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Christian education: what it is and why we do it

Take a long look at your beliefs and prepare for the next missionary.

Christian education is a catch-all term for learning about the Church, encompassing such activities as Sunday School, youth activities and meetings, and adult projects such as Education for Ministry. Seminary education also falls into this category, as does the course work offered by institutions that align themselves with various denominations.

You would think from reading the paragraph above that there is a whole lot of Christian education out there, and there is; that isn't the problem. The problem is that such a small percentage of Christians take any interest in it. And I am no different; years ago I breathed a secret sigh of relief when there were no longer any Sunday-night Youth Group meetings for me to go to.

But when I think of learning about the Church, my mind tends to go to my friend Liz, who was an extremely unhappy woman whose life was not ultimately fulfilled through her children and career. Her marriage had broken up years before I met her, and she was on a quest to find herself. This manifested itself in a conversion experience every three or four years. She went from Catholicism to evangelicalism to the Seventh-Day Adventists and then to another version of evangelicalism while I knew her. None of them worked for her. The emptiness in her life could not be filled by religion; it could only be filled by her.

We might believe that God could have relieved her loneliness, but it looked to me that in her wanderings she never caught up with him. I wonder why that was, as much as anyone; she was truly unhappy in her personal life even though she was productive in her career.

I believe that one reason why people go from church to church is because they do not know what it is actually all about. Some readers might have caught on already to the self-centered nature of Liz' search for God. We might suspect that it was a search for a version of God that would tell her what she wanted to hear--although I don't exactly know what that was.

But there is so much scurrying from building to building going on that I wonder why people don't ask their minister before they go off to church with a missionary friend. If a Catholic gets the pitch from a local evangelical group, I wonder why they don't ask their priest about the claims that were made. I speculate that perhaps they fear that the priest will castigate them for listening to another version of the Gospel, and they don't want to get in trouble.

Or perhaps they do ask, but the priest doesn't have much to say beyond the claim that Catholicism is the True Church and there is no point in entertaining other ideas. And this goes on to other denominations, all of which seem to have their basis for discouraging their sheep from grazing in other pastures. Fundamentalist denominations claim that they understand Scripture rightly (but no one else does) and personality-based denominations claim that their founder got the word straight from God.

And by the way, if that is true, I wish God would speak up and level with someone who has real power, like Pope Francis, and get some ecumenism going! But he never does seem to do that; picture God dancing attendance on one obscure preacher after another because he is not inclined to put in a word where it might do the most good. That is why I encourage my readers to learn about church history and theology, and recommend the classics from time to time. Anyone can start by reading Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis; the reading level is very conversational and Lewis was never denominational.

Some of the impressive bible scholars like Bishop John Shelby Spong and Rabbi David Kushner have addressed some very important issues, ones that cause people to lose their faith. Those of us who would like to see the connection between Judaism and Christianity might want to read This Hebrew Lord by Spong, and if we are hurting, Kushner's book When Bad Things Happen to Good People is very good at clearing the emotional fog of suffering so that we can get through it.

If you really love the Scriptures and want to know something about them that will make you understand how they have been treated over many centuries, you ought to read Misquoting Jesus by Dr. Bart Ehrman. We simply do not like to think that anyone would intentionally alter Holy Scripture, and most of the time we think that the scrupulous attitude of Jewish scholarship went right on into Christianity--but it did not. For some reason early Christians did not take the purist attitude that we find in Judaism, but rather they wrote letters from St. Paul that Paul did not write himself, and they inserted phrases into Scripture when they thought that a passage "needed something." It is unbelievable until you find out the kind of things that bible scholars discover when they are able to examine hundreds of copies of a single epistle or gospel. The discrepancies are there.

It seems that I have driven off some missionaries who no longer knock on my door to preach; I used to talk to them all the time but I know what to say. I ask the Mormon missionaries if they believe that Jesus was a mass murderer; they deny it and then I direct them to Chapter 9 of the Third Book of Nephi. They haven't come back.

I asked some evangelicals why they belittle women when St. Paul says that all are alike in Christ Jesus, and those guys didn't come back either. I think they decided that my attitude was hopeless when I defended the ordination of LGBT clergy as an Episcopalian.

But the next time someone comes to you, all excited with their new-found faith and eager to "talk to you about Jesus..." or Krishna or Joseph Smith or the Buddha, what will you say? Do you consider that you have specific views and that you can defend them? Or are you open to change, and if so, what do you believe and why? How does that fit in with your next missionary visitor's views?

For example, if you do believe in social and spiritual equality, don't get involved with a group that refuses to deal with the gay community and relegates women to second-class status. You will not be happy there. And I remember very well when one family made just one visit to my Sunday service at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels here in Tucson. They came on a Sunday when one of the women priests at St. Michael's was celebrating, and that was their one and only visit because they object to the ordination of women. Okay, then.

For more info: if you are dealing with evangelicals who want to convert you, I recommend that you get a copy of a book that is now out of print: When God Becomes a Drug by Father Leo Booth. You will have to special-order it either online or in a bookstore, but if you get and read a copy you will understand how the emotions that are constantly on display in evangelical churches become addictive and produce the slavish adoration that actually puts off many people whose emotional makeup is more in the normal end of the spectrum.

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