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Here are six basic rules for planning a church education program:
The persons who show up at an event are the ones who need to be there.
I’m 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 when it’s a congregation of only 50 people!).
My own rule about events and workshops is, “I’ll work with whoever shows up.”
Even if it’s two people (I think there’s a Bible verse on that, isn’t there?).
When you plan and offer an event, the people who will attend are the people who have a felt need for what you’re 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’ve 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’ll 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’s 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’re offering in the ways and in the venues those people need to hear it.
For example, don’t market an event on parenting to people who don’t have children in the home.
Don’t 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 signs up, offer it again next year.
Too many church educators give up on good programs and educational offerings because no one—or “too few”—showed up the first time it was offered.
Sure, it takes a lot of energy to create and offer a new program and event.
And sure, it’s disappointing when people don’t “get it” the first time.
But the fact is that people often cannot appreciate what they don’t know, and likely won’t make a connection between a “new” program offering and what they need.
If you offer a program the first time and people don’t attend, but you’re convinced it’s needed, then offer it again the following year.
Sometimes people need to “recognize” something as “familiar” before they embrace it.
And the rule is that 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’m 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 some reason—they’d benefit from it being offered again.
Another group of people did not need what you offered this year—but in three years they’ll 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 “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’ll reach a whole new group(s) of people who didn’t 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’ve got a limited amount of resources and energy—and so do your congregational members.
Focus on offering those educational programs that will give you the most on your investment of time and effort—those 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).
Entertainment is such an overwhelming element in people’s lives that many of them live trivial lives without realizing it.
Don’t believe that?
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 do it ad nauseaum.
Additionally, feeling “affirmed” feels good, but it doesn’t lead to growth or maturation.
Challenge is better than cuddling when you want to help people grow. And the goal of education is growth, after all.
When planning an event, ask, “What’s the theology that informs this?”
Christian education must always be undergirded 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’ve said in the past, “If there’s no difference in what the church offers people, then what’s the difference?”
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia 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 & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).