Arming today’s Church with knowledge

Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 19:38 UTC 6 comments

British Christians are taking some time to get used to living in a post-Christendom world. Gone are the days when biblical stories are the mainstay of our common culture language. Those who surround us are often very well primed in dismissing the Christian faith, from either a faith or anti-faith perspective. I want to see the Church do something about it, and I think the answer may come from looking at the other faith communities around us.

During my time at University of Bradford, I took part in a couple of Christian Union mission weeks. This may come as a shock to some who know me. Actually, it was a really interesting experience. Bradford is a University where the most visible faith group is Islam, and it was from here the argument mostly came. Christianity was a fraud, not because it claimed God existed, but because it lacked the credibility of Islam. There was only one God – he most certainly didn’t have a son, or send him to Earth. There was only one trustworthy scripture – the Qur’an. We didn’t know our bibles. We were wishy washy, rather than too conservative. And the arguments were thorough, consistent and rehearsed. Almost too rehearsed.

The fact is, this was in part correct. In their Biblical Education, British Christians today are pretty weak. Most of us don’t know how the 66 books came to form the Bible. We’re not great at defending our faith. We rely on beginners courses such as Alpha that can only ever convey extremely basic principles, on Sunday School and Youth Group talks that emphasise the fun, cell groups that focus on relationships and sermons that must be short and engage such a range of understanding that a low bar is automatically set. All of these are great things, but they are severely restricted.

The young British Muslims I met at University, alongside British Jews (and other faith communities), will have grown up attending extra classes after school where they will have studied their community’s faith. Whilst some individual programs may have been suspect for their particular approach, on the whole I envy these young people. Even taking an A Level in Religious Studies in which I took modules in both Old and New Testament studies couldn’t make up for it. Secondary School RE classes are only good for studying faiths as an outside observer, even in a Church of England school.

Arriving at University, many young Christians find themselves ill-equipped for life amongst educated Atheists and adherents of other faiths. Perhaps the reason is that their knowledge of academic subjects is likely to already be at a far higher level than their knowledge of their faith. As a community, Britain’s Christians are failing their youth by sending them to University with A* A Levels in their chosen academic subjects but little more than Lower Secondary understanding of their faith. Years of being told not to over-complicate the Gospel run headlong into discussions of degree-level Philosophy and Science that claim to disprove God’s existence – and so often crumble on impact.

Those who succeed do so for a number of reasons, sadly most often through diving into a ghetto for protection from modern discourse (such as a CU), but also through a total disconnect between sacred and secular realities. A few will survive through aptitude at debating or through being academic enough to unpick the arguments or because they studied above and beyond the levels expected of them beforehand. The fact so few Christians are picking certain subjects (including Anthropology, Philosophy and anything involving Genetics for starters) says something of the fear of Higher Level Education.

We cannot rely on Religious Education in the secular classroom. When I sat my GCSEs, I took both English and German. My German was taught to me as a second language, even when the teacher was a native German speaker. My English teacher taught from the basis that this was the language in which I would naturally choose to read novels, poetry and plays. A school RE lesson will necessarily look more like my German class than my English class.

Improving that level of education is not going to be easy. Resources are thin and this is not something for all young people with church contact. Its most probably something that needs developing at a city level rather than by a single church. This is only a part-solution, and its only going to take us so far. I admit, its inevitably going to be a lot of vicar’s kids studying at this level. But perhaps the time has come to really challenge ourselves to equal our Muslim and Jewish cousins in understanding our faith.


Entry filed under: Bible, Church, Education, Faith, Religion.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lois  |  Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 19:57 UTC

    Hmm. I agree with a fair amount of that, I think often that knowing the bible is talked about as something you should do more than it’s practiced, and personal bible reading is plugged a lot less in churches than prayer (or, dare I say, financial giving).
    However, perhaps unexpectedly, I’m going to stick up for CU’s. CU was the first time I had studied the bible, in depth, in a small group. It was the first time I was encouraged to think about this knowledge, and how to apply it, using an academic method. Maybe that’s not a universal experience, but it helped me a lot. There are certainly other problems with them but I wouldn’t class this as one.
    And shameless plug: -daily readings by email & website with opportunities to engage and discuss bible stuff.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 22:31 UTC

      Plug accepted! I think I may have been harsh on CU’s as a whole – I know of a couple which are said to obsess over apologetics. In a way, its the level at which enter them, and in some cases, stay, that worries me.
      And yes, do plug away. Groups like Scripture Union, SPCK and others do a brilliant job of bringing the word alive. I suppose in one sense, I’m thinking towards a more (pre-Uni) academic level and some of the history between the New Testament and now, which doesn’t get discussed and yet is often questioned as much as the New Testament church or even Jesus own teachings.

      • 3. Lois  |  Friday, 22nd June 2012 at 13:48 UTC

        Oh I entirely agree that your average pew-filler has a pretty low Biblical knowledge, apart from the gospels and a few well-known passages elsewhere. I get surprised sometimes at being able to refer to something that friends who’ve been Christian for fifty years have never come across.
        And I should declare an interest as someone who was part of Scripture Union’s advisory Council for almost a decade 🙂

  • 4. Helen  |  Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 21:42 UTC

    I… dunno. I mean, I sort of agree, in that I think that the Church needs to be equipped to educate people, particularly young people, beyond a superficial level of knowledge about their faith. And I think it’s important to vary “This is the gospel in basics” sermons with ones that go more in depth. And I also agree with Lois’s point about CUs and similar groups encouraging actually reading the Bible… it’s important to actually look at it, or else you end up being one of those people saying “But Jesus said abortion was wrong!”

    But… hmm. Well. There’s a reason why ‘indoctrination’ has negative connotations. Yes, it’s really important for people to be able to find out the most they can about their faith, but I worry that, as I felt you might be implying in your post, that this teaching might be intended to counter the ideas of other faiths and other philosophies, rather than to reveal actual truth.

    I’m coming to this from a perspective of being a post-Evangelical humanist – I do take pains when needed to point out that I’m not an ‘ex-Christian’, I’m a ‘post-Christian’ – I don’t think Christianity is evil and I’m grateful for all I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve had even though I’m still unpicking it all in my brain… but I don’t think I believe in God. And C.S. Lewis can say all he likes – I do think Jesus was a great moral teacher, and I’m not sure whether he is God or not. He may have been mistaken, misreported, misinterpreted, or, well, complicated. People are like that.

    And I’m coming to this from a perspective of having been in a lot of groups in my time – CUs and similar – and also having done a lot of my own research. I have done a lot of thinking – I’m not an epic-level theologian or anything, and I hope that I can have reasonable discussions with people – not trying to claim that I’m right, just that I’ve come to my own conclusions and are happy with them. And it seems to me that if Christianity is true, it should also be happy to help people come to their own conclusions, rather than merely guiding them to the ‘official’ conclusion.

    It often seems to me that certain Christian groups – particularly young and earnest ones – are very good at repeating their set answers, very good at rationalising a point. One of the reasons I lost my faith was that it seemed certain Christians (not all, obviously) were insistent that God is fair, free will exists, God is Holy, God is love, and, oh wait, eternal Hell awaits those who don’t accept Jesus. This is logically nonsense. Annihilationism, the Hell=death deal, is not *so* bad, and seems tolerated among most Hell-believers, but believing that God might be able to save everyone, or want to save everyone, is considered heresy. But God is good. Argh. There seemed to be so many contradictions that I was forced to accept. I know there are Christians who do believe in salvation for all, and I don’t really want to get into discussing that point – my problem is more that at times, the theologically approved ‘set answers’ seem frankly anti-intellectual – ‘excusing’ God and the Bible for obvious barbarity by saying how in certain circumstances, love is hate, peace is war and 2+2=5.

    I really appreciate the churches that have allowed me to be honest about my beliefs – and there have been some. But I am worried that for many, teaching young people about their faith would merely be about teaching them better arguments for why they *have* to believe, rather than encouraging them freedom of thought and to search for the truth. God, if he exists, should not need people enforcing the truth upon others – if people are seeking, then they should find. I think there’s something in the Bible about that.

    • 5. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 22:42 UTC

      I realise I didn’t address this quite obvious point in the post itself: every religion that has developed an education scheme for young believers has produced a very mixed bag of courses. There are plenty of churches I really wouldn’t trust to work on this – I’m assuming that the intended result is ability to engage in discussion and not just spout ‘immovable truths’. I suppose my inner Anglo-Catholic is hoping that the great debates of early Christianity will be taught as just that – great debates. From one perspective, that is the deepest form of understanding, and the only one from which you can really make your mind up.

      I think that was one thing I really did like about doing A Level Old/New Testament studies – we got to pick things apart and understand different ways in which it has been interpreted. It wasn’t too heavy, and it started soft and built up, but it gave us something very different to sermons. I guess my ideal scheme would get young people to a level where they can take on the highest levels of anything we ever got at Christian Focus – y’know, the debates that went way overhead.

      P.S. Is Greg on holiday? Very rare you two both beat him!

      • 6. Helen  |  Friday, 22nd June 2012 at 8:49 UTC

        I suppose my inner Anglo-Catholic is hoping that the great debates of early Christianity will be taught as just that – great debates. From one perspective, that is the deepest form of understanding, and the only one from which you can really make your mind up.

        Sounds good to me. I came a bit late to the Anglican and Anglo-Catholic approach to these things – but it has always pleased me how, in many churches, there seems to be a freedom to question and to believe different things in a way that I didn’t get from the other churches I’d attended (I also like the Quakers for this, naturally).

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