support tutoring or life-training programs.

I repent that we clergy have neglected to intentionally implement reconciliation in a diverse county. This diversity creates ongoing tension and affects our children. One step towards reconciliation is to make race and class relations in the church a part of God’s healing process for healthier communities. Martin Luther King, Jr., once encouraged churches to “be rid of every aspect of segregation” because it is “a blatant denial of the unity which we have in Christ” and “destroys community.”*

Trinity Baptist has tried to break this bad habit by sharing our building with an African-American and a Moldovan congregation. We fellowship together when we are able and work towards greater partnerships in our businesses, schools, and families. We define our differences and similarities and agree to disagree at times, but always work towards unity in all things.

I repent that we clergy have focused more on individual salvation than on the redemption of entire neighborhoods. Many of us still think that when we save one person at a time that that’s enough. God works in the lives of individuals, but God also brings about His redemptive purposes in the midst of political, economic, and social systems, especially where justice and inequality is concerned.

This means that we must change the way we read Scripture. We must focus on Scripture, not so much to win a “culture war” or to reinforce our own status quo opinions, but to teach others how to read the Bible for themselves and bring about a variety of “readings” from the margins of society. We must read the Bible with our children and with others who differ from us.

I know that these confessions might mean little in the short run; it will take us a long time to adapt to the needs of our county. It will take even longer to cut through our theological and political differences in order to see the greater good that can be done for the sake of God’s ever-expanding Kingdom.

In spite of our own failures, we can keep repenting and confessing so as to allow God to transform us and work in our lives–and in our community–in new ways. Our young people are depending on us.

Sources:

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Churches,” in Strength to Love (New York: Pocket Books, 1963), 160.