March 12, 2018—Every now and again I come across the call from enthusiastic, often dissatisfied, church educators to create within the congregation a model of seminary or “school for faith.” The motivation is an earnest desire to make Christian education and learning a more serious enterprise in their congregation. These passionate educators want their church members to take learning as seriously as seminarians who wrestle with deep theological thoughts, engage in formative practices like “critical theological reflection,” and take the study of the biblical text seriously. They want to move Bible study in the church from a naïve devotional parochialism to a critical, and responsible, handling of the Word of God.
As I write this I can think of three instances where that desire resulted in implementation. One congregation created a “mini-seminary” for their youth program with short “courses” that parallel those of a basic seminary divinity degree. Another congregation is offering a course in New Testament Greek. And a third congregation offers a lay institute program with a full schedule of academic classes modeled after an academy, with course fees, textbooks, exams and certificates of achievement (they “graduate” their students in a formal ceremony).
I think any attempt to take Christian education seriously in the congregation is a good thing. And I celebrate the recognition that in order for any educational enterprise to be effective it must follow administrative and educational processes rigorously. But I find the choice of duplicating a schooling model in a congregational setting unsettling. Ultimately the ability to educate people in faith by borrowing instructional models and approaches to learning from another context (like a school or the academy) is suspect. To put it bluntly, while I appreciate the passion and commitment to help a congregation offer “real” education, people cannot be “schooled” in faith.
The reason you cannot “school” people in faith in the congregation has to do with two facts: (1) instructional and didactic approaches do not fully address the nature of faith and how it is formed, and (2) the congregation, while being a religious organization, is by nature a community of faith, not a “school.” While teaching and learning are critically important enterprises of the church its context dictates that the ways of teaching and learning need to be congruent to its nature. In other words, people need to “learn faith” in the ways faith is actually formed, and, people need to learn in community via the ways that communities actually go about forming (educating) their members.
Congregational educational leaders must approach their ministry, decision-making process, and program management with the understanding that a congregation is, at heart, more community than organization in nature. The congregation’s primary enterprise is the shaping of the faith of its members and of those to whom it reaches out in witness and ministry, or, as author Diana Butler Bass put it, “The primary job of the church is to be a spiritual community that forms people in faith.” (1)
The way congregations go about doing that is primarily through the shared communal practices that flow out of the congregation’s culture, not by programmatic means. However, there is an appropriate place for formal programs. Programs are the means through which we make it possible for communal relationships to be cultivated, perpetuated, and institutionalized. Our problem comes when we make programs primary over community relationships and those practices that cultivate faith.
Adapted from Planning for Christian Education Formation, by Israel Galindo and Marty Canaday.
(1) Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) 42.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at Columbia Theological Seminary. 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.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.