So, one night I went to sleep, and the world changed around me. How could I ever have imagined that the landscape for Christian Education would be so dramatically different compared to when I first started working in the field? If only someone had told me in my first five years that I would have to learn a very different worldview and adopt different approaches!
What do I wish I had been told in my first five years? What an interesting question.
1. Relationships are critical.
Maria Harris, a Catholic nun and educator (now deceased), repeatedly reminded us that we can have the most brilliant educational setting and the latest in techniques, but if we don’t show care to the individuals involved, then we will not communicate the faith.
Some time ago, a number of us set up a leadership development video to feature different “successful” youth classes. One vignette showed an older man gathered with 25 young people practically sitting on top of one another in a choir loft in a small sanctuary. Nothing was right about it educationally, yet everything was right. He loved those youth, and they in turn loved and trusted him. They experienced far more of God’s steadfast love through this Christian leadership than any brilliantly designed program could ever accomplish.
Now, as Maria would say, “don’t understand me too quickly”! Process and relevant techniques are important, but not if they become an end in themselves. Thomas Groome, another great educator, spent much of his time helping us to understand that people of any age will embrace the faith when we invite them to place their story in the midst of the biblical story. Ultimately, faith can be taught and caught as we help others appreciate how the story relates to them.
2. The Sunday numbers count can be oppressive.
How many times do we hear about the good old days when 300 children and youth gathered for Sunday School each week? My quick response is, “Where are all of them now? If that was a model to be emulated, how come the faith didn’t seem to stick?”
To ask the numbers question is to ask the wrong question. Instead, we need to be investing in the programs and resources that help people of all ages struggle with their faith. We need to be celebrating faith development, not how many showed up. Be sure to make yourself more aware of the “Sticky Faith” movement which encourages us to develop disciples, not count bodies in the pew.
Then there are the expectations about Sunday. To assume that the key educational moments should happen only on a Sunday is also to deny how the world has changed. More and more families are torn in many directions, and church on Sunday morning no longer works each week. Instead of us assuming that these parents are not committed enough, let’s recognize that worship and service and learning can happen at any time. Many churches are offering alternate opportunities and valuing them equally with what happens on a Sunday.
3. Strong healthy congregations offer a balance of excellent sprinter and solid marathon possibilities.
In his book Twelve Keys the Rev. Dr. Kennon Callahan suggests that the great majority of our contemporary generation, especially the younger demographic, are very committed and spiritually hungry, but they do their service in sprints (short-term, intensive programs) instead of long-term steady efforts. For example, many are more likely to attend a six-week Bible study a few times a year rather than an every-Wednesday-morning study. One or the other is not better, just different. The secret is to offer both types of opportunities.
Such a change in culture and philosophy has huge implications for the way we do education. For example, we may offer church school on Sundays, but we also need to offer short-term projects like Professional Development Day Camps, five-week programs for specific age groups, camps and intergenerational opportunities.
Today’s volunteers also tend to work in sprint fashion. Finding the marathoner who will devote every week to a specific age group is more and more difficult. The creative challenge for us is to reinvent ourselves so that we can offer educational opportunities that honor the worldview and realities of the people with whom we are involved, rather than simply repeating what worked for us when we were children and youth.
4. Leader development is essential.
Curriculum systems usually include a leadership track as part of their design. The great challenge today is to package leader helps in a resource that will work for the contemporary volunteer. Too often, a church plunges someone into an office or task with very little explanation or support. We must fight for the time required to help our volunteers feel supported and trained.
Regional workshops continue to be valuable. Thank God for the work of APCE. But we also need to reach our volunteers in the congregation who cannot take advantage of such a resource. There are online leadership development opportunities like “Opening Doors to Discipleship” and denominational resources worth exploring. Ultimately, if it takes one-on-one mentoring, then it must be done.
5. Choose leaders/volunteers on the basis of their gifts not just by their availability.
Too often we have been guilty of inviting people to fill holes in the system instead of encouraging them to use their God-given gifts and passions. For example, we invite accountants to serve on church finances when all the while they long to use their administrative skills to lead a mission exposure tour. I believe it is better not to offer a program or ministry at all than to do it with a leader who is feeling obligated or forced.
If no one wants to do teaching or leadership in a given structure, then it should not be forced. Perhaps God has a very different model in store for you once you abandon the one that is not attracting leaders or participants. Spend the time in a process of discovering what people really want to do in the name of Christ, and then watch how education naturally evolves.
6. Intergenerational efforts are counter-cultural but essential.
More and more, age groups are sticking with their own. The church has not helped as it segregates members into specific needs groups. There are young women’s groups and youth groups and men’s groups and children’s classes. It’s not wrong to have groups for these specific demographics, but it is also important to have generations meeting together. As Diane Lindstrom suggests in Sisters in the Son, “Cross-generation conversations and relationships are essential, spirit–enriching and life-changing.” Whenever we pull generations together to understand one another and to mentor one another, faith development will happen naturally. We have so much to learn from one another.
Messy Church, a movement started in Europe, is a contemporary model of intergenerational community. The Lifelong Faith journal edited by John Roberto is another valuable resource. As is much of the work of Donald Griggs—done in the past but still useful today..
7. Christian education has been seriously devalued in mainline denominations.
This is purely my opinion, but I would suggest that there is a direct correlation between the decline in Christian education and our heavy emphasis on correct worship and institutional survival. Today, many ministers tell me that Christian Education is not their thing! I wonder what they think they are doing on Sunday morning? Encouraging people to wrestle with their faith and to apply it in everyday life is a critical call to ministers. It is important to encourage everyone in the congregation to value the spiritual development in others–not as a means of congregational survival, but because we want people to know the love and peace that Christ can give. It is time to recommit to this very important and central task of ministry.
8. It is important to remain realistic.
There is a “decades-long decline in religiosity.” Diana Butler Bass, who toured many churches over the years and interviewed many people who no longer attend church, suggests that “many are bored with church-as-usual, church-as-a-club, church-as-entertainment, or church-as-work” (Christianity After Religion, p. 17).
Conventional Christianity as we have known it is in decline. Instead of despairing or trying to make an old model work, it is time for us as Christians to struggle with what we fundamentally believe and courageously share Christ. Too often our Christian Education programs have actually been about drawing people to church, not to Christ. In his book Becoming a Blessed Church, Graham Standish says that he felt “spiritually thirsty” even after his studies at seminary. He came to understand the crucial difference between speculating about God and experiencing God. At the core, our calling in the church is to be a blessing to others, not to sustain the institution as we know it.
Christianity may be going through upheaval, but I am not frightened by what is happening. I am excited for the new possibility that will unfold as we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit.
9. Trust the Spirit’s work
I can be guilty of thinking I know what the Spirit wants before God does! Our calling in Christian education is to provide many settings where people are given the opportunity to grow spiritually and then to trust the Spirit. We allow God’s Spirit to work in and through us and sometimes in spite of us. We cast the seeds, and God reaps the harvest. We are never just the learner, and we are never just the teacher. God has growth in store for us if we remain open and ready. The Spirit blows where the Spirit wills . . . and it will!
Butler-Bass, Diana. Christianity After Religion. New York: HarperCollins Pub., 2012.
Callahan, Kennon. Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (second edition). San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2010.
Harris, Maria. Religious Imagination: An Essay in the Theology of Teaching. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
Lindstrom, Diane. Sisters in the Son. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2014.
Standish, N. Graham. Becoming a Blessed Church Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2005
Be sure to Google
- Messy Church
- Sticky Faith
- Opening Doors to Discipleship