The Benefit of a Secular Education

“I don’t know why it isn’t working.”

The old man looked over at the young pastor. He saw a well-dressed young man, with an earnest but very troubled expression.

“So that’s what you wanted to talk to me about? It isn’t working?” he asked.

“Right. It just isn’t working, and I don’t know why. I’ve done everything I know, and I just can’t seem to connect with my congregation.”

The old man thought for a minute. He could see that the young man was about to start talking again, but he waved him back with his hand.

“Just what is ‘it’ that isn’t working?”

“My ministry. My church.”

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld

“You need to be more specific. What should be happening that isn’t?”

He could see a look of impatience pass briefly over the young man’s face. The young man clearly thought it was all very obvious.

“Well, church attendance is down since I took over the church. Membership is down. We haven’t had any professions of faith. We’ve had a few people transfer in, but not enough. We can’t meet our budget obligations. It just isn’t working.”

“So ‘it’ is a church with good statistics—membership, budget, church attendance.”

“Exactly! With all your experience as a pastor, I kind of expected . . .” His voice kind of faded. He had probably intended to finish with “you to know that.” But he didn’t.

“Numbers aren’t everything, you know,” said the old man.

“True, but there isn’t much that I can accomplish with a church that’s shrinking and that can’t pay the bills.”

“I didn’t say numbers weren’t important, just that they aren’t the only thing.”

There was another long pause.

“I’m wondering,” the old man resumed, ” what you preached about last Sunday.”

“I preached about the importance of being in church, not neglecting gathering together. It seemed to be what was needed.”

“And what reasons did you give them to go to church?”

“Well, besides that the Bible tells us to do so?”

“Yes, besides that.”

“I told them that it’s essential to our spiritual growth, to overcoming sin, and to becoming true disciples. We need encouragement from one another.”

“Did you mention farming?”

“No.”

“Truck driving?”

“No.”

“Teaching biology?”

“No. What do those things have to do with it?”

“Perhaps nothing at all. How long have you known you were called to be a pastor.”

The seeming non sequitur caught the young man off-guard. “Umm,” he said, “I think I knew when I was about 10 years old. I never told anyone till I was about 12.”

“And what did you take in college?”

“I took a degree in Bible. Many people questioned that decision, but I didn’t want to waste my time on things that weren’t relevant.”

“So you went to a Christian high school, then Bible college, then seminary, and from there to the pulpit, is that correct?”

“Yes.” He looked puzzled. This wasn’t how he expected this conversation to go. The old man had pastored many churches successfully. His reputation was that if you sent him to a large church it would get larger and more active. If you sent him to a small church it would become large. If you sent him somewhere where there was no church at all, there soon would be one. The man must have some secrets to pass on. The young man wanted those secrets.

“And how did you pay for school?”

“I was very blessed with that. I won scholarships that covered most of it. I have very little debt.”

“But you never really worked while you were in school, in a job, I mean.”

“Well, I was a teaching assistant.”

“To a religion professor?”

“Biblical studies. I learned a lot in that job.”

“Oh, no doubt. But how many biblical studies professors do you have in your congregation?”

The young man looked stunned again. “Well, none, of course.” The old man should know that much.

“How many truck drivers do you have?”

“I don’t know. Several, I’d think. There’s the factory and all.”

“How many farmers?”

“Well, again I don’t know exactly. Quite a few.”

“Teachers?”

“Again, we have a few.”

“What do you know about those things?”

“You mean the demographics of my congregation? I have a detailed report on my desk. I just don’t remember numbers well.”

“I don’t mean demographics. I mean what do you know about truck driving, farming, and teaching. Not Bible teaching, but regular secular teaching.”

“Well, I guess not much.” He’d thought of saying he knew something about those various topics, but he was afraid the old man would ask him what he knew, and he actually didn’t know anything about those jobs.

“Precisely,” said the old man, as though he had made a major discovery. “You never had the benefit of a secular education.”

“I see,” said the young man. And he didn’t like it, but he thought he did get it. “You mean I need to understand these people’s jobs so that I can find the hooks to draw them into spiritual things!”

It was the old man’s turn to be stunned. “No! No! No!”

“I don’t understand.”

“You need to know about their jobs and their lives so that you can help make those things sacred.”

The young man looked confused. “Make them sacred?”

“Where do you think the congregation impacts the world? In the church?”

“No, I suppose they do it at work. But I thought they should learn about spiritual things and then share those things at work. It’s my job to teach them spiritual things.”

“True, but only partially so. It’s your job to equip them to do ministry. You can’t equip them to do ministry if you don’t understand where it is that they’re going to do ministry. They do it at the office, in the cab of a truck, on a tractor, at the market, and in many other places.”

“I’ve tried to get more of them involved in the church . . .”

The old man interrupted him, “And that’s where you make your mistake.”

“But they need to be involved in the church!”

“Yes, but it’s even more important for the church, and I don’t mean your building or your committees or your programs, but the Church, the people, to get involved in the world.”

The young man looked at the old one for a couple of minutes. It was the first time of silence he wasn’t in a hurry to interrupt. He knew that. But he certainly hadn’t put it into practice.

“So what do I do now. I can hardly go back and change the way I was educated.”

“Perhaps so, but think about this. There are many ways to get a secular education. One is simply by paying attention to what people are doing. Now that you have the idea, I think you’ll think of ways to do it. And you may find it’s not all that secular after all . . .”

(This post has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Secular.)

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