Chuck Quarles: The Value of Christian Education to Churches

[Editor’s Note: Dr. Charles Quarles is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern, author of numerous scholarly and popular level books on the NT, and a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti SocietasHe is also an experienced pastor, missionary, and theological educator, and so an able guide on the topic of Christian education. The following is part 2 of two parts on the true value of Christian education.]

In a previous post, I discussed the value of Christian education for students and parents. Churches often invest in Christian education, too. Southern Baptists contribute through the Cooperative Program to support Baptist colleges and seminaries. Increasingly churches are asking whether this is a wise investment. How much does Christian education really contribute to the mission of the church? Should churches consider decreasing or even dropping contributions to educational institutions in order to have more for local ministries or international missions?

I would argue that Christian education is a very wise investment for local churches. Christian education is of enormous value for the kingdom of God and the mission of the church. Students who attend public universities are four times more likely to stop attending church than those who attend authentic Christian colleges. Students who attend public universities are seven times more likely to stop praying consistently than students who attend authentic Christian colleges. Churches that do not encourage their youth to attend Christian colleges will likely suffer the heartbreak of seeing a sharp decline in the numbers of educated young adults that participate in church ministries.

Even if such young adults remain in the church, they may ultimately have a negative impact on the church’s health. A March 29, 2005 Washington Post article revealed that 72% of college professors view themselves as “liberal,” 84% support abortion, and 67% view homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. (Consider how much these numbers may have increased in nine years.) One rarely sits at the feet of such instructors for four years or more without being influenced by their ideologies in overt or subtle ways. Unless the church strongly promotes Christian education, the young adults who receive this dangerous tutelage will form the primary pool of future spiritual leaders for our churches. These young adults will carry the intellectual and philosophical influences of their educational background into their Sunday school classrooms, the deacons’ meeting, and committee discussions and potentially infect others with non-Christian views.

Students who attend authentic Christian colleges typically grow in their Christian commitment at five times the rate of students who attend other schools. They have a Christian worldview and a good foundation of biblical knowledge that equips them to serve Christ through their churches as well as through their professions. One can hardly estimate the sweeping impact that a Christian physician, attorney, public school teacher, journalist, or businessman may have on the kingdom of God in a local community when these influential believers view their profession as a divine calling and mission.

One of the great concerns related to the future of several of our Southern states is the notorious “brain drain” on our population. Bright educated young professionals are abandoning struggling states in unprecedented numbers as they seek higher salaries and greater potential for advancement in other states. However, the feared brain drain can also have a devastating effect on local churches. If Christian parents and churches entrust our best and brightest students to secular universities and they are schooled in unbiblical ideologies, the church risks losing its rich intellectual tradition. The church will be poorly equipped to offer a rational defense of the Christian faith to a culture that is increasingly hostile toward our deeply cherished Christian convictions.

It may surprise many to discover that education is such a vital part of our Baptist heritage that one entire article of the Baptist Faith and Message is actually devoted to discussing the importance of this endeavor. Article XII. Education states:

Christianity is the faith of enlightenment and intelligence. In Jesus Christ abide all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. All sound learning is, therefore, a part of our Christian heritage. . . . [T]he cause of education in the Kingdom of Christ is co-ordinate with the causes of missions and general benevolence.

Christian schools prepare outstanding Christian leaders for a variety of professions in which they have unique opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who better to share the gospel with a teacher or attorney than a respected colleague who views his vocation as his calling and seeks to use it to glorify Christ at every opportunity? Christian education is thus a helpful strategy for assisting the church in fulfilling the Great Commission. That’s why our confession insists that just as the church supports the causes of local and international missions, education “should receive along with these the liberal support of the churches.”

When our churches affirm this historic Baptist confession, we are also acknowledging the value of Christian education and pledging our commitment to support this cause with generous gifts and fervent prayers. The need has never been greater and the ministry more strategic than now.

The College at Southeastern seeks to provide the sort of high-quality Christian education about which Dr. Quarles writes. For more info on the programs, faculty, and tuition costs for The College, check out the website and/or contact admissions

Briefly Noted: An Outrageous Idea for Universities & Seminaries

Just asking. If an institution of higher education were to offer Ph.D. programs (which prepare future professors), do you think it would include some readings and seat time addressing the topic of, ahem, how to be a good teacher? This is the question Derek Bok asks in his fine little article, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching,” in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.[1]

Bok, the former president of Harvard University, answers in the affirmative: Ph.D. students must be taught how to teach—rather than merely being taught how to research and write—during the course of their PhD studies. He notes that although American universities are internationally renowned for producing top scholars, researchers, and entrepreneurs, they are not producing good pedagogues. “The most glaring defect of our graduate programs,” he writes, “is how little they do to prepare their students to teach.” And despite a few recent improvements––like centers that help students learn how to be teaching assistants––little motivation exists among the guild for changing this trend.

Bok observes that faculty and administrators have been unwilling to make changes. Many of them think that teaching is an un-teachable skill, “an art that one acquires naturally and improves through practice over time.” For Bok this goes against the grain of both common sense and recent scientific research. “Much has now been discovered about cognition, motivation, and the relative effectiveness of different methods of instruction.” Recent work has also shown that college students “are not making as much progress as most people have assumed in mastering skills such as writing and critical thinking.” Bok argues that all professors, especially new ones, will need to make use of this body of knowledge to become more effective in teaching.

Further accentuating the need for pedagogical training is the growth of online course offerings. MOOCs, hybrids, chats, and so on have impacted the way students seek to learn. Bok rightly notes that graduate students need to be trained in the rights and wrongs, uses and abuses, of these delivery models. He states, “Technology changes the nature of teaching in several ways. Developing an online course is a collaborative venture in which instructors work with technicians and media experts. Teaching, then, becomes less intuitive and more of a collective, deliberative activity.” All this growth and change has made “pedagogy . . . a much more complicated process . . . requiring formal preparation.”

Three lines of argumentation inform the remainder of Bok’s article. First, he notes that most Ph.D. graduates (about three-quarters of all Ph.D.’s) do not get jobs in research universities. This means most Ph.D. graduates who work in academia are required to do so at smaller, teaching-based institutions. Many of these institutions enroll students who may or may not be prepared to learn at the undergraduate level. Thus, future Ph.D. graduates will be required to teach, and teach well, students who require more teaching. Second, Bok claims students increasingly “multi-task” by tweeting, posting to Facebook, texting, and playing games whilst sitting in their classes. Future Ph.D. graduates must know how to engage such students in the learning process. Third, because of the lack of training professors themselves have in teaching instruction, “provosts and deans will have to take the initiative.”

Bok recognizes the conundrums that arise from these factors. “It is not entirely obvious just when and where the necessary instruction should take place.” Existing graduate program curricula do not make a good place, Bok claims. New curricula must be created: “ . . . to prepare their professors properly, colleges may need to give them a course that includes material dealing not only with pedagogy but also with ethical problems in teaching and research, the history of higher education, the principal schools of thought on the undergraduate curriculum, and the organization, financing, and governance of universities.” This sort of change will help current and future professors meet the needs presented by this generation of students.

I am entirely in agreement with Bok’s article. PhD programs tend to focus exclusively on research and writing and do so for multiple reasons: contentment with maintaining the received traditional PhD curriculum, personal preference for scholarship over classroom instruction, and personal pedagogical deficiencies stemming from having never studied pedagogy in their own PhD programs. We owe it to our PhD students to give them a toolbox which is not bereft of the pedagogical tools necessary for their future vocations as classroom instructors.

[1] Derek Bok, “We Must Prepare Ph.D. Students for the Complicated Art of Teaching,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 15, 2013): A36–37.

Briefly Noted: “Is the Lecture Dead?”

In a recent essay in The Atlantic Richard Gunderman discusses the recent pedagogical trends in medical, dental, and nursing schools.[1] One trend is that the traditional “lecture” is going the way of the deceased patient. Yet Gunderman believes there may yet be life and hope for the academic lecture.

Medical educators increasingly doubt the effectiveness of the lecture, but they’re not the only ones.  “Commentators frequently single out the lecture as the prototypically old school, obsolete learning technology, in comparison to which newer educational techniques offer interactive, customized, and self-paced learning alternatives.” These newer techniques include the use of laptops, tablets, and other technology in interactive group formats. Moreover, this is not simply a choice individual instructors or institutions have made. As Gunderman notes, “The LCME, the organization that accredits US medical schools, strictly limits the number of hours per week students may spend in lectures.” Some schools are even put on probation for not adhering to this criteria, apparently spending too much time on “passive” approaches to learning.

In the wake of all this progressive and interactive learning one asks, “what then of the lecture?” Gunderman believes, recalling Mark Twain’s words, “widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.” Ineffectiveness is not inherent in the lecture; it is inherent in the poorly delivered lecture. Surely just as there are boring, ineffective lectures there are boring, ineffective study groups. So Gunderman believes educators “must attempt to understand better the features that distinguish effective, engaging lectures [and lecturers]” rather than “disposing entirely of the lecture as a means of learning.” Thus the fate of the lecture is more a matter of the lecture’s purpose and the lecturer’s acumen and passion.

Gunderman encourages educators to ask a basic question: “why am I lecturing?” This question connects administrators and teachers to a more effective means of evaluation. The “why am I lecturing” question evaluates both the lecture and the lecturer. For as Gunderman argues, “the core purpose of a great lecture is not primarily to transmit information . . . The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the hearts and minds of learners.” Because of this sort of teaching, students raise new questions, connections, and possibilities in their own minds. Hence education is far more than disseminating information and tracking its consumption. Education is, then, a very human endeavor; good lecturers and good lectures recognize and strive for this.

Gunderman thus notes the qualities of a good lecturer and lecture. First, “a great lecturer tells a story.” Second, great lecturers enjoy lecturing (use “teaching” if you still dislike the term). “A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other.” (There is “group study” in good lectures!) Third, good lecturers lecture in person. Gunderman recounts, as examples, two lectures: one given by Randy Pausch (professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon) in 2007 (while he was dying of cancer), and the other by Steve Jobs in 2005 at Stanford University. They did not record their lectures on high-tech gadgets, about which they both knew a little bit, and they did not simply read their notes. Instead, Pausch and Jobs spoke passionately, personally (to their audience), and reflectively about their respective subjects. Their lectures were effective because they caused their audiences to think about their lives “from fruitful new perspectives” and likely without boring their audiences. Gunderman, then, challenges medical educators, and by extension all educators, to think twice before pronouncing the lecture deceased. Rather, “the lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources.”

Kudos to Richard Gunderman, wherever he is. The lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources, and it ought not be sent to the pedagogical morgue on account of its most boring and tedious practitioners. As teachers, we must work hard to evoke from our students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. To be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

May teachers everywhere, and especially professors of theology, lecture as if their hair were on fire. May they tell the Great Story passionately, personally, and reflectively, and in so doing inform, energize, and inspire their students.

[1] Richard Gunderman, “Is the Lecture Dead?” in The Atlantic (Jan. 29, 2013).