(This blog post originally appeared in my church's newsletter for Fall 2014)
As we begin the autumn season, I’m reminded of a college professor I recently heard who was arguing that Labor Day is our cultural new year. His point is that in the United States, the end of summer and start of the school year mark a greater number of changes for most families than the move from December to January. Even in the church (especially in the church?), we typically function on a school year calendar of September through May for most of our activities and celebrate the end of summer with a Rally Day to kick off the “new year.”
We typically think of the start of the (Sunday) school year as the chance for students to come back and continue their learning, but as I’ve been preparing for our church’s fall activities this past month, I’ve found myself reflecting on how this cultural new year is not just for kids. Every year at confirmation, I try to make the point that confirmation is not a graduation, but an inauguration. We are not telling our young scholars, “You’ve learned all you need to know,” but “You’ve learned enough to start your adult faith journey and welcome to the continuation of your faith development.”
And yet we know from multiple studies that Biblical and religious knowledge is steadily decreasing among adults. Some point to decreasing church participation as a factor, or fewer adult classes, or poor educational materials. But I think there are two key things at the root of a lot of this.
First is that the church has not promoted an environment of inquiry that makes it a safe place to ask questions and wonder out loud about things. Instead, many churches have promoted the sense that there are set facts about faith and you memorize ‘em, believe ‘em, and don’t challenge ‘em. (Even though Lutheranism has a strong tradition of intellectual curiosity, we’re not immune.) The second and related element is the “impostor syndrome,” the sense that everyone else in church knows the answers to the questions and so we’ll look stupid if we ask them. I see this all the time in questions that get prefaced with “I know I should know this already, but…”
Proverbs is a book in the Bible that is full of wisdom teachings and it is full of reminders to seek out learning throughout our lives:
- “Let the wise listen and add to their learning; and let the discerning get guidance.” -Prov. 1:5
- “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge and the ears of the wise seek it out.” -Prov. 18:15
- “Get wisdom … Do not forsake wisdom and she will protect you; love her and she will watch over you.” -Prov. 4:5-6
In the spirit of Proverbs and the new school year, I want to challenge all of us to go back to school. During this fall, I’d love to see each of us pick one thing we’d like to learn about faith and pursue it. Read a book in the Bible you’ve never read, join a Bible study or discussion group, ask that faith question that’s always nagged at you, memorize the Beatitudes, study the history of ancient Israel, or read a book by Philip Yancey, C.S. Lewis, or Luther’s Small Catechism.
And then the second step is just as important: talk about what you’ve learned. I’d love to hear what people are doing (it helps me learn, too!), but be sure to talk to each other. That way, we can continue shaping our congregation into a place where it’s normal to ask questions, share ideas, and grow in faith together. And it keeps us faithful to our Cornerstones of Engaging the Bible, Building Loving Relationships, and Daily Acts of Faith.
Faith is not a destination at which we arrive; it is the journey on which we are traveling. Let’s travel together.