Joshua Davis chronicles the astonishing transformation of an elementary school classroom in Matamoros, Mexico from the standard fare of “lectures, memorization, and busy work.”
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
Correa encountered the work of innovators like Sugata Mitra, who gave students in India a computer without any instruction and watched them organize their own learning. Correa brought this new approach to the classroom, posing questions to his students and allowing them to discover the answers. In the process, he discovered that one girl in his class had an extraordinary knack for mathematics, and at the end of the year she earned the top math score in the nation!
Davis observes that “the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else.” But the world has moved on into an era of unlimited access to knowledge and data, and a workplace that values “innovation, creativity, and independent thinking.” It simply doesn’t do any longer for a teacher to pose as the expert dispensing his or her wisdom to the sponge-like students. The teacher becomes a guide, a facilitator, but the students themselves discover knowledge and how to approach difficult problems.
I’ve been realizing this anew while playing with my toddler grandson, now nearly five months old. He is a dynamo of exploration. He is learning to manipulate his fingers, to grasp and move objects, to balance himself while sitting up, to communicate his happiness or dissatisfaction. He is driven, hard-wired to learn. I don’t have to show him how to grasp things. I just put something before him, and he figures out how to grasp it.
If education is hide-bound by authoritative models forged in the industrial revolution, Christian churches struggle inside a straight-jacket of much longer duration. Enter most any church worship service, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, liberal, conservative, or fundamentalist, and you will see the same pattern: an credentialed expert stands before a somnolent congregation lecturing, cajoling, hectoring, inspiring. What the expert will rarely do, certainly not in that weekly gathering called “worship,” is to take a question or allow a spontaneous response. No, the congregation’s response is either printed in the bulletin or displayed on the screen: words they are given to say or sing, or silence.
Not surprisingly, pastors and priests complain about the apathy of their congregants. Yes, they turn out for potlucks and certain service projects. Yes, they appear to provide one another spiritual and emotional support. But do they study the Bible? Do they pray? But what is the pastor modeling? He or she acts the expert. He/she claims the exclusive prerogative to proclaim Word of God. He/she selects the scriptural passages to be studied, the preferred translation, and most crucially, he/she supplies both the interpretation and application of these words. The congregation, like the traditional classroom, is to absorb the message and apply it in their own lives and in the world. But where is their incentive to figure anything out for themselves? The pastor has just handed the Word to them on the proverbial silver platter. And somehow that silver platter always seems to convey nourishment that feeds the needs of an institution and most importantly its budget.
It is also no surprise that so many churches are now populated by the aged, who are happy to treat the worship service in much the same way that they treat their favorite TV show: as an interesting or amusing occupier of their time. And the young mostly stay away, except in those churches fortunate enough to have a spiritual expert who knows how to hold their attention, like those charismatic star-but-still-traditional teachers.
Moreover, churches rarely ask this crucial question: on what basis does a person claim expertise in the knowledge of God? Generally the answer, if the question is asked, has to do with “apostolic succession” and education, as though the knowledge of God were of the same nature as the knowledge of fireflies or Jane Austin novels. As for apostolic succession, my daughter’s college drama teacher gave her a sort of Shakespearian genealogy: a list of successive colleagues in the craft of Shakespeare plays that goes back to the Bard himself. Does this make her an expert in Shakespeare? No. Take these courses, learn these languages, do an internship, get the approval of a committee, and voila: you are now God’s mouthpiece! Go forth and tell God’s people what to believe and how to behave! But God forbid that they should actually articulate what they learn from the Spirit who resides within them, without the pastor’s imprimatur.
The Apostle Paul, perhaps inadvertently, blows up the model of centralized pastoral authority in his first letter to the church at Corinth. They had been suffering some chaos in their worship gatherings, apparently due to what Paul perceived as a misuse of the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues. But his description of what ought to be happening in worship is instructive:
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
Now to be sure, Paul goes on to say that in order to maintain order the women should be silent. I think most today would agree that Paul was in error on that point. (I know, I just lost the inerrantists.) But note that throughout his discussion of Christian worship there is no mention of a central authority, and certainly none of a paid or credentialed clergy. And note that his expectation is that several people are going to speak in the service, as the spirit of God moves them.
Does this in itself invalidate the practice of having a credentialed, authoritative, paid clergy? No. But it does at least open the door to the notion that God might have more words for the congregation than those that spring from the pastor’s mouth, and other ways of organizing the congregation than those mandated by the denominational canon law, book of order, or confession.
What might happen if a pastor learned and applied the insights being gained from education innovations, not only in the Sunday School, but even in the worship service? What might happen if a pastor were to relinquish his/her absolute control over the service, and in particular the sermon? What might happen if the pastor were to refuse to provide the answer, admitting that the answer is difficult and perhaps beyond the comprehension of any one finite being? What if instead the pastor were to pose the question, and empower the congregation to discover, if not “the answer,” an answer, or a direction for further study?
Christian pastors proclaim that Christ relinquished his life in order to save humanity. But rare is the pastor who will relinquish the pulpit, except to someone equivalently credentialed or at least pre-approved.
Here’s what I think would happen: first, stoney silence. Then someone might venture a word, then sit back in expectation that the pastor would say yes, or no, that’s not the right answer, someone else? It would take time, weeks or months perhaps, for the congregation to trust that it isn’t a trick, that the pastor really expects them to speak up, to reveal the light they have been so long admonished not to hide under the bushel, as long as they keep it to themselves when the pastor is speaking.
If we are to believe the accounts of transformed classrooms, schools and students, perhaps we should expect to see a transformation of the congregation. Perhaps the congregation could learn to decide what it is they would like to learn in the spiritual realm, and how to go about learning and proclaiming it. Perhaps they would come to the next service armed with information and, more importantly, questions.
There are, of course, great risks for the clergy in such an approach. Questions will be asked for which they have no answer. People will bring scriptures and other writings not from the authorized canon. It would undoubtedly take considerable time and experimentation to develop a leadership style of facilitation rather than lecture. It would also take time and experimentation to open up the service in such a way that chaos does not ensue. People also might begin to ask what exactly it is about the spiritual gift of the pastor that justifies a salary and authority over all other gifts.
Still, I think the risk is worthwhile. The potential rewards could be great indeed: a congregation aroused from its somnolence into a hunger for learning. And the pastor might experience relief from several burdens: the need to protect denominational teaching (think standardized tests), the need to have all the answers, the need to control every aspect of the worship service. The pastor might come to his/her own worship service and actually learn, worship, and receive inspiration. Best of all, the pastor might observe a congregation weaning itself from the milk of pastoral feeding to the solid food of independent exploration.