This is Part 2 of our series on Higher Learning. Read Part 1, Balancing Heart and Head.
Though it has been 10 years since The Washington Post famously described evangelical Christians as “poor, undereducated and easily led,” the stereotype lingers. However, churches that demonstrate a passion for the importance of learning are finding opportunities to overturn such prejudices.
Grace Church (Federal Way North Foursquare Church) in Federal Way, Wash., has earned a good reputation among civic leaders and ordinary members of the community during the past decade through supporting educational programs outside the church walls. Founding Pastor Mike McIntosh was instrumental in bringing local school and community leaders together to establish Advancing Leadership (AL), now an independent nonprofit that runs an annual leadership development program for a group of select adults and students. Graduates can be found in leadership roles throughout the city.
Mike’s son Jon, who took over as Grace Church’s senior pastor in 2005, is chairman of the AL board. He is also a teacher and coach for the non-religious course, where he couches biblical principles with references to “the wisdom found in ancient Eastern proverbs.”
God’s truths “are universal and universally applicable,” says Jon. “For me, part of loving the Lord with all my mind means understanding that the things He has taught can be applied in all different areas.”
Grace Church also leads a more informal network of churches that supports local schools by helping decorate classrooms, providing babysitting services for parent-teacher conferences and catering staff events. The highly practical demonstration of commitment to education has “spoken volumes,” says Jon. “If you want someone to trust you, care well for their children.”
The investment has helped ease some people’s suspicions of church involvement in community life.
“It has opened the door for partnerships and conversations that would not have occurred any other way,” affirms Jon. “It’s a way to show yourself selflessly investing in the community; it’s clearly not self-serving—the kids might never come to our church.”
Learning As a Way of Loving
Fostering learning as a way of loving their neighbors also fuels the ministry of members of Victory in Christ (Worcester South Foursquare Church) in Worcester, Mass. They offer ESL (English as a Second Language) courses for immigrants, whose numbers have swelled in recent years by an influx of Iraqis.
The classes are held in the outreach center that adjoins the church, so visitors don’t feel uncomfortable in a religious setting—though “we make no apologies for being the church,” says Senior Pastor Muriel Sanborn, and each session includes a Scripture reference. Students are coached in handling job interviews and taken on field trips to the grocery store.
That her small congregation puts time and effort into the classes, alongside running a food pantry, reflects its recognition of the importance of education, says Muriel.
“The Bible says that where you put your money is where your heart is,” she asserts. “It’s no good knowing the Word of God if you don’t know how to apply it.”
Investing in education can open doors to communities that value learning, especially immigrants, notes Derrick Engoy. An assisting minster/creative arts pastor at pastor at New Life Center (Harbor City Foursquare Church) in Harbor City, Calif., Derrick is also an author and poet who performs in bars and libraries, and helps teach creative writing in local high schools.
He may not have the freedom to proclaim Jesus in those non-church settings, but “you can preach Him without saying the name,” Derrick says. “I don’t believe in the whole bait-and-switch thing. I don’t hit people on the head with the gospel, but if you are up-front about who you are, people are more likely to be tolerant. To me, loving the Lord with all your mind is living your life not hiding who you are, everywhere you go—whatever avenue that takes.”
If congregations such as Grace Church, Victory in Christ, and New Life Center are addressing one stereotype about education, New Horizons (Radford Foursquare Church) in Radford, Va., is endeavoring to reverse another—that secular campuses should be avoided like the plague.
“The reality is, most churches don’t like them,” says Senior Pastor Phil Pendergrass. Many churches ignore secular colleges in their communities because student ministry “takes up space and doesn’t bring in any money,” Phil says. But that is missing “a huge ministry opportunity” to influence tomorrow’s leaders, both here and internationally, he asserts.
New Horizons members provide transportation for new Radford University overseas students when they arrive at the airport and provide welcome baskets with basic necessities. They also host dinner discussion nights, with one recently drawing 51 attendees.
“Some come from countries where religion is not allowed, and when they are here, they have the opportunity to learn,” Phil explains. “There’s an openness to learning we see in them that we don’t always see in American students.”
The New Horizons ministry centers on relational evangelism, encouraging students to pay attention to their heads as well as their hearts.
“You can gain all the knowledge in the world but have no relationship with Christ,” says Phil. “But it’s only revelation that transforms people's lives.”
Impacting Secular Society
Presenting the truth of the gospel in the largely secularized arena of education is essential if the church is going to see the kind of social and cultural transformation that fuels so much prayer, observe some Foursquare leaders.
While it’s true that the world is changed one renewed heart at a time, too often churches have “done most of their work on the margins instead of in the middle of the culture,” says Sam Rockwell, district supervisor of the five-state Gateway District. The idea that one-by-one ministry on the edge of society can lead to deep change at its core is “a false notion,” he adds, advocating active involvement in the center of fields such as education and the arts.
That also requires a confidence in and openness to learning from others.
“So often, we want to be understood without paying the price of understanding,” observes Robert Flores, former president of Life Pacific College (LPC, also known as LIFE Bible College). “We must study and learn from every aspect that we can. We must learn, we must read, and read widely—Christian and non-Christian.”
That two-way process works at Victory in Christ, where members have learned more about other cultures and beliefs from some of the ESL students.
“We have them teach us about some of the things that happen in their countries, their cultures,” says Muriel Sanborn. “We want to respect their heritage.”
Learning isn’t limited to the classroom; sometimes the sessions are merely a vehicle for a more informal lesson.
“People learn more by what they see than what they hear,” says Muriel, who welcomes the involvement in the church’s ministries of those they are trying to reach.
“We are a Holy Spirit-filled community, but I might be working with a gentleman from Jordan who believes differently than I do, and I can still work with him,” Muriel explains. “We have a lot of folks in our wider church family who don’t yet know their Daddy. Our job is to lead them toward that in the best way we can.”
Education not only can, but should, be one way people grow in faith, agrees David Moore, associate professor of theology at LPC. While secular schooling has shipwrecked some people’s belief, that’s not because learning is in and of itself to be avoided, just pursued humbly and holistically.
“As God’s image-bearers, we human beings have received the remarkable gift of reason that allows us to reflect on our creator’s nature and character in order to know and love him better,” David says. “The true aim of theological education is not the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity but the worship of God.”
This is Part 2 of 2
By: Andy Butcher, a freelance writer living in the Orlando, Fla., area