What is Adult Education in your Church?
by Lola Michael Russell, Staff Writer
Featuring: Christ Church, Dover, by the Rev. Charles Weiss; St. Luke’s Church, by the Rev. Marianne Ell; and St. Peter’s Church, by the Rev. Jeffrey Ross
In this, the second article on adult education in the diocese, we take a look at some further challenges faced by congregations. The Rev. Charles Weiss, asks:
“What is adult education? At Christ Church, Dover, we think of it more as ’faith development’ than imparting knowledge, although they certainly overlap. Another way to say this is that we measure success by whether we are noticeably growing in love of God and neighbor.
“Our Intentional Faith Development committee meets periodically to review our work. At one point, we surveyed the parish to see how we were doing. We learned that parishioners appreciated what we offered, but longed for a greater variety of leaders, topics, and approaches to learning.
“What seems to work well for us? Our weekly women’s Bible study is one of our greatest successes. This group, besides taking away a great deal of information, shares their struggles, their joys, and their ongoing questions of faith. The relationships that form here are deep and long-lasting. They also laugh a lot!
“Our Sunday morning adult forums are generally well received. While the group size varies, the conversations are genuine and quite deep. Regardless of who is speaking, what they’re speaking about, or how they’re presenting things, our members prefer discussion over lecture. Good Episcopalians that they are, they love to ask questions! Some popular topics include ’Why Do We Do That?’ (a mini Inquirers Class); ’Spiritual Gifts’ (inventories to discern what we have to offer); ’Faith and Current Events’ (e.g., immigrant and refugee matters, the death penalty); and ’Last Things’ (a five-week Lenten series on death and dying).
“Book studies usually draw a smaller but devoted group. These are really backdoor Bible studies that find our way to scriptural truths by beginning with some general topic and discovering how our sacred story connects with it. Popular books have addressed social justice issues (e.g., Just Mercy, Fear of the Other, and Justice for the Poor) and spiritual growth (Ten Things Your Minister Won’t Tell You and Half Truths).
“In terms of formal Bible study, we’ve had a good response to the African Bible Study. We’ve heard that this is less scary because it focuses not on how much people know about the Bible, but how God may be speaking to us through a particular story.
“What doesn’t seem to work as well for us? Except for the women’s group, formal Bible study draws less people than book studies. It seems that our members are more drawn to a topical study than cracking open a specific book of the Bible.
Sermon discussions have been difficult to organize, perhaps because our 9:00 a.m. education time is squeezed between two services.
“A millennial group, Burgers, Beer, and Belief, met at local restaurants. It started with a bang, but it fizzled out, possibly because we couldn’t nail down our purpose.
“This year’s education theme is The Jesus Movement. In a variety of ways, we are addressing its three priorities: evangelism (who is God to me and how do I share that?), reconciliation (how do we break down walls and build relationships?), and creation care (how do we care for the world God has given us?)
Time may be a universal challenge to adult education, and The Rev. Marianne Ell at St. Luke’s Church addresses that.
“It seems as if for many years the church has focused on education for children and youth, while assuming that adults were educated as young people. After Confirmation, education took a back seat for many people. Adults were not expected to continue to study, other than going to a Bible Study or an adult forum between services. Many people just dropped their kids off for Sunday School because they thought it was important, but they did not pay attention to their own learning and spiritual growth.
“Sometimes adults do engage in learning for self-development to find further purpose and meaning in life and to find connections between faith and everyday living. Christian education is meant to be transformational, not just informational. We are called to become more Christ-like and to participate in God’s mission in the world.
“One of the biggest challenges to adult education is time. Among the many choices of things to do, extra events on week nights can be difficult, especially for families. Also, coming at night is difficult for some seniors who don’t like to drive after dark. Some years back I noticed that people weren’t coming to extra programs mid-week, no matter how exciting or what type of program I provided. With this phenomenon, I realized that we must make the most of Sunday morning worship because it is the primary venue for adult education. So, our sermons have a balance of education and inspiration.
“At St. Luke’s Church, education is about formation, and we have several opportunities for learning. We have weekly, lay-led Bible studies on various topics. During Advent and Lent, we have weekly studies on seasonal topics. We often have a reflection that is educational during our vestry meetings. Our members love to learn and make learning events a priority. At least half of the congregation comes out for learning events. Presently I am working with a small group of people who are learning about missional leadership and exploring how our adaptive challenges relate to our mission. Adult learners bring wisdom from their life experiences to education and learning, and they integrate the new knowledge into their living. Most of our learning events have a strong element of participation by those who are present.
“When I was 14, my parents gave me a Good News Bible because I loved to read it. When I was 21, I was given a New Jerusalem Bible, and my Mom wrote in it, ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and light unto my path.’ (Ps 199:105). I am blessed that my parents cared about my continued reading of the Word for my life. Christian education at St. Luke’s Church is about our relationship with Jesus and how Jesus becomes a light for the journey.”
The Rev. Jeff Ross is the coordinator for education for ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware. It seems fitting to end this month’s discussion with his thoughts.
“Every Baptismal rite in The Episcopal Church includes this prayer before the Peace is shared: Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
“The third sentence has always stood out for me because it speaks to the essential quality of Christian formation. Human beings are blessed with the gift of curiosity that inspires and drives us on our journey through life. Throughout all our experiences, we make meaning and build understanding. Saint Anselm believed that faith is one of the most important aspects of humanity because it sets the context for understanding and interpreting the world: fides quaerens intellectum. Therefore, an essential hallmark of any faith community is our attention to formation, or how we help each other make meaning and understand how the Holy Spirit moves in our lives.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a congregation that was deeply committed to Christian formation for all ages. Every Sunday after worship, I witnessed nearly every member, including adults, going to a class. It taught me that learning is a lifelong pursuit that does not end with confirmation or high school graduation. Christian formation is a crucial component of living as understood in the Benedictine tradition of prayer, work, and study. I believe it is essential for our children and youth to see adults engage in formation so that the young people see it as an essential part of life.
“Adult formation can take many forms, the most common of which is Bible study. Meeting regularly to explore the Scriptures can be a profound experience as we study one book or the lectionary readings for an upcoming Sunday. As a preacher, I relish the lectionary study because hearing thoughts and concerns directly from members of my congregation helps make me a better preacher!
“Book studies, particularly spiritual writings, can also be enriching. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr are just a few of the writers we have explored at Saint Peter’s Church, Lewes. In addition, many current authors supplement their books with daily e-blasts that contain meditations on their writings, much like Forward Movement’s Day by Day. Indeed, Forward Movement can also be an excellent source for adult formation materials.
“The University of the South has developed a four-year extension program for Episcopal theological development. The Education for Ministry (EfM) program teaches people to carry out the ministry we are all called to do. During the Service of Confirmation, we ask God to ‘Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at Baptism. Send them forth in the power of the Spirit to perform the service you set before them.’ EfM offers an opportunity to discover how to respond to the call to Christian service. Groups typically meet weekly to study the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, church history, and theology. As diocesan coordinator for EfM, I welcome a chance to help you learn more about this program. You can also find out more at www.sewanee.edu/efm. Other denominations also offer similar programs.
“Another valuable resource for adult Christian formation is Church Next (ChurchNext.tv). Founded by an Episcopal priest, The Rev. Chris Yaw, this website offers independent study with a fantastic variety of popular theologians, clergy, and writers. Packaged in manageable units of approximately 10 to 15 minutes, each video class also includes follow-up discussion questions. Both individuals and parishes can subscribe to this service for a modest fee.
“A popular credit card frequently ends its commercials asking, ‘What’s in your wallet?’ Borrowing on that phrase, I ask you, ‘What’s in your church life? How are you learning about your faith and deepening your own knowledge and love of our Lord?’ It is never too late to join the lifelong journey of formation and start deepening your understanding.”