Coffeehouse Bible Smackdown

Why eavesdropping is a bad idea...

I have a new weekly ritual. My spouse is a yoga instructor and she has a new evening class. It happens to be an evening when I don’t normally have programming or even *gasp* youth sports to attend. So I go to a coffeeshop around the corner and read/study/write for an hour. I thought it would be a nice thing to get in more preparation time away from the distractions of the office.

Boy was I wrong. Why? Because apparently this particular spot is where no less than 3 churches have youth bible studies. And I can’t help myself but to sit in the middle and eavesdrop on them.

The first week, it was awesome. One group was discussing avoiding illicit girls who want to steal your virginity. The other was discussing the importance of being naked (metaphorically) before your spouse. They were making fun of Mormons by saying that they wear sacred underwear and thus are never really naked before each other (that is untrue, it is actually only with your spouse that you remove them so the lesson would apply to them better than anyone else!). Needless to say, it’s a great experience listening to the diversity of conversation.

Then we get to today.

I get there and there’s two middle-school boys reading Scripture. They are discussing Mark 12 (or Matthew 21, I couldn’t tell) about Christ being the cornerstone that the builders rejected, and to all others it is a stumbling block. But the boys didn’t know what a cornerstone was. One of them had looked it up and found scripture references in Psalms of course but couldn’t find a definition. They also had word-searched and found the Isaiah 8 passage…and they didn’t know what a sanctuary was either! They kept on talking about the scripture and the words and were getting nowhere even though they had done some research well.

Given I’m pastor to youth, I started outlining what I would say in my head. A minute later an older youth/college student came in and sat down with the boys, obviously their mentor. They told him their troubles…his response? “I don’t know what a cornerstone is either. Is it important? Why would Jesus talk about this? This passage doesn’t make sense. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense until we know more of the bible.”

Oh man, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut!

Here’s the exchange when one of the youth got up to walk by my table to get a water:

Me: Hey man, a cornerstone is the first stone a builder lays. Everything else is built on top of it and around it. So when we say Jesus is the cornerstone, then we mean that our faith begins with him. But that’s not enough. We have to be disciples and learn, study, do works of mission to build our faith as a sanctuary with Jesus as the cornerstone. Does that make sense?

Youth: Thanks! I didn’t know that.

Mentor: Hey, [YOUTH NAME], why don’t you go sit down? [YOUTH SITS DOWN] Listen buddy, I knew all of that. I didn’t want to tell them, they have to find it out on their own. I don’t appreciate you fooling with my teaching style.

Me: OK, that’s fine. They are your youth. But they had a basic question that they were struggling with before you showed up. And I’m a teacher of the Word. So why not tell them that factual information? I didn’t want to leave them in willful ignorance.

Mentor: It’s not ignorance, it’s teaching style. They have to find out stuff on their own!

Me: That’s fine. I’m leaving in 10 minutes and I won’t interfere again. I apologize.

I left a few minutes later. And I realize I made the “willful ignorance” comment in spite, probably, but still it was incredible to me. There were two youth interested in the bible but they lacked the factual knowledge of what a cornerstone was. They even looked up the word in a concordance…who wouldn’t want to encourage that sort of work?

Sigh. Thoughts?

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  1. says

    Um, maybe you should go to yoga??

    But more seriously: I don’t know what you *should* do, but I do know that what you did is what I would have done. And putting myself in the place of the mentor, it challenges me to think how I respond (with humility?) when someone else knows more than I do.

  2. Sean says

    The mentor’s teaching style is to lie? (He tells the boys “I don’t know what a cornerstone is either;” he tells you “I knew all of that.”) Doesn’t sound like a very Christian teaching style to me.

    He could have had a really neat conversation with the youth about learning from from people inside and outside of one’s own community, and talked about the importance of context for understanding what Jesus was teaching. We don’t often use solid stone blocks in construction these days, no wonder they don’t know what a cornerstone is… But what’s lost if the analogy’s applied to poured concrete foundations, to timberframe construction, to prefab housing? Is there a better example from their world, one which more closely matches the meaning of Jesus being the cornerstone of one’s faith?

  3. says

    I think you did what was right. The other youth pastor has a skewed view. “Finding things out on your own” is not fruitful sometimes, especially when you don’t know some of the words (let alone not knowing the original languages).

    Although, I am curious what definition for “cornerstone” they would have come up with. Or “sanctuary”

  4. says

    Weak. Not on your part – on this “mentor” (if you can call him that). Sadly this guy seems more concerned with how he looks than what his students can learn. I’m not trying to make you feel good about yourself or help you feel better – I think you did the right thing – those kids needed to know that – that is knowledge that can help them out – did the guy give them a dictionary? I think not. If he wants them to look for it themselves he should probably equip them to do that, i.e. a dictionary or at least Google. Just sayin. Keep it real bro.

  5. says

    1. This guy has mistaken notions of proper pedagogy.
    2. I’m not convinced he knew what a cornerstone was either.
    3. Thus, he needed to bark at you because he was embarrassed and needed to mark his territory.
    4. I think if you both continue to patronize the shop there are several interesting possibilities.
    a.) He gets better and more informed for fear of being shown up.
    b.) He persists in his “pedagogy”/ignorance just to ignore you.
    c.) You sit there and smirk/sigh/chuckle whenever he says something wrong until he
    i.) Snaps
    ii.) Speaks every word in paranoid trepidation

  6. says

    I’m interested in knowing what those two youth think of this encounter (I imagine they both heard it since they were right there). What would it feel like to know you struggled to look something up in every way you possibly could and asked someone you expect could help and his answer was, “I don’t know either” but then a minute later he tells a stranger, “I knew all of that?” If I was a youth it would make me wonder if he was lying to me or to the stranger….

  7. says

    Finding things out on your own is a useful learning tool but your mentor or teacher should provide you with the resources to learn and not just say, “I don’t know” all the time. If you aren’t aiding their learning process what are you there for?! He could have at least told them to look in a dictionary or to google it. I think what’s more likely is that he really didn’t know and was trying to save face.

  8. Brian says

    You know what’s a great teaching style? Actually teaching. Last time I checked, being ignorant and then feigning intelligence when called on it isn’t a teaching style.

  9. Mark says

    Having spent a LOT of my life training to teach, I agree that the mentor’s response was at best missing the point. However, while I wouldn’t think of defending what appears to me also to be a faulty didactic plan, I think maybe a point was missed.

    Jeremy, I probably would have done the same thing as you, but I think maybe you missed a subtlety. The first bit of your initial comment – exactly what a cornerstone was to an ancient builder – was “fact,” but the rest was interpretation, perhaps common and widely accepted, but interpretation nonetheless. Telling the student a cornerstone is the first stone a builder lays around and upon which all else is laid might not have set off the mentor. From there, I can imagine an entire lesson being built around that single factual datum which would allow the students to “discover” what that means, to them and to traditional Christian interpretation.

    Additionally, I would add a nuance. That Jesus is the cornerstone may be obvious to us, looking back through 2,000 years of stained glass, but this scripture was cited in a parable; so we can at least assume that it was not obvious to everyone around Jesus, and that mystery was an essential part of Jesus’ didactic style.

    Anyway, I seriously don’t want to defend this particular response, but – when I was a young teacher – I too might have been irritated if I felt like a bystander had given the “punchline” to an entire planned lesson.

    Unfortunately, in our isolated lives, it is sometimes too easy to feel as though we can measure someone with only a few lines of information, but in this case it seems that both of you may have fallen into this trap.

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