Ah, ’tis the season for schools at all levels of the educational process to boot their most accomplished, successful, loyal members–the ones who have been with them for years and in some cases given them a substantial amount of money–out the door.
I went to one lovely graduation a few days ago; tomorrow, I have another to attend. Joyous times for both of the young men. Perhaps a bit of sadness that they will not, on a daily basis, see some of the friends they have grown to love over the last few years. But mainly, a time of celebrating achievements and looking forward to adventures and challenges to come.
The thing about a school is that its purpose is to bring you in, transform you in some way, and then shoot you out the other side. If you successfully complete that transformation, you become an ‘alumna/us’, and the fact that you’ve survived and left gives the institution the right to exploit your future success, because you owe it to them as the place where you got your great start. That’s not a criticism, but a fact, and your future obligation to the school is often laid out pretty explicitly by the graduation speaker (especially if s/he was booted out of the same august institution from which you are being ejected). You are expected to encourage others to choose to attend your school, send your own children to study there, make connections with and for others based on this affiliation, and possibly even give considerable financial support.
You are always welcome to visit, meet the people who have come to the school after you, encourage them on their journey and give them a glimpse of what might lie on the ‘other side’ for them. A few graduates may even, in time, return as teachers or admnistrative staff. Most, however, will have less of a day-to-day involvement, although the school’s influence will be felt in many ways through the work of alumni/ae in the wider world.
Churches should be more like schools, if you ask me. There are other institutions that churches should be like, and I’ve written about one of my other favorites here. But for the moment, I want to think about how church might be a better thing if it was more like a school than it is. I’m thinking more like a middle-to-high school than either an elementary school or post-secondary institution, and so that will dominate my exploration.
First, as I’ve said, the whole point of school is to leave. To achieve enough proficiency in a variety of areas to move to the next phase of life, well-equipped for new challenges and having become the kind of person who represents their alma mater well. I think that is what a Stage 4 Past-Christian really is. It may take an alarmingly short, or painfully long, period of time to reach the place where it is time to move on, but perhaps instead of all our nervous-nellieness (again, if this is not a word, it should be and I thus declare it one) over attendance and giving, we can try to view people who are ready to leave as graduates. If the churches change their attitudes towards those who have moved on, trying to maintain a positive but changed relationship with them, things might look very different. It’s worth a try. Alumnus/a has a much better sound to it than some of the terms often used: lapsed (probably the gentlest), backslider, apostate, lost.
As well, in a high school–as opposed to the earlier years of education–students interact with a variety of people who are a bit further along in life’s journey. Each subject is taught by someone who knows that subject really well, and there is no expectation that the person who teaches upper-level Spanish will be able to help you with your physics homework. A student may excel in a smaller range of subjects than the curriculum requires him or her to study, but the goal is to gain reasonable proficiency over a range of disciplines, to see the value in different ways of looking at the world, and to discern what knowledge is appropriate to apply in different circumstances the student might encounter outside the institutional setting. Really good teachers are thrilled–not threatened–when students take their learning past what the teacher has, gain more proficiency, and apply it outside the classroom in ways the teacher may never have imagined.
From about the end of sixth grade (about age 11 here in the United States), students also have access to–and even required meetings with–staff members whose sole purpose is to help them transition out of the school setting. These are the guidance, college, or career counselors who ask the questions about what interests the student is developing, where they are having success or difficulties, what their goals are (both for the next phase of life and in the longer term), and advises the student on what is required or recommended to give the best chance of achieving those goals. This is not a psychological service (although they may refer students to one if needed), but a partner in discernment.
In brief, the important thing about a school is that it is not the destination of a student’s life journey (it would be tragic if it were). The school experience is designed to be one out of which the student transitions out of, but maintains a positive relationship with, the institution.
What if church was more like school? How would that look and feel?
There would be an automatic assumption that the ‘core congregation’ was not the most important thing about the local church. The people who were there every Sunday (and for most mid-week stuff as well) could be categorized in two ways: either (a) they were in the role of ‘student’, where they needed a great deal of institutional nurture before they were ready for Christian tasks and witness in the wider world, or (b) they had completed the curriculum, so to speak, had gotten a wider experience of the world (including more than what the local church can offer), learned more than was possible in the congregational setting, and returned as alumni/ae to take on significant roles for the purpose of aiding and nurturing those who are not as far along and ready to leave for a time.
There would be a wider variety of voices–in Christian education, from the pulpit, writing in the newsletter, or the parish website/social media–than just one ordained person (or his/her select group). A range of viewpoints, approaches, methods for growth in Christian life would be thrilling, not threatening.
We would appreciate–even celebrate–Christians moving on to a phase in their spiritual journey in which their ties to and involvement with the institutional church were significantly less. And yet, we would work hard to maintain positive relationships with those who have moved, for a time or forever, beyond what the local congregation can offer or provide. We would not be shy about asking them to remember the church in their giving (even if they are no longer regular attenders), or ask them to come back as guests to share their experiences of spirituality and service that have happened outside the auspices of conventional church. And, if we are a good institution of spiritual learning, we would not abandon our alumni/ae at difficult times in their lives.
The whole point of a school is to leave–equipped for a bright future and service to the world, but with good, lifelong relationships between students, the formatve institution, and the people who by virtue of that institution’s existence have been part of each others’ lives for a time.
Church really does need to be more like school.