When Teaching Became Task

DUBARD KIDSI attended a session a few year’s ago at a Christian Educator’s Fellowship meeting where the leader talked about the importance of “good content, good topics, and good technique.”  She delivered a very compelling vision of the task of teaching — organized, exacting, and precise.  I went to another workshop on brain research, multiple intelligences, and learning styles.  At the time I was reading a book (whose title I cannot recall) on adult learning that was talking about the importance of retention — effective teachers are those who help students retain the greatest amount of information.  These things are true — to a point.  My own research — and a boatload of research by others in academia — indicates that there is one factor that trumps all others in the realm of effective learning, and that factor is relationships.  When pupils and teachers care most deeply about one another (in healthy, productive ways), learning is most effective. Doesn’t matter about the subject, the level of difficulty, or even the individual’s tastes and preferences — unless there is some pathological learning disorder — those who care most learn most.

Look at most global statistics about home schooling.  While some socialization skills are often lacking, home-schooled students consistently out perform both public- and private-schooled peers.  During the Vital Signs study, I talked to over 4,000 people about their spiritual formation.  The vast majority spoke not of favorite classes or stories or curriculum — they spoke of favorite teachers.  And those who retained the most, retained what they did because of the influence of a particular person.  This is not only true in Sunday school and Christian education, but also tracks with findings in public and private school settings worldwide.  Teachers and professors who master a subject are not necessarily going to be effective helping others master it.  Simply understanding learning theory gives a teacher almost no advantage if that person doesn’t relate well on a personal level.  The best materials and equipment provide no real value if students dislike or are apathetic to their teachers.  We know this is true, but we keep dumping more and more money into fancy curricula, media, and equipment, thinking that somehow these things will bring back the glory days of Sunday school when classrooms were packed with happy, smiling children.  Good luck with that.

I think about the five or six best Sunday schools I visited across our denomination a decade ago.  Most didn’t buy any pre-packaged, pre-printed Sunday school materials.  Most showed no videos, though music was often a central ingredient.  The kids were engaged and attentive, and they obviously liked and learned what they were hearing.  What was obviously different in these settings was how deep and close the relationships were between teachers and students.  None of the teachers had a “degree” in Christian education, none had attended Christian educator workshops, and none was well-versed in multiple intelligences.  No, what set these excellent teachers apart was their authenticity — they taught in ways that reflected their own gifts, talents, knowledge, and proficiency.  They weren’t trying to teach “by the book,” nor did they emulate anyone else’s tools and techniques.  They obviously loved God, loved their students, and made it safe and attractive to learn about God and Jesus Christ.  So simple.  Too simple apparently.

I met a young teacher who absolutely mesmerized her classes.  She possessed the spiritual gift of teaching if anyone ever has.  She knew each child, not only by name, but as a real person.  In a classroom of almost 30 5-6-7 year olds, you could hear a pin drop.  This young woman was amazing.  Too bad the associate pastor at the church attended a workshop offered by Christian Ed experts.  There she learned how important it was to have credentialed teachers.  So, home she went replacing this gifted teacher with a credentialed teacher.  Today the church has four children in the 5-6-7 year old class — three of them children of the new teacher.  Where would we be without experts…?

The same is true for adults as well.  I found some incredibly comprehensive and complex learning plans for adult learners — and indeed the information was important  — but the apprehension, comprehension and application of the information was always conditional on the quality of relationships between teacher and students.  And in the very best settings, all participants were both teacher and student, so relationships were even more important.

Teaching is not a task.  Treating it as such is a recipe for… well, the results we are currently getting.  Somewhere along the line we traded spiritual formation for religious information.  Facts replaced faith.  Trivia transplanted true teaching.  Christian education displaced discipleship.  Don’t get me wrong — lifelong learning is the foundation and core of Christian discipleship.  It’s just that so much of what passes for “Christian education” is only nominally Christian and barely educational.    What we teach is very important, how we teach it less so, but nothing will make a bigger difference than the relationship between those who teach and those who learn.

10 replies

  1. The one packaged program that I believe gets this is the Logos midweek program. They emphasize from start to finish that it is about relationships. They offer great curriculim with numerous options and adaptations that each teacher is encouraged to pick and choose from based on their skills and interests and those of their students, and still reinforce over and over that the relationships the teacher builds with the students are more important than the choice of activities, stories, etc. The professional requirements to be a teacher are 1) Love God, 2) Love children, 3) have a gift or talent to share.

    • Yep, I overstated the case. THere are some phenomenal and wonderful prepackaged programs, designed to help people on the journey of faith and transformation. 80% of the Companions in Christ materials fit in here, too. Pre-packaged programs aren’t the problem. Forgive my sweeping generalization!

  2. If I have to sit through one more seminar taught by a “Christian educator” who talks down to me like I am an idiot, telling me about the latest findings from “brain research” I will scream. CEF is the biggest joke or the saddest tragedy we have in the church. They are the proof of the truth in the old joke, “those who can’t do, teach!”

  3. Spiritual gifts in an area are necessary to truly shine in that area. Instruction in technical aspects might make someone without those gifts skilled and able to perform at a mediocre level, perhaps diverting them from their true calling. (I’ve never met anyone drawn to seminary because they felt they would be stellar administrators.) So, our task is to identify and nurture (through use) gifts given to us. God gives us the satisfaction of fulfillment and relationship with Him as a reward. Saved by faith, grown in works. Stewardship.

    Isn’t the Methodist connectional doctrine founded on the belief that we need to be in relationship with our neighbor? After all, it’s relationship that makes disciple-making possible. Prior to 2009, 40% of Lay Speaking Ministries Basic Course was focused on leading in worship and preaching. The underlying thread of the new curriculum is relationship in small group, through which the ministry of the laity is explored. The formality of worship and preaching are barely mentioned, the development of those gifts being left to advanced courses. No more “square peg in a round hole” pain and poor productivity for either the peg or the hole.

    As a final note, the General Board of Discipleship publishes the Lay Speaking Advanced Course “Lay Speakers Teach Adults”, which helps identify gifts for teaching as well as instructing in pedagogy. I’ve lamented that there isn’t a comparable “Lay Speakers Teach Children”. Is that a reflection of our priorities? Lay Speaking is, after all, the one denomination-wide discipleship program constituted in the Discipline.

  4. Rex – You nailed it. If we found productive ways to identify spiritual giftedness of our members and then mandated their service in those areas we could spend much less time and money on learning how to do the things we are not gifted to do.

    I don’t think assessment tests are the way to do it. We need some pastors and lay people who are invested enough in their congregations and sensitive to the lay peoples individual giftedness and get them pursuing ministry in that area.

    Our gifted SS teachers will be effective… not because of a program but because of the Spirit.

    just got back last week from ‘Change Your World Conference’ at Ginghamsurg last week, they seemed understand this and do it very well. Most of us need to completely shift our focus… and help those around us shift as well. All this wrangling about doing things right… if we lined up with the Spirit we would have so much more joy, and wouldn’t be constantly trying to kick start something God isn’t in.

    Great article Dan.

    • Jay, Most spiritual gifts tools are just that — they provide people with help to begin the process of discovery and discernment. The Apostle Paul, to the best of my knowledge, never had the church at Rome, Corinth, or Ephesus fill out a spiritual gifts inventory, and he was fairly precise in his discernment. The goal of any church that takes spiritual giftedness seriously is to come to a place where it is a natural part of the community — where gifts are identified and acknowledged and affirmed. However, many congregations need tools to help develop such an awareness and sensitivity. Having done spiritual gifts work for thirty years, I know its power, but I also know the widespread resistance and ignorance about it as well. For me, the shortfall of most spiritual gifts resources is that they are mis-focused. Too many tools try to help people identify gifts they can use to support the institutional church. God doesn’t give spiritual gifts that we might support the institution; God gives us the institution that we might discover and develop our gifts to BE the church for the world. We are gifted 24/7/365, not just on Sunday morning and at church council meetings.

      • Dan, I think I agree with what you are saying. I am the youth minister at Maumee UMC outside of Toledo Ohio, we are launching what we call ‘project CBO’ (Captive Blind Oppressed) which is a plan for our youth to meet the needs of friends and families of our congregation no strings attached. Not institutional service but outreach with no expectation of reciprocity, not for evangelism, or church growth just service. We have tweaked the entire youth ministry around these ideas in the past few weeks only and it is amazing how this focus gets youth understanding their spiritual gifts… by employing them in service they gravitate towards their gifts.

        Not sure if that makes sense.

      • If you were going to suggest a good spiritual gifts resource for a church, which one would you suggest?

        I have wanted to do this work with my small church (30 members) but do not have the training or first-hand experience to do it.

      • Well, of course, my bias is for Equipped for Every Good Work since I wrote it with my wife, Barbara. I also recommend Patricia Brown’s, Spirit Gifts. There are loads of really bad spiritual gifts tools — those who play loose and fast with the biblical basis and those whose main purpose is to place church members in leadership slots.

      • John, I like your word choice: resources. God’s work in the world is not static, so neither are God’s gifts. Courses and inventories are usually focused on finding a single, static answer. Discernment of God’s will is sometimes taught and practiced as a constant process, a daily discipline. I’d like to see discernment of gifts addressed similarly. Anybody have any suggestions?

        By the way, the Discipline says “the certified lay speaker may serve in the district and conference and in local churches other than the local church in which membership is held.” I choose to interpret that liberally as “BEYOND the local church.” Most certified lay servants (as we call them in Wisconsin, now) in the Milwaukee Metro North and South Districts see it that way, too, leading community food pantries, doing ecumenical prison ministry, and so on. I’m trying to lead the program toward nurturing and equipping more people to do God’s work BEYOND the four walls and 1 hour a week. Not surprisingly, I am meeting with some social and institutional resistance. In addition to “That’s not how we do it here” and “We’ve never done it that way before”, I’m running into “Do you have that authority?” ???!!! Didn’t Jesus specifically call each and every one of us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Or was that only the Apostles, and by extension, the clergy?

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