The approach of a new school year always prompts reflections on the role of education – in general and in the life of the faith community.
This year’s reflection is accompanied by the attention being given to the importance of change for the well-being of the church of the future.
Professional observers of long experience and deep insight, as well as abundant opinion polls, point to the need for flexibility and openness to change if communities of faith are to respond faithfully and effectively to the needs and questions of today’s pilgrims on life’s journey.
Beyond the natural (and perhaps needed) caution about the loss of time-honored structures and practices, there seems to be little argument against the point that change is an essential feature of personal as well as institutional health.
There is also substantive evidence of an increasing willingness from local churches and large denominations to embrace this reality.
The combined voices of the call for change and the invitation to a new stage of the educational journey provide a reminder that we experience at least two kinds of change in our development as persons, communities and cultures.
One is the rather constant change of style where fashion, tastes and other preferences evolve on a steady schedule, driven largely by marketing, advertizing and our passive fascination with anything new.
The other kind of change is the slower, more intentional change that occurs over time in the process of growth we associate with education.
Increasing knowledge, broadening horizons and refining perspectives usually do not happen in an easy embrace of fashion, but in the sometimes difficult examination of assumptions and in the challenge to accept new insights that deepen understanding.
Communities of faith live in this world of change, and the beginning of a school year is a good time to reflect on how the two kinds of change impact us.
When we say that the church must be willing to change, what kind of change do we mean?
The challenge is not new. The early church was faced with the difference between changes that were popular and appealing, and those that were necessary to refine and deepen understanding of what Christ’s call meant as it expanded into a changing world.
The Ephesian letter, addressing some general concepts of leadership and growth that needed emphasis in the young Christian community, warned against a too easy embrace of change.
“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness and deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). Clever marketing of the “new” is apparently not a recent development.
Paul offers more specific advice in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
These texts point to the seductive appeal of certain ideas and practices, some of which could easily distort and mislead less mature disciples in their understanding of their faith. They also point to the need for the kind of transformational change that comes from the “renewing of the mind.”
Here is the place where the educational dimension of the church’s ministry becomes most crucial.
Paul seems to suggest that the passion and commitment that comes from a faith encounter with God in Christ need not embrace the prevailing ideas of one’s world.
Instead, one should seek careful guidance toward a transformed mind that can discern the difference between the essential truth of the Gospel and its fashionable accompaniments.
Form and style will always be with us, but they are always the package and not the content.
When the community of faith ignores or disvalues the educational function of the life-long “transformation of the mind” in the journey of discipleship – which sadly has happened too often in our history, and still does – there is a tendency to think we are “saved and satisfied” and need only to dress up in the latest religious fashion to be the church.
But when education within the faith community is taken seriously as an agent of the transformational change that comes with a carefully guided maturing faith, the church is not “blown to and fro” by the prevailing winds of public consensus.
Instead, it pursues a steady course toward a more consistent application of the Gospel’s values in response to the challenge of each new generation’s issues.
Perhaps we can hope that in the coming school and church year, needed change will be a function of education instead of the other way around.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.