As many of you know, I have a company that I co-operate with fellow minister Randy Wray that we call BranchWeaver. We generate resources to help churches use technology in ministry. The idea behind the name comes from the idea that Christ is the vine and we are the branches, and we want to help weave the branches together so they work better.
I was recently introduced to a man with considerable artistic talents. He was raised unchurched and had recently started attending our congregation with family members whom he was currently living with. In a effort to reach out to him, I asked about designing a logo for our company. He thought it would be a good project, so I described to him how our company got its name. With an enlightened look on his face, he said, “I know exactly what I’ll do!”
Fast forward a few weeks. One of his family members came to me with a humorous story. When the family member came home one day she found her youngest son helping the artistic relative with a web search. They were looking for images of dogwood trees. The artist explained what he was working on for me, and this task demanded visual research on dogwoods. The family member asked “Why dogwoods?” The artist replied with a sincere but clearly unchurched response, “Because anyone who knows anything about Christianity knows that the cross was made of dogwood!”
I’m a big fan of the dogwood tree. It is, after all, the state flower of my home state of Arkansas. But how on earth could the cross be made from dogwood? This statement actually stirred in my memory banks a legend I had heard a long, long time ago. According to said legend, the dogwood was once a tall, strong, thick trunked tree that was popular for making crosses for crucifixions. After the dogwood was used for the cross of Christ, God cursed the dogwood so it could never be used for a cross again. In fact, there’s a nifty little poem out there about it:
In Jesus’ time, the dogwood grew
To a stately size and a lovely hue.
‘Twas strong and firm it’s branches interwoven
For the cross of Christ its timbers were chosen.
Seeing the distress at this use of their wood
Christ made a promise which still holds good:
“Never again shall the dogwood grow
Large enough to be used so.
Slender and twisted, it shall be
With blossoms like the cross for all to see.
As blood stains the petals marked in brown
The blossom’s center wears a thorny crown.
All who see it will remember Me
Crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree.
Cherished and protected, this tree shall be
A reminder to all of my agony.”
So… what’s the point?
The point of this series, and of the title in particular, is to draw attention to the fact that the distance between us and unchurched/non-Christians around us is significantly greater than we really imagine. The typical approach to discipling new converts is to receive from them some kind of commitment of faith (baptism, placing membership, etc.) and then to point them to where the adults participate in church. Who cares what the adult classes are studying? Could be Christian parenting, could be Song of Solomon. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that this person is a Christian now and so they do what Christians do… go to Bible class and worship.
Like the man from my story above, people outside of our churches learn a lot of things about God, Jesus, church, and the Bible. Unfortunately, almost none of it comes from the Bible itself. Tradition, Christmas specials, movies like The Nativity or The Passion of the Christ, The History Channel, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, their 2nd cousin Bob who dropped out of seminary, and old wives tales like the one about the dogwood tree are the most common sources of information for non-Christians/unchurched about God/Jesus/Church, etc. This is very, very scary.
Awareness of this leads to a couple of realities that demonstrate our need as churches to focus on a systematic way of helping people assimilate into church culture through the acquisition of basic Bible knowledge and skills on how to handle the Bible.
First, no one likes to feel stupid. Imagine how the artistic gentleman above would feel if he had shared his belief about the dogwood with a Bible class? Hopefully he would have been handled gently, but I know some settings where he wouldn’t have been. This would be catastrophic for the assimilation of this gentleman into the church body.
Second, in general church adult education programs are a poor source of education. The most popular version of class for both teachers and students is currently discussion based classes. I’m a big fan of the discussion based class, but when not properly managed it becomes more of an opportunity for people to get together and share what they ‘think’ about a passage or what they ‘feel’ about a situation. Perhaps even worse is how often a discussion based class can devolve into a pooling of ignorance that is guised behind dialog. This is not beneficial for anyone, least of all new Christians that need teaching.
Sounds fairly dreary. People don’t know scripture and we’re not teaching it to them. What must be done? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but a recent two year study on church history has revealed a significant pattern. The Christian movements that were most effective at being reformative and revolutionary were the ones that took advantage of ‘catechism’. Catechism is a scary word for some because it sounds so catholic. Catechism is simply a formal curricula that covers the information that a group feels is essential. New converts went through a catechism before they were ‘full members’.
But creating catechism would require identifying the basics and most important things about the Christian faith. What are those things, and how would we identify them? More on that later, but for now, use the comments section below to share your thoughts on the dogwood series thus far.