Somewhere along the way, largely in the wake of the Enlightenment’s enthronement of human reason, Christianity morphed into a rational quest for right knowledge and head beliefs. Discipleship naturally became a classroom exercise with teachers, Bible curriculum and eager (and not so eager) pupils waiting to soak in spiritual information. Salvation is said to come merely by accepting certain propositions and spiritual maturity is demonstrated by more Bible knowledge and theological astuteness.
Of course, none of the above are wrong or unnecessary by any means. I encourage Bible education, correct beliefs and solid doctrine for sure. These are core aspects of my job as a pastor.
But when it comes to the heart of Christian discipleship we need to rethink the real classroom and homework assignment at hand. In his new book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K. A. Smith asks a great question: “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” Human rebellion against God and our sin problem is not rooted in misinformation or lack of knowledge. We love not God. We love sin. We love self above God and others. We need God’s help reordering our love. We need our affections checked and our heart’s desires transformed. These are God’s very words:
“I’ll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I’ll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed. I’ll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Smith therefore seems right on target when he asks, “Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t really actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?”
So long as we save our best spiritual energy for the Sunday morning classroom and make Bible memorization or doctrine our primary homework assignment, we will continue to encounter many folks who have a lot of the right information but show little evidence of heart transformation.
So, this begs the big question: Where does deeper, personal formation take place? For starters, may I suggest that it takes place outside the Sunday school classroom. The problem with viewing Christianity as a classroom education is that it allows us to detach ourselves from the subject matter. We casually discuss Bible stories, lessons, ideas and doctrines, and then go home feeling quite alright having had our neurons tickled a bit. Yet, we managed to keep ourselves out of the curriculum and our focus on something else.
A survey of the Bible will demonstrate quite clearly that when it comes to faith and Christian discipleship it is everyday life that is the true classroom and the transformation of human hearts the universal Christian assignment. But, most importantly, the God who is our great Master and Teacher is also our lab partner working alongside us in our group project of gently, patiently, gradually reordering our desires and turning our hearts toward His kingdom by the power of His Spirit.
Yet, be aware that turning our attention away from memorizing verses and absorbing Bible facts to the nittier-grittier task of reordering human hearts and forming more Christlike character will demand that we throw ourselves into the gracious arms of God. For we are now working on an assignment far beyond our own ability to complete on our own apart from God. Now we are in God’s classroom — everyday life with all of its joys, sorrows, thrills and challenges — and our life is the Final Project on God’s list of assignments.
But take heart: God gets His projects completed on time and with unsurpassed excellence!
“I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Phil 2:6).
“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Eph 2:10).
“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness” (Col 2:6-7).