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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Information vs. Transformation in Church Class Curricula

Though I don’t have the research to prove it, I suspect the American church has an increasing tendency toward biblical illiteracy. It seems to me that we no longer have the luxury to say in our sermons and conversations, “You know the story….” Indeed, if this is the case then we have something of a fresh slate to work from (in some cases). It is likely worthwhile to consider the possibility that relating texts like they’ve never been heard before has a power all its own. Such is something to consider both in the sermon and in the classroom. If we are less familiar with the Bible as a whole than we used to be (which I believe to be true), then a certain portion of the class ought to be informational. This may also be generally true: we come to class to learn something new. However, our church is at something of a disadvantage because we do not have a long-term plan for engendering biblical literacy or mandatory attendance like a school. However, the idea for a long-term plan is another discussion entirely. The point for the moment is that new information is given in the class format. A counter question arises: “To whom is the material new?” Let’s say the class is over the book of Job. If there is no previous exposure to the text, then the course could be spent gaining familiarity with Job’s story and the considerable dialogue. This could be a chance to explore basic issues like the time period of the events, the time of the writing, and other historical issues which affect the reading of the text. But which part do you begin with, the text or the background? If, however, there is a basic familiarity with Job’s story but not the dialogue, the story can be done briefly and focus could be given to the speeches, their ebbs and flows, their purpose, and the implications. If whole familiarity is already achieved, the interpretation and application of the text becomes a more probable reality. Becoming acquainted with Job, his friends, and God is not part of the process any more since this has already happened. That information could belong more to the realm of review.

But this is all dealing with the passing on of information. On the other end we have the issue of transformation. One of the most basic goals of Bible study is the building of faith. We are not saved by information, but by the grace which produces transformation. We can have all the information in the world but never act on it. If information does not influence belief and result in action, has the presentation of information actually accomplished anything? Theology is not solely information gathered, compiled, and published by scholars, but transformation and evolution. The purpose of the text is communication, to be sure, but the communication must have a result or we are left with naught but words on a page or scroll. A dear friend of mine once said, “The Bible is more than words on a page; it is also what happens between the page and your nose.” By this he meant that the Bible must be interpreted; it is also true that faith must produce fruit. Discussing Trinitarian theology and yet having an individualistic worship service simply means the discussion did nothing (though this is a drastic exaggeration, to be fair).

So here’s my problem: where is the balance between information and transformation in the creation of a curriculum for “Sunday School”? It appears both are necessary, but how much of each is best? Does this vary from group to group (also church to church, among denominations, even continents and hemispheres)? I think it does, but the question remains: Where is the balance?

Real life example: I am currently working on a curriculum for my congregation over the Minor Prophets (hence, MPs). I have the luxury of assuming a relative unfamiliarity with the text on the part of the church as a whole, along with apparent freedom to create the material as I see fit. However, I’ve gathered a group of people into conversation on the matter (who have been most helpful and will certainly be thanked profusely) to ensure that the curriculum is not just mine, but the church’s. I wouldn’t mind a lecture setting like a college course where information is passed on and the students have to take tests or get homework. But I have been reminded by some of the group that transformation is a key element in biblical study. They may not have said it in as many words as I have lavished upon this post, but they have redirected my intentions (as I has hoped they would) toward a more transformative goal.

If our congregation is studying the MPs, of whom they know little or nothing, how much information can the curriculum give without overwhelming and overruling the potential for transformation? What is the transformative power of the MPs? How does what these 12 prophets have to say matter to the church today, and to what use can they be put?

Again, I believe there must be a balance, but it must be reached carefully. For others in similar situations, I applaud you for the delicate work you have pursued and pray blessings upon your work that it may be used by God for the transformation of his church. As always, leave comments below and get the conversation going!