Why education is important for the church

We’ve all seen or experienced the flurry of the beginning of a school year. Parents scurry to reestablish a morning routine that gets everyone where they need to be on time. Kids run through hallways, backpacks in tow. Teachers give lesson plans one last glance before they begin the first class. Amidst the scurrying is another feeling for most of us, and that feeling is nostalgia. For most, even the thought of education wafts a scent of dread. Ancient classrooms with the lid-lifting desks containing years of dried gum, paper wads, and graphite dustings. For some, this time of year is dreamy. For others, it’s dreadful.

Although education evokes mixed emotions, it has led to innovation, improvements for everyday life, and the discovery of life-saving knowledge. Because of this, education is packed with potential, making it an important component of our society. Yet, sadly, the most the church will typically do is squeeze in a moment the Sunday service before classes begin to recognize the administrators and educators for a brief applause of thanks. Recognition in its simplest form. This is an apt response if education is mostly inconsequential and disconnected from the biblical story.

But what if there was something deeper woven into the fabric of our world and our being that made education a proper — and even deserved — sphere of active redemption? If we can situate education into the biblical narrative, we can begin to see how all the scurrying is essential to citizenship and society. How we perceive education in the church is crucial as we disciple people for their everyday lives.

School supplies and the story of Scripture

Education is the passing on of knowledge and skills for the purpose of learning and development toward a completed end. It is my belief that by defining education in these terms, we are able to navigate it also within the narrative of Scripture. Albert Wolters in his book, Creation Regained, describes the formation of the world as “[having] the character of elaborating and completing the unformed state of earthly reality.” In essence, we see the notions of growth and development toward a completed reality.

Wolters’ insight on creation reveals how the biblical narrative necessarily includes a form of education. In order for the story of God’s creation to move toward its intended design, his intentions needed to be passed on to mankind, and subsequently, mankind instructing coming generations. As a result, education, learning, and development are woven into the fabric of creation. It is part of the created order, and understanding its importance helps us make sense of our world as well as faithfully participate in society. Human learning and development, therefore, coincides with the development of civilization. Creation and education seem to be holding hands from the beginning.

Because God designed education from the beginning to be an intrinsic part of our lives as humans, it also makes sense the fall affected education. This is not the place to expound on the brokenness of the educational system, psychological and social barriers to learning, or the often difficult instructional culture of school buildings. There is much scholarship on these issues in which more expertise is applied toward analyzing these issues and offering solutions. For us, however, because education is broken, we know it is within the scope of Jesus’ redemptive work and will therefore one day take its place in the consummation of all things.

By situating education in the biblical narrative, we also place it within the scope of the cultural mandate. In doing so, we are able to not only make sense of education, but we also learn what to do with it. As with the rest of creation, we are called to subdue it, work it, and keep it (Gen 1:28, 2:15). So to care for creation is to fulfill our original calling, making the world a place to find purpose and express vocation.

Education: From the beginning

From the outset, then, God gave humans dignity and duty. Endowed with purpose as image bearers, mankind was tasked with manifesting the wisdom and character of God in his world as vice regents. William Edgar’s thoughts in Created and Creating align with this understanding of development in creation. He says, “Here, in the Bible, particularly in Genesis, a sense emerges of a God-ordained project for human growth.” So in some degree, bearing his image and cultivating the world hinges on education, placing it as an essential piece of the purposes of man described in Genesis 1 and 2, and, as a result, an integral piece to who we are, to our humanity.

To be a learner is to express our humanity. To seek knowledge, insight, wisdom, and pursue growth is part of what it means to be agents for God’s creation. Education and learning, therefore, are essential to human flourishing. We see this in the ways that education is tied to innovations, inventions, discoveries, and new insights into how people can survive and thrive in the world. The more that education is fostered and pursued, the more humanity flourishes. Conversely, to the extent that education is abandoned, neglected, or marginalized, flourishing is threatened and reversed. Through Christ’s recreating work (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), God’s people are now able to participate in the reconciling work of God in all things (Colossians 1:20), pushing back the effects of the curse. And such work is desperately needed in the field of education.

Education and the pastoral role

A pastor’s job is never easy and never complete. There is always more to do because the curse will not be lifted until Jesus returns; its remnants will remain until that day. So with all that is on the plate of pastors and ministry leaders, how do they keep education within their purview? If, as briefly laid out above, education is fundamental to some of our deepest callings as humans and covenant people, how does it not get sidelined to a mere 30 second tip-of-the-hat? Following are three considerations for pastors when it comes to participating in God’s redemptive work in education.

Be a student, cultivate empathy

Empathy is an invaluable and compelling motive. As a ministry leader, receiving theological education is critical to faithful and effective service. I spent eight years in ministry leadership without any formal theological education. However, the last two years of my time in ministry, I was taking seminary courses and they were by far the most fruitful in my own life, and in the lives of those around me. This is primarily due to the fact that seminary made me more loving and humble. It exposed me to different theological viewpoints, ministry methods, and doctrines that were outside of my norm and knowledge. Seminary deconstructed my cultural bias and challenged me to rethink how I understood God, his world, and his revelation. All of this led to more loving and humble service. After years of being a “noisy gong” (1 Cor 13:1), I began to learn how to love the people God called to serve, not just parrot the latest Christian subculture’s jargon.

Being a theological student will create empathy in ministry leaders for the students and educators in their congregations and communities. And this empathy will help keep education from gradually slipping from their ministry focus over the years.

Be a teacher, practice encouragement

Another important aspect of the role of a pastor or ministry leader is to continue to encourage those they serve through faithfully teaching the Word and doctrines of their tradition. If you wanted to learn about any certain subject matter, a practical step would be to go to someone who has spent time in that subject building an expertise from studies and practices. Pastor, God and his Word are your area of expertise. The people in your pews, busied with the hustle of life, are coming to you to glean for your studies and practices. The role of the pastor is not to tell a preschool teacher how to run his or her classroom. They’re the expert on that. Instead, teach him how to be a godly and wise educator, how to creatively and faithfully apply a biblical ethic to his work, not how to manage his students’ behavior. Instead, help him connect his faith to his job. The faithful pastor will strive to build bridges for his church that bring Sunday’s message to bear on Monday’s work. But how? How does your message go move out into the workweek?

Being a biblically faithful teacher goes beyond being a great public speaker. The culmination of a great teacher is not equated with an aptitude for public speaking. Sure, it is a skill that will be necessary for elements of teaching, but public speaking is not discipleship. Pastor, help form the lives of your educators by theologically and spiritually educating and encouraging them so that the manner in which they do their work would cause others to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10).

Be a fan, engage your people

What would it mean for educators, administrators, and students in the church to know there is someone in their corner? To have a pastor who is keenly aware of the struggles of the classroom and the battles of the school corporation would be incredibly empowering. Is it possible to go and visit the teachers in your church during their lunch breaks or prep periods? Are there public events hosted by the school (community meetings, sporting events, fundraisers, etc.) that would be appropriate for pastors and ministry leaders to attend? Showing up to these events communicates value and support. What would it look like for pastors to gather educators a few times a year to hear stories, learn common issues, and offer counsel when asked and where it’s appropriate?

I know there are many ways the church and schools cannot formally partner for the greater good. But through empathy, encouragement, and engagement, ministry leaders can empower educators and administrators to play their part in God’s redemptive work in the world. Through their presence, resources, and time, pastors and leaders have the opportunity, or better, the obligation, to invest in serving future citizens in this way, to serve the field of education to help redemptively build society. To cultivate the earth through this vocational field so it and those involved in it might flourish.

Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Education

About the Author