What is Adult Education in your Church? Is it Working? Where is it Going?
by Lola Michael Russell, Staff Writer
Featuring: St. Thomas’s Church, by Lawrence Duggan; Christ Church Christiana Hundred, by the Rev. Stephen Setzer; and All Saints and St. George’s Church, by the Rev. Eunice Dunlap
Adult education seems to be a perennial topic in churches throughout the world, and the issue of dwindling participation seems to follow close behind.
I thought it would be interesting to ask about the challenges our diocese faces, the approaches our churches are taking, and the future of adult education in our rapidly changing world. For the first article on this topic, I thank the writers from three parishes for contributing their stories.
At St. Thomas’s Parish, many are associated with the University of Delaware, so it seems appropriate to start with input from those committed to the cause of education in their work and lives. Parishioner Lawrence Duggan offers these comments.
“Adult education has always been lively at St. Thomas’s Parish since I became an Episcopalian and a parishioner in 1982, the same year Robert Duncan became the rector. One topic soon under discussion was his vision for the stained-glass Pilgrimage Windows project. It took more than 24 years for us to complete, and we finally are publishing a beautifully illustrated 40-page text with commentary. Once Father Duncan discovered that I am a Church historian (mostly medieval), he persuaded me to offer courses on church history, which I have done periodically ever since then.
“Those who attend adult education at St Thomas’s Parish collectively decide what we will talk about. We are able to meet between our two principal services on Sunday, and ordinarily between people attend. Sometimes we devote our energy to deepening our understanding of the Bible through reading, videos, and reflection. Much of the time, however, we discuss contemporary topics that are relevant and often urgent. For example, around 15 years ago, the election and consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion led to much fruitful conversation, and not long after, we discussed Bishop Wright’s quiet initiation of possible blessings of gay unions in this diocese. More recently, we focused on Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, for some time. Even more recently, we have returned to a book that caused a stir over a decade ago, The Shack. And now, given the election of a new bishop in the face of declining church membership in all the mainline churches, we are embarking on a close reading of Dwight Zscheile’s People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity, to help us figure out how best to learn from each other and the world outside in these ominous times.
“In case this sounds too serious, I should also mention that we laugh a lot and will always talk about anything that someone brings up. Here, where many of us are affiliated with the University of Delaware, we take the unusual view of the Episcopal Church as ‘graduate school religion,’ and we are fond of the poster of the Crucified Christ with the inscription, ‘He came to take away your sins, not your mind.’ And so, as we inevitably age, we also hope to advance in wisdom and grace.”
The Rev. Stephen Setzer writes about a new approach to adult education at Christ Church, Christiana Hundred.
“When I first arrived at Christ Church, Christiana Hundred, I learned that our adult education ministry was called Adult Christian Enrichment (ACE). It was adult Sunday school, weekly Bible studies, and book groups. It’s a model that is largely consistent across The Episcopal Church, regardless of region or parish size. But after two years, we began to ask the question: “What exactly are we trying to accomplish?” This came after really trying to be creative about what we offered. We led series on justice issues; we read cutting edge authors; we hosted a well-known theologian from Yale Divinity School; we hosted a speaker series at a bar in Little Italy; we organized a Lenten film series at a theatre in downtown Wilmington. At the end of all this, I felt frustrated because I wasn’t sure what we were doing. I found myself wondering what I actually wanted from our parishioners except for them to be present and accounted for at the event I had planned. Numbers. It was coming down to numbers. If people showed up, then it was worth it.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. Numbers are important. I like them as much as the next priest. But they don’t help us very much when trying to measure what really matters in our lives of faith. What really does matter? Well, I think the answer comes in the words Jesus spoke to his followers just before he ascended into heaven: “Go make disciples” (Matt. 28:19). When seen through the lens of discipleship, adult education takes on a new form. It becomes less about creative programming and numbers, and more about what really matters —becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.
“This has been a defining point for us at Christ Church, because it has caused us to shift from our old model and to adopt a new one.
- The old model— Offer a buffet of adult education options and hope that people like what is on the buffet and show up.
- The new model — Single focus on discipleship in small groups, which we are calling growth groups.
“I’m convinced that what people desire most out of their spiritual lives is a feeling of being alive and that faith actually matters. I’m convinced that people want to learn how to talk to God and how to talk about their faith to others. And for most of us that happens best in contexts where we can practice talking to God and talking to others — small groups.
“Sometimes it is easy to practice spiritual anonymity in the Episcopal Church, meaning it’s pretty easy to come as you are and leave as you came. That’s why I love the small group model, because it’s hard to be anonymous for long. Eventually everyone must answer the call —the call of discipleship.
“If your parish is thinking about a new approach to adult education, maybe it would be good to begin with the simple questions: What are we trying to accomplish in this ministry? What are our goals? What do we want from our parishioners? or What do we want from our church?”
Parishes face different challenges when it comes to adult education. At All Saints & St. George’s, their congregation changes with the seasons. The Rev. Eunice Dunlap addresses how they approach that challenge.
“Because we have many seasonal visitors who attend during their vacations, we offer three four-week series of Christian Formation on a wide variety of topics during Lent, Advent, and the summer. We have offered a range of topics including the mystics, liturgy, heaven, hell, angels and demons, homelessness, gender issues, migrant issues, racism and other -ism issues. These topics are presented in the form of a lecture and discussion. We also have monthly movies, some of which are meant to entertain, while most are used as a beginning point for conversation. We have shown Joseph Campbell’s series on The Power of Myth, which educated many on the parallel beliefs in the major world religions. We have shown movies on a specific saint or book of the Bible, and topics pertinent to our times such as anti-Semitism racism, and the intersection between science and Christian spirituality.
“In addition, we offer a time for weekly interspiritual meditation. The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest, writer, and retreat leader, has said, ’Wisdom is not knowing more, but knowing with more of you.’ It is good to learn as much as we can about our faith and how it informs and affects our interaction with our brothers and sisters on this planet and the planet itself; however, we are each much more than we think we are. As theologian Teilhard de Chardin would say, ’We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’ Our mind ingests so much information that we tend to lose our essential self, who we actually are as manifestations of God (children of God), and we begin to believe that we are who our egos tell us we are, based on what is culturally acceptable. I believe meditation offers us a way of living in the Divine Love that dwells within us, reminding us who we are in our core and keeping in perspective everything that clouds our awareness. Our meditation programs begin with a brief chant and 20 minutes of silent meditation, followed by a discussion of readings from One River, Many Wells, by Matthew Fox. This book is a compilation of wisdom from many of the world’s great religions on various topics that, like Joseph Campbell’s work, illustrate the universal beliefs of the major world religions. We end with chant.”
A second article will feature adult education in three more parishes. Further thoughts from readers and other churches would be welcome.