I wasn’t sure what to name this blog. I had other names that stuck out at me more than Alternative Church, but they were already taken. My favorite is Organic Church, a term I coined for myself, but found someone else also coined the same term for themselves. I think I like that term because it paints a picture of what I want to be rather than what I don’t want to be. The word “Alternative” indicates there is something that one is reacting against — that is, an alternative is always an alternative to something. There has to be something you don’t want to have an alternative.
Organic on the other hand speaks of a vision of something that is as natural as breathing. Nothing artificial, nothing man-made. Growing naturally, being tended not cultivated. Not manipulated, but allowing it to be what it is naturally.
Still, alternative has some positive connotations for me, and most “alternatives” I have been exposed to came from a desire to have something more authentic, more “organic”, if the truth be told. Growing up, I spent more half my school years in what were called alternative schools. These schools were born out of trying to find methods of education that worked more effectively than the traditional methods. During what would have been considered grades 1-4, I was enrolled in free schools, except for 1 year when I was home schooled. No we were not Christians, which is what most today associate the home school movement, we were hippies. My Dad was an atheist, and my mother agnostic. The home schooling occurred because there were no good alternative schools available where we were living for that year. I have fond memories of trying to dodge the truant officer (we were certainly ahead of our time)!
The Free Schools you can read about at the link (but it’s wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), but to summarize, they were schools with very few rules or expectations. The idea was to give freedom to kids to learn in their own way at their own pace. Though the schools themselves had age ranges, they did not separate the children into grades, give grades, or have traditional classrooms. Teachers all went by their first names (yes, you could say it was a “hippie school”).
I can honestly say there were some major drawbacks to this method of schooling, though some aspects of it worked well for me personally. Being naturally inquisitive, I sought out opportunities to learn. I remember when I was 8, I had a math teacher named Lou Fabrizio. All the students loved him. We all thought he was “super cool” – long hair he wore in a pony tail, and an easy teasing manner that went over well with everyone. One day, he happened to mention Algebra, and I asked him what it was. He explained it to me in such a way that I understood and actually found fascinating. So at the age 8 I had my first exposure to algebraic equations. It was only years later in the public school system that I found out that Algebra was not typically introduced until 7th or 8th grade at least (I don’t know if that’s still true, but it was then).
I also believe the schools were very positive for fostering creativity. I wrote and bound my first book during that period. It was called “The Cat Who Had Too Many Kittens”, and was about a cat that had an astronomically large number of kittens, and all the trouble it caused her. My best friend and I wrote and starred in a musical that we performed for our families. I also wrote poetry, many short stories, and was apprenticed for a time to the improvisational theater group Living Stage. Where we did “miss it” was that we went to the far extreme in the other direction. Believing structure was the enemy, we had almost no structure. For me that worked okay, since I am fairly self-directed, and thrive in that kind of atmosphere, but for other students not so well. Structure was not the enemy. Killing the human spirit and the natural exuberance of the children was.
After that, from 5th to 9th grades I went into the normal public school system. Talk about culture shock! To make matters worse it was a public school system in a rural area, which had been largely untouched by the social movements my family had been so much a part of. I instinctively knew that my past life did not fit into the frame of reference of those around me, and for most of my public school years hid my previous school experience from even my closest friends. Nonetheless, I did well academically. My brother not so well. However, not fitting in with the “brainy” crowd, who all thought I was a little weird, I soon was hanging with “The Outsiders” (S.E. Hinton was a novelist I and a number of my friends read back then, and we all related to “the Outsiders”. We didn’t call ourselves that really, but remembering I find the term and the mindset fits us well).
My mother seeing that I was languishing in the public schools suggested private school, but I didn’t want to go to a school with a bunch of “preppies” (the word at that time was a term of contempt among my crowd). Thank God for the “alternative” that presented itself, which was an alternative school I ended up attending for grades 10-12. This school had taken the best ideas of the free schools and yet added necessary structure. It was far from “preppie” (though we did have one or two token preppies in our student body, but they too were part of our community).
We had classrooms, but they were small, and had round tables at which everyone sat instead of desks in rows. We had grades, but the entire community of the school had daily and weekly interactions with each other across grade levels through school meetings at which everyone, student and teacher alike had a voice. Our classes emphasized traditional subjects of math, English, history, literature, and foreign language, but also gave equal importance to philosophy, art, music, drama and environmental studies. We had no “study halls” instead students all had several “free periods” each day which we could use as we saw fit — hanging out, studying, working in the art studio, playing music, or debating philosophy on the back porch (my personal favorite). And, as in the free schools, all the teachers were known on a first name basis (to this day some teachers I can only remember by their first names: Roger my English teacher, Tom my biology teacher, etc). I honestly believe that school changed my life. Instead of languishing, I thrived, and my heart came to life again.
What does all this have to do with church? Am I saying that we should have “hippie churches”. No, not exactly. Wouldn’t exactly work since the hippie movement is by and large gone. It’s really kind of a parable of church life today. Maybe we can learn lessons from these folks who went before us who were looking for more authentic and organic in models for educating children, in the same way that many today are looking for more authentic models of Christianity and Christian community. Can we learn from their mistakes as well as their successes? The free schools made the mistake of seeing “structure” as the enemy. Today I think sometimes we in the “alternative” Christian community are making the mistake of seeing “institutions” or “programs” as the enemy. In fact, neither is the problem. You may beg to differ, but actually it is possible to experience true community in an institution. I did at my alternative high school (yes, isn’t a high school an “institution”).
We run the risk of thinking the answer lies in finding the right model. We also run the risk of becoming reactionary. The free school movement didn’t keep kids from getting damaged, we just got damaged in different ways from what happened in the public schools (just as we did also in fact thrive in different ways).
In the same way, if we develop new models of church life, new models of Christian community only as a reaction to what we see not working we may find ourselves throwing out necessary components which in our minds we attach to what didn’t work, but may in themselves be neutral, just like the free schools threw out all structure because they saw certain school structures stifled natural childhood creativity and exuberance. History is full of many more examples. Instead we may need to see structures as subservient to function, just as the alternative high school I went to embraced the structures that helped them while throwing off the ones that did not. The catch is we’ve gotta know what we are for, and not just what we are against.
So what are we for? I’m still learning myself, but I believe Hebrews 10 hold as clue. I’ll write about that next time. I’ve rambled enough for now.