Monday, August 4, 2008

John Dewey and Confessional Pastors

"How about just telling people about Jesus and away with the stupid pastor tricks? -Pastor Todd Wilken

Since the Brothers of John the Steadfast have linked to this blog, I will begin to post some things here once in a while. I turned down a column at BJS because life has handed me a lot right now. But informally jotting down thoughts, observations, and questions here is less scary a commitment than actually having a responsibility to write and publish a column at something that feels more like an actual publication.

Writing here, I do not feel like I am afflicting anyone.

Life is busy. I am 47, my kids are mostly teenagers, and my mother, who has increasingly advanced-stage Alzheimers, lives with us and causes my wife and me a fair degree of stress. I have also tentatively started another graduate degree in Educational Leadership at a Roman Catholic university, mainly because I have to take classes to keep my Michigan teaching certification. I am the only conservative dinosaur in my cohort.

So vocations can be challenging.

This summer, I took a class in curriculum development that has me thinking about another vocation, the Office of Holy Ministry, and with this post and a fair degree of trepidation, I would like to raise a question that has concerned me and a group of confessional youth that I took to a Lutheran youth conference this summer.

As a conservative educator, I have to incessantly fight against a great deal of liberal nonsense within public education. The Progressive Education movement of the 20th century left an infamous and perhaps indelible mark upon American education, and in many ways, its specious and septic ideas of "relevance" and "student-centered instruction" mirrors much of the church growth movement's "seeker-sensitive" theories that have deeply damaged so many American churches, even within the LCMS. These are problems that confessional Lutherans have rightly identified and eloquently opposed.

But admit it: Most of us grew up attending public schools or within institutions, even Lutheran schools, that had deeply imbibed the progressive beliefs of men like John Dewey. These institutions have gone about their business, either knowingly or unknowingly, with progressive assumptions as their guiding influence. I have even been told that the Concordia University system's various schools of education have already drunk deeply from the noxious wells of progressive thought. To quote an ex-administrator of the Concordia system who now works at Hillsdale College, "The Concordias don't know what they believe anymore!" And to make matters worse, the 20th century also saw the rise of a pervasive entertainment culture with similar assumptions that teaching and preaching are obligated to fulfill the progressive mandate to "make learning fun."

Let's be honest: The waters in which we swim have been muddied for many years now. Even though we confessional Lutherans like to think that we are immune to such thinking, we are not, and it would be prudent to remember Richard Feynman's two rules of science:
  1. Don't fool yourself.
  2. You are the easiest person to fool.
Alas, I am now rambling, not only because, like Steve Martin, I'm a ramblin' guy, but also due to my fear of asking a question, as it might actually seem like I am not honoring the holy ministry, and that would be pretty ironic for this blog, wouldn't it? But here it goes, and I will pose it to my fellow Brothers of John the Steadfast.

As I have already said, I was a group leader at a youth conference this summer, and my kids were bewildered that there seemed to be a change in the teaching style at this conference, a change from the previous conferences that they had attended. Confessional pastors were now joking around in excessive and awkward ways during the teaching times -- in ways that actually undermined the instruction -- and at least to my kids, in ways that insulted their intelligence and sense of propriety. To these teenagers, there seemed to be a failure by the pastors to remember the prudent distinctions of work, play, and worship.

These teens in my group, in the conversations that I heard, were bewildered as to why this goofy change had taken place in conferences that they had grown to love. One sixteen-year-old girl complained:
"At other conferences, the speakers might joke a few minutes, but then they would shift to teaching and the teaching was serious. I don't get why these speakers had to joke and goof around throughout the plenary sessions."
Again, these questions came from my youth, as I had never been to one of these conferences before, and these kids aren't whiners. They're smart and they spoke out of theological conviction.

So how should laymen respond to this problem? The temptation to listen to the likes of John Dewey and dumb things down in the name of being "student-centered" is always there for pastors and teachers alike, even for good guys like the confessional pastors at this conference. Should lay folks just pray, keep quiet, and hope that other pastors will address it?

Here is one more apparent example of John Dewey's influence that I noticed at the same conference. The evaluation sheet that was used in each class that we attended had a question like this: "Did this class meet needs in your life?" Or something like that. The organizers of the conference seemed to be asking the kids what they wanted to be taught. Was it relevant to them?

If this layman may be so bold, let me suggest that pastors need to go to the Word to define what the needs of youth are. Teenagers might flock to classes on sex, drugs, or rock and roll, as they always do, but they also need to go to classes like the one I attended on the Athanasian Creed, which was completely void of youth and also seemingly hidden in a small room that required the adults who attended to follow a maze of hallways and stairs. As I looked for the room, I heard some adults engage in the following exchange, as they also tried to find the classroom:
"Looking for the Athanasian Creed?"

"Yep," the other answered.

"I guess this is where they put talks that aren't about sex."
Are the Creeds now irrelevant to the needs of youth? How about the Augsburg Confesson? They are most certainly relevant to teens, although as a teenage male, I would have most certainly chosen sex over Philip Melanchthon. And that is why kids need adults and why we all need pastors, for regardless of what teenagers or anyone thinks they need, we all need the purity of the Gospel as so faithfully unpacked in our Confessions.

Therefore, confessional pastors who oversee such conferences and retreats should develop "knowledge-centered" curricula that are based upon the Lutheran Confessions,
curricula that are decidedly not "student-centered." For when our youth are asked, "Do you find this class relevant to your life?" in evaluation forms, then I am afraid that Mr. John Dewey is in our midst.

If this layman may once again be bold, let me also suggest that pastors involved in youth ministry need to step up and reject the tenets of the Progressive Education movement and the expectations of our entertainment-driven culture. This will be difficult because, like fish not noticing the water in which they swim, cultural assumptions are often not explicit. We do not naturally think about or even notice the prevailing philosophical waters in which we swim.

Older pastors also need to act like bishops and give younger pastors needed correction if their joking around actually undermines the public teaching of the Word. To quote Pastor Klemet Preus,
"When we work, we work. When we play, we play. When we worship, we worship."
The temptation is always there to mix these things up. Recently, Issues, Etc. rightly ridiculed a pastor who started a motorcycle as a sermon illustration, and then accidentally drove it into the first few rows of pews. Although it is unlikely that confessional pastors would do such a silly thing, there are certainly varying degrees of foolishness.

Brothers, confessional pastors who teach our youth, please beware of the temptation to pander to kids in the name of relevance or hipness. The temptation is always standing at the door, and as a teacher myself, I have also at times failed in resisting it.