Glen Dawursk, Jr., October 30, 2003, www.yuthguy.com
During the past four weeks we have been challenged with questions that have forced us to look past the text books and curriculum toward a broader application of parish ethics. However, I feel this question is the most difficult: How can the Christian church and/or its educational agencies teach the process of ethical decision making to its constituencies? If this were an easy question to answer, the church at large would have been doing this already. Unfortunately, this question is like a virus on the internet. Every time we feel we have the solution to resolving the bug, a new variation attacks the internet even more viciously and the process begins again – for there is no perfect solution.
Ethics will always be a difficult issue to have consensus on, but I feel the teaching of right from wrong recognition (discernment) and the application of ethical life principles needs to start when they are young. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train [Or Start] a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This is one of the rationales for Christian day schools and Martin Luther encouraged the teaching of catechism to children in the home as well. For this reason, I will dialog about the three key areas where I see the church could make their greatest impact upon children concerning discernment and application of ethics. Creatively, they are: “Teach It,” “Apply It,” and “Live It.”
One of the key tenements of scripture is the importance of knowing God’s word. This is the basis of all Christian beliefs and the source of faith. The Old Testament Israelites prized the word of God as if it were living. The Apostle John made note of this when he said in his first chapter, “And the Word was God.” The Israelites had God’s word printed on their door posts, spoken at their meals, and even on their foreheads at times just to make sure that it was always first and foremost in their minds. That should also be the church’s first goal. We need to “teach it” in such a way that the ethics of our faith walk are always foremost on our mind. That begins by knowing scripture and interpreting it appropriately. During Luther’s time, the church lost focus of the scripture. Many of the priests had not even read the Bible. Their loss of focus caused them to compromise scripture’s truth. They began to focus on themselves and replaced God desires with their own. The “oral tradition” of the Catholic Church eventually even took priority over scripture as mediocrity and sinful motivations prompted supposedly godly men to do ethically immoral things. What happened was their “discernment” became clouded. Martin Luther was God’s tool to bring the church back into focus with God. For when we are out of focus with God, we will not always be able to recognize good from bad and consideration of a Godly application is not possible.
In order to bring this focus or clarity, the ethical concepts must be presented consistently with an absolute truth. This is the problem with the church today. Too many churches do teach ethics, but based upon worldly tolerance rather than scripture’s definitive right and wrong. Their misguided approach teaches children and youth that we not only love the sinner, but that the sin may not be that bad anyway. In order to apply any ethics, we have to have a clear and consistent statement of what the church’s ethics are. This absolute truth needs to be presented especially to children; for as they develop, they will need to have the foundations of what is right and wrong if they are going to be expected to use discernment for themselves. They need to know the absolute truth based upon scripture.
How do we do this? That is not really an issue. For the church at large does not need to re-invent the wheel. They need to avoid vagueness and relativistic messages and simply go back to teaching absolute “right and wrong” in sermons, Sunday school lessons, Christian day school curriculum and Bible studies. No more of the “wishy-washy politically correct I don’t want offend anybody” approach. Messages need to clearly have as their objective to make known what the scripture says concerning specific ethical concerns. This includes topics such as abortion, living together, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and life/death issues in general. The messages need to not simply say, “This is what we believe,” but also include the scripture to back it up. A person can not be expected to know what absolute truth is if they are not taught it. Of course, after we teach them God’s truth – they still could decide to do the wrong thing. That is not the contention here. The starting place for ethics to work is that there has to be a basis from which to build. A bad decision must still reflect that the person knew right from wrong. Therefore, we first need to return to “teaching it.”
Next, we need to do better job of “applying it.” This is where the LCMS churches have had great difficulty. Billy Graham supposedly once said that the LCMS was a sleeping giant because we had the truth, “we just didn’t tell anybody.” I think our church desires to tell people the truth of scripture; we just lack an effective approach. In youth ministry the buzz word for the past decade for teaching core Bible concepts has been “active learning.” Active learning requires that the participants all be involved in the process of the learning. This means that instead of simply being told what is right and wrong, we are put into situations where our multiple senses discern the concept being taught and lead toward a positive self-motivated behavioral response. For example, the concept that “we should serve others just as Jesus came to serve others” is a statement which our ears take in and our head stores in a cell bank for possible regurgitation on a confirmation test. BUT, the principle would take on greater impact if the concept were taught combined with an actual servant event. When all the senses are involved, a person is prone to make a more significant measurable change in their behavior.
A recent study has shown that the last stage of frontal lobe development does not even start until around 5th or 6th grade. According to Dr. David Walsh of the Institute for Media and the Family, the study shows that this area of the brain does not complete the development until around 16 or 17 years old. This area of the brain is responsible for the rationalizing and deductive reasoning skills of an individual. How ironic that we have confirmation of our baptism at an age where these skills are not even fully functional yet. We desire a heart change when they are still processing head knowledge. The Catholics may have had this one correct for they do not confirm until a youth’s junior year, around 17 years old.
A LCMS church in my area is currently experimenting with a three tier approach to confirmation and the “applying” of God’s truth. They first confirm the youth when they are in 5th grade based upon their acquisition of the head-knowledge of Christian doctrine and the Lutheran catechism. This is the “head knowledge” or “teach it” tier. They then confirm a second time in 8th or 9th grade after they have an understanding of how to apply the catechesis and God’s word to their lives. This tier includes active learning instruction on how to apply the principals of scripture. This tier also includes some actual local servant opportunities. The goal at this level is to get the youth to process their head knowledge and their faith with real-life scenarios. Plenty of roll playing, prayer-time skill and habit formation and community faith building is done with the desire to make the application of God’s word a “joy” instead of a job.
The final tier of this church’s confirmation program leads toward my last topic area: “Live it.” Once the youth know the truths of scripture and can discern right from wrong and they understand how these truth can apply to real life situations, then it is time to “respond.” This response is accomplished at this church by sending the youth on an international servant event fully funded by the congregation in their senior year of high school. The youth understand that this trip is not a school tour or a vacation – it is a time for work, prayer and Bible study in an area of the world where poverty is prevalent. Upon return, the youth are expected to make a testimony of their experience before the congregation. Here they are also formally confirmed again – this time in recognition of their personal commitment or “response” to God’s word. This church is currently in the third year of this program and seems to be pleased with the process so far. I have already begun doing a modified version of this within the confines of my church’s traditions. I have incorporated small groups into the Junior High youth group and as part of the curriculum have included core belief application teaching, small group interaction, prayer time development, community building, and regular servant events within the community.
The idea of “living it” however does not simply begin and end with confirmation though. To “live it” means to model our Holy Spirit prompted response to God’s awesome grace to children, youth and other adults within AND OUTSIDE of our congregation. It means demonstrating knowledge of scripture, discernment of right from wrong, and the intentional response of acting appropriately according to God’s desire. This “live it” example will especially be the greatest learning tool for youth as they desire a role-model whom they can emulate. It could be a pastor, teacher, DCE, or volunteer – it does not matter; but it should be a person whose integrity is not for being perfect, but rather for openly sharing how they deal with ethical situations based upon scripture and the sharing of consequences when they did not. A person whose response is to try to live a Godly life – to walk the talk.
“Teach it, apply it and live it” are how Jesus did it. He taught the disciples not just the importance of compassion and servant hood, but he also had them actually serve others on His behalf. Most importantly, Jesus actually demonstrated compassion and servant hood in His own life when he humbled Himself by washing the disciple’s feet, touching infected leapers, ministering to a disgraced woman at the well, and ultimately dying on the cross. Until heaven, there is never going to be a perfect way to teach the process of ethical discernment and application, but until then, the church needs to continue to stand for truth and teach it with fervor and tenacity; and hold onto the promise that “all things will turn out for good to them that love the Lord.”