Preaching and teaching, and the distinctive opportunities for Bible teaching in secondary Christian education

Preaching is proclaiming and teaching is explaining. There is more that can be said of course, but this summary is true. Too often there is a harsh dichotomy of emphasis placed between these two. There is also too often a false confluence, that if one has preached they have also taught, or if they have taught they have also preached. These errors may seem small until you witness the results, which are usually some kind of confusion on a spectrum of severity. I’m thinking about it now because I see the results in my students all the time. They have been proclaimed to their whole lives with very little explaining, and have even been told that asking questions is bad. Has this kind of discipleship achieved the desired results? No, it hasn’t, not here in Korea nor in the USA. We don’t want an unquestioning faith, nor a questionable faith. The Bible presents it in balance and Christians are always to strike the balance. The issue is how well we do.

My contention is that there are few to no opportunities for doing the explaining ministry of biblical teaching as well as can be done in Christian secondary schools. Between 7th and 12th grade, six years of education, longer than any Bible college or seminary program and in a much more holistic environment, students under solid instruction and guidance with appropriate curriculum, have the best opportunity to experience the fruit of teaching ministry. I must add, this is not all that is needed for true discipleship and spiritual formation. The word must be proclaimed from pulpits and lived out in homes, and teaching happens in those contexts too, just not like it can and often does in school.

There are many questions that need to be sorted out to do this well, issues protestants, especially of the non-denominational variety tend to avoid, such as what’s the distinction between the role of parents, churches and Christian schools in the character formation and biblical literacy of their children? Answering these questions will also help solving the category errors I wrote about before, such as the distinction between pastors, parents, lay church teachers, and Christian school chaplains and Bible teachers. What I see happening now in my context, and why I’m thinking and writing about it, is that my students are confused and therefore have shut off much of their attention from what they rightfully perceive as a chaos of authority. Their church proclaims a neutered gospel and a fundamentalist ethical system. Their parents proclaim society’s expectations for academic and financial success. And at school they get everything in between. When I try to both proclaim in chapel, and explain in class, the reality and centrality of the Gospel of Christ, I’m looked at with no small amount of confusion. They are too busy avoiding the sins their pastor told them about to consider the majesty of Christ, and they are too busy trying to get in to the best university they can to understand and own their identity in Christ as a gift that changes them, and not something they earn with their good works as defined by neo-Confucian social ethics and modern materialistic standards of living, all baptized into a syncretistic theological soup.

I’m hopeful, because God is the one who unwinds all our confusion for us, but he also ordains his people to be part of that process, and uses the friendships, fellowships, churches, families and schools those relationships build and maintain to do his work. He gives the gifts of teaching and preaching, and it’s his work. He’s done it from the beginning and he’ll continue. But the process of doing it is part of the his refining for those doing the work, and it should be taken seriously and worked at with discipline and thoughtfulness. We live in thoughtless times, the body of Christ should be known for more, and what I’m talking about here is a big part of that.

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A few of the burdens of being a Bible teacher at a Christian school

When I say Bible teacher, I don’t mean a preacher or even a seminary professor. I also don’t mean a Sunday school teacher. I mean a Bible teacher at a Christian school. Most folks have a hard time categorizing what you do. To some, you’re a pastor, which isn’t the worst thing unless that’s all they see you as, because when you give them a bad grade on an assignment now you’re evil for grading their spirituality because they forgot you were a teacher assessing their academic skills in a range of academic disciplines related to the Bible. Some will view you as a professor. But then, when you do happen to give spiritual advice, they will tell you about their pastor’s contrary opinion to yours expecting to shut you down, or a book they read, or a podcast they listened to, or Youtube video they watched, or their own freshly formed opinion. It’s to be expected in any field every once and awhile, but something about being a Bible teacher makes people project all their opinions on Christian spirituality on to you such that they expect you to say what they are already thinking, even students, but not view your opinion as important as a pastor of a church. I know this happens in other ministry capacities too, but there are fewer category errors because the lines are more clearly drawn. The fact is, depending on how a school is structured, a Bible teacher has a foot in a pastor realm, an academic realm and a counseling realm. I believe doing the job well means owning this and clarifying what you are aiming to achieve in each setting you’re in as you are in them. It’s just part of the job, and it can take a long time for a new Bible teacher to establish as a practice and policy school wide, but it’s worth it.

Something I have been thinking about a lot is that while there is much attention given to training preachers, and Bible teachers in a church setting, there is very little to no training on teaching Bible in Christian schools. There’s becoming a pastor, a missionary, or a professor, but not an emphasis on primary or secondary schools. The markets of Christian higher education admissions and primary/secondary school Bible teaching jobs both reflect this neglect. Most Bible teacher jobs, and there are a sad few of those, have odd or few requirements, often low pay, and I cannot find a single Christian University or seminary that has a program specializing in Bible teaching to elementary or secondary school youth in a Christian school. Maybe churches and families have got it covered, but from my experience and what data I’ve been exposed to I think not, definitely not to the level needed in our secular age. Furthermore, even if they were, the majority of Christians want Christian education for their kids if they can get it, and a big part of that is because they want solid Bible education. Yet, what Bible education is is often thought of in truly nebulous and unhelpfully varied ways. Hence, many of the jobs are strange hybrids with coaching or other subject and those hired into them are either given too much administrative authority or no authority at all. In my case, my leadership takes it seriously and has given my colleague and I a lot of room to navigate the best practice in our context. Even with a green light to figure it out it is still an uphill battle, and that’s just our world, not to mention the battles inherent to any school., and a Christian one at that, topped off by the fact that we are an international school. That battles are endless. Yet, it’s worth it.

Why is all this worth it? Because of what the Bible is and what is says. If the Bible is the word of God, and I like all Christians believe that it is, and if it tells us to train up in children in the way they should go, with countless examples of that being training them in God’s word, then formally teaching youth in modern Christian schools as best we can is worth it. We also need to remember that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I say there’s a lot we can do to that end.

Random reflections after two years of teaching the Bible in South Korea

After spending most of my life never planning to go, much less live, in Asia, I can now say South Korea is my home. I haven’t posted a blog since being home in the US and reflecting on what it was like to be gone for a year and a half, longer than I had ever been away, and then return. Since then I’ve been busy. My new principal, whom I love, green-lighted a proposal a colleague and I made to completely reshape the Bible curriculum at our school. The changes were so severe we were taking class time away from other core classes, classes that help Korean students on their version of the SAT, which is the most sacred of all sacred cows in Korean society. The cut was deep, and the fallout was not small, but we are doing it. I say that to say my head has been down, buried in curriculum design and implementation, trials and errors and fixes, collaboration, and tirelessly learning about the full scope of Christian education and then ruthlessly defending my key convictions when they are threatened (I say with equal measures of pride and shame). And all of this in an ESL, cross-cultural context (AKA hard). Yesterday was the last day of the semester. I’m tired, but yet again, like a switch being flipped, I’m reflective, and I am blogging. I don’t know why this is a pattern for me, but it is.

One of the things that takes up a lot of my brain space is comparing the history of Christianity and evangelicalism in the western cultures that are very native to me with what I see here in Korea, particularly how the youth I teach are aware of and responding to it. There are similarities to be sure. They have been brought up in Sunday school learning basic stories of the Bible. They have a basic framework of what the Bible is and says, and what a biblical worldview is, or what it should be. However, Christianity is very young in Korea. While young, in some ways it is deeper. Christianity attached to Korea in a time of desperation and identity crisis at a culturally systemic and deeply profound level. Korea has been invaded countless times and its people forced to change and be subservient in ways that most Americans can’t comprehend. It leaves a lasting impact, an imprint on the collective psyche, especially as a collectivist culture. There are words in their language that capture this deep sadness. They all carry it, and I as a fellow human can grasp it generally, but as a foreigner will never grasp deeply. Christianity in Korea steps into that sadness, and sinks into the souls of those who follow Christ here, and it gets into crevices of the human soul that I’m still learning about. In the West Christianity goes deep intellectually, and historically. In Korea it goes deep spiritually and emotionally.

That distinctive in Korean Christianity buys it something. It buys passion, and community. It buys profound and energetic prayer lives and assertive evangelistic efforts. Korean churches send more missionaries out into the world than any other nation with the exception of the USA, and I think per capita they take the cake. However, there are clear and present deficiencies and I see them all the time. I teach many Korean missionary children and the other children I teach are usually kids of faithful, local Korean Christians. I think it is fair to say I see a sample of the future of Korean Christianity every day in my classes. To be honest, there are some disturbing realities on the horizon.

The lack of Christian history in Korea specifically, but Asia more broadly, combined with the increasing rate of secularization, is concocting a potent mix. I see many of the same trends from when I was in high school, trends that mirror the American millennial generation. The same questions and concerns that arise from those who are done with church, and/or claim no religious affiliation. This is concerning on a few levels.

One is almost purely cultural. This collectivist culture is losing its collectivism in relation to family and religion, which is being replaced by the internet. What do we all know about the internet? It’s good and bad, but there’s a lot of porn, there are a lot of video games, and there’s a lot of advertising. With the diminished voice of family and church in the lives of youth, these other sources of “knowledge” and “pleasure” are becoming the primary sources of “life.” Korea boasts the fastest internet in the world, and I love it and hate it. Content needs curation, and curation is the fruit of wisdom, or the lack thereof. I see a great dearth of wisdom in Korean Christian youth. There’s a cultural gap between old Korea and the new as well as Korean culture and western culture. There is some overlap, but not all of new Korea can be called western, per se. It’s complex, and there are few if any contemporary, native, Korean Christian leaders speaking to youth in a way that makes sense to them. One of the biggest complaints in my class is they want to talk about the stuff we talk about in class with older Koreans, but can’t due to these cultural gaps in experience, knowledge, identity and worldview. They are being told what to think but not how. Korea, with its fast internet, the longest working hours in the world, it’s reputation for its rapid rise as a capitalist economy, has a fast paced culture.

Another level of issues is ecclesial. The church has syncretised with this fast paced cultural reality without enough reflection, and the youth are paying the price. I find my biggest asset as a foreigner is that I have to go slow by default in order to do anything. It turns out that that is what these kids need. The language barrier helps us both slow down enough to process the information in the Bible, and in Christian history, and the intersection between those things and modern Korean culture and what it all means, in general, and for them specifically. I’m still learning how to do this well but it is being done. I know I’m not a savior, for sure. I hate anything I see or find in myself that smacks of spiritual imperialism. I have much to learn from Korean Christians. But missionaries and/or Christian educators, empowered by God the Spirit and equipped with the Bible, are nothing if they are not able to speak with at least some authority on these matters. I tell my students, “as an outsider I’m an observer who can serve as a mirror to let you know what I see, but it’s up to you to change things.” After two years I can say with authority that Biblical literacy in Korean youth is poor, theological literacy is dismal, and ethical literacy is a flaming meteorite penetrating the atmosphere and is going to hit with epic impact. These students have been so primed to focus on their math and science education such that the humanities are not an afterthought, they are hardly a thought at all. It’s Korean SAT (KSAT) or die. Churches have full days of prayer for the their youth on test day. Students, by government mandate, are allowed to skip a huge majority of my (and all) classes in the Fall semester order to receive special tutoring ¬†for the KSAT, and churches are falling in line. The suicide rate in Korean youth is highest the day the KSAT result come out. It’s literally life and death. Most of my seniors say the number one reason they haven’t committed suicide is for fear that they will go to Hell. I appreciate the church’s discipleship around biblical authority on the doctrine of Hell, but I find their lack of discipleship on Christian identity deplorable. My Korean colleagues are mixed on this issue, and my head goes spinning most days when something related to this comes up in staff meetings. Welcome to my life, and my personal lack of ability to be diplomatic despite my best efforts, I read the biblical prophets too much…

At this point, I’m just tired as I write, but I felt compelled to do so. I’d like to think that others can benefit from my reflections in some way as I do from so much content I try to curate on the internet. I hope this is the case. I’ll try to write more as I have energy. These reflections are fresh, and born out of the tired end of a long and laborious semester in a foreign context. I love what I get to do, and what I do feels important. I feel inadequate to the task, but I trust God brought me here for a reason, so I rely on him as exclusively as I am able day to day.