Friday, June 14, 2019

Faith Works 6-22-19

Faith Works 6-22-19

Jeff Gill


Faith seeking understanding, in or out of church



From Sunday school to Vacation Bible School (or VBS), Christians have had a deep commitment to education in this country's history.


The "Sunday school movement" began in England in the 1700s when young people were working in factories six days a week, and Sunday was the one day the church could help youth by teaching them basic literacy and general history, all through a Biblical lens.


When it came to this country in the early 1800s, public schools were common but not mandatory, and a Sunday school was still a vital option for youth education, if not a primary path for many.


By the early 1900s, education was legally required for all youth up to age 18 in places like Ohio, and into the 1920s and 1930s the shift to adult Sunday school meant there were a surprising number of churches where attendance at Sunday school was larger than worship attendance. In the move from the country to the city, adult Sunday school classes became an important place for networking and social support as well as a church entry point for new members. Nothing else was open Sunday mornings, and apparently from the numbers recorded, many grown-ups came to large class meetings, heard a lesson from a teacher, enjoyed some fellowship around the coffee urn, and then left, with sometimes as little as half that number staying for church services themselves.


As a youth experience, obviously the curriculum and approach of Sunday school changed after compulsory education became the norm. Now that kids were in school and learning reading, writing, and arithmetic five days a week, Sunday needed to strike a different chord. Faith formation became the core of the experience, teaching Bible content and religious understandings; weekday religious education was also a feature of many school districts for a few decades after World War II.


The Baby Boom after World War II, giving rise to the Boomer generation, meant that between 1950 and 1970 Sunday school classes were packed, and adult Sunday school slid back down in numbers; the attention churches gave reasonably shifted to creating a solid Sunday school program for the kids being born and then brought into church.


What hit many churches like a one-two punch was a decline in overall numbers just demographically, in the "baby bust" that followed the spike of births in the "baby boom" post-war; this natural trough in Sunday school attendance came right after many churches built education annexes to house the increased numbers . . . and as churches struggled to deal with changing from packed classrooms to empty hallways in the Seventies and Eighties, the culture shifted as well, with Sunday closing laws overturned and entertainment and activity options for youth increasing dramatically. For many churches, a relatively recently built "ed wing" suddenly sat largely empty, and active youth programs went dormant.


This was a standard arc for many "traditional" style churches; meanwhile, the rise of "contemporary" worship and new non-denominational churches in un-traditional spaces brought a new approach to youth programming which focused on events, activity, and energy. Rows of chairs and film strips gave way to multi-media and Christian rock as a way to attract and invite youth to explore their understandings around faith and practice.


Many of these "youth night" programs are large, and the size becomes an attraction as well; like the parallel experience in many communities with churches and overall worship participation, the total involvement decreases . . . in a manner of speaking, you go from ten churches each with twenty youth in a fellowship program (200 total) to two new churches with 60 at each of their programs, and the ten older churches have none or a couple of kids involved, so what looks like the new successful model still means a growing town has 120 or so involved in youth events, versus 200 years before when the community was smaller.


All of these changes and trends have impacted the youth camp and conference programs of most churches, and we'll talk about that experience in faith formation next week!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's learned much in church and not just about faith. Tell him what you've learned or taught at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.



Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Faith Works 6-15-19

Faith Works 6-15-19

Jeff Gill


Asking questions, getting answers



Many years ago I heard a Christian preacher make a fairly dramatic assertion: ask God a question, and you can expect an answer.


He was a missionary, and said he had not only tested out this means of communication himself but he had counseled others to use it, and was not aware of a time it had not worked. Part of his message was to encourage we who were his listeners that day to venture into this means of communion, and of course the rest of it was to invite us to use this approach to see if we were called into missionary service.


I'll admit my attempt at the latter probably lacked sincerity at the time; what my more ambiguous response meant may have been that my calling into the mission field would be across the Indiana border into Ohio, and not an overseas posting which was more to his intention.


But the path to getting direct guidance from the Lord he commended to us, and I pass along as having a fair amount of validity in my life, is this: formulate a clear, direct, specific question for God, and ask it out loud, in prayer, for three days in a row. He claimed, and I would affirm, that you will get an answer by the end of that third day. It might come in a dream, it could be a startling coincidence, or even something someone says to you relatively unbidden or unexpectedly, and some report an auditory experience of hearing an voice speak to them. But when that odd occurrence or sense of an answer comes, you'll know it's the answer for which you requested.


There are, of course, many arguments to be made against this means of divine communication. The most common modern era answer is to say it's purely wish fulfillment. You want to hear an answer, you open yourself up to getting one, and your mind essentially creates one for you. No God (or god) needed.

A more therapeutic reaction is that you or your subconscious knows what the answer is to the question you've probably been mulling for some time, and this three day's asking lowers some of your internal barriers to hearing what the right path is for you. Pragmatically, there's a criticism referred to as pareidolia – seeing patterns where there are none, like the face of Elvis in Mars surface photography, or the image of a rabbit on the Moon. Apophenia is similar, seeking out connection where there aren't any, and yes, it can be a form of madness as you start to hear everything as part of some vast conspiracy.


So it's understandable if some pause to look at what might be a pious exercise and ask those of us practicing it: is this just a hard-wired tendency of the evolved brain and nervous system to help us pick up on environmental cues, be alert to predators and remember food sources, and simply to survive? A fair question.


But the counterpart is the set of presuppositions we bring to such a discussion. If you start from "there is no God" and hence no one speaking to us, then you immediately look for other answers to how some say they find guidance and wisdom and peace. Likewise, if you turn every passing breeze or muttered observation from passers-by into divine commands, you can find yourself in a whirl of constant confusion.


What I've found to be valid is a simple question, framed in the most concrete terms I can manage (not "will there ever be peace in our time?" but more of a "should I go this direction, or that one, to find peace?"), and to prayerfully and respectfully ask on three successive days for guidance on that inquiry.


Here's where the psychological or materialistic or therapeutic interpretations don't go away, but I'll warn the spiritually minded that it can still turn out in some unexpected ways. Sometimes, in this three day practice, I find that as the days go by, my question becomes more clearly irrelevant. I realize it just doesn't matter the way I thought it did. Was that God answering? I think it was.


And indeed some answers take you where you didn't expect to go. After being called to Ohio out of seminary, my wife and I ended up somewhere else for a few years. Our lives were clearly at a turning point, and we had some very interesting options in front of us. I asked for three days, and got an answer that was not one of the options I thought I was asking about.


I got told to go back to Ohio! Was that God speaking? Over the last two decades, I've become ever more certain that is so.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he doesn't always know what to do, but usually his wife sets him straight. You can try if you like at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.