Rev. Dr. thom bower, Ed.D
I’ll be honest: for over a month I have been making Advent plans, and yet I don’t know what may arise in my congregation in the next two weeks. A consequence of the pandemic is hesitation: all plans are tentative. I’m reluctant, then, to forecast what may emerge in teaching ministries.
In conversations with faith formation workers, Christian educators, and pastors, I have noticed emergent themes. Many remind me of historic dynamics presenting a new face. These patterns lead me to anticipate the shape faith formation in the next several years.
Change with Visions and Values
During the pandemic, we all examined our core values. Having been restricted from families, friendships, and community organizations, we are now reinvesting in them and reclaiming their importance. We’re observing resignations as people pursue different careers, expressing vocational calling based on values. Media reports focus on individuals’ values with less attentiveness to similar examinations occurring within shared value systems.
Organizational revitalization has long identified the essential role of communal values and visions. The pandemic has provided us – congregationally, culturally, and globally – an opportunity to assess and recommit to well-articulated common core values, shared visions and mission, and sense of purpose.
As congregations are emerging from survival mode, we can reclaim core values to strategically engage change. Transformation calls us to be courageous. Acting purposefully from vision will be different than sustaining what was previous. As shared values are placed centrally to transitions, more potent revitalizing practices become standardized.
I anticipate that expressing shared values will renew interest in spiritual practices. Resources abound! About twenty years ago, Dorothy Bass and others reintroduced the church to faith practices as a curriculum model. Multiple lists of essential Christian practices exist. All emphasizing disciplines are communal expressions of shared faith.
Part of the appeal is that these practices are practical - they describe something to do. During the pandemic, many felt uncertain how to pray, how to find comfort and guidance in the scriptures, how to discern. These practices address the longing for corporate actions - we missed singing, public worship, being in community. They offer connection to Christian identity through meaningful ritual and practice. Amidst so much ambiguity, this action is part of Christian discipleship. Together such practices connect us to God, to one another, to our faith communities, and to being the collective noun that is church, which includes our faith ancestors and how they expressed and practiced faith in their lifetimes.
Community as Spiritual Practice
I anticipate the central spiritual practice will be community. During the pandemic we experienced isolation, separation, and disconnection. We became aware of the importance of meaningful relationships. Already people are seeking to reconnect to God through church.
For the past 70 years the US church has placed more emphasis on community as fellowship than community as a spiritual discipline. We have placed more emphasis on shared meals than shared discernment. We have deliberately created easy access by deemphasizing persistent discipleship. We have focused worship on self-help rather than the call to demonstrate Christ’s grace. It seems those seeking faith communities now are desiring deliberative spiritual relationships more than another place to widen their social network.
I believe sincerely committing the church to being the community of called ones initiates deliberate shifts in how we build and sustain community. Yes, fellowship is important, as part of a larger spiritual discipline of covenantal community. We need to reclaim integrative practices of shared discernment, mutual accountability, and discipline. These are not commonly promoted as outreach strategies, yet they are essential for retaining those who seek long-term spiritual communities.
This is possibly the most common form of teaching through Christian history. Teaching ministries in the past fifteen years have increasingly engaged intergenerational issues. Faith communities are one of the few cultural organizations where members from multiple generations - multiple decades of life - gather to interact.
Being apart during the pandemic has illuminated our being with people of different ages. Elder adults missed the enthusiasm of teens, children missed adult teachers, we all missed smiling infants. We learned again how God inspires our spirits through our knowing people of many ages. And we watched how people in differing life stages navigated aspects of the pandemic, learning new skills from one another. Many of us relied on children and youth to correct our online ineptitude even as they consulted us on knitting, letter writing, and prayer.
There are many intergenerational practices. The core is the intentional relationship of doing ministry together, learning faithfulness together, being disciples together. God meets us at all stages of life, and all stages of life can learn and discern God’s ways from people of different ages.
Intergenerational ministry is not a program nor is it a style chosen for specific weeks. It is a commitment about how the church gathers. “Whole congregation” activities simultaneously invite both the inclusion and the involvement of all ages in the actions of a congregation. It means that learning is engaged as whole congregational activities because together we encounter God.
Hybrid Teaching / Learning
I remember four years ago, a 25-year-old suggesting that meetings be held through Zoom or Skype and encountering unanimous resistance, including statements that “real” church only occurs when we are in the same room and physically present to one another. We’ve all learned new skills.
Hybrid (in many forms) is becoming normative for worship, meetings, and teaching ministries. I expect a quick introduction to changing communication platforms - the business sector likely leading the change in platforms with software and hardware, and schools quickly seeking to integrate new tools. This will once again highlight economic injustices of accessibility. Amidst these shifts the church will continue to learn effective faith formation in changing virtual settings.
Having passed the necessary integration, we’ll have more time to experiment. Our teaching techniques will continue to improve. Most of our current teaching practices were derived from higher education: webinars, content-specific testing, “read & respond” quizzing, training manuals. We know online teaching can be different. We’re going to see these changes begin in public schools, and training related to career changes, and community organizing. God will guide us through those not-yet evident skills as we bring them into faith formation.
We’ll also relearn community building skills. Online relationships are nurtured and sustained differently than in-person relationships. Community building methods effective in higher education are different from effective methods for faith formation, particularly when community is a spiritual discipline. Group dynamics are different and require different facilitation skills - how we share deep feelings, reveal our spirits, seek God’s presence, and discern God’s invitations must be different online. God is already present within the Internet, and God’s spirit is guiding us into hyperspace.
Training for Teaching Ministries
This is a perennial need. The history of Protestant Christian Education in the US can be plotted along a swinging pendulum. At one end is the role of the “professional” religious educator integral to the organization and decision-making of congregations. At the other end is lay-led education, an emphasis on volunteers and practicality.
This pendulum swings with an irregular rhythm. When the pendulum is near the professional end, the church hears a lot about learning theories, understandings of spiritual maturation, and the significance of teaching ministries in the life of a healthy church. When the pendulum swings toward lay educators, the church hears about teacher training and teaching resources, especially prepared curriculum materials.
The pendulum has been swinging toward lay educators for over a decade. A partial force for that swing is the diminishing numbers of educational staff. Local congregations have let educational staff go, conferences have not been able to financially sustain educational roles, the national offices have reduced the number of persons with specific faith formation programs in their portfolios, and seminaries have not filled vacated Christian Education chairs. With this reduction, the pendulum has had to swing toward lay persons.
In previous decades, the church had prepared persons to teach teachers how to teach. An educator in one congregation would give time to another congregation. Conference staff offered teacher training events. Pastors could teach their church members. National staff produced resources specifically about teacher training. Seminary professors would offer workshops.
As the pendulum swings this time, there are fewer people available to teach about the teaching ministry. How will the expressed need for teacher training be met? The conversation had been on essential teaching skills, but has readily moved to self-care for faith formation workers, to the sense of calling teaching ministries evoke, and to the practical and conceptual ecclesiological role of faith formation. We will struggle with equipping local lay leaders in teaching ministry roles. As we reclaim this significant call, new structures will be needed, new skills developed for new teaching media, and traditional skills for teaching and faith formation rediscovered.
As I said, these are themes emerging from conversations I am having with colleagues in teaching ministries. Many echo previous topics from more than a century of Christian Education / Religious Education discourse, and yet they are nuanced by pandemic parameters, digital media, and sociological forces. There are many points of intersection, many places where these dynamics overlap. Many are not limited to teaching ministry, nor situations limited to the church. They are areas in which we are encountering God in new ways, transforming our call as communities of faith, encountering, witnessing, and testifying to Christ’s presence.
Rev. Dr. thom bower Ed.D is a transitional interim minister and serves on the AUCE Board of Directors as its Vice Chair.