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Educating Congregations: The Future of…

Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education

by Charles R. Foster

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1293146,477 (3.75)None
A leading Christian educator offers a practical guide for revisioning a church's educational program. After identifying the weaknesses in current education programs, Charles Foster offers an alternative vision that is more cooperative, more attentive to the whole of the congregation's life, and that helps people critically correlate the Bible and Christian tradition to their own experience.  … (more)



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A good overview of the challenges, structures and opportunities for CE in congregations. ( )
  jesposito | Aug 7, 2007 |
Foster states that "the most serious threat to any community's future occurs when its education can no longer maintain its heritage into the present…" (p. 11). This seems to me to be exactly the case in the modern church. People no longer know the Christian story and so cannot find their own part in it. The reason so many people go to church at Christmas and Easter, but at no other time, is because the only parts of the story they know are the Christmas story and the Easter story (p. 52). The rest of the Christian story is simply unknown to most people and so they cannot participate in it. Foster identifies Biblical illiteracy, theological naivete and reliance on market strategies as key problems (p. 12). Certainly my own experience is that many adults who regularly attend worship services at church would be hard pressed to explain in even the most general way what the overall Biblical metanarrative is all about, even if they can recite a few familiar Bible stories. Theological thinking has evaporated in the face of a "if it doesn't hurt anyone then it is OK" philosophy, which pervades American society. Marketing strategies have their uses, but they must be used to forward the work of the church and not become the work of the church. Foster promotes communal education within the congregation (p. 14) and that model is consistent with the concept of the Christian community as the Body of Christ.

Foster refers to "the almost uncrossable gulf between theological [clergy] education and church [lay] education" (p. 26). This was the thing that was most striking to me throughout my time at seminary. Why on earth are the clergy keeping everything they have been taught a secret?! In almost every class I took, I encountered a richness of knowledge that is being, consciously or otherwise, withheld from congregations. The typical adult Sunday School class that sits and tries to study the Bible is simply unaware of the vast accumulated knowledge that they could access. And nobody helps them. Small wonder that, as Foster observes (p. 27), the trend is to subvert church education away from theology and towards meeting "the needs of learners" in other areas. I see the problem propagating throughout the church. In my experience with a U.M. church of 1,500 members, the need for warm bodies to "teach" children's Sunday School is acute and so almost anyone who volunteers is accepted. Most of these people, while very well intentioned, kind and loving, know almost nothing about the Bible or theology and simply cannot explain the nature of salvation or the purpose of worship. They are teaching the next generation using pre-packaged materials which are often produced based upon marketing needs and many of which are of marginal or negative value theologically. When a Sunday School teacher tried to tell my eight-year-old son that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale and spat out again, he objected (with a now infamous phrase at that church, "My Dad says ….") by pointing out that despite the pretty color picture on the booklet of a smiling whale, the Bible says "fish". He then said that the fish wasn't the point of the story anyway and went on to say what he thought. The teacher had no idea what to do as she had never actually read Jonah herself and certainly had never thought about its theological message.

Foster writes of shaping church education around the life of the congregation and using the liturgical calendar to identify "seasonal events" (p. 45). Perhaps such an approach would extend knowledge of the Christian story beyond Christmas and Easter (if one tries asking people what the words Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Pentecost refer to in the calendar, I'm pretty sure that most respondents wont know). The section "The Words Offend" (p. 81-83) details how we have lost touch with symbolic representations of theological meaning through Foster's story about a little girl who reacted in horror to Holy Communion and the idea of drinking someone's blood. Smart girl. Who wouldn't react that way if they had no idea that the word "blood" actually referred to grape juice and that the grape juice actually represented something else of deep spiritual meaning? One time, when serving communion at a retreat, I had the opportunity to explain to the group of people what was going on, why we were doing what we doing, why it was a big deal and why we call it a sacrament. I talked about the Hebrew connection between blood and life itself, and the notion of bread as symbolic of God's presence as represented through the story of manna in the Exodus. I talked about the places in Scripture where communion in the early church is described and related that celebration to the Last Supper. Honestly, you would have thought that I had told them the biggest secret in the world. Several later came to tell me that they had been attending church all their lives and had never really known what communion was about. How sad.

Foster talks about the example of an "adherent of a scientific point of view" (p. 110) who could no longer hold together the notions about God as she had been taught them and her own understanding of the world. In such a case, God has to go because rejecting one's entire conception of the world is almost impossible. Once again we encounter the huge gulf between what is known and what is taught. The pseudoscientific worldview of the westerner collides with the Biblical worldview as commonly taught in local churches. Why? Because those teaching usually know very little science (and, apparently, are willing to teach very little theology) and so try to hold it at bay. Thus, congregations are expected to suspend what they know of the world while in church and listen to stories that seem to be about another universe. No wonder people find church irrelevant and that teenagers commonly stop attending as soon as they leave home and are away from their parents.

Building community, "making meaning" and fostering hope are key goals in Foster's methodology (p. 109). Each of these requires us to take seriously the educational mission of the church and to stop treating it as if it doesn't matter. I have tried an experiment that I'd recommend to anyone who wants to do a quick check on what people take away from church. In the adult Sunday School class that I taught for some years, where everyone in the small community joined in, where we took our studies seriously, and where we sought to support and pray for each other and others, I would regularly ask the class to summarize what we had discussed the previous week. Almost always several people could easily convey the essence of our discussion. At the end of the hour, I would ask what our preacher had preached about that day (perhaps 90 minutes previously) and about half of the time nobody had any idea. They couldn't remember. Why not? Well, they weren't part of it and they couldn't join in. They couldn't see how to attach themselves to that piece of the story and so they simply erased it from their memories as useless. ( )
  juliandavies | Jan 21, 2007 |
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