A Christian Pedagogy for Seekers Church School|
Because of business travel I will not be able to participate in the Seekers meeting to plan for next year's Church School. I offer the following as a response to discussions in core members meetings, and elsewhere, concerning the way we do Christian Education. I hope it will be of some value to those who do participate in the meeting.
I am thankful as a parent to be raising children in a Christian community that cares so much about children. We put out a lot of energy in response to our children in the church school and in other ways and I believe it has had profound positive impact on my children and on many other children in the community. What our children have received from Seekers is very different but, in each case, my sense is that it is has been good. Just as for Christian growth in our adults, our children bring different backgrounds, interests, strengths and weaknesses, and learning styles.
For adults and children in Seekers, our strengths run to diversity, creativity, powerful preparation of many individual leaders, and inclusiveness; to spiritual excitement and significance. Our weaknesses are largely the other sides of our strengths: lack of continuity, common language, commonly articulated goals.
This paper is aimed at affirming and building on our strengths and compensating for our weaknesses.
We pride ourselves on being a community rather than a bureaucracy or institution. As a result we have not invested in paid leadership that organizes our life for us, that tells us what to do. Furthermore, we talk about everything and we criticize everything as measured against very high standards. It is hard to lead in Seekers, whether it is picking music for Sunday worship or teaching in the church school. No matter what you do some people are not going to be happy. It is not surprising that some of our best work is done in mission groups, and other small groups, or in individual conversations.
Deciding what and how to teach in Seekers Church School excites our worst faults because it lifts up the questions of what does Seekers believe and how we articulate our beliefs. We ask for an agreement that we have not chosen to work out as an adult community.
We have given leadership in the Church School to different leaders with different perspectives, backed up by varying groups or small networks. Whatever shape the leadership has tried to provide, the reality has been that the need to recruit broadly within the adult membership for teachers has meant substantial diversity in the actual delivery of classes. This diversity has been further cross-cut by substantial diversity in the children. Anything that is delivered tends to work better for some children than others, cross cut yet further by diverse parent goals for their children. The reality is that we care for our children one child at a time, talk about success and failure one child at a time.
How can we do better?
Goals for Seekers Church School
Seekers Christian education for children is not the same as the curriculum and teaching methods for the Church School. Church School is just one part, and not the largest part, of how adults and children teach each other. I agree with Westerhoff that children learn far more from what adults do than from what adults say. What we model in terms of ministry, personal spiritual growth, and community is the most precious thing we have to give our children and we are intentionally working away at strengthening each of those elements in our common life.
I think we do have some common goals for Christian education through the Seekers Church School and that we can name them if we remember that we are counting on the Church School to take on part of the task of Christian education.
1. We want Christian Education to be real.
We do not want to pass on language and images that the adults only half understand or believe in, to hold up wooden standards and grumpily acquiesce to them. We want our leaders and our students to be honestly engaged with things that matter, to share what we understand and what we are working with. The modeling of engagement and caring is probably our most important testimony to the importance of God and the Christian story. This means that teachers and students have to begin from where they are, have to help clarify the significant questions and the resources available for answering those questions.
2. We want Christian education.
While respecting each persons beginning points, and while respecting the spiritual journeys of non-Christians, our Church School is designed to help people work with the Christian story, the Christian journey. Part of the Christian story, as we understand it, is respect for individuals and for other stories and we need to teach that. But the precious time and energy we have within the Church School needs to be primarily directed to helping people engage their lives and the world with a Christian grounding, Christian landmarks, Christian hope.
Part of our challenge is that Seekers individuals are carrying different understandings of Christianity. Our genius as an adult community is that we have learned to sustain serious and challenging conversation about our shared Christian faith. The challenge is to figure out how to draw our children into this kind of conversation.
Many of us experience our Christian understandings of life as extremely precious and we yearn to give these understandings to our children. We construct stories and creeds and symbols and more to help us pass on our understandings. The great frustration is that just as for adults, our children have to work with what we give them and figure out for themselves, and claim for themselves, what they think is truly of worth, what engages them in worth-ship. Because we have responsibility for children in a different way than we have for other adults, we are tempted into thinking we can control the spiritual formation of our children that we can make them understand what is so precious for us. But, in the end, all we can really give is time and space for exploration, various building blocks of ideas and feelings that they may choose to work with, and our own transparency as Christians who are really engaged in our own journeys, callings and ministries.
3. We want to name Jesus and Christ appropriately.
The Christian reality of our Church School education cannot be mere background philosophy. It has to be a significant part of our foreground conversation because our children need to wrestle these core realities of the Christian story, need to find their place and orientation within a culture that puts out a lot of messages about Jesus and Christ that we don't like too well.
The challenge here is that many of our adult leaders are still working through their own grounding, their own honest use of Christian language. Many of us face the growth tasks of breaking free from our earlier understandings. Some of us are carrying considerable pain from injuries delivered by the church using the names of Jesus and Christ. We don't have the luxury of waiting until we all get it just right before we start to bring along our children. We have to trust the honesty and engagement of our leadership more than we trust the specific language and symbols they may use. Realizing the responsibilities of parents and the larger context of Seekers, we have to trust that any "errors" learned in the Church School will be challenged in other contexts. Confessing to each other, helping each other is the way we improve and such confessing and helping models so much of what makes Seekers so special.
The main point in this goal is that though it may be hard for some, we owe it to our children to let them in on the challenges of rightly naming Jesus and Christ. If we mutually own this point of orientation we can figure out how to make it real and honest in specific classes.
4. The knowing we seek is the Biblical ecstatic knowing, or existential knowing, not the learning of facts and rules and one-size-fits-all answers.
Facts and rules and answers are all grist for the mill of life in which we work to understand what is truly important, what is worth our passionate life-long commitment. The knowing that matters is more like sexual knowing than mathematical knowing, a knowing from the inside-out, rather than a knowing about. It is more about recognition than about will and commitment. It is more about what matters than what is. This means that our Christian education has to be more about teaching children than about teaching subjects.
Fortunately, this is probably what Seekers is best at doing. As an adult community we have broken loose from a singular approach to pedagogy. We are using about every learning method that has ever been invented. And we have tried out such wide-ranging pedagogy in our church school, even when we were in our most "standard" phases. It is our culture.
5. Christian education hooks us into a common story.
We gather for common worship, have common School of Living classes, use the lectionary, and otherwise provide for continuity. This may be the weakest aspect of our common life but we are not totally deficient with regard to continuity.
One of the important places we meet is at the Bible. Adult Seekers work with the Bible and we want our children to be able to work with the Bible. In Church School, within every approach we have ever tried, the Bible has been important. We have worked with teaching about the Bible and we have worked with directly engaging biblical truths. At any one moment we may be out of balance in terms of breadth versus depth, Hebrew scripture versus Christian Testament, or in other ways, but we have never turned away from the Bible. We are blessed with a rich mix of serious biblical students in our community and many more who recognize and work with the Bible in honest ways.
Some of our children have worked very seriously with the Bible and have come to the precious understanding that Bible related conversations can be very valuable. Just as in the adult community, some of our children have not gotten this yet. Just as in the adult community, the key to good biblical pedagogy is not to use insider's knowledge as a club for beating up on the less informed. Our bible oriented teaching must always be inviting and encouraging.
There are many ways to teach the Bible and Seekers uses most of them in one way or another. Two things need to continuously happen and I think they mostly do happen. We need to trust each other as Bible teachers, not because each one will get it right in some formal sense, but because we will all fail in the right direction. We need the corrections of multiple layered conversations so that we are all growing as teachers. Our teacher training is the multiple educational opportunities of Seekers, and that is pretty good. It is no small thing that every adult is expected to participate in at least one Hebrew scripture and one Christian Testament class in the School of Living. Many do so much more.
(p>6. We need to help our children understand what is going on in Seekers.
If indeed the larger context of learning and growing in Seekers is the critical context for the Church School, some of the Church School curricula can be aimed at helping children see and appreciate what is going on around them. A small example is the repeated lifting up of the concept of calling during the Jonah segment of last years curricula. Seekers is intentional about many things, things we think are important, and those things need to be present both as background and foreground in our pedagogy with children.
7. We need to respect our children.
This may be the most controversial comment in this paper. While taking children seriously doesn't mean pretending that they are already adults, it does mean holding them lightly instead of focusing on bossing them around and controlling them. If we are having consistent discipline problems, lack of attention and engagement, or general resistance, we need not merely to punish but also to step back and review our methods and leadership. Good pedagogy is a matter of two-way learning. Good pedagogy is realizing that works well for one child may not work for another.
We can "afford" good pedagogy in the manner called for above if we live out of an orientation of abundance rather than scarcity. If we need more leaders, more materials, etc., we need to assume they are there in the community and ask for the help we need. With regard to the adults we need to consistently present the opportunity for leadership as a growth opportunity rather than a duty. The preparation, the sharing with other teachers, and the paying of attention to the children can all be powerful sources of growth. The creation of this kind of culture and expectation allows to meet the greatest challenges our students can bring. That doesn't mean we will do well but that even in our failures our caring and concern will be transparent.
Time and Space
We are operating within specific assumptions of time and space that I, at least, find burdensome and limiting. It is one of the several reasons I am so eager for us to complete our transition to a new Seeker's location. More control of time and space could make a lot of difference for the Church School.
We can also ask ourselves about what else we might do within our current limitations. David's suggestion about a second class for some kids during the Coffee Hour is an example of this kind of flexible thinking. What might we do on an occasional Saturday, more youth retreats, a week in the Summer at Dayspring, etc.
My point is the same one this paper began with, the limitations of the Church School, whatever our designs, can lead us not only to reformulation of the Church School but to the creation of additional opportunities. We are a do it yourself church and we can do what we really care about. When our energies come up short, it will help if our first instinctive response is to help rather than criticize. We need the criticism and accountability too, but we need to hear each other, and hold each other, in the larger embrace of a community that is in this life together. If we are only bringing our children to Seekers to be serviced we have already lost the game. Fortunately, it is the depth of our caring that has brought us to our current conversation and I trust such caring is the space for the leadership of the Holy Spirit that is all that really matters in the end anyway.