by Israel Galindo
A problem in perpetuity: Churches appreciate the importance and value of Christian education for the spiritual growth of their members, yet they are consistently frustrated by unsatisfying Christian education programs and experiences. At worst, some Christian education programs are so ineffective and unattractive that church members will not participate. Or at best, sometimes the Christian education offered by a congregation is interesting enough, but benign. That is, it does not make a difference one way or the other to spiritual growth even when church members participate.
Few Christian educators seem willing to admit that the way we have been educating people in faith over the last 50-plus years is not very effective. Many are reluctant to admit that the past practices of the local congregation have failed to result in the kind of spiritual maturity hoped to see in church members. But, the evidence is unsettling. There is a deficiency in the church’s educational practices. Most believers remain biblically illiterate. The majority does not have a clear sense of Christian calling or an understanding of Christian vocation that is manifested in their daily lives. Author and researcher Thomas Bergler, among others, have provided evidence of the dire consequences of poor formative Christian education in books like “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.”
The challenge is that certain approaches to Christian education are not adequate for shaping persons in Christlikeness because they run counter to the way people need to be educated in faith. As educator Morton Kelsey wrote, “If Christian Education is to be authentic, its methodologies must be authentically Christian.”
If you are frustrated with the congregation’s Christian education program, it may be that you’re doing it all wrong. The good news is that every congregation, no matter how small in size, has within it the very resources needed to offer an effective Christian education formation program. Making the right changes can improve educational effectiveness in congregations and help their members to grow in their faith in more authentic ways.
False assumptions lead to inauthentic practices. Here are some common false assumptions about educating in faith seen in many congregations that lead to “inauthentic practices” in a church’s educational ministry. Can you discern if any are evident in your church’s programs?
Myth #1: People can be schooled into faith.
The first false assumption is that people can be schooled into faith. This assumption confuses religious instruction with faith formation. But as professor Robert K. Martin asserts, “The primary context and means of educational activity is participation in the forms of ecclesial life.” The corrective insight is that the context in which faith formation happens is in a community of faith, not a “school.” Each context must use the methodologies appropriate to its nature. So, while it is appropriate to “school” students in an educational institution like a university or seminary, in a congregation people are educated in faith through formation mediated by its culture and the quality of relationships the community of faith cultivates.
The challenge for many congregations is to move away from a schooling model to a community of faith model. This is a move toward more authentic Christian education. Even small congregations can achieve it. “Ecclesial life is already constituted by relationship (koinonia), rituals and patterns of action (leitourgia), individual and corporate knowledge (didache), the ways we serve (diaconia), and the vision and purpose of our life together (kerygma),” claims Robert K. Martin in “Education and the Liturgical Life of the Church.”
Myth #2: The teacher is the agent of learning.
The second false assumption is that the teacher is the agent for learning and, therefore, that teaching is the agency through which learning happens. This assumption fails to appreciate how learning actually happens. The reality is that the learner is the agent of his or her own learning. The pernicious assumption that places the teachers as the agent of learning is what perpetuates the over-focus on instruction in the church’s educational approach to Christian education formation. This leads to the practice of teaching-by-telling as the mode for learning faith. But teaching-by-telling doesn’t work because it does other people’s thinking for them.
Whenever I ask a group of church teachers, “On any given Sunday, who is the person who has learned the most at the end of the lesson?” the answer is immediate and unanimous: “The teacher!” And when I ask the follow up question, “Why is that so?” they are able to give the right answer: “Because the teacher studied the lesson.” The next obvious question to ask is, “Then why do we expect our students to learn when we deny them the very experience that brings about learning?” Instead of allowing learners to engage in the process of study for themselves we attempt to plant insight through teaching-by- telling. The end result is the formation of passive learners who are perpetual “pupils” in the life of faith, perpetually dependent on a teacher for learning and growth. The paradox here is that to be perpetually dependent on another for one’s growth in the life of faith only ensures that one never will. (See “How to Be the Best Christian Study Group Leader” for a fuller treatment of the deficits and liabilities of the telling-by-teaching approach.)
Myth #3: Children and youth cannot handle adult corporate worship.
A third false assumption is that children (and youth) are not able to appreciate “adult” corporate worship experiences. One result of this assumption has been the practice of removing children and youth from participating in the worship experience of the community of faith. This false assumption fails to appreciate the formative power of shared corporate experiences. Communal values are best inculcated in the shared experience of corporate practices.
The assumption that children and youth do not have the capacity to understand worship breaks two fundamental rules. First, “you learn to do what you do and not something else.” The only way one learns to worship as part of the Body of Christ and as a member of one’s community of faith is by participating in corporate worship. Second, this assumption fails to appreciate that worship (and many of the most important aspects of faith) is not about “understanding.” Worship is a corporate practice of obedience and an opportunity to experience the holy through formative rituals of practice. To hold adult intellectual understanding as a criteria for participating in worship on the part of children or youth is inappropriate because, as professor Daniel Ciobetea states, it is “too restrictive and unilateral; firstly, because it reduces or limits theological knowledge of faith to its intellectual or rational dimensions, and secondly because this kind of knowledge appears as a goal in itself.” A community of faith approach to Christian education formation embraces a broader epistemology of learning. It appreciates the importance of direct shared experiences as formative to faith and will respect the importance of the intuitive acquisition of religious knowledge through symbols for the life of faith.
Myth #4: Age-graded programming is the standard model.
Another false assumption commonly practiced in congregations is that the most effective way to educate in faith is through tightly age-graded and group-segregated educational programming. When congregations follow this practice, nearly all children, youth and adult educational activities occur in isolation from the rest of the community of faith – not to mention the segregation of family members one from another as soon as they walk in the church doors. But that is not the nature of the way people learn in faithcommunities.
Faith communities teach via corporate intergenerational, cross-generational and intragenerational connections and relationships. Therefore, as educator Robert K. Martin stated, “The educational ministry of a congregation should give greatest priority to engaging people in the fellowship, practices, and ministries of ecclesial life. Secondary forms of education, namely, instruction and other schooling practices, should support and intensify the participation of persons in the primary forms of ecclesial life.”
This is not to suggest that you scratch all classroom or age-graded programs. They serve their purpose. The challenge is to change the way you understand and practice Christian education formation by moving toward a community of faith approach, one that is informed by the life of worship together. Martin is correct when he stated, “Compartmentalization in ecclesial life ineluctably leads to fragmentation in the church’s ministries and territorial divisiveness among the leadership. We need ways of conceiving the church that reveals its organic unity and yet acknowledges the marvelous plurality within it.”
Children need intentional, intergenerational experiences in order to be effectively educated in faith. Separating them from the congregation at worship and segregating them in church organizations without intentional plans to include them in the larger life of the congregation is a spiritual disservice to them. Children are given lip service that they are an important part of the church, but their experience teaches them differently. When denied full participation, children lose educational values inherent in being a part of the larger community of faith and the communal formation that is necessary for faith development. Educator and professor Dean Blevins contends, “Persons are shaped into Christian character and transformed doxologically as they participate faithfully (i.e. intentionally) in the discrete practices that identify the life of the faith community.”
I remember a grandmother who approached me after a Wednesday evening church meal. She had started bringing her two grandsons to church on Wednesday evenings for the meal and educational activities. She expressed concern that her grandchildren were overhearing prayer requests at the start of the meals related to some scary things: illnesses, accidents, hospitalization, cancer, anxieties and deaths.
I agreed with her that those were scary things, but that she was missing something else that was happening: Her grandchildren also were witnessing how members of a community of faith share their anxieties and worries with one another. Her grandchildren were learning how members of a church had a place to share
their concerns openly and how they prayed for one another. They were learning that it was not necessary to keep scary things to yourself, because your faith community is a safe place to share worries. They were learning that even adults have fears and that they trusted those fears to God through prayer and found support from their church. And I pointed out that her grandchildren were also overhearing some good things people were sharing: answers to prayers, celebrations and expressions of love for one another. It was quite dramatic to see the “Aha!” moment she experienced as she realized that what her grandchildren were really learning was how a community of faith works.
We are – and become – what we do. Children who are encouraged to participate in the act of giving an offering during corporate worship learn that giving is a communal responsibility and not just a personal matter.
Our theology shapes our practices and our experiences shape our faith. The patterns and practices of our community of faith become a way of life in faith for children, adolescents and adults.
To be Christian is to be a part of the Body of Christ and to participate fully in the church, conforming and being formed into the likeness of Christ. Educator Daniel Ciobotea reminds us, “The book of Acts underlines very clearly the importance of the gathered community as a place of spiritual formation and theological experience, since the Holy Spirit descends on the community which is persevering in prayer ‘with one mind,’ while the disciples are ‘all together in one place’ (Acts 2:1).”
ISRAEL GALINDO is associate dean of Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of numerous books on education and leadership, including “Mastering the Art of Instruction: The Nine Essential Instructional Skills Every Teacher Must Master.”