For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘adult education

This is Part IV 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. 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 Different Way and Part III: Moving toward Holistic Faith Formation.

I promise, we’re nearing the end of this long series of reflections. I’ve already pondered the cultural support necessary to sustain traditional adult Christian education, reasons why people don’t attend and argued for a different approach that takes a more holistic approach to faith as a way of life and seeks to form people into disciples of Jesus Christ.

The fact remains: learning about God, the Bible, spiritual practices and the Christian tradition is still important. While information and intellectual knowledge is not the only aspect of faith or even the most important one, knowing the scriptures and understanding the faith is critical to discipleship. How do we accomplish that piece of faith formation? As I explained in an earlier post, our current practices all work on a school model. I believe that the time has come to get much more creative with our delivery.

Bible teaching does not require a classroom context. In my previous post, I talked about integrating bible study and faith reflection into various aspects of church life. I also believe we need to find ways to deliver information and study to people outside of church life, to connect with people where they are, and expand our reach beyond our church walls. Here are some ideas, some we are trying and some I would like to try.

  • Video Messages: I post a brief (1-2 minute) sermon preview message every week. In it, I try to avoid simply hyping church events, but instead focus on a brief, devotional, inquisitive look at the scripture that anticipates the message I will be preaching on Sunday. I post the video on my church’s Facebook page and my own, on YouTube, on my sermon blog on the church’s website. I also send a link to church folk via e-mail. This puts the opportunity to pause and spend a moment with their faith right there in their news feed or inbox. I always try to pose a question or two for reflection, to engage folks in thinking about the Sunday scripture before they arrive. You can watch them here if you’re interested.
  • Mid-week Reflection: I have several colleagues who write a brief reflection every week, which is posted on the church’s website or delivered via e-mail. This is similar to the video message, taking a short topic or scripture and inviting people to pause for a moment to contemplate their faith.
  • Online Bible Study: We have tried this, but it’s never gotten off the ground. We usually have a “leader” who posts the lesson and a reflection, then invites commentary, questions and response. Because it usually hosted on a website, people forget to check back regularly for updates.
  • Still Speaking Devotional: This is a great tool produced by the United Church of Christ that delivers a beautiful, simple devotional reading to your e-mail inbox or Facebook news feed every morning.
  • Podcast Sermons: Nearly two years ago, I began posting my weekly sermons on the church’s website as podcasts. I imagined that they would be an evangelism tool for people exploring the church online before visiting in person. To my surprise, it has become much more. People who miss church often download the podcast to listen, and the podcast now has several RSS subscribers that I do not know and are not otherwise connected to the church. The site averages 70 podcast downloads per week, which is almost as many people as attend church on Sunday morning.
  • Theology on Tap: I’ve never been a part of a church that has done this, but it involves drinking beer at a local bar while listening to a speaker and having a conversation about God. Sounds like an awesome new model of faith formation to me.
  • Small Groups: Mega-churches and evangelical churches rely heavily on small groups. They fit well into a model of faith formation, because they gather regularly for fellowship, study, social service, and community. I’m not sure how well they work in small or medium-sized congregations.

What about you? What’s working for you and your congregation? Share your ideas!

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


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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