The Last, the Lost, The Least Educated?

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diploma        “Readers are Leaders.” That’s a mantra that I’ve heard ballyhooed from teachers and those involved in education for as long as I’ve been attending school. My love of reading did not come naturally. I can still remember skimming through the required reading materials all the way through college exerting the bare minimum effort because I just didn’t care for reading. I think it was sometime in graduate school when I began to actually enjoy reading. I can still remember sitting on our front porch reading a book one day, not long after I had finished graduate school, and thinking to myself – “Why am I reading? I don’t have to read anymore!” They had neglected to tell me that a side effect of my graduate school education could be an increased interest in reading. Now, I find myself reading all the time.

I recently finished my Doctor of Ministry degree, and for each of my doctoral classes I had to read anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 pages. Even for someone who enjoys to read – that’s a lot of reading. All this time spent in formalized education has helped instill in me the habit of reading. I read as often as I can, but recently, I’ve been taking note of just how much more I read than most people.

Usually, a statement like that is followed by an affirmation regarding how important reading is and how it’s what smart people do. However, I’ve been realizing that all this reading could be a detrimental thing for ministers. The thing is, people in my church don’t read nearly as often as I do. No one in my extended family reads as much as I do. As a matter of fact, the only people that I come across who seem to read as much as I do are either English majors or other ministers. Just about all the ministers I know read a lot. But the people who are a part of our churches don’t seem to read as much. And something about that difference seems significant to me.

This series of articles I’ve set out to write are really a reflection on at least one part of the church subculture that I am realizing that I am a part of. Churches have long been a leading voice in the need for formalized education. Look no further than the institutionalization of education in the United States and see the fingerprints of churches all over it. It was largely pseudo- seminary education that helped craft the landscape of today’s liberal arts. Pastors, priests, preachers, and clergymen have long been some of the most respected and highly educated scholars in their local communities. These attributes all seem to point positively towards an enduring, scholastic legacy, but I’m wondering if there aren’t side effects.

A few years ago our congregation conducted a survey of our membership, and I remember the most astonishing finding was the fact that like 80% of members of our church had a college degree. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when you consider the fact that our church is in a wealthy suburb, but I never would have supposed the number to be that high. People often talk about the comfort of the suburbs in terms of financial comfort, low crime, and big houses – but we often seem to overlook the implications of being, generally speaking, more highly educated.

This series of articles is about some of the blind spots that I have noticed in my Christian tradition, and this has been one of the most glaring to me. We don’t seem to be speaking to the uneducated very well anymore. I don’t want to suggest that people without degrees don’t read, but clearly the higher a person’s education the more likely they are to read. Consequently, highly educated ministers like myself are much more likely to use sermon illustrations that we read in a book somewhere, or quote a popular author of the day, than references to working on our cars or reworking our plumbing.

I’m not writing this to bash education. I am overwhelmingly thankful for my degrees and the time that I spent in college and graduate school. However, I do think it is important for those of us who are church leaders to consider how well we relate to those who never went to college or who haven’t read a book in a decade. Sometimes I think we give the impression that when a person comes to faith in Jesus, they’ll suddenly be as interested in theology as we are. Perhaps we need to consider more often what Jesus’ message would be to truck drivers, factory workers, and farmers.

Preaching for a church that has so many college graduates makes it easy to relate to the majority of our members when I talk about God. But I’ve tried to begin asking myself how well I’m relating to the smaller group of people in my church who never went to college. To Margaret who often comes over to me and moves her hand flatly over her head to tell me my message went “right over her head today.” Shame on me. Shame on all of us for taking the message of a man who spoke in everyday parables and feeling the need to dress it up with technical language and illustrations and quotations from latest cool and trendy book.

Christian conventions and conferences are too often a dog and pony show of the highly educated and the affluent who often talk about what their hip suburban churches are doing to draw crowds on Sundays. When is the last time that a Christian conference invited a recently paroled convict to talk about what they learned in “the pen”? Who was the last high school dropout invited to preach the Gospel at a mega-church? When is the last time you’ve taken a break from reading?

As with each of the articles in this series, I know I am generalizing and overstating here. I am blessed to know that there are exceptions to the pictures that I’m painting. I, personally, have been deeply inspired by the work of Richard Beck and Richard Goode – working in prisons in Texas and Tennessee, respectively. But they remain exceptions. Have we considered that perhaps Jesus has called us to the last, the lost, and the least educated? Would they even be able to understand our message?

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