A part of my job as the associate pastor of spiritual formation is to oversee adult Christian education, which has been a long-standing value of my congregation (and indeed, of our Presbyterian tradition). A significant portion of our congregation loves to study and discuss faith matters: Scripture, theology, contemporary issues. But, over the six and a half years I have been a pastor of this church, attendance has slowly decreased at adult education events. It has become more and more difficult to motivate congregants to attend adult Sunday school, small groups or midweek education events.
Some middle-aged and senior members of our congregation, who were positively shaped by Christian education programs, lament the lack of young adults and parents of children in these programs today. They guess at reasons for the decline in attendance: a failure to provide childcare, too few staff members and pastors teaching interesting classes, poor advertising.
I wonder, though, if poor attendance in Christian education programs is an adaptive challenge rather than a technical problem. Seminary introduced me to these terms from Ronald Heifetz’s book, “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” Technical problems can be solved by good management; sometimes they are solved by a simple “tweak,” like offering childcare for adult events.
Adaptive challenges, however, cannot be solved by “technical fixes;” those fixes may even make the problem worse. Sometimes a change in society or culture collide with the very values that made things “work” before. The staff and elders responsible for NextGen ministries (children and student ministries) have been interviewing parents of teenagers and children to get a sense of their lives, their challenges and their spiritual needs.
One thing is clear: Parents, especially those of elementary aged children, are incredibly busy. Our affluent, suburban community places a high value in enrolling children in extracurricular activities. Underneath it (as I have heard unpacked by thoughtful parents of children), is the fear that if children do not have the right opportunities, they will not succeed.
On top of that, I experience consistent information overload. Websites, podcasts, television shows, movies, email, texts and social media sites all vie for my attention. My brain feels tired almost all the time.
When we pair crammed schedules with information overload, Sunday school may feel like one more thing we should do, but for which we do not have time or mind space. Is it any wonder that we struggle to get people to show up?
Tweaks to the program cannot close the gap between these societal changes and our value of Christian education. Heifetz argues that to close the gap between circumstances (such as technology overload and busyness) and values, either we need to change the circumstances or reassess our values. This is where I find myself right now as a leader: I would love it if the circumstances would change – that congregants would swim against the cultural tide by turning off technology once in a while and choosing Sunday school over soccer (or any other of the many activities that fill our lives).
But I wonder if I need to do the harder work of reassessing our value in Christian education. Why do we value education? How does good Christian education shape people? Does Christian education have to happen in the context of a class or a program at the church facility? Can a Christian be well-formed without participating in programs like Sunday school? Do busy schedules and an abundance of technology have to inhibit education? Or could we utilize these societal changes to educate Christ followers in a different kind of way?
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.