Review: Faith Inkubators “Head to the Heart”

Pastor Bill and Ed lead First Lutheran’s Confirmation students in prayer during their retreat.

As an intern pastor, one of my assignments has been to help teach the Confirmation classes at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in cooperation with my supervising pastor and the education director. The class numbers roughly 30 kids in any given week. Most of the kids cannot sit still or stop talking unless a teacher is standing directly over them. They cannot focus on anything long enough to have even a small discussion. They “need” something new, fresh and engaging.

Enter Faith Inkubators’ “Head to the Heart” Confirmation curriculum. The Parish Education ministry at First Lutheran looked at many Confirmation curricula and, based on good things they had heard about it, decided to try H2H. It is a program that seeks to engage kids on as many different levels as possible to keep them interested.

As we approach the half-way point of this year, I’ve decided to review my experience teaching with H2H so far. Overall, I have not been impressed.

Context is Everything

Some of my dissatisfaction with the H2H program is not the fault of H2H. For example, H2H relies heavily on parents’ participation and involvement in their child’s theological education. My experience has been that, in my particular context, the parents are not interested in being an active part of their child’s education. With this vital component missing, it may be that H2H simply cannot work in this context.

H2H also implicitly relies on a large staff or corps of volunteers to effectively present the lessons as they are meant to be presented. H2H wants Confirmation classes to be large-scale multimedia “events” (it specifically warns teachers against calling Confirmation a class) which take a great deal of time, money, and people-power to organize. For just the three of us teaching the class, we find that we cannot use much of what H2H suggests because we have neither the time nor the people to do so. I find it ironic that one of Faith Inkubators’ Ten Foundations is “the Bible is the only text book you need for Christian education” since every lesson asks for many more resources to be utilized from across the media spectrum.

But laying these contextual issues aside, H2H suffers from some built-in flaws of its own.

Wait, it says what?

Few things anger me more than teaching materials with factual inaccuracies. H2H contains many of these. Some of them seem relatively minor, such as H2H’s constant referral to the year “0 BC”, a year that does not exist in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (we use the Gregorian calendar, by the way). While not a game-breaker, this lack of attention to accuracy is indicative of the H2H attitude.

Other errors are more serious. One of the chapters on Jesus claims that we have more first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life than any other figure in history.  In fact, we have zero first-hand accounts of Jesus’ life: the four canonical gospels were written well after Jesus’ death and were more than likely not written by anyone who had contact with him. This sort of major error appears in roughly half of the lessons we have used so far.

Some of the lessons are poorly organized. Last week’s lesson, “The Teachings of Jesus,” didn’t actually deal with any of Jesus’ teachings. It briefly mentioned that Jesus was a teacher and asked the students what qualities they thought made a good teacher. The rest of the lesson focused on Jesus’ role as a prophet, using the story of the Samaritan woman at the well as its central story (John 4).

At no point did the lesson spend any time talking about what Jesus taught. It never touched on Jesus’ favorite way of teaching, using parables. In a chapter titled “The Teachings of Jesus”, I expected at least recognition of these elements. Instead, my supervising pastor, the education director and myself had to practically write a new lesson to introduce the teachings of Jesus.

We should not have to rewrite an entire published (and expensive) lesson because it is badly written. We have had to do this more than once, and it is clear that we will have to continue doing it. We simply do not have time.

Final Assessment

I have other opinions about some aspects of H2H, but I recognize that they are, for the most part, personal opinions. For example, I find the idea that we must bombard our kids with stimuli to force them to focus is ultimately harmful, not helpful. Others may disagree. But even apart from these opinions, there are still flaws with H2H that make me ultimately question its usefulness.

H2H is popular in many churches, and maybe for others, it works well. There have been classes where the H2H material has worked well. But my experience with it as a whole has not been good, and ultimately, I would not recommend it to others.

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Sermon–November 27, 2011–Advent 1B

First Sunday of Advent B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

As Paul greets the Corinthians in his letter to them, so too, do I greet you today: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how happy I am that we are finally out of the season of Pentecost. In case you hadn’t noticed, these last few weeks have been filled with readings proclaiming woe and destruction, fire and brimstone, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Oh my goodness, who wants to listen to that, let alone preach on it!

Week after week we were reminded of our own sinfulness, our own inadequacy, our own fallacies, our mistakes, our excuses, our whoopsies and oopsies, and everything else we really would rather keep to ourselves.

If you are just as tired of these types of readings as I am… good. Somehow, I think… that was the point. Some of us have been waiting weeks for Advent to come. But what are we waiting for?

The more I use the Revised Common Lectionary, the more I am convinced that we don’t give it enough credit. For me, let’s face it, after All Saints’ Day, I could move straight into Advent and do without those nasty, uncomfortable lessons. Why do we have to listen to those, anyway? I was about ready to throw up my hands and say, “Enough already! Enough!”

And lo and behold, I looked at today’s readings: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” “Make your name known to your adversaries!” “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember our iniquity forever!”

“Enough already, enough!” The frustration that I have experienced these past few weeks comes to an ultimate finale on this, the first weekend of Advent. As I said, I think I need to give the Revised Common Lectionary a little more credit.

And if I thought I had it bad, being oh so inconvenienced by these past few weeks, the readings today snapped me back to reality so hard I think I have whiplash.

You see, for me, these readings were just that… readings. For others, they are daily cries for help that too often go unheard. Isaiah’s preaching echoes the lament being shouted by the Judeans in exile.

“Enough already, enough!” they cry. “How much more are we supposed to take, God, how much more! We NEED you!” They felt like God had abandoned them. With all of the terrible things they’ve gone through, how can anyone say that there is a God. What kind of a God would allow this to happen to a chosen people? These same cries are shouted over and over again by people suffering persecution and oppression. So again, what are we waiting for?

Well, I can tell you what our brothers and sisters are waiting for, those who live on pennies a day, those who wonder if tonight the army will show up at their houses and take away their loved ones, never to be seen again.

They look for Mark. They eagerly wait to see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Their salvation is marked by the coming of angels gathering the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the earth. They are waiting for deliverance from their oppression and persecution, their poverty and powerlessness, from death itself. What are we waiting for?

Advent. The season of waiting. Are we waiting for Christmas Day, when we get to open our presents? Or Christmas Day, the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Immanuel, “God with us?” Not anymore. All that is behind us. We know the story. We know its beginning and its middle and its… end? Or do we?

Advent is not just about remembering the birth of Christ. Christ DID come, Immanuel, “God with us”, and died for the redemption of humanity. But there is still war. There is still persecution. There is still violence and oppression. What are we waiting for?

Listen: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

God’s not done yet. If there were nothing left to do, there would be no reason for the church to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. There would be no reason to do… anything Christ told us to do.

God’s not done yet. And THAT’S what we are waiting for.

Advent. The season of waiting. The season of working. One cannot get any work done while they sleep, and so we are told, “Keep awake!” We don’t know when God’s work in this world will be finished, and so we wait vigilantly, not wanting to be caught asleep when the work is completed. We do this not because we are afraid of being left behind. Rather, we keep awake so that we can continue to do God’s work in the world, as we are able, until God returns to finish it.

With the end of Pentecost and the beginning of Advent, we realize that we have reached the breaking point. We can’t do it all ourselves. We’ve tried for too long. So we cry out to God again, “Come!” And as we look out over the chasm before us, a divide that leads us to despair and hopelessness, we hear an echo return—but not in our words. Instead, we hear these words echoed back to us from across the great divide:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I am coming.” Amen.

Visitors to the Table

I sat down at a small round table in the fellowship hall where two visitors munched on coffee cake and sipped Kool-Aid.

I had met them earlier in the hallway; their friend, a member of the congregation and the one who had invited them to our church in the first place needed help answering a question they had. I don’t get to interact with visitors as often as I would like, so I was eager to sit and talk with them.

“I don’t know if we’ve been really introduced. I’m Ken.”

Meeting Michael and Cathy

They shared their names, Michael and Cathy. They’d been here before with their children and wanted to come back again.

“This was the first place we’ve visited that none of the kids complained about.”

That brought a smile to my face. Were they new to the area, I asked? No, but they had been searching for a new church since their old one wouldn’t welcome them anymore.

“Too many divorces between the two of us.”

By too many, they meant two. Each had been in a previous marriage before. Cathy was glad to be out of her old marriage; Michael didn’t talk about his. The two of them had been married two years now.

Our church doesn’t care how often you have been divorced, I said. It’s just not a sticking point for us like it is for others. That seemed to get their attention.

We continued to talk about their experiences with other churches and their reactions to each. I was interested to hear about which traditions they experienced–I never stop thinking with an ecumenical mind, it seems.

Coming to the Table

Eventually, it was time for them to go home, and I stood to show them out. Michael stopped me, however, and said that he had a couple more questions he wanted to ask.

“What is your Communion practice here, your belief?”

I told him that what we say at the table is true (and what had been said that morning during the service)–when Christ sets the table, everyone is invited. It is not for us to withhold it from anyone.

I watched their faces as they processed that idea. They came from a tradition which did not treat Holy Communion in this way. Most don’t. Cathy remembered being scolded for attempting to tak Communion because it was “not for her”.

Michael noticed an announcement in the bulletin about “First Communion” and asked what that was about. I explained that First Communion classes were usually for children who do not yet commune. The classes, a mere two, teach the children what Communion is all about.

We have these classes not because children can’t take communion before a certain time; it is simply a matter of church organization and order. Theologically, we could give Communion to an infant. I suspect we do not do so because we don’t want the child to choke.

“What about baptism? ‘Cuz… I’m, uh… not…”

Here, Michael assumed, would be the end of the discussion. They would be escorted promptly from the church and told to stay away from the altar until they were no longer heathens.

This had been their experience in other churches, why would this one be every different?

Ideally, I said, one should be baptized before coming to Communion. That has been the traditional formula: baptism, and then Communion. But if you came up again for Communion, we would commune you.

“You would?”

Yes, we would. We stand by our belief that when Christ sets the table, all are invited. Would I take the opportunity later to talk with you about the Christian community and would I encourage you to explore why you are coming to the table and how you can be a fuller member of the community? Yes. But if you came to the table, you would not be turned away.

I don’t think they expected to hear that. After a few moments, they kindly and generously thanked me for taking the time to talk to them and answer their questions. As they left I wished them blessings in their search for a church home, a place where they would not only feel welcomed but fed–physically and spiritually.

Seekers, Not Shoppers

I will be the first to admit that I do not react well to Church Shoppers.

“Do you have a Sunday school program? How many teachers? How  many kids?”

“Do you sing hymns, contemporary music, or nothing at all? Do you use the organ, piano, or praise band?”

“How many services do you have, and at what time? Vestments? Liturgy? Candles? Incense? Communion rail? Lectern and pulpit?”

The check list goes on and on. The shoppers have a specific image of what kind of church they want to attend. They go from church to church with their list. For the most part, the list is superficial (in my eyes). The list approaches church from a consumer perspective. The church is a product.

I struggle with church shoppers. On one hand, I am insulted by the insinuation that church is a product to be analyzed and presented in a consumer report.

On the other hand, I know that some of these list items are important to the shoppers: if they have kids, they want to raise them in a church with a good Sunday School program, for example.

Michael and Cathy, however, are not shoppers. They are Seekers. They are not looking for a church with programs to suit their busy lifestyle. They are not looking for a church that sings the same music they like to sing.

They are seeking God. They’ve been to church after church, rejected at some, uncomfortable at others, and hurt by others. They are seeking grace.

I could spend the rest of my ministry working with Seekers, baptized or unbaptized, Lutheran or otherwise. When I think of Evangelism, I think of Seekers. They need the Good News most of all because they are the ones who have been seeking grace and have yet to find it.

Will Michael and Cathy come back again? I hope so. In their eyes I saw a glint of hope. Maybe this is a place where they can finally find the welcome that has been denied them in other places.

Maybe this is a place they can finally call home.