By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
Here are a few basic rules I always share with folks looking to get a handle on how to plan their church education program:
- The persons who show up at an event are the ones who need to be there. I am continually puzzled at the over-focus on numbers in congregations. If 100 people don’t show up at an event, then the event is considered a failure (even if it is in a congregation of only 70 people!). My own rule about events and workshops is, “I’ll work with whoever shows up.” When you plan and offer an event, the people who will attend are the people who have a felt need for what you are offering. The other people you imagine should be there are of no consequence to the effectiveness of the event nor to whether or not the few who attend get what they need. Focus on the ones who have invested their time in coming, not on the ones who did not.
- Not everything is for everybody at the same time. One of the reasons that you will never get all, or most, of the people in your congregation to attend any given educational program is that people need different things at different times. As a rule, any effective program will be about ONE thing. And if that is so, then the people who will attend are the ones who need that ONE thing. Get clear about the population you are aiming for in the program, and make sure you market and announce what you are offering in the ways and in the venues those people need to hear it. For example, do not market an event on parenting to people who do not have children in the home. Do not market a program on divorce to married couples. The people who are interested in the topic of divorce are those who have experienced a divorce.
- If you plan something good and no one shows up, do it again next year. Too many church educators give up on good programs and educational offerings because “too few” showed up the first time it was offered. Certainly, it takes a lot of energy to create and offer a new program and event. And it is disappointing when people do not “get it” the first time. But the fact is that people often cannot appreciate what they do not know, and likely will not make a connection between a new program offering and what they need. If you offer a program the first time and people do not attend, but you are convinced it is needed, then offer it again the following year. Sometimes people need to recognize something as familiar before they embrace it. Remember the rule: people need to see and hear a new message eight times before actually noticing it.
- If you offer an event that meets people’s needs, then offer it again in three years. I am always surprised at this one. People will offer an event in the church that is well-received, meets people’s needs, gets great feedback, and may even be well-attended . . . and they seem to be able to only think of it as a one-shot deal. But consider that for all of its success, some people who needed that event were not able to participate for any number of reasons. They will benefit from it being offered again. Another group of people did not need what you offered this year, but in three years they will be at a different place and will need it then. This is particularly true for events for families. Families go through predictable family life cycles. All those families with only preschoolers at home will not have attended this year’s program related to children in the family, but in three years, those preschoolers will be school-aged children and those same parents will need and want that event. The rule is: when you discover a good program that meets the needs of people, put it on the calendar for three years down the line and offer it again. You will reach a whole new group of people who did not need it now, but will need it then.
- When programming, focus on people’s needs and not their predilections. A basic principle of learning is that an unrealized or perceived need is a motivator. Interest is not a sufficient enough motivator for learning or change. You have a limited amount of resources and energy, and so do your congregational members. Focus on offering those educational programs that will give you the best return on your investment of time and effort, hose that meet people’s needs, not their interests. People want a lot of things, and some people want to be entertained and affirmed. But the fact is that people have enough entertainment in their lives (don’t believe it? Consider how much money your congregational members spend on entertainment in comparison to how much they give to missions or to the church budget). Entertainment is such an overwhelming element in people’s lives that many of them live trivial lives without realizing it. Eavesdrop on your congregational members and see what it is they talk about. I’m willing to wager it will mostly consist of sports, movies, television shows, hobbies, or the weather, and they’ll talk about those ad nauseaum. A deeper spiritual life cannot be cultivated out of triviality.
- When planning an event, ask, “What is the theology that informs this?” Christian education must always be under girded by an informing theology. A Christian theology that frames and informs the educational events at the church is what makes Christian education Christian. As I mentioned to someone today, “If there is no difference in what the church offers people, then what difference will it make?”
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.