What Mathematics Taught Me About Faith

I have a troubled past when it comes to my mathematical skill level. Put simply, I've never been great at math. As I worked through middle and high school, I constantly struggled with the most basic functions of arithmetic. Each semester, I would ride the line between C- and D+ in my courses, continually under-motivated and frustrated that I couldn't succeed. When I graduated high school, I intentionally made plans to pursue a degree in art, with the hope that I wouldn't have to complete college-level math courses. As it would turn out, I would be wrong. About two years in, I switched my major to Marketing and learned that I was about to have a heart-to-heart with complicated maths. Needless to say, I was terrified. That is, until I left my first session of College Algebra.

The professor was different. At the time, I remember thinking that he was somewhere short of crazy, but I would soon find his craziness to be a work of genius. Dr. Scott Adamson was in no way a normal professor. He began the class explaining to us that he wouldn't be teaching formulas until we absolutely needed them. Instead, he would spend weeks walking us through various scenarios in which we would have to solve very real problems, without a prescribed formula in hand.

At first glance, it seemed like Adamson was a teacher who loved long-winded story problems, but this was far from the case. At the end of each unit, he would present us with the formula to explain the prior weeks of teaching—simple formulas like y=mx+b or complex ones like... just kidding I can't even write one. It took me almost two months to realize the genius of how he was teaching us. By the time he handed us the formula for a problem, it was virtually useless to us. He had taught us on a level way deeper than formulas. Instead of memorizing a formula, we had to learn the strategy to solve a type of mathematical problem. In the end, the formula would act less like a formula and more like a trigger for deeper, more complex thinking.

I don't say this lightly, his course was a genuinely profound experience for me. Adamson taught me the true value of math: it was simply a way of thinking and it was actually useful outside of the classroom. Because of Dr Adamson, math was no longer useless.

After my time in his class, I lost track of Adamson until I recently when ran into him in the lobby of my church. I gasped and started frantically explaining who he was to my husband, as if he was some sort of celebrity. I finally got the chance to tell Adamson that he was one of the most formative teachers in my whole education. I was hoping for a misty-eyed moment, but I wasn't sure he remembered me, so it was an a bit of an awkward interaction, but still worth it.

Recently, Adamson spoke at a TEDx event to share his teaching philosophy. In his talk, I got to see him explain the philosophy that changed my mind on math. I was stunned at how much his observations on mathematical education seemed strike at much deeper cords in my mind.

"Are we teaching yesterday's methods to solve today's problems?"

In the talk, Adamson explains that our teaching of math hasn't changed for nearly a century. Students are frequently taught mathematical methods that don't represent the world we live in today. I'm selfishly hoping he is insinuating that we can throw away the quadratic equation for good. Adamson shares that computers can do immensely more complex mathematics than any human with more speed and more accuracy. This fact alone begs the question, why do we need to teach math?

Additionally, he explains that the basic concept of “lecture” is nearly dead to most students. Students can now get online and find teachings from Stanford, Harvard, or any other renowned institution that is likely of higher quality than their own school's instruction. Within minutes they can Google anything to find an answer without having to sit through a boring, un-engaging lecture. Adamson says, "...there's an abundance of research to prove that lecture is an outmoded, outdated and ineffective method of teaching and learning."

With the amazing technological tools at our fingertips, it leaves us wondering where humans fit into the equation. I couldn't agree more.

While Adamson presented this conundrum of the need for teachers, he makes a strong case for why we need to continue teaching students mathematics. He defined mathematics using four purposes:

  1. Making Sense of problems

  2. Asking the right questions

  3. Determining what information you need to know (computations/procedures)

  4. Engage problems with intention and purpose.

At this point in his talk, the scarred math student that I am, began shouting "Amen!" when Adamson listed these four purposes and then said, "Most of our math education has been centered on [Number 3]: computations and procedures...We've done the one thing that computers can do well and we've skipped the three things that we need humans to do well."

While technology has evolved, math education hasn't. Students are finding math to be even more useless and irrelevant. And we thought technology would make subjects less challenging, not less important! All of this got me thinking…

The 1957 Church

For my parent's generation, the church's role was to interpret and instruct laypeople on the meaning and moral authority of Scripture. Church was where we came to worship God in song. Church was where they came to hear lectures that would challenge various issues in their lives. Church was where people came to learn about scripture. And for some, church was where people came as a last ditch effort to "fix" their life.

I'm finding that this isn't the case anymore. The role of church is changing in the lives of people I know.

Every few weeks, I have a conversation with different people who are disenfranchised on the idea of local churches. Their reasoning is almost always the same: "I don't go to church anymore, because I don't need it." They're frustrated that their church got too corporate, too judgmental, too mega, too flashy, or too Sunday-driven. They discovered that their questions about God weren't being answered in a way that mattered to their lives. Instead, they went online and found higher quality sermons, better sounding worship, and more meaningful, educated interpretations of scripture. They don't really need a pastor anymore, because Google took the pastor's job.

"We've done the one thing that computers can do well and we've skipped the three things that we need humans to do well."

It couldn't be clearer to me that this misdirected purpose is what plagues our churches. It is the single reason that people I know have left the church. For these people, the church is no longer a space where they can wrestle with problems in their lives, free of judgement. The church is no longer a space where they can ask questions; dark questions. The church is no longer a space where they are comfortable engaging with other people, because they no longer feel safe.

To these people, church became the space where they came to hear trite, three-step formulas to apply to issues in their lives. It's where they came to be served simplified theology filled with contradictions that couldn't truly be taught within the 35 minutes between worship and the weekly alter call.

The church is missing its mark. Christians and culture have evolved, but to many, the local church hasn't followed suit. We look and see that we're still using, as Adamson laments, 1957 teaching methods on Christians in 2018.

Instead of evaluating the format of church altogether, we've reworked the sermon to include more visuals, changed the name, and added more lights to our worship sets in hopes that we will continue to draw people in. I happen to like lights, but I'm not sure they've revolutionized the local church on a substantial level. Something has to change.

Before I go further, let me say that I deeply believe in the utility and value of church. I stand by the institution of the local church, not because I think it's perfect, but because I truly see it's value in my life and in the lives of those it serves. Even more, I see the missing value of church in the lives of those who have become disillusioned by it.

What Should The Church Be?

I watched this simple TEDx talk given by my former professor and walked away frustrated and excited at the prospects of what the local church could be as a result. Adamson's remarks against the outdated teachings of math resonated deeply with me, but so did his proposed solutions. 

For about three years, my husband and I sought out a new local church to attend. Without putting much thought into what we were looking for, we hopped from church to church hoping that we'd know what we wanted when we saw it. I can confidently say, this never happened to us. It happened when we stopped shopping for engaging messages, quality worship and shaded parking spots. Okay, that last part was a wasn't true…we live in Arizona.

Each week at our current church, I see thousands of people walk in and walk out of the service, largely unaffected by the messages they’ve just heard. I hear pastors say, “If people will just get involved beyond Sunday, they’ll see how great our church is!” If the goal is to get people connected beyond Sunday, maybe we should start making Sunday mean something more.

I now think I have a better understanding of how the church can matter in 2018.

After analyzing the conversations I've had with the disillusioned church dropouts, I realized that one thing was missing in nearly every case. These people were no longer in need of knowledge—they have access to that everywhere. Instead, people are looking for love and they're looking for it in community. The problem is that they weren't finding love in their communities. Instead, they found inauthentic groups of people whose interest in connection stretched only as far as their tolerance for people of different backgrounds. Sermons lost their appeal when the community they were being taught to wasn't really trying to engage.

If church is going to instruct it's members on anything, it must be on how to be a community. To use Adamson's model, when the aspects of community are fostered, we can better learn to make sense of problems, ask the right questions, and better engage our lives with intention and purpose. And, If we need to Google a few things in the process, I think we're on a good path.

A Church That Is A Community

In his proposed solution to his mathematics conundrum, Adamson said it well: "We need to train students to become effective and persistent problem solvers." It was in my time in his class that I realized the true purpose of math. It made suffering through problems significantly more tolerable when I knew that the sheer act of problem solving was transforming my mind. I didn't need Adamson to teach me the formula for slope, I needed him to teach me why the heck it mattered in the first place. Church is no different.

In 2018, we are no longer in need of novel, prescriptive teachings on what Scripture is. We can find this in many places without the need for community.

Instead, we need a space to talk about what Scripture means, how it matters to our lives, and how to walk through pain with those teachings as our guide.

We need a place in the church to ask questions and to be skeptical of this wild God that we follow.

We need a place to get angry with God and for that anger to be allowed amidst other believers.

We need a space to be held accountable. To have our lives challenged in a way that makes us feel loved and not judged.

We need a place where we can witness other people work through issues in ways that we might not have seen in our own theological bubbles.

The biggest question for the Church is: when we realize that a change is needed, will we make it?