Dear Co-Learner: Some Thoughts on Christian Education

IMG_4235This is adapted from an assignment I submitted for one of my seminary classes. In the assignment, we had to write a multiple-week curriculum. It was a practical assignment, so at the beginning of the curriculum “packet,” we were to write a letter to whoever would be teaching using the curriculum. This is an edited version of that letter. I am posting it because I think it speaks to Christian Education as a whole.

Dear Co-Learner,

You may wonder why I addressed this letter “Dear Co-learner” instead of “Dear Teacher.” I am starting out this way because I want to establish something right from the get-go. I believe Christian Education will be the most valuable if you see yourself as a co-learner. You have knowledge and wisdom to offer your fellow learners, and I want you to share that wisdom with them. However, I also want you to be open to questions, to have your eyes widened to the possibly that bible studies and small group meetings can be more impactful than just an hour-long lecture from the “sage on the stage.” What you discuss and learn will move outside the church walls.

If you think Christian Education is nothing more than stale curriculum that does not teach students more than the “Sunday School answers” (which are: God, Jesus, pray, read the Bible), then I want to pause right now. Yes, before you move forward. I want you to repeat after me:

O Eternal God, bless [name of church], that this church may be a lively center for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom; and grant that those who teach and those who learn may find you to be the source of all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[1]

You may need to pray this before you walk into a small group session. You may need to pray this each morning as you prepare to teach. It’s not the end-all be-all prayer, but I want to provide a starting place to remind you of the importance of new discovery. Prayer is important. It is out of prayer curriculum should be born. Henri Nouwen writes: “Prayer is first of all the realization of God’s presence in the midst of his people and, therefore, the community itself.”[2]

I believe in the power of curriculum to provide structure for lessons that will form and shape the life of learners. That will only happen if you, co-learner, are authentic. Learning happens when you are open to the Holy Spirit moving in ways that blow your expectations out of the water. I believe it is “only through the Holy Spirit’s directing and empowering us can we fulfill our calling.”[3]

I speak from my experience (short though it may be) as a youth pastor. If you are ministering to youth, there are some developmental needs that we will need to explore. There are several psychological issues that influence the development of adolescents. These issues include attachment, autonomy, identity, and self-esteem. Adolescence is considered a transitory period; their relationships with parents are transforming. They are separating from their attachment to parents, and they are striving toward greater mutuality and connectedness. The theme of identity development is extremely important. Adolescents are beginning to step outside themselves, reconsidering how others perceive them. Erik Erikson explains that adolescence provides a time of identity formation.[4]

Walter Brueggemann, theologian and biblical scholar, says that “conversion ‘means entering into a different history, embracing a different memory, and living with different promises.’”[5] I pray Christian Education will help adolescents on their journey of faith formation. Adolescents are looking for a sense of belonging, so lessons and sermons should help them begin to see how they are connected to the church and the story of God. The heart behind ministry is to engage learners in the Kingdom of God and equip them.

I believe Christian Education embraces our need for community. I believe that is also at the heart of being Wesleyan: we need community. So, do not teach these lessons alone. Incorporate parents; encourage mentors. Have people come around the lives of the students.

The word “curriculum” comes from the Latin meaning, “a course to be run.”[6] Just because it includes the word run, does not mean you need to race to the finish line. Curriculum should be designed to embrace multiple learning styles. It is mostly discussion-based, but it includes hands-on learning experiences. Some curriculum will require more preparation than others, so make sure to have time and resources to make the proper preparations.

Rabbit trails will happen. I am not saying you need to embrace every rabbit trail, but sometimes something fruitful can happen from a seemingly off-the-wall question. In the movie, 180 Degrees South, there is a quote that sticks with me: “The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.” I hope you go on a journey together and ask even more questions. We have a hunger for authenticity.[7] Encourage questions that stem from that hunger.

Encourage relevant dialogue. Do not feel the need to get students to think or answer a certain way. Recognize that education involves an understanding of dialogue not as two people talking, but “talking through.” I believe “time and places for talking through essential in forming critically aware, inner-dependent, and worthily committed faith.”[8] “Faith is: people’s evolved and evolving ways of experiencing self, others and world (as they construct them) as related to and affected by the ultimate conditions of existence (as they construct them) and of shaping their lives’ purposes and meanings, trust and loyalties, in light of the character of being, value and power determining the ultimate conditions of existence.”[9]

In her book Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist writes: “There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming.”[11] In the book she’s talking about life in your twenties, but I think this quote applies for this upcoming series. Youth ministry could probably be described as the time for “wildness.” If that’s all it is, I think we are missing the chance to develop and grow. During their developmental stage, adolescents are developing their identity. They are becoming. So have fun, but don’t feel like this needs to be a performance. Recognize this is a season of becoming. Soak up this time together.

Thank you, co-learner, for your willingness to serve in this area.

Praying for you on the journey,

Andra Kee

[1] Adapted from “31. For Schools and Colleges.” Prayers.
[2] Henri Nouwen. (1998). Reaching out: a special edition of the spiritual classic including beyond the mirror. New York, NY: Doubleday.
[3] Stephen Seamands. (2006). Ministry in the image of god, the Trinitarian shape of Christian service. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, p. 26.
[4] Erik H. Erikson. (1968). Identity Youth and Crisis. New York: W W Norton and Company.
[5] Les Steele. “Identity Formation Theory and Youth Ministry.” Christian Education Journal 9 No. 1 (1988): 91-99.
[6] Harris, M. (1989). Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 55.
[7] Parker Palmer. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
[8] Sharon Daloz Parks. (2000). Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, p. 198.
[9] Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of Faith, the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. (1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins.
[10] Slattery, P. (2013). Curriculum Development in the Postmodern Era. (3rd ed.). Hoboken: Routledge, p. xx.
[11] Shauna Niequist. (2010). Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

One thought on “Dear Co-Learner: Some Thoughts on Christian Education

  1. I am obviously reading through your blog today. I am a Christian Jr./Sr. High School educator and former Youth Pastor and current youth leader. Whew! Besides having a teen and a tween of my own I teach around 80 of them too. No boast, just a blessing! I thought this was spot on. Creating relevant discussions, dealing with life and helping them in their journey of “becoming” is all part of it. I always feel blessed to be a guidepost in their lives. Lately I have been thinking about teaching them battle. By this I mean, teaching them not just facts and figures, which do lead to great conversations, but teaching them to defend, contend and fight in love. To accomplish this, I would spend a week discussing and looking at a particular current topic. I would have them even write a paper discussing the sides. Then the following week we would battle. I would be the antagonist, asking them questions from an opposing point of view. Thoughts?

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