Some general principles for developing a Christian Education program

Lent is now officially less than one month away, so you may already have your program in place—congrats! But if you don’t, I have some thoughts. Tomorrow, I’m going to write something with specific recommendations on how you can use Confirm not Conform as a Lenten program, but I thought something else might be more useful if you’re still considering what to do: talking about Lenten programs (or other Christian Education programs) more generally with an eye to what makes them effective and, indeed, formative.

First, here are two tendencies I would encourage you to avoid.

  • Offering information without exploration. One thing I believe is a common mistake in our Christian Education offerings is that we privilege information over exploration and head over heart. And I can see why: If we simply share information, we know exactly what people are going to get. People who explore may go to different places out of our control. I’m not suggesting that we should offer only touchy feely classes that ask “what do you think?” But if you are debating about what to offer for Lent, or any time, I would urge you to consider striking a balance between these two approaches.
  • Being spiritual without being practical. Too many times I have seen churches offer programs that fail to tie the spiritual resources they share with the lives people actually live. There are ways to look at church history or the Prayer Book or Scripture or spiritual practices that make them lively and applicable, but too often the spiritual is kept in its spiritual box, untouched by what people are actually experiencing in their lives. It’s shocking to me that churches can offer classes on ethics without once asking people to talk about how they live their lives, but I’ve seen it happen. How can we tie these together to bring about the formation part that we want to see?

I also have to admit that I think there are times and ways that the practical should trump the spiritual. Sometimes I suspect we offer something spiritual because we think we should when, with more consideration, the best thing we could offer is far more hands-on and practical. More thoughts on that in a moment.

With these two things in mind, here are some thoughts on developing meaningful and effective Christian Education programs.

As you are considering your topic:

  • Brainstorm: First of all, go crazy. Don’t limit yourself to what you think you ought to talk about. What topics have people been bringing up at meetings or coffee hour? What sermons really hit home? What were they about? What’s in the news? Consider also the gaps in the practical questions that are important to a healthy spiritual life: rest, work issues, money issues, caring for loved ones, preparing for death.
  • Mind the gaps: Looking at your list, what are some areas you haven’t focused on? If you spend a lot of time on social justice issues, then maybe it’s time to consider prayer and mysticism. If you do a lot of Bible study and good sermons are a high value to the congregation, maybe you need to do something around financial planning, for example, or some kind of hands-on project.
  • General or specific? Bear in mind that the more general the topic, the more people it will appeal to, but the more basic and shallow the information. This is not necessarily bad. It just means you’ll get a general survey, which may be what you need. By the same token, the more specific the information, the deeper you may be able to get, but the fewer people it will appeal to.
  • Do you want to push that hot button? Consider if a topic is one that will cause conflict. It may be something that needs to be addressed. If so, try to create a program that will do so that allows for people to care for one another and minimizes divisiveness. On the other hand, maybe that’s a topic best left for another time or place. Just be aware of what you might be doing when you choose a topic that is a flash point.

Once you’ve settled on a topic

  • What resources do you have? Books are good, but always remember Human Resources! Who in your congregation is an expert on this topic? How about in your community? You do not have to be the source of all wisdom on everything. Draw on those resources around you.
  • Determine the outcomes you want: This is just good basic educational practice. Answer the question, “At the end of this program, participants will…” The more concrete the outcome, the better. For example, far better to have the outcome “Participants will have an end-of-life plan and funeral service, to be kept on file in the church office” than “Participants will learn about the importance of end-of-life planning and know that they can give the church an outline for their funeral.”
  • Active learning works better than passive learning. And remember there are lots of different ways to learn: What are some hands-on things people can do? Film clips to watch? Games to play? Stories to tell? Dramas to enact? Questions to answer? Anything you can do to get people actively involved in their learning is going to help. Consider not only how you can teach, but how participants can!
  • Teach through practice Do it, rather than tell people about it. For example, if what your congregation really needs is to learn how to rest, well, then, the best thing to do might not be to work really hard on learning how to rest. Maybe you just need to get people together once a week to play games, sing songs, tell jokes, and enjoy one another’s company. Remember:
  • It’s OK to just have fun! We are formed through relationships with one another. Creating a space for healthy, life-giving relationships may be the best thing we can do to encourage one another in faith.