By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
It remains indisputably true that the task of making disciples remains one of the primary purposes of the Church. Arguably, it is the Church’s PRIMARY purpose, for what else is the ultimate goal of evangelizing than to make disciples? Throughout its history the Church has answered this calling by engaging in education that is Christian. Meaning, practicing ways of teaching and learning that are authentically Christian. This is easier said than done. It’s not difficult to acquire effective ways of teaching and learning. We can rely on vast resources of the field of education and all its domains: pedagogy, andragogy, developmental psychology, instructional design, adult education, and the plethora of emerging instructional technologies. The challenge for congregations, however, is to answer the question, “What ways of teaching and learning are authentically Christian?”
Traditional congregational Christian education has seen neglect in the past decades. As congregations get smaller (75 is the average worship attendance in congregations today), as fewer professional Christian educators find places of ministry in congregations, and as seminaries scale back their Christian education degree programs, the consequences to the Church are on the cusp of being tragic.
One renowned educator wrote, “In modern times people’s views about education differ. There is no general agreement about what the young should learn either in relation to moral virtue or to success in life; nor is it clear whether education should be more concerned with training the intellect or the character. Contemporary events have made the problem more difficult, and there is no certainty whether education should be primarily vocational, moral or cultural. People have advocated all three. Moreover there is no agreement as to what sort of education promotes moral virtue.”
The author of that observation is Aristotle (Polities VII), which goes to show that the Preacher was, in some respect, right: there is nothing new under the sun. We may think it quaint that Aristotle situates his comment in “modern times.” He was, however, addressing the same perennial questions of concern to today’s Christian educators, namely, the questions about the nature of education, learning, teaching, and, questions about nature of the teacher and learner.
Aristotle’s observation can help us appreciate that the perennial questions of education must be addressed perennially. But they need to be dealt with responsibly and critically if we are ever to figure out what it’s all about: what should be the goal of education? What methods and approaches are appropriate to that end? What is the nature of the learner? Of the teacher? What should comprise the content of the curriculum (explicit, implicit, and null)? What is worth knowing, and what is trivial? How do students learn, and how do you know?
While it may be true that traditional congregational education has had a rough patch of late, as so often is the case, at the same time there is evidence of a resurgence in the vitality of congregational Christian education.
In the book, Fostering Faith: Teaching and Learning in the Christian Church, Janssen, Verner and Hemmen, strike all the right cords for an approach to effective Christian education in the local church, one that can help congregational Christian educators, clergy and lay, practice Christian education that is authentically Christian. Among those are:
I recently heard a seminary alumnus say that one thing he regretted about his seminary experience is not taking Christian education courses. He suggested the reason for that was he “Didn’t really understand what Christian education was about.” I suspect that for this former student, Christian education was, in his mind, equivalent to and not much more than “Sunday School.”
The fact is that I don’t teach much about Sunday School my seminary Christian Education courses. Whenever I’m asked about that my response is, “Anyone with an IQ three points above that of plant life can run an effective Sunday School. Any seminary graduate can learn to run a Sunday School in about three hours on-the-job. I’d rather use those three hours studying other more fundamental matters.”
Certainly, that’s an overstatement by all accounts, but not by much. Given what passes for Sunday School in most congregations, once you assign classroom space, assign a teacher, order the curricular resource material, and make sure the coffee is made, few people expect much from it. Sunday school does serve a purpose in most congregations, but as a rule, it’s not an educational one.
For seminarians who take Christian education courses it’s not uncommon to hear, “Wow, Christian education is much more than I thought it was.” Not surprisingly, the more they are exposed to the field of Christian education the greater their appreciation for it and the deeper their understanding about how critical it is for the lives of the congregation and the individuals who make up the church.
Real congregational Christian educators do more than run a Sunday School. Here’s what “real Christian educators” can do:
Fostering Faith is a good resource for reclaiming a vision for Christian education in the church that is grounded, authentic, and effective.