Education: The Biggest Idol of Our Age?

That’s the question I want to throw out there.

One of my biggest frustrations in youth ministry is trying to get young people to prioritise their faith, over and above their education. This is a particular struggle around the exam season in January anad May/June. It’s during those periods that some of our young people drop of the radar almost completely as they say they need to revise and don’t have time to come along to church/youth group at the moment.

The constant cry I hear from young people is how important this year or these exams are. I’ve even heard young people trying to outdo each other as to who has the most work at the moment and therefore who is the most busy. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a downer on education as such and I can definitely see that education/higher education is right for some people and even that God uses it to get people where he wants them etc. I can’t really deny that as I’m a graduate myself and my theology degree has no doubt helped me in my line of work. But I know that it doesn’t make me or define me, and even though it has its uses, I probably could have made better use of 3 years simply by sitting and studying my Bible everyday with some solid Christians around me.

My issue is the lie that our young people seem to be buying into. The lie that their education is basically the most important thing in the world. When I was at school, here’s a rough outline of what the teachers would say to us in the different year groups.

Year 7 – This is the most important year as it’s your first year at secondary school and will really define how you’ll do in the future.

Year 8 – This is the most important year as last year was really just an introduction. This is the real work and how you do now will affect what sets you’re in next year.

Year 9 – This is your SAT’s year. This is the most important as it’ll decide what GCSE’s you’ll do.

Year 10/11 – Your GCSE years are the most important as these will define your future.

AS/A Level – Basically your GCSE’s now count for nothing. You need to get good results so you can go to uni. Oh  and a lot of what we taught you before wasn’t strictly true.

Degree – All that stuff before now means nothing. People will only care about your degree.

OK so I know that’s a sweeping generalisation, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. The thing is, the whole things a bit of an anti-climax. At the end all you get is a piece of paper. Now I know that along the way you’ve acquired knowledge and transferable skills etc and those are undoubtedly valuable for many areas of life. But the eternal reality is, it doesn’t really mean a lot. On judgement day, I don’t think Jesus will be asking how we scored in our GCSE History paper.

Let me just reiterate again. I don’t think education is wrong, but I think it has become an idol, one which our young people, parents and churches have bought into. Why as churches do we celebrate the young person who got 11 A*’s but who wasn’t seen at church/youth group/bible study for over a month during the exam season? Why do we not celebrate the young person who scored  D’s and E’s but tried their hardest and still kept their relationship with Jesus as the highest priority in their life. Surely that is the more Godly way?

The thing is, I think parents have bought into this as well. I reckon that if I stood at the front of church and asked parents for a show of hands as to what was more important: their child’s relationship with Jesus or their education, then most parents would say that their child’s relationship with Jesus was more important. But I don’t think that crosses over into practice so much. I’ve heard a lot of parents say something along the lines of “so and so can’t come along at the moment because they’ve got so much work on.” In many ways this is probably a wider parenting issue than simply education. I just don’t think that a lot of parents encourage their children in their faith, at least not much. I know lots of parents who say that their child isn’t really interested in church and they don’t like to try to force them in case it drives them away. The result is they do nothing. But let’s flip that into an education setting. If a child wakes up on Monday morning and say “I don’t want to go to school today,” what does a parents say? They say tough, get up, you’re going. They wouldn’t take any nonsense. But when their child says they don’t want to go to church or youth group, they back off. Parents are happy to encourage their children to go to school and work hard, even though from an eternal perspective, it will mean nothing, but they won’t encourage them to go to church/make time for youth groups/bible study which just may well have some bearing on their eternal salvation. Bananas!

And what drives so many of our young Christian’s choice of university? For the most part I would say it is its academic record. Now of course we’ll want to take that into account, but I wonder how many of our young people are considering their choice of uni based on whether or not it has a flourishing Christian union or solid Bible teaching churches in its locality. Shouldn’t that ultimately play more of a part? Don’t get me wrong, some parents definitely prioritise their children’s faith and are working hard to show their children that Jesus needs to be the priority in their life, and of course there are young people who prioritise their faith. It’s just sad that I think these people are probably in the minority.

Now I know this is easy for me to say as I’m not a parent and of course the reality of making this happen in practice is a lot more complicated. I’ve also been through the education system and achieved relatively highly. But I think that has simply helped me see the emptiness of academic achievement and so I think the principle I’m suggesting is right. A relationship with Jesus is worth far more than education. When I became a Christian, my priorities changed. Of course I had a lot of school work and exams, just like everyone else. But going to church on Sunday and to youth group in the evening were set in stone priorities. Any work or revision had to fit around them. The model I tend to see from a lot of young people is Jesus has to fit around my school work and if he doesn’t, he’s out.

I don’t think our churches are helping. Us middle class academics can tend to get a bit caught up in this whole education thing. We like big words and debate but we forget that the early church was started by relatively uneducated fisherman types. Not a degree in sight. They just relied on God. I wonder sometimes whether we’ve stopped relying on God and are relying on our understanding, our knowledge and the systems our Bible colleges have provided to pick apart scripture. If it’s not intellectual and deep then we must be getting it wrong.  But what a challenge it is to hear Jesus say that we need to receive him like a little child. What a challenge it was for me at the carol service of the special needs school to think about how the gospel is relevant even for those whose understanding may be severely limited.

I guess I’m just calling for perspective, some eternal perspective. Education is a great gift from God, but when it becomes the be all and end all and replaces God in our lives, it becomes an idol. It’s a classic example of us taking something that God has given us for good and making something bad of it. It’s because of my thoughts above that I will never ask my young people what grades they’ve achieved in their exams. That makes no difference to me. I will be asking them how their relationship with Jesus is going though.

Is education the biggest idol of our age? It’s a big claim and maybe it can’t take the crown, but I’m sure it must be up there.

p.s. immediately after I posted this I went on facebook and a friends status read as follows:

‎… “just so you know, from those of us who have been through the education system, all those things that you’re learning day to day… all the subjects and all the quotes and all of that stuff when you get out in to the real world, when you’re looking for work and meeting people, that stuff, is vital.” Dara O’Brien

I rest my case!

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3 comments on “Education: The Biggest Idol of Our Age?

  1. OK so I guess I can kind of see both sides of this arguement.
    Having stood in a teachers shoes I know that sometimes they have the same problem, trying to encourage young people to take an interest in their education (although without meaning to generalise, often these pupils are not christians and are putting other things like COD first…). I agree that education is important, but also that it is not the be all and end all and is definitely not for everyone.
    On the other hand I have just dropped out of a PGCE because I felt it was taking over my life and has certainly left my spiritual life slightly in tatters, however, like the parents you have been talking about, certain members of my family don’t seem to have noticed this problem (possibly partly because I have still been going to church, but have been so tired/distracted/uninvolved that even just being there has been pretty meaningless). This is slightly different I guess because I am at the stage where I am able to drop out and change course.
    If anything I think I would stand slightly more on the side of getting kids to prioritise church, but overall surely it is more about balance than priority? In our house we were always encouraged to keep sunday as a work free day and for the most part I have stuck to that and still managed to get a degree along the way. I’ve ranted a little bit and have now kind of lost track of where I was going so im going to stop now, but, yeah, just thought I’d share some views…

    • Hey. Thanks for your comment.

      Just for clarity, I think I would say prioritising their relationship with Jesus, rather than church, although that may have been mixed up a bit in what I said. The two aren’t necessarily the same and I’d much rather people prioritised Jesus rather than simply just church.

      I take your point about balance although I think we have to be careful about the connotations the word “balance” has. I’m certainly not suggesting that young people cut out education, rather that they take a more Godly approach to it in the vein of Colossians 3:23-24. The reason I don’t like the term balance is that it suggests that both areas should be given equal weighting (not that I think that’s what you’re suggesting) and it ties in with a model of life that people often exhibit. In this model, life is like a bike wheel with an individual at the centre and the spokes leading to various parts of their life around the edge of the wheel e.g. their faith, education, work, family life, hobbies. They’re all just various parts on the wheel. I feel if we talk about balance, then it puts our faith on an equal footing with the other areas of our lives and I don’t think that works.

      The model I prefer (and which I think is biblical) still uses the wheel idea but with Jesus at the centre and everything else coming off of that. Whether its our education, job, hobbies, family life etc all of those should be subject to Jesus and serving him. Our ultimate aim as Christians is to become more like Jesus, give glory to God and to make disciples and so in whatever areas of our life it may be, Jesus has to be at the centre. I think 1 Corinthians 10:31 shows that: ” So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

      I suppose my objection is when education (or any area of life) ceases to serve Jesus but is given equal or greater standing. That’s why I feel that we need to say Jesus is our priority rather than just strike a balance as ultimately, our salvation rests solely on being made right with God through Christ. I suppose it’s even more than that though because it’s not simply about our salvation but about the honour and glory which Jesus is worthy of. Our lives should be aiming to give him that honour and glory.

      As I said before, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t work hard at their education but they should do it “as if working for the Lord.” If it takes people away from Jesus, then something isn’t right.

  2. I passionately agree with this – though you have worded it far more eloquently than I could have! I *am* now a parent and I have a secret fear that somehow I’ll lose perspective and buy into the whole eduction thing as she gets older but I hope not. Honestly, I couldn’t care less if she has any formal qualifications, though obviously I’ll support her in her school work. If I could have one wish, it would be that she knows Jesus. Life does get in the way sometimes but really, that’s quite simple.

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