In my previous post, I posited that a decline in attendance in my congregation’s adult Christian education programs might not be solved by tweaking the programs but by closing the gap between changing societal and cultural circumstances and our value in Christian education. One way we might close this gap is by reassessing our value in education.
Let’s begin with a programmatic question: What would happen if we stopped offering Sunday school classes?
Does a church have to offer Sunday school in order for people to grow spiritually? If you are like my congregation and me, your knee-jerk response is to say, “Of course we need Sunday school!” Underneath the gut response lies assumptions about Christian education.
Pastors (“teaching elders” or “ministers of Word and sacrament”) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are required to get their Master of Divinity at an accredited theological seminary where they study the Bible in its original languages. We receive this rigorous training so that we can teach others to study Scripture carefully and articulate sound theology. While we want people to study the Bible for themselves and we believe there is such a thing as good and bad readings of Scripture (though we vehemently disagree sometimes on what constitutes “good and bad readings”).
Even if we are committed to more dialogically-based education opportunities (such as small groups), we still love our experts – our pastors and professors. I enjoy learning under a knowledgeable teacher, especially when the teacher passes along information that I did not have before. I think one reason we value education is because we believe Christ followers need a solid foundation of information and training in order to follow Jesus well. Our fear is that if people do not attend educational programs or events, they will lack this knowledge base and thus will interpret Scripture poorly, in way that could be harmful to others.
Is this true? Can people follow Jesus well when they lack exegetical skills? I am torn, because I do believe poor readings of Scripture have caused great harm to people throughout history. But, sometimes the best educated have interpreted Scripture in harmful ways. Education does not equal integrity or spiritual maturity. Thus, education alone cannot shape people as mature Christ followers.
In light of the limits of educational opportunities as we have known them and the challenges of busyness and technological overload (as I mentioned yesterday), perhaps pastors and elders could close the gap between our circumstances and values by changing our understanding of our educational role. Rather than being the experts who pass along information to others, what if we became curators of resources?
One of the things that most frustrates me about being a pastor is that I can write the most amazing sermon, I can plan the best classes and organize amazing lecture series, and still people may not come to hear the sermon, attend the class or engage with the lecture. The cliché holds true: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.
My guess is that attendance in our church programs used to be stronger in part because people got their relational needs met through involvement with a church. For many, this is no longer true. A church is one of many communities to which a person belongs. Plus, people are just too busy and their brains are too full. Even more than in years past, the hunger to learn has to precede the engagement in educational resources.
What if we leveraged the resources already available to people to educate themselves in the midst of their routines, rather than adding to those routines? What if we curated resources (websites, books, Bible study tools, podcasts, sermons, journals) to meet people at the exact point of their hunger? Rather than guessing at what people want to learn, what if we asked them and then recommended reliable resources? What if we spent less time planning programs and more time helping congregants to connect to one another in such a way that they could form their own learning communities when they were hungry for it?
Being a curator has its limits. There is no guarantee, even if we developed the greatest list of resources, that people would access those resources. Yet, it strikes me that this one (seemingly small) change could preserve our underlying desire to help Christ followers mature, even when they do not come to Sunday school.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.