Teaching and Learning in Church

Having just finished reading (and commenting on) Stephen Prothero's new book Religious Literacy, I was taken by an excerpt from Anthony B. Robinson's book from Alban Institute --What's Theology Got to Do with It? (Alban, 2006) in this week's Alban Weekly newsletter.
Robinson talks about his own attraction to ordained ministry being the image of a "field-based teacher and scholar." That is, he saw ministry in light of the rabbinic model of teacher. In many ways my preparation for ministry was rooted in that model as well -- more by choice than anything, as I intended to be an academic. But often in setting priorities, the teaching role gets set to the side. Unfortunately, considering the increasing religious illiteracy found in our churches, it's something that mustn't be set aside. I quote these two paragraphs because the set out the reasons why this is important -- in our context.

That I draw inspiration for this understanding of both ministry and congregations from the Jewish faith is perhaps revealing. The Jews have long known what it is to struggle to sustain a particular faith and way of life amid societies that were not necessarily friendly to them. This, it seems to me, is increasingly the situation of Christians. We live in a society that is officially secular, is religiously pluralistic, and in values and lifestyles offers more a smorgasbord than a set menu. For the most part, I do not regret these realities. I am not among those who believe a Christian way of life can or ought to be legislated and mandated for all citizens. Faith is not a political
ideology or agenda. While it should speak to political and social issues, faith that is captured in a political ideology or agenda has become something other than the faith and way of Jesus Christ, who came not to lord it over others, but to serve (Mark 10:42-43).

But the secularization and pluralism of North American society give a new priority to teaching and formation, to the minister as teacher and practical theologian, and to the congregation as a teaching and learning community. Neither ordained ministers nor congregations can assume, as we once did, that most people who come of age in North America have learned the basics of faith simply by growing up here. By basics, I mean the core convictions, biblical stories, hymns, and practices that constitute the way of life of believers. While counting on the culture to form Christians was probably never a very good idea, there may once have been a time when clergy and congregations could rely more on the culture at large to do so. That is no longer true. These changes in our culture and in the place of the church bring the pastoral role as teacher and theologian and the congregational role as teaching and learning community into higher relief.

Robinson makes a good analogy of a tree. Our outreach and activism is the fruit of our congregational faith, but we cease to bear fruit when the roots aren't properly tended. The roots are the spiritual foundations -- the substance of what we believe and why. He suggests that the church and its leadership has neglected the roots, and thus the church is less able to bear the fruit of God.


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