Birthday Personal Update: Th.D. Program, Kids, Amy, and Social Networking
Outstanding book about college students; Book Review: I Once Was Lost by Everts and Schaupp

Education in the Local Church: Taylor, Willimon, Storey, Niebuhr, and Groome

A number of churches are doing weeknight adult Christian education courses this fall for the first time in a long time. Classes@Willow at Willow Creek Community Church (which you can watch or listen to online), The Midweek Experience - Journey Bible Classes at Granger Community Church, and my own TableTalk at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church.  I am teaching Philippians with Duke New Testament Ph.D. student Tim Wardle. 

I have come across in my reading this week four theologian-pastors talking about education in the church.  I have reproduced those quotes below as they raise almost all of the important issues related to the educational task.  

In summary, Barbara Brown Taylor worries that too often Bible classes do not sufficiently explore what we learn about God from the text and the imagination is too often left unengaged. Will Willimon stresses the importance of pastors instilling the depth of Christian faith in congregations so that they can live despite the unChristian onslaught of the world's messages. Peter Storey's comments are similar to Willimon in stating the crucial nature of education for faithful living. Reinhold Neibuhr's journal reveals his frustrations with students not understanding his theological ruminations.  He later learns to ask more questions and not talk so much. Finally, I note that Thomas Groome's teaching process--which encourages teachers to start with real life, move to the content, and then move back to life and response--takes into account these various issues.  I hope this will be helpful to any thinking through education in their local church today.  

Four quotations

  • Barbara Brown Taylor: The Preaching Life

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (London: Cowley, 1993), 49.  
During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments.  People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them.  The classes were small and sporadically attended, while classes on religion and the arts or parenting techniques overflowed their banks. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses.  They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough.  So I offered more Bible and still no one came. 
Finally, I got the message.  "Bible" was a code word for "God."  People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.  So I laid off the seminary professors and offered a class on biblical meditation instead, which filled up at once.  The plan was simple: every week we locked the door, took off our shoes and closed our eyes and listened to a story about the raising of Lazarus, or the feeding of the five thousand, or John's vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. 

  • William H. Willimon: Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

Will Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 71.
I therefore predict more of a pastor's time will be spent in the education, formation, and enculturation of the members of the congregation to be people who know how to analyze the corrosive acids within the surrounding and essentially indifferent--at times openly hostile--dominant culture.  More of our efforts will need to be expended in giving our people the means to resist, to live by, and to creatively communicate the gospel in a world where Christians are a cognitive minority.  Just the other day I was talking with a pastor who formed a "Public School Teachers' Prayer Breakfast" for the teachers in his congregation.  At this weekly breakfast, the teachers present case studies from their work that challenge their Christian faith.  They share a meal, have prayer, and venture forth better equipped to live their faith in the public-school setting . . .
There is much to be said for the pastor being educated in the classical forms of Christian ministry.  The church has much experience as a minority movement.  We need to draw from that experience today.  In that regard, I predict a recovery of the classical shape of ministry: to teach, to preach, and to evangelize through the ministries of Word, sacrament, and order.  I sense the end of a proliferation of ministerial duties and a reclamation of the essential classical tasks of Christian ministry.  Because so many of our people have not been well formed in the faith, pastors now must stress doctrine, the classical texts of our faith, our master narratives, the great themes.  The culture is no longer a prop for the church.  If we are going to make Christians, we must have a new determination to inculcate the faith.  In some ways our age parallels that of the Reformation, in which the church was faced with a vast undereducated, uninformed, unformed laity and clergy.  Pastors must be prepared to lead in catechesis, moral formation, and the regeneration of God's people.

Peter Storey, "Rules of Engagement: Faithful Congregations in a Dangerous World," Inaugural Lecture for Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams, Jr. Chair of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School.  Storey taught at Duke from 1999-2006.

Reclaim the Teaching Office.  Anything else I say tonight actually depends on this. I have a friend back home whose name is George Irvine, and this very fine pastor says, “If you want to get your congregation moving into mission, you’ve got to do three things:  the first is to teach. When you’ve done that, then for goodness sake, teach. That’s the second thing. And thirdly, teach!”
This has been my experience. It has been a non-negotiable in the churches I’ve served in South Africa: a central teaching and learning experience for the whole congregation, led by the best qualified people available – including certainly all the pastoral staff.  And all lay persons in leadership are required to commit to this weekly educational discipline. All newcomers must do so too, as part of joining. It’s a no-brainer. Nothing effective can happen in a church until its leaders and people begin to think theologically.
I wonder if you know how unique it is that adults attend Sunday School in the numbers they do here? It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Yet most Sunday Schools follow an ad hoc approach to a curriculum which is left very much to each class to discuss and decide. What would happen if a curriculum on mission, for instance was agreed and the pastor trained all the Sunday School class leaders each week in how to teach each lesson? I used to do that with a whole lot of home group leaders when our centralized Academy for Christian Living was in recess.
Reclaiming the teaching office means that we will teach Scripture and Doctrine and Christian Practices and above all, we will, as Ted Jennings puts it, “understudy Jesus.” Above all, we want to learn the mind of that one teacher, remembering his words: “You study the Scriptures diligently supposing that in them you have eternal life, yet although their testimony points to me, you refuse to come to me for that life.” (John 5:39)
And we will also train people in the skills the world desperately needs but doesn’t know. I was speaking with Filipino delegates at the Nairobi World Council of Churches gathering about the overthrow of the tyrant President Ferdinand Marcos and how armored vehicles had to stop and bombers had to abort their bombing runs because hundreds and thousands of Christians jammed the streets. “How did you do it?” I asked. The answer: “We studied and trained for twelve years! We trained in the practice of non-violence and the prayer that is needed for it.”
To be about God’s mission in the world, we need to reclaim the teaching office.

  • Reinhold Niebuhr: Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1929, 1980), 16, 29.

[Neibuhr is 24] 1916. The young fellows I am trying to teach in Sunday school don't listen to me attentively.  I don't think I am getting very clse to where they live.  Or perhaps I just haven't learned how to put my message across.  I am constantly interrupted in my talk by the necessity of calling someone to order.  It is a good thing that I have a class like that.  I'll venture that my sermons aren't getting any nearer to the people, but the little group of adults I am speaking to in the morning service are naturally more patient or at least more polite that these honest youngsters, and so I have less chance to find out from them how futile I am.  But that doesn't solve the proble of how to reach the fellows. 

[Neibuhr is 28] 1920.  I had a great discussion in my young men's clas this morning.  Gradually I am beginning to discover that my failure with the class was due to my talking too much.  Now I let them talk and the thing is becoming interesting.  Of course it isn't so easy to keep the discussion steered on any track.  Sometimes we talk in circles.  But the fellows are at least getting at some of the vital problems of life and I am learning something from them.  Disciplinary problems have disappeared.  The only one left is the fellow who is always trying to say something foolish or smart in the discussion. 

Here's a fifth bonus quote:

Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and how Schools Should Teach (BasicBooks, 1991).
"coverage is the enemy of understanding"

Taylor University Christian Education professor Faye Chechowich's response:
How about education as a task of “uncovering” rather than “covering”?

My conclusion and synthesis. 

I think Boston College professor Thomas Groome's Shared Christian Praxis approach gets at all of these aspects. 

Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision by Thomas H. Groome (1980, 1999).  We required students to read chapter 9 and 10 in Teaching and Learning Strategies at Taylor University. 

Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry : The Way of Shared Praxis by Thomas H. Groome (1991)
This book illustrates the process described in chapter 10 of Christian Religious Education.  

Groome's book Christian Religious Education is the classic in the field.  It is a foundational book we teach in the Christian Educational Ministries program at Taylor University.  It is in the curriculum of education courses at Regent College where I did my MDiv.   And it is required in the Th.D. seminar at Duke Divinity School. 

This is from chapter 10 of Christian Religious Education.   

Movement #1
Naming Present Action

Movement #2
The Participants’ Stories and Visions

Movement #3
The Christian Community Story and Vision

Movement #4
Dialectical Hermeneutic Between The Story and the Participant’s Stories

Movement #5
Dialectical Hermeneutic Between The Vision and the Participant’s Visions

I have given a rough informal look at this process in my post: How to Lead An Impressive Bible Study

A similar flow for a lesson is Hook, Book, Look, Took in Larry Richards's classic Creative Bible Teaching (Chicago: Moody, 1970, 1998), which we teach to freshmen in Introduction to Christian Educational Ministry at Taylor University.

Groome's technique is to engage with the needs of the world, then draw upon the classic content, then probe possible faithful responses. I think it is perhaps easiest to think of the process the way Groome describes it in the introduction to Christian Religious Education--imitating Jesus' approach on the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35.   

Movements 1-2.  What is going on in Jerusalem?  Get them talking about their lives. 

Movement 3.  Jesus explained the Law and Prophets.  We introduce students to life-changing content from the Christian tradition. 

Movement 4. They reflect on what they have heard and how it intersects with their lives. 

Movement 5.  The people decide to head back to Jerusalem.  Response. 

There is some food for thought on a very practical topic from some great thinkers.  Happy teaching.