Balancing on a One-Legged Stool

Rodger NishiokaTransitions—All Things Made New

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Have you ever tried to sit comfortably on a stool with only one leg? It is pretty much impossible. To be dependable and to support our weight, a stool needs at least three legs. In the same way, throughout much of our North American church history, we have depended on and even presumed three “legs” to do Christian education.

In the early years, Christian education took place in homes, the first leg. Prayers were taught there. Young children were told the stories of the faith. If there was a Bible and a literate adult present, passages from the Bible were read for many on a daily basis.

More obviously, the church was another place for Christian education. Starting first in the worship of God, and then, eventually, through a school model for children, the church was the second leg of the stool of Christian education. From their earliest days, children sat with their parents in the worship of God. They learned by doing, and while there is some early evidence of intentional education especially around the sacraments and the Bible, most persons learned about God and God’s activity in the world through going to church.

Finally, the school emerged as the third leg of the stool. With compulsory state education that began in the 1870s, children were taught daily prayers in school. They first learned to read from primers that included the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. They memorized the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the Golden Rule. Through the home, church, and school, children received a triple dose of Christian education. Each entity reinforced the other and formed a solid foundation for faith nurture..

So when discussing changes in Christian education, the first major change we must recognize is the loss of two complementary partners in shaping and forming followers of Jesus, the home and the school. To be sure, the loss of those partners is a change and a challenge, but in some ways, it is not necessarily bad. That’s the way it is with change.

What other changes are we facing? The list is long, complex, and even particular to some congregations, regions, cultures, and denominations. Still, as I broadly survey Christian education in the 21st century, permit me to name some of the general changes that are making our presence on the stool even more precarious.

1. Changing resources.
I remember it clearly. In 1988, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was moving its General Assembly offices in Atlanta and New York to Louisville, I was called upon to cull through years of files and decide what to discard, what to keep, and what to send to the Presbyterian Historical Society. I remember being in the New York office, reading through years of programs and memos and correspondence. I came upon one memo from December 1971, written to the directors of the various program offices of the former United Presbyterian Church. In short, the memo said that once again, there was going to be a budget surplus and the director invited colleagues quickly to submit proposals for new programs, resources, and ideas.

I remember shaking my head. We live in a time of declining resources. Not simply financial resources, but, even more importantly, human resources. Christian education for many years created a structure dependent on the stay-at-home parent who, with an abundance of time and talent, could volunteer to teach, coordinate, train, transport, chaperone, cook, bake, serve, and write curriculum. No longer. Resources are changing, and the most significant of these is not the loss of money, but the loss of volunteers.

2. Changing shared knowledge and experience.
The latest statistics from the Research Services Office for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tell us that 60% of current members were not born and raised Presbyterian and 15% did not grow up in any church. This means we must reframe our assumptions about what people know and what experiences they bring to us. I regularly tell my students at Columbia Seminary that if I hear them describe a Scripture passage or a song or hymn or part of liturgy as familiar only, I will come up over the chairs or pews and beat them up. The days are past where we can assume that because these children, youth, young adults, and adults are with us, they know what we know and are familiar with our stories, songs, liturgy, and rituals. The truth is, even many long-time members don’t why we do what we do. Recently I was talking with a pastor who changed the shape of the worship bulletin to allow for a margin on each page where he and the music director could write brief explanations and notes to help those who were not familiar with the worship order. “What has amazed me most,” he told me, “was that hardly a Sunday goes by that one of my longtime members does not tell me that they read something in the margin that they never knew.”

3. Changing ways of teaching.
Finally, it is very clear to me that we have to change the ways we teach. We now know, thanks to the latest brain research, that of the five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing, the sense that engages the most brain power when we use it is sight, and the sense that engages the least brain power is hearing. As the church’s educators, we know that learning happens best when our children, youth, young adults, and adults engage more than one sense simultaneously. This is changing how we teach because we are discovering new things about how people learn.

The writer of Hebrews proclaims that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Surely this is the good news as we confront changes in Christian education. And yet while we rest on that good news, we recognize, too, that the call to Christian education has never been one of complacency and the status quo. There are very real changes happening in Christian education. And for the sake of the gospel, we are called to respond to those changes with resilience and imagination, two traits that have always described we who are the educators of the church!

Rodger Nishioka holds the Benton Family Chair in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary.