For The Someday Book

What to do about Adult Christian Education? Part I

Posted on: October 26, 2010

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

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7 Responses to "What to do about Adult Christian Education? Part I"

I think you’re exactly right. The churches I’ve attended that have highly educated people have well-attended adult classes. It just seems to be a part of the air around those places.

[…] About Me & My Blog What to do about Adult Christian Education? Part I […]

I think another possible reason for the lack of attendance in Christian Education classes is a cultural shift from seeing faith from the perspective of something you intellectually ascribe to, agree with, think your way into toward seeing faith as something you do, a way of life, a way of being in the world that is not necessarily driven by the brain or intellect but more by the heart or spirit. How do you nurture people’s hearts and spirits? How do we give them tools for living day to day as people of faith in their families, neighborhoods, communities, work places?

Amen, Tisha. I think you are exactly right. That’s a big part of what I was trying to get at in Part II, and even more to come in Part III.

Thanks for reading and responding.

[…] in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a […]

[…] in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a […]

[…] emphasizing an increase in knowledge and expertise in the faith. (I wish I had read this before my four-part series on Adult Christian Education, because it would have added a great additional […]

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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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