Friday, November 25, 2011

Teaching The Impractical

I've noticed, at least in some circles, a subtle trend in the church and in Youth Ministries in particular. Folks are placing heavier emphasis on the need for relationship and for "practical" education, and thank God for that, but subtly the emphasis has been taken off of serious theological and biblical education. When I share with someone what we are learning in Youth Group or Sunday School, I usually feel the need to follow up with a disclaimer, "but I always make sure that the students leave with some sort of practical application." And this is true... I do always make sure that there's an immediate challenge for my students in whatever we are learning together. But not everything I teach is immediately "practical." Some things are much more subtle than that. And sometimes I'll literally think in my head, "I'm gonna just let this one stay impractical for a moment."

Some of the most important things of the Christian faith are not immediately practical... In fact, if we tried to force them to be, we'd probably miss the point. For example, when Jesus invites his disciples to "take up their cross" and to follow him, in all practicality, what he's asking them to do is to die. So in our attempts to practicalize the command, we usually end up dumbing it down. Nobody really wants to send their students out to their deaths after Sunday School. Or sometimes we over-spiritualize the command. Jesus couldn't really have meant that, right? He must have been speaking in riddles to teach us about some deeper spiritual reality. But what if he really meant it. What if the way of Jesus really is about walking to your death? What if following Jesus means sharing in his death? Wouldn't we want our students to know that? Yet, if we over- spiritualize or dumb down the message for the sake of practicality, we might actually miss it. We might actually bypass something that's essentially particular to historic orthodox Christian theology.

So, following the same example, how should we teach such a concept? Well, perhaps we should just say what Jesus said. "Take up your cross"! Find a way to do exactly what Jesus did. Don't take the cross only as something for Jesus to do, but as his followers, take it as an example to follow. We have used substitutionary atonement as a way out of that one--Jesus took my place so that I can live in the suburbs. But however accurate or inaccurate the concept of substitutionary atonement may be as a theological tenet, Jesus still invited us to follow in the same path and Paul echoed this sentiment consistently, especially in Philippians 3:10, "I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death." So what if we just leave it at that?

It's the discipline of delayed gratification. We may not see how such concepts affect our life tomorrow or in the next hour, but if we really allow it to sink in, how might it shape us? Let's not get so obsessed with what things mean to us us that we miss what those things do to us, how they shape us. If I can internalize the "impractical" commission to die with Christ, then perhaps I'll become the kind of person who shares in the sufferings of others and stands in solidarity with the least of these. Why not? Death will have no power to deter me from the way of Christ, since I'm headed there anyway.

I believe that if we allow ourselves to teach the things that do not have immediate practical implications, ideas that are key to understanding Christ, ideas like the Trinity and the atonement, and the incarnation, and if we are patient in teaching these things, well discover them to be extremely practical after all. Indeed the "impractical" things are sometimes the most powerfully transformational!

2 comments:

Danny said...

I would also argue that much of the "practical" stuff that pastors dole out during their sermons are largely impractical or too abstract to be what I might term "actionable." I think that your post gets to the heart of the matter. That is, that the teaching of the church needs to be actionable in a concrete way for its parishioners.

WES ELLIS said...

Indeed. I like "actionable." I think you're right about many pastors. Sometimes the practical things are even alienating if they're too steeped in abstractions. Makes Christianity seem irrelevant. Good thoughts!