A new model for Christian education?

Do you know the history of Christian education? It was the Church that launched many of the world’s famous universities. Learning and education and faith have gone hand in hand for a long time. I mean real learning and discovery. Christianity has historical figures who dedicated lives to science and the search for scientific discovery. Academic insight and questioning the way the world is has a rich tradition in Christianity. Critical thinking is very much a part of the tradition of Christian education.

But not in all Christian traditions. Some have put more value on memorization and learning just the correct answers to questions, dismissing questions, and telling students that doubt is a sin. Compliance became more important than the search for truth in these strains of Christianity.

The Sunday (or Sabbath) School history goes back to the lat 18th century in Britain where Anglican evangelicals would teach children literacy on their working day off (Yes, child labor was common). It quickly caught on in America and there are stories of parents who would send their children to Sunday school, even if no one in the family attended worship.

In some cases Sunday school became the only way that any form of worship would happen due to the prevalence of circuit riding preachers who covered great geographical areas. This relates to the common practice of infrequent communion in Protestant denominations – that has only been changing in recent decades.

All of these educational models arose because there was a need – usually a very specific need. And these educational opportunities helped many people based on the needs that arose.

I’m wondering if we need to take a look at that now and consider some options for new models in Christian education. It might start by taking a look at the need that exists. Before I go any further, please understand something – I don’t think there is a one-size fits all approach to this. In fact, I think there won’t be just one new model. Further, if what you are doing is working, then great – keep at it! But I’m willing to bet there are needs that are not being met with the current model because the current model was designed for a different set of needs. That doesn’t mean that what we have is a failure. It means we need to look at the needs and how to best address them now. Considering there are plenty of people who intentionally decide not to participate in current Sunday school programs, I’m willing to guess that there is a need that these folks feel is not being met.

In conversations I’ve had with some of these folks, there are people who are looking for Christian education that deals with very practical situations in life and how their lives relate to things larger than themselves. This is an interesting combination of things. These are folks concerned with justice issues and their role in those issues. These are folks who want to go beyond what Scripture says for them personally to learning how it guides them in the larger society. These are folks who aren’t looking for “the answers,” but rather for people to journey with together as they discover more questions and explore meaning and purpose.

So what would a new Christian education model look like? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else for that matter. Here’s some components that I think should be a part of it because I think it would meet the needs that people are expressing. What I hear in the needs being expressed is the need for discipleship formation. Think of discipleship formation as a type of Christian apprenticeship. It’s about learning in very hands-on types of ways what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The folks expressing this need aren’t interested in a classroom setting to learn about faith. They want to practice it in very hands-on types of ways. They want to watch someone do it, then try it themselves with a “teacher” working alongside them and offering them critiques and raising questions to consider. They don’t want all the answers, but to see the complexity of the situations and learn how others muddle through. They want lots of conversation.

I can see something like this taking a great deal of time and covering a wide array of topics. Can you imagine what hands-on learning would look like for discipleship formation? I imagine it would cover such topics as stewardship, prayer, dealing with and praying for enemies, loving neighbors and who are my neighbors, Matthew 25 service, worship, how to read and use the Bible, proclamation of Good News, relationships, ecumenism, money, advocacy, citizenship, and more.

The people who express this need aren’t looking for a class or a traditional classroom setting. They are looking to integrate learning and life together in a way that they can connect with. Their lives are the classroom.

In essence, the need they are expressing is a similar need that people express about the church as a whole – They are saying that they are not looking to go somewhere else, someplace special, to encounter God. They want to see how God is encountering them in my life already. These folks are saying – show me a church that does that and I’ll be a part of it. This is the opportunity we face in the age of hybrid church – moving the focus from trying to get others to come to the church building and instead taking the church to the people where they are.


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