A Church Parable. Or Fable. Or Analogy. Or Something.
As churches wrestle with the rapid and sometimes radical changes taking place in Evangelical circles, Third Street Congregational Church is no exception. Located in the part of the U.S. called “The Heartland,” there’s been a move lately to change the name of the church of 400 members to “Heartland Christian Church,” with some preferring “The Gathering Place,” and minority votes coming in for “The Gathering Spot,” “The Gathering People,” and “Third Street Gathering.”
But the latest round of friction-generated heat has been over Sunday School. TSCC decided long ago to stick to the tradtional model of keeping the Christian Education hour separate, at 9:15 AM, followed by “big church” at 10:30, though smaller children are dismissed around 10:50 for a shorter, less-intensive time that church members are quick to tell you is “definitely not a substitute for Sunday School,” and usually involves the eating of goldfish crackers while watching Veggie Tales DVDs.
No, everyone agrees that keeping the more traditional model offers an alternative to what all the other churches are doing, and allows most adults to be present for the main event at 10:30. The heat involves what the adults are doing at 9:15, and I’m not referring to the Clements and the Saduccis penchant for using the time to enjoy a late breakfast at Third Street Family Restaurant.
Typically, the adults were divided into the Men’s Bible Class and the Women’s Bible Class, with the occasional inserting of a Baptism Class and New Members Class for four-week runs as needed. The women have enjoyed a mix of teachers including some women, men and material sourced on DVD, while the men have always been taught by Scott Harmber, a lay-person in the congregation who can find Bible verses while blindfolded and his hands tied behind his back. Scott’s the kind of guy who really should have gone into ministry, but possibly missed his calling. He taught most of the year; Pastor Elkins does one session with the guys each quarter, and any other mornings are filled in by Blake Streed.
So when Scott announced that, with just five years to go to retirement, he and his wife were buying a distribution business on the west coast, everyone figured that Blake would take over the Men’s Bible Class.
“Not so fast;” said the pastor. He explained that while the church was strongly committed to keeping a Christian Education hour at 9:15, having separate classes determined by gender was rather awkward considering the influx of new families coming to TSCC. Instead, he proposed a model where there would be four mixed classes (five in baptism and membership months) with each one having a slightly different emphases, including traditional Bible study, a class called “Christian Living in the Modern World,” a class for developing Christian leadership, and one other to be named later, that might appeal to a younger demographic.
Furthermore, he said that their adult Sunday School was not a suitable substitute for what other churches were accomplishing in mid-week small groups, and that for each of the four classes, there would be three small groups established, for a total of twelve, though there would be some allowance for people who wanted to do one thing on Sunday morning, but something very different during the week.
So, for awhile, the Men’s Bible Class continued with a variety of teachers, including a DVD that Scott Harmber made in a park near his new home; a park which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, the crashing of the waves making for occasional audio problems.
When the restructuring of the adult program never happened, people again suggested that Blake Streed was best suited to continue the depth and quality of teaching expected in that class. And Blake expected this himself, and was more than willing to, in great humility, take on the task.
So no one was prepared when one Sunday morning in the main service, Pastor Elkins introduced Jerrett Westin as the new teacher of the TSCC Men’s Bible Class.
Jerrett had taught the class on a couple of occasions. He and his wife had not grown up in church, but both of their lives had experience a dramatic turnaround in their late teens, and now, with four children and approaching their mid-40s he was taking a part-time seminary course with a mix of online courses and intense two-week sessions in July and January taught at a satellite campus an hour away, all of which would culminate in a Master’s degree in Christian Studies in about six years.
Frankly, Pastor Elkins, who was working on a doctorate himself, identified with Jerrett Westin’s love of learning and they met weekly to compare notes on what it was Jerrett was learning throughout the week. This was a good thing, since many of Jerrett’s courses were completely over the heads of everyone else in the church. They loved the seminary — in fact the church supported it financially — but it seemed to be equipping Jerrett with an artificial version of something Scott Harmber and Blake Streed came by naturally. Jerrett could explain things in both the Old and New Testament that were extremely interesting, but no one was sure if those things had any relevance to their everyday lives.
…Two years later, the Men’s Bible Class continues on. Jerrett isn’t really that bad, people have gotten to know him better; but there’s still a few people with the sentiment that the choosing of him wasn’t very democratic. The Men aren’t so much loyal or supportive as they are a captive audience; many have children in the Sunday School program, though the Third Street Family Restaurant did pick up a few regulars.
Plans are now in place for the change to four mixed classes, and a prototype of the mid-week small group program is already up and running and the church is continuing to see growth that is starting to strain the physical facilities.
Blake and his wife still attend TSCC, but is heavily involved with a Saturday morning men’s group run by another church. His gifts and talents are greatly appreciated and he does visit there occasionally, as they have three weekend service times.
But if you ask people at TSCC why this all matters, they would tell you that they learned through this that, at their church, education trumps experience and giftedness. They also learned that you can’t expect that if you are serving in a particular role that greater opportunities will open up; you can just as easily find yourself sidelined. But most, including Blake are very gracious about it and recognize the need to support Jerrett who is viewed as “a work in progress.”
Still, it’s funny how things turn out in churches. It isn’t so much that some people get hurt as it is that often everyone gets surprised.
I know Scott Harmber was surprised when I told him all this yesterday.