Friday, February 22, 2008

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

It’s humbling. Jeff Foxworthy, of “You Might Be a Redneck If…” puts a series of questions to adults who are paired with fifth graders who serve as coaches to the game show participants. If the participants are smart, they go with the fifth grader’s answers rather than their own. But if they think they’re smarter than a fifth grader and go with their own answers and lose, they have to look into the camera and say: “My name is _________, and I’m not smarter than a fifth grader.”

The show works because there’s an assumption that learning is progressive and cumulative, that the farther we move in life the smarter we become. A fifth grader, we reason, should have a fifth grader’s grasp on information, life, and reality, and a forty year old, a forty year old’s grasp on information, life, and reality. It’s funny to discover that that assumption may not always hold true. Well, sometimes it’s not so funny.

Take the Christian life, for example. It’s cute for a three year old to think that Jesus is the Easter Bunny’s friend who hides Easter eggs and fills Easter baskets with chocolates. But when a forty-three year old’s understanding of Jesus isn’t much different from that, we’ve got a problem.

There’s a lot of hand wringing these days about the “graying of the church.” Denominational types, desperate to find ways to capture the Holy Grail of church growth, the 18 to 38 demographic, will do anything, and I mean anything, to put young adults in the pews, and knowing that many (not all!) young adults are motivated more by feeling than thinking have banished serious, historical, contextual Bible study to the margins of church life. But I’m not nearly as worried about the “graying of the church” as I am the “dumbing of the church.” Biblical illiteracy among Christians is epidemic. Preachers used to be able merely to allude to biblical stories and then move on to make their theological points assured that the listeners had already filled in the necessary details from their own repositories of biblical knowledge cellared from years of serious, historical, contextual Bible study. Nowadays, the preacher can assume nothing, not even the most basic of biblical stories.

Part of the problem is marketing – a minimalist approach to Christian education that strips the Story down to the bare minimum predicated on the assumption that a generation that grew up with sound bytes and “attention deficit disorder” can tolerate little else. Part of the problem is theological – the assumption that “when I got saved” I got all I’ll ever need. A fifth grader should have a fifth grade understanding of the Christian faith, but when a fifty year old does, it’s not funny or cute anymore; it’s ugly.

In describing the Christian’s responsibility to grow up and mature in Christ, I often say: “Give as much of yourself as you can to as much of God as you can understand,” recognizing that both of these are “moving targets.” Christian formation, faith development, growing up in Christ is a life-long journey with Jesus that moves us from “faith to faith” until we “grow up to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Maybe we could break this vicious cycle if we were to have adult Christians stand up on Sundays and admit: “My name is _____________, and I have a fifth grade faith.” Just a thought.


Anonymous said...

Hebrews 6:1-3 (NKJV) Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

Eventually, we got to graduate to the next level if and only if the Teacher knows we are ready.

Idell said...

Maybe part of the problem is that we make church membership too easy. It seems that some churches are so eager to "dunk" someone new that little or no pre-baptismal instruction in the Christian life, which would include the teaching of foundational biblical stories, is given. I'm not sure we need to return to the early Church's 3-year preparation period for baptism, but surely if we found a grace-filled way of beefing up the joining requirements, it would help!

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Point taken! rws

Ms_T said...

I'm glad for one that I didn't have to wait 3 years before being "dunked" as it were, seeing as I had water baptism at 3 1/2 months into my salvation (and my salvation was instant). But then I was on fire and for me personally if there were regulations when I could give myself to God completely then I might not have hung around to wait for that time. Think this may be true of a lot of people in this "fast food culture" we live in today, we want things quick, so having to wait may mean you lose interest. Maybe the provision of more Bible study sessions or more house groups being offered so the opportunity is there to discuss in whatever setting each person feels comfortable with. Having a united Church is going to help a great deal in this. Another thing of course is the way the church setting and God and Jesus themselves are portrayed to "men". I watched a DVD recently called "Why men don't go to church" and it was very educational and yet very true. It's because it's more aimed at women, and this also goes for Jesus, being like a live-in lover as it were (living in their heart), no man is going to admit they have Jesus as their lover for fear of it being taken out of context! That of course is just my opinion.

Thanks again for the post.


Anonymous said...

I have the "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader" game on my cellphone for those times when I have stand in lines or wait in doctors' offices. I can beat it about 40% of the time. Talk about humbling!

Moreover, I am the Adult Singles Leader in Sunday School currently studying "God's Promises" and co-leader of a Bible study at Chick-fil-A studying the "Seeking Him" manual. The more I study the Bible to teach these groups, the more I feel like I have a fifth-grade faith. But I plod along and hope I can relate the lesson's point(s) in an understandable way to the seekers of God's truth. I am also studying Greek with the Mounce materials.

All our love.
Bruce & Rosemary