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Distributive Church Education

After many years as a place where people gathered to learn, my seminary has added what it calls “distributive learning” to its toolkit.

Some schools call it “distance learning,” others “remote learning.” But the principle is the same: Instead of requiring people to leave their homes and secular employment, move their families and come to a central location — in this case, Episcopal Divinity School, in Cambridge, Mass. — the seminary uses Internet technology to engage students where they live.

For example, Dean Katherine Ragsdale told alumni in New York, 15 students can gather on campus with a professor, 15 more can sign in from their homes and all 30 can have a lively seminar. This is a good example of what drives the multichannel church. Up until recent decades, church was a central location where people gathered. They came from the surrounding neighborhood, from across town, or, as I discovered last weekend in Vermont, from dozens of small towns.

The point was: They gathered, they came together, for a common experience and to form a face-to-face community. This stopped working a generation ago, as people placed less value on the act of gathering and the common activity. They yearned for faith experiences, but lost interest in getting up early on a Sunday to drive across town for worship. Now churches are learning what EDS learned: For some constituents, church must go to them. Literally, it must take study, fellowship and worship into people’s homes and neighborhoods. Virtually, it must provide online opportunities like a distributive learning class, videos to watch and materials to read. “Distributive church” can seem perverse to those who value gathering, but reversing the usual flow from gathering to going out is the only way to reach the majority of those who are seeking God. (It’s also what Jesus did, of course.) The cost of the technology that EDS uses might be beyond many congregations. But they can do versions of it: Webinars: Using an online system like gotowebinar.com or webex.com, offer an online experience that can be open discussion or, beyond a certain size, a lecture format, with an opportunity to ask questions online.

Skype (and others): Form virtual groups that use the videocam and microphone found on most computers to create a live group experience. Online learning software (many vendors): Offer pre-formatted materials and online learning guides. Especially useful for the self-led learner who wants to study when it’s convenient. Distributive church can take a host of other forms that achieve face-to-face community but don’t require gathering at a single location. Examples include house churches, small home groups and neighborhood gatherings — all scheduled at a time more likely to fit today’s work and family schedules, in a location that is highly accessible, and in a more collaborative format than corporate worship.

EDS has found that distributive learning vastly increases its reach, including wheelchair-bound students for whom an on-campus experience would be a hardship. Taking church to the people also accomplishes a major goal: getting more in touch with people’s lives, questions and needs, and doing so not only by the tried (and still important) method of the pastor making calls, but by the people themselves hearing each other.

TOM EHRI CH is a writer, church
consultant and Episcopal priest
based in New York. He is a founder
of the Church Wellness Project
(churchwellness.com). His Web
site is (morningwalkmedia.com)

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