The One-Room Schoolhouse

My church is beginning the rector search process, and already we’re feeling sorry for this person because of the conflicting expectations he or she will have to manage. We want a firm administrator who’s also a gentle pastoral caregiver; someone who can address the unique needs of the elderly, singles, young families, Sunday School kids, and college students; someone to balance our budget without disrespecting any of the programs that our strong lay leadership holds so dear. I’m sure this dilemma is common to any church that can boast of a diverse congregation and a large menu of activities. St. Paul addressed it in several epistles with the reminder that we are members of one body, with Christ as the head.

The issue preoccupying me right now is how people who are at different stages of religious commitment can worship together. It takes a skilled minister not to direct his entire attention to one of these groups and treat the others as an obstacle to his agenda.

Seekers and beginning Christians have one set of concerns: How do I know there is such a thing as religious truth, and that this is it? Will this community accept me and be patient with my doubts? Is there space here for beliefs and attitudes from the other worldviews that previously guided my life, or am I expected to repudiate them? Can I trust the Bible or any other religious authority?

Other members who are already firm in their commitment to Christ will have different concerns: How can I experience Jesus more fully as a loving presence in my life? What acts of service is he calling me to do? Why don’t I always act consistently with my beliefs, and how can we as Christians help one another stay on that path? How can I begin hearing God’s voice through the Bible?

In our liberal community, we’re more likely to overshoot on the seeker-sensitive side. This can leave longer-term Christians (I don’t want to flatter myself with the words “more mature”!) feeling that faith beyond a certain level is not encouraged, almost in poor taste. We rightly don’t want to shame or pressure new believers. On the other hand, we deprive seekers of an important hope for their journey when we don’t give them any role models of Christians who’ve found what they seek. At the risk of repeating the only idea I have, I’ll say again that this is what happens when we try to prop up people’s egos with anything other than the forgiving love of God in Christ.

St. Paul’s image of the body of Christ may be too intense for a group where not everyone is on the same page about Christ’s lordship in their lives. It begs the very question that we’re trying to work out: what are we doing here? A less fraught metaphor might be the one-room schoolhouse. Everyone still has a lot to learn, and we’re learning it together. The teacher doesn’t feel his authority is threatened when the big kids help the little ones with their sums. Six-year-olds aren’t criticized for not knowing algebra. Sixth-graders don’t have to hide their copy of The Scarlet Letter inside a Dick-and-Jane primer.

What holds it all together is a teacher who believes there is a real body of knowledge we’re all studying in common. He’s not simply a cafeteria worker scrambling to cater to everyone’s existing tastes for strained peas or spicy tacos (to mix my metaphors for a moment). I pray that our church finds someone who can lead this way with kindness and patience.

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