For The Someday Book

Archive for October 2010

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and a Imagining a Different Way

This is part II of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists, and begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

A Church for Starving Artists started a great list of reasons people do not come to adult Christian education activities:

  • People like the idea of adult education but they don’t necessarily want to participate. They believe the church should offer such spiritual enrichment but they don’t want to attend themselves. Any church worth its salt offers Bible studies and book discussion groups. But they’re for someone else.
  • People are too busy (and although they’d like to attend, they are simply too tired/overscheduled.)
  • Parents don’t want to disrupt their children’s schedules (even though free childcare is offered.)
  • They simply don’t want to attend because the classes sound boring/are led by someone who annoys them.

I think those are the biggest ones, and well-stated. I would add the following:

  • No supporting culture of education, as I explained in my previous post.
  • People believe they don’t know enough to participate in Bible study, and/or fear their ignorance will be exposed. (I hear this one a lot in my context.)
  • People don’t think the Bible or the classes relate to their daily lives in real or meaningful ways. (This is a variation on “boring,” but a little more precise.)

Here is the problem: no matter what the reason people don’t attend, we clergy generally think that they should. Most churchgoers think they should too. And we all generally agree that churches should offer Bible study and clergy should be involved in teaching. When no one comes, we all feel guilty and discouraged that we are not doing what we should.

In general, we are right: Christians should study the Bible, and we should all be learning more about the scriptures throughout our lives. We Protestants, whether we trace our roots to Luther, Calvin, Wesley or another reformer, share a commitment to meeting God directly through the scriptures. We are people of the Book.

Where we go wrong is in limiting our conceptions of what that means and how it can happen. In most congregations, the only way people intentionally engage with scriptures outside of worship is in a classroom setting. Whether it’s a traditional bible class, workshop, seminar, lecture or study, everything we offer fits within a paradigm that looks something like school. We even refer to this work of engaging the scriptures as “Christian education.”

To borrow from Paulo Friere, we continue to practice a banking model of education when it comes to faith. Whether a lecture or a group-led bible study, Christian education seems to be designed to help people acquire and store more information about Christianity and the Bible, its contents and history (or theology, or church history, or denominational identity, or spiritual practices, or anything). Even if the class itself helps people engage a spiritual practice of connecting with God, there is still an emphasis on providing them information or tools to store in their memory banks and draw out for later use in prayer, decision-making or evangelism.

Instead of Christian education, I propose the church needs to engage in holistic faith formation. Our task as clergy (and as the church) is to teach, but we are not simply responsible for teaching people about the Bible. We are supposed to be nurturing disciples in the Christian life, which includes prayer, service, study, leadership, worship, generosity and much more. That kind of formation is not ideally suited to the classroom setting, yet too often churches rely on Christian education to accomplish formation. When no one comes to classes, we get (understandably) anxious that they are not growing in their faith or increasing their discipleship. We want people to come to classes for formation, then go forth to practice service, leadership, prayer and generosity after they have been educated in them. When people do not participate in Christian education classes, for any or all of the reasons above, we still send them out as leaders, evangelists and servants, but rely on their secular training in the work world and try to steer them toward biblical principles as best we can.

I believe that the time has come to engage in a practice of ministry and faith formation that attends to the whole life of discipleship, and sees every aspect of our church life as a time of faith formation—which includes biblical teaching, reflection and discipleship coaching. The educational model is inadequate for the task, especially when people do not come for so many reasons.

I’ll share some ideas about what holistic faith formation might look like in Part III, coming soon.

What are your thoughts?

Last week, Jan Edmiston, over on her wonderful blog A Church for Starving Artists, wrote about the challenge of low attendance at worship and other church events. She discussed adult Christian education as one of the chief places where church’s struggle with low attendance, and speculates about why.  I have been thinking a lot about this issue myself, and appreciate her post prompting me to think some more. I have a lot to say, so I’m going to divide it into a few shorter posts.

Part I: Is Adult Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

I struggle mightily with what to do about adult Christian education in my current setting. In my last church, as an associate pastor I taught a Sunday morning Bible study that grew from 10-15 participants to 25-30 participants every week. I started a reading group that tackled Borg, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Pagels and more, and attracted 10-20 people every week. I created short-term workshops and evening programs that were popular and well attended. There was a culture of Christian education there, and people craved opportunities to read, study, reflect and discuss. The church worshiped with an average of 300 people every Sunday.

When I arrived in my current position, I tried similar strategies. The church itself is smaller, worshiping with only 80 on Sundays, but our general level of participation in activities is high. Sunday morning classes started out with 5-6 people, and dwindled to 2-3 within a month. Evening programs, workshops and short-term studies suffered the same fate. Those who attended gave high praise for the class, but other interests always pulled them away. I decided that it was not a good use of my time to prepare and teach for less than 5 people week in and week out, especially after those who were attending felt disappointed that our numbers were so small. It was often just me and one other couple.

Having spent a lot of time considering why it worked so well in growing one church and not in another, I believe it is as simple as a cultural difference. My first church was downtown in a large, northeastern city where education was everything. The members of the church placed a high value on education as an intrinsic good. They were avid readers and took classes in all sorts of topics, including faith. My current church is in a small town on the line between the south and the midwest. The members of the church are hard-working doers. While they value education, they see it as a means for future advancement, rather than a good in itself. While people read the newspaper or an occasional novel,  they prefer to spend their free time with family rather than taking classes in something.

I think this dichotomy is not unique to me and my particular churches. I know many churches that have grown by offering in-depth Christian education programming for adults, and many other churches that are quite vital and thriving, but cannot get adult Bible study programs off the ground. I suspect that these wider cultural influences may be a factor. These cultural differences do not necessarily reflect people’s educational background, wealth, class or race. Rural congregations with few college educated members often have thriving Sunday school programs, and suburban churches full of professionals may have none.

It’s about the cultural and community support for education. If the people in our communities are not invested in learning for the sake of learning, it is a special challenge to engage them in learning for the sake of faith. In people’s busy lives, our Christian education programs are competing with many other interests. If the environment does not encourage time spent in study at all, how much more challenging is it to value and prioritize Christian study?

What are your thoughts?

Next up:

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Why All These Reasons Demand a Cultural Change in Christian Education

Part III: Moving toward Wholistic Faith Formation, and New Delivery Methods for Bible Teaching

Yesterday was my first day back from a wonderful vacation. I met a friend at a mountain cabin for a week of reading, resting, writing, praying, singing, eating and enjoying God’s beautiful fall foliage. Although I returned to town on Saturday and even preached on Sunday, I did not yet feel ready to be back at work in the office facing so many competing demands. I was dreading Monday.

I almost never dread a work day, but I knew that my week off was about to send me careening into a pile of unreturned phone calls and e-mail, unopened mail, last-minute preparations for the night’s Council meeting and writing a stewardship letter and newsletter announcements. There was nothing in the day that I was looking forward to. I also knew that the day in the office would be full of interruptions and distractions, which I expected to leave me feeling frustrated and behind schedule.

But God is good, and sometimes sends us just what we need to remember why it is we do what we do. Yesterday was one of those amazing days in ministry, full of random happenings that reveal the workings of the Spirit and bless a pastor’s heart. A wise pastor once told me that ministry happens in the interruptions, that God lives in the interruptions. I give thanks to God for all of yesterday’s interruptions.

  • A man called on the telephone seeking prayer. He didn’t want anything else, but he said he needed us to pray for him, and that he would pray for us as well. He declined to provide details, but said it was serious, it was nothing new, and it was no big deal for God to handle. I was touched by his quiet confidence and witness of faith in the power of prayer.
  • A man rang the doorbell. He announced he was a concert pianist seeking practice space. I said that we were open to the possibility, but he would need to make arrangements with our musician. As his story unfolded, I realized he was visiting from out of town. He was looking for a place to play, just for today. His wife was a retired UCC pastor, so he sought and found our church. For the next two hours, I sat in my office and enjoyed a beautiful impromptu recital of Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn on the grand piano outside my door.
  • One of the unreturned phone calls was from a woman whose father-in-law had been a long inactive member of the church. When he died two years ago, I officiated at his funeral. She called because she and her husband had decided to make a gift of $500 to charity in lieu of an extravagant Christmas this year. She sought my advice on local charities (including our church’s soup kitchen) and how to contribute in the most meaningful way. We talked deeply and passionately about generosity, compassion and hope.
  • A woman from across the country, who had become my friend on Facebook because she was trying to learn about the use of social media in ministry in the UCC, wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband had decided to become members of their local UCC congregation this coming Sunday. She shared her appreciation for my online friendship and openness, and for my willingness to connect with a stranger in the name of Christ’s church.
  • A young woman wandered into our building and found her way directly to my office. Her face was swollen and bruised, her eye blackened. She confessed that she had just been married and moved to town, and her new husband had done this to her. A copy of the completed police report was in her hand. Her family was ready to welcome her home, but they were out of state and she had no money for transportation. They advised her to find the closest church and ask them for help. I connected her to the local domestic violence shelter, who offered her safe haven and assistance in traveling back home. I was so grateful that our door was open when she needed us.
  • After the long evening meeting, I had the chance to check in with a church leader in the parking lot. Normally a private person, this leader is not one to seek counseling or make public family concerns. In the dark of the parking lot, a private person found space to open up about a family crisis, and we talked for nearly 30 minutes. I was able to listen, offer prayer and support, and will be able to better attend to this family’s needs as a result. I felt honored to be invited into this painful situation and vulnerable heart.

Somehow, amid all that beautiful interruption, I also managed to get the Council preparation done, stewardship letter written, phone calls returned, mail opened and a bit more. God’s work is such a gift.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be in ministry, to participate in God’s work of hospitality, healing, hope-building. I give thanks for the church that pays me just to be there and attend to these moments and afforded me the privilege of saying “yes” to all these voices of need. I marvel that in our secular world full of negative images of Christianity, people still turn to the closest church for compassion, whether as giver or receiver of aid. I praise God for beautiful music, for faith in the power of prayer, and for the healing of wounded hearts. I ask forgiveness for ever dreading a day in God’s service, and ask God for many more days to do this work, and many, many more interruptions.

Dwelling Places, by Vinita Hampton Wright, 2006, Harper Collins, 339 pp.

What a beautiful novel this is! As I combed the library shelves looking for something captivating but not tragic, interesting but entertaining, I pulled Dwelling Places because of the title. The story summary on the inside flap looked good, and the recommendation from Wally Lamb on the cover sold me. Quite by accident (or Spirit’s leading?), I discovered what is sure to be one of my favorite novels of the year.

Dwelling Places is the story of one Iowa family’s journey through heartache, loss and change. Mack’s family has farmed the same land for generations, but they lose the farm. In the same period of time, he loses his father and his brother under separate tragic circumstances. The family is forced to cope with their grief over these deaths, but also the loss of their way of life on the farm. The novel begins when Mack returns home from two weeks at a mental hospital after showing warning signs of suicide. The family struggles to welcome him home, gently handle his brokenness and continue to grapple with their own grief.

The novel follows four of the characters individually as they find their own way of dealing (or not dealing) with change and the accompanying grief—Mack, who dives deeper into his grief on the path to healing; Jodie, his wife, who begins to live two lives; Kenzie, his daughter, who turns to religion; and Rita, his mother, who survives on good works serving others. Mack and Jodie’s son, Young Taylor, also figures prominently, but we do not see through his eyes directly. The novel takes the family and each individual member of it to the brink of disaster as their broken seeking spirals out of control. But in the end, they are redeemed and reunited—slowly, imperfectly, forged together again as a family.

Faith and relationships with the church are at the heart of this story in many ways. Kenzie’s story is a common tale of adolescent collapse into cultish certainty, and her entire narrative is a faith journey. But faith is critical in the stories of the other characters as well. Each one must attempt to make peace with God about what has happened. Some find their way back to faith, some find faith as the way back to life, and some never return at all. They also relate to various churches in the story, and in the end a particular church service becomes a critical turning point. As one in ministry (and the kind of ministry or church that would do that kind of service), it is rare and gratifying to see stories like mine in print.

Wright’s writing is beautiful, the characters are real and endearing, the story is powerful and rings true. I am so grateful to have found this novel, and look forward to reading more from her.

 

Take This Bread: A Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First Century Christian by Sara Miles, 2007, Ballantine Books, 294 pp.

This book was so rich and full it is hard to describe. The pink pen I was using to make notes and stars and underlines seemed to bleed across every page. Sara Miles is a beautiful writer with a powerful story and a profound witness of faith to share.

Take this Bread is a spiritual memoir centered around the experience of feeding and being fed and developing a theology of the Body of Christ. Miles’ story begins with an atheist childhood and early adulthood spent as a reporter covering left-wing radical revolutionaries, who shared whatever scant food they had with her. The turning point comes one day when she stumbles into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. She receives her first communion there, unprepared and uneducated, and finds her life transformed by the sacramental experience. She experiences a mystical encounter with Christ’s body in the bread and in her connection with the bodies of those around her. With joy and trepidation, she launches on a quest to understand this experience and share it with others. This pursuit leads her to found a food pantry at St. Gregory’s, and then more pantries across the city.

Take this Bread is her interpretation of those experiences as a journey of hunger and its satisfaction, and the deep connection between the hunger of the body for food, the hunger of the soul for God and the hunger of the creature for community. Miles makes a passionate argument, grounded in mystical experience and biblical theology, that our mortal bodies matter, that the Body of Christ is all about our bodies connecting with other bodies we might not choose to know or love, and that God blesses all of it when the hungry are fed.

This summary does not do justice to the beauty and passion of her writing. Here are a few of my favorite passages:

From her war reporting years:

What I learned in those moments of danger and grief informs what I now call my Christianity. It was a feeling of total community with others, whether or not I was like them, through the common fact of our mortal bodies. We all had bodies that could suffer and be killed; we all had hearts that could stop beating in an instant. In war, I looked at other, different people and saw them, face-to-face—and in seeing them, felt a we. (p. 39)

From her first communion at St. Gregory’s:

There was an invitation to jump in rather than official entrance requirements. There was the suggestion that God could be located in experience, sensed through bodies, tasted in food; that my body was connected literally and mysteriously to other bodies and loved without reason. (p. 64)

From her experiences at the food pantry:

This was where I found my faith: a faith expressed in the wild conceit that a helpless, low-caste baby could be God. That ugly, contaminated and unimportant people embodied holiness. That my own neediness and misfitting, not my goodness or piety, were what God intended to use. … The kingdom was the same old earth, populated by the same clueless humans, transformed wherever you could glimpse God shining through it. (p. 222)

Throughout the course of her memoir, Miles talks about sacraments beyond communion (baptism, anointing, marriage), about her disappointment with the imperfection and rigidness of the church, about the various people she comes to know through the food pantry, about family tensions and forgiveness. Take this Bread is a treasure trove for preachers, an affirmation of social justice and social service Christianity, a witness to the mystical power of the sacraments, a moving spiritual autobiography and a bold theology of the Body of Christ. I can’t say enough to describe it, and I can’t recommend it to you highly enough. As Anne Lamott is quoted on the cover, this is “the most amazing book.”

 

 

Emotional Reunion of Rescued Miner (Photo from cnn.com)

 

I have been captivated by the story of the trapped Chilean miners. I cried when I read about the note reaching the surface 17 days after the collapse of the mine, announcing all 33 were alive and unhurt. I cried again when I read that rescue might not come until Christmas. I rejoiced when the drill broke through, and rescue came early. I am crying again today at the beautiful sight of each one emerging safe and whole into the arms of his family.

The courage, faith and endurance of these men witness to the power and triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of story that should be told and retold for generations as a testimony to hope and survival. I believe that what it means to be human is to possess these kinds of stories and understand our life through them.

 

Capsule Cam capturing the view from the miner's perspective riding up in the rescue capsule.

 

However, I do want to raise a cautionary query. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have been attentive to staging. This story has been presented to the world as though it were not unfolding before us, but as though it were almost already packaged for television and movies. Just today, as I watch the rescue, we are treated to a camera in the mine to capture the send-off from the other trapped miners, a camera in the rescue capsule that shows exactly what the miner is seeing in transit, along with multiple surface cameras to capture the emotions of the waiting families, the work and determination and encouragement of rescue workers and (of course) the presence and involvement of the Chilean president. Each of these cameras has been positioned with a Hollywood director’s care. Someone is directing this show.

 

Trapped Miners

 

The same has been true of the daily briefings and reporting throughout the ordeal. The way that each of the miners has been given a character and identity (the pastor, the musician, the medic, the MacGyver-like mechanic) mimics Hollywood portrayals of disaster and war stories, where nameless and indistinguishable soldiers take on unique archetypal identities. Each day, we get small bits of news unique to each miner, which have obviously been carefully crafted to portray them as courageous, strong and hopeful. This reporting is thanks to the work of three miners, who have been given cameras and sound equipment. One is the official cameraman, the other two are sound engineers. Another miner has been officially named the group poet, writing daily verse about their ordeal and praising rescue workers. (Excellent article here about daily life in the mine.)

Someone is crafting this story, and has been since the very beginning. The narrative of the rescue workers has been meticulously edited to avoid news of major mistakes, and no one is even talking about what caused the collapse in the first place. Here in the U.S., we are always searching first and foremost for someone to blame. This story is all about the hope and courage and ingenuity of the Chilean people.

 

President Sebastian Pinera with the initial note from the miners, holding it up for the cameras.

 

The lead hero of the story is Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. He has been at the forefront of every briefing, and taken the privilege of announcing every breakthrough. Today, as the miners are rescued one by one in that tiny capsule, he stands at the side of the families, second in line to embrace each one—right before the cameras. Having watched him throughout this media moment, I believe he or one of his closest advisors is responsible for the attention to media direction. He or someone close to him foresaw the captivating nature of the story (and, I add, without cynicism,) the political opportunity for Pinera to become a hero by connecting to the miners.

Here’s my ultimate question, however: is this a problem? Does it matter? We could have been exposed to every bit of the mass information and daily doldrums of this 68-day ordeal, or we could have been exposed to very little—just a pool camera at the rescue site. We could have received this information via a raw feed, or carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect. What difference would that make, ethically? Is there a requirement that we receive raw information? What amount of crafting and spin on a story like this one renders it inauthentic or unjust?

 

Picture-Perfect Moment

 

As a professional storyteller (aka preacher), I spend my time every week reading the Bible and trying to figure out how to craft and spin and retell it for dramatic effect, so that it moves the hearts of the listeners and opens them to the Holy Spirit. The Chilean president and his advisors have done the same thing here, except they are attempting to provoke national pride and honor instead of spiritual awakening. We both know that there is a difference between a great story and a great story told by a great storyteller. Is the story any less true because it has been carefully manipulated and told for maximum impact? Or is it an even better story that way?

Stories like that of the Chilean miners captivate us because they are great human stories, in the same way that great human stories of courage and hope have captivated us throughout human history. I praise God today for their rescue, and pray for their healing and peaceful reintegration into their families. And I also ponder these questions about their story and how it is being told. How much has my relationship and emotional response to this story been crafted and directed by storytellers? And how much does that matter? What do you think?

The first time I was in Summersville, West Virginia was at least 15 years ago. I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and my friend K and I spent our free time driving around the back roads of West Virginia in search of beautiful vistas, quirky towns and unique experiences.

New River Gorge

We journeyed to Summersville one Sunday afternoon on our way to the famous New River Gorge bridge, taking a winding two-lane trail through nameless unincorporated communities. We were hungry, and had no cash. Cash was important, because the local restaurants along the road would not accept a credit card back then. Looking on the map, Summersville appeared to be a sizable town, and we believed there would be a 24-hour ATM there so we could get money for something to eat.

We arrived in downtown Summersville and found at least three different back branches, but not one of them had an automatic teller machine. Not one. We rolled down the window and asked a man walking down the street where we could find an ATM machine. “A what?” he asked. “A bank machine, where you can get money.” “Never heard of that kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe they have one of those down in Beckley.”

Our hungry bellies sighed at another 40 mile journey to Beckley, but we also reveled in the thought that there were still places, in the early 1990s, that did not know what an ATM was. It was exactly the kind of experience we sought in our travels, and I still remember it today.

I have returned to Summersville again this week. A friend and I have rented a cabin for reading, writing and quiet time with God. I was eager to revisit Summersville. The website for the cabin told me that they now had several fast food restaurants and a Super Wal-Mart, so I expected a changed place—at least now they would have an ATM, to be sure.

 

 

Summersville, WV along US-19. This is only one section on one side of the road--there is much more fast food and Wal-Mart just ahead.

I couldn’t believe what I found when we got here. Not only is there a Super Wal-Mart, the leader of cheap consumerism and cultural decline in small-town America, but there are strip malls at every turn. Along US-19, where there used to be rolling Appalachians speckeld with color this time of year, there are billboards and signs for every national chain store, hotel chain and fast-food restaurant you can imagine. We sought a local restaurant in downtown Summersville, and could find none.

While I am sure the people of Summersville and the surrounding hillsides are grateful to eat at Applebee’s, get lumber at Lowe’s, wander the aisles of the Dollar Tree and stock up at Super Wal-Mart without driving all the way to Beckley, I mourn the passing of another unique small town.

Bill Bryson’s book A Lost Continent, which I just completed and did not generally like (see review), describes his search for the perfect small town, which he dubs “Amalgam.” He describes its picturesque streets and quaint personalities, and delights in the fact that it could be located in any state in the union. He never finds that small town.

What I fear we have instead is thousands of Amalgams, only they are not the pleasantly perfect models Bryson imagines. In today’s world of mass consumption and large retail and restaurant chains, every town is Amalgam. Every town has the same restaurants, the same stores, the same products. Everything looks the same, tastes the same, feels the same. Something is lost when Summersville, WV looks just like Summersville, KY and Somersville, OH and Somersville, CT and Somersville, CA. I’m not sure why anyone bothers to leave their own town anymore, just to find the same thing in some other place.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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