My definition of Christian education is (and has been for over thirty years): Information needed for formation that leads to transformation. Christian education was a central focus of the research I did on congregational vitality (1999-2006) and I found quite a bit of evidence that confirmed the value of such a definition. All of our churches use a LOT of information. We teach Bible stories, we read Christian books, we plow through stacks of curriculum, but for about two-thirds of our churches, just getting through the information is the goal. There is great pride in completing a Disciple Bible Study, or graduating a class, or finishing up a six week discussion on The Purpose Driven Life, but when we asked teachers and congregational leaders, “…and what do people do with what they learned?”, the most common response was a blank stare. Many people didn’t understand the question. All too often, we define Christian education as the accumulation of information, or getting through the material.
About twenty-five percent of the 1,100 congregations in the Vital Signs study had a very clear and concise answer to the question, “…and what do people do with what they learned?” Classes, studies, small groups, and discussions are organized around some basic goals of helping people learn more about their faith so that they strengthen their relationship with God and others in the groups. There is a formational purpose to help people become better Christians.
However, the remaining ten percent of the churches in the study — the most vital and vibrant congregations — approach education in a way that distinguishes them from the other 90%. They design a process of learning and development appropriate to a wide variety of ages, maturity levels, learning styles, and capabilties that help people grow in their faith and share what they learn with others, especially those outside the congregation. This is intentional, well designed, and well implemented. The healthiest congregations use information that forms and equips people to be agents of transformation in the world. Cool.
There are seven elements of the healthiest churches that tend not to even show up in the thinking of education leaders at less healthy congregations. These are not “the seven keys to effective education.” They are merely characteristics of some of the most effective programs.
- Multi-level developmental models — the best education processes offer a minimum of four different levels (think: beginner, intermediary, advanced, and mastery level) where people move from the more basic to the more complex and demanding learning experiences. Some churches who have advanced/mastery level learning require papers and projects that get evaluated. Too many of our churches offer an almost endless parade of beginner level (with a smattering of intermediary level) programs. Disciple Bible Study, for example, is an intermediary program, but many educators in less healthy congregations claim that it is about as demanding as they (or the people in their churches) are willing to go.
- Partnered and customized learning plans — one of the most helpful ways to assist someone in their faith development is to work with them to set some personal and congregational learning goals. What would they like to learn? What do they need to learn? What are their spiritual gifts? What is God’s will for their life? How can they grow as a disciple? What would they like to be able to do in the future that they can’t do now? If education is a process of spiritual formation to equip Christian disciples, a well-defined learning plan with measurable goals and objectives customized to particular needs is very valuable.
- Offerings evolve over time — as the individuals and the congregation grows, goals, objectives, and visions change. Learning changes appropriately to serve the evolving needs. Christian educators in our healthiest congregations are always looking ahead, asking, “What next?”
- Apprentice, rather than student based — apprentices are being trained in specialized skills that they will use over time, hopefully until they attain mastery. Sadly, our definition of “student” in modern day U.S. education tends to be fairly passive. Students sit and listen and take notes. Teachers dispense knowledge and wisdom. An amazing change occurs when a teacher redefines her or his work to empowering others to do what they do, as well as they do it, if not better.
- Built in succession — one result of teachers training instead of dispensing information is the built-in cultivation of future teachers. There is an expectation that people will take what they learn to share with or to serve others. Many congregations that use a multi-level developmental model expect those who reach mastery of certain subjects and ministries to teach others. The ultimate goal of any master-disciple relationship is that one day the disciple will attain mastery and have disciples of her or his own.
- Experiential learning — in our healthiest churches, learners are doers of the word and not just hearers. Hands-on experiences are powerful. Trips to mosques, temples, soup kitchens, seminaries, shelters, and the like, teach more in a few hours than many classes can talk about in months. Helping people be like Christ has a lot of additional value to simply talking about Christ.
- Learning is the most important thing a church can do — even more than worship, our healthiest churches are building relationships grounded in dialogue, where the fullest understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ can be explored, discussed, debated, wrestled with, become frustrated and overwhelmed by, and grown into by disciples-in-formation. Yes, worship is important to this process, but only so much can happen seated in a sanctuary. Where people work together, strive together, and learn together to be disciples the seeds of transformation take root, grow, and bloom.
As I said before, this isn’t a prescription, but it does describe something different than most people think of when they hear “Christian education.” This is education with purpose — education as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. This is learning that leads to a new way of living. This is high level training, empowering people to use their gifts, talents, knowledge, and passion in the world.