Starting from Scratch

Beth FellingerThe Changing Face of Adult Education

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He walked in the door declaring he was hungry.

Our church had just opened in downtown, storefront office space, and we’d already met a number of people who were curious about who we were. Their concept of church differed from what they were seeing at our ministry office. We were hearing a mixture of opinions about what faith or church or God meant to the people who visited us. This particular visitor told us he was hungry.

We were soon to discover more about James, our hungry visitor. We found out that he was 72, that he had mental health issues, that he had been abused as a child and had left home at the age of 16. We discovered that James now lived in a group home, and that his mother, in her 90s, lived in another city.

What was important for James on that particular day, though, was his hunger. Two gentlemen from our church took James for a walk back to the kitchen and made him some scrambled eggs and hot dogs. They talked with him for a while about his story, and after thanking them, he left.

The following day, James returned with a grocery bag containing six eggs, a package of wieners, a bag of coffee, and a carton of milk. “Yesterday you fed me when I was hungry,” he told us. “Today I want to help feed someone else. People shouldn’t go hungry.”

Before long, it was not unusual for James to come in and enjoy scrambled eggs or a western with someone from the church. It was also not unusual for someone to read the Bible to him and have a conversation around faith issues. We all celebrated on the day he first declared that he knew Jesus loved him.

Our experience with James taught us that faith grows in a variety of ways—many of which aren’t addressed by our traditional approaches to education. We began to explore from a spiritual context what it might look like to help people grow in their faith. We knew that if we wanted to help people continue to grow and explore faith issues, we needed to understand the context we were leading from.

We needed to understand that the foundational knowledge about God we had assumed was still part of our culture were not, and that biblical illiteracy was a problem. We needed to understand that people do not consider themselves “lost” or even identify as having a need that the church can solve. We needed to look instead for ways of adding value to their lives through meaningful interaction.

We also needed to realize that the way information is processed has changed, especially among younger adults. Digital immigrants think very differently from digital natives. So we needed a new set of tools and language for helping people explore and think critically for themselves around issues of faith.

And we needed to remember that people learn differently and that one size does not fit all. By using a variety of learning styles, we hoped to help as many people as possible discover God’s truth and retain it practically.

In response to all those “needs” that we uncovered,  these are some of the things we chose to do:

  • For a group of single moms, a parenting course became an on-ramp to a discussion of faith issues.
  • Coffee served on a daily basis at the church opened up doors for God conversations that led many to attend our Alpha course (an introductory course to Christianity, served with a meal).
  • Interactive activities that invited congregational participation before a sermon helped set a visual map before an auditory experience.
  • Video series that are auditory helped those with literacy issues feel like they could still participate in a study.
  • Movie nights with discussion following helped many discover how to look for God in conversations and story lines.
  • Discipleship Challenge groups (30 days) helped people discover prayer, individual and group Bible study, stewardship, and mission in a community setting. They were encouraged to “try the coat on” and discover how each of these areas were important to the overall view of discovering their faith.

We read in 1 Chronicles 12:32 that a group from David’s army, known as the men of Issachar, “understood their times, and knew what to do.” That’s the way our churches need to be too.  When we grasp the  context of those who are spiritually hungry in our community, we will find the right strategy to deliver a well-prepared meal.

Rev. Beth Fellinger is the lead pastor of Destination Church in St. Thomas, Ontario—a new church plant with the Christian Reformed Church. This is the third church plant she has been involved in. Beth has been invited to speak at numerous conferences and workshops internation-ally. She has written for a number of denominational magazines and is also a regular contributor to Our Faith Community Magazine.