Education & Formation: First Case Study

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Statement of the Case

You have recently been called as pastor of a local church in Atlanta. The search committee was articularly interested in your interest in Christian education and formation as they think that you will help bring young families into the church. This urban, struggling church has approximately 200 members on the rolls and averages 75 members in worship on most Sundays. The average age of the congregation is 62.5 years of age. Though there are a handful of families with school-aged children, several of them leave and join churches with large youth programs as soon as their kids enter middle school. At the previous meeting of the congregation’s governing board, you promised to lead a discussion at the beginning of the next meeting about envisioning new directions for the church’s programs for children and youth. After you provide a dazzling ten minute Augustinian mini-lecture on the central importance of love in the church’s ministry of education and formation, several people raise their hands to express concerns or disagreement. Here are a few of the more forceful comments:

“That all sounds, nice, pastor; but it is too abstract. We have kids all around us who live in broken homes and are tempted by drugs, sex, and crime. We need a plan that deals with the hard realities that the kids in this city are facing every day.”

“My neighbors up the street go to Grace Church. They have a huge youth group. Every other weekend they go on a ski trip or a trip to the beach. My daughter has been begging me to let her join that youth group because it is so much more fun than ours. What are you going to do to make this church fun for the kids?”

“Atlanta has become such a diverse place culturally and religiously. We have so many languages and ethnicities here now and more are moving in all the time. The city now has as many Muslims, Buddhists, Bahai, and Wiccans as Lutherans or Jews. My family is religiously mixed and I know we aren’t alone in that. It would be irresponsible for us to ignore this reality. We have to prepare the children of this church to function as good neighbors in this increasingly diverse religious situation in which we live.”

After providing sufficient time for everyone to share their views on the proper aims of education and formation for that congregation, the attention turns back to you. Everyone wants to know what you will say and how you propose to move forward.


As you develop your two-page "initial response" to this situation, make sure that you both identify and discuss the most salient or important issues related to the ministry of education and formation in this situation and frame the key features of an initial possible response to the situation. Make sure that your strategy is theologically informed, contextually sensitive, and faithfully effective.

Initial Response

Each of the three church-member comments referenced in the case study acknowledges a different, and valid, aspect of the context in which the congregation exists. The church member seeking a "plan that deals with the hard realities" of urban life is identifying the specific demographic context and resulting challenges. The member who wants to "make this church fun for the kids" is pointing to a larger social context of a culture that places a high value on entertainment and social engagement (especially for children and adolescents). The final member comment points to a rising generational context where spiritual diversity is the norm, and where Christianity perhaps no longer enjoys the favored status that it once did.

As a pastor, I would first acknowledge each of these perspectives as valid and important to understanding our context. I would ask some questions aimed at eliciting ways in which these concerns are all interconnected, and at finding common ground on which to "move forward." All of the commenters seem to share a yearning for education and formation to be "relevant" to children and youth--relevant to issues they face, relevant to their own interests, and relevant to their relationships with the community. At this point, I would weave Augustine's concept of the "centrality of love" back into the picture, not merely as an abstract sort of solution, but rather as a rationale for how and why we can all understand and relate to the concerns raised by the three commenters. It is often a misguided search for absent love that drives urban youth to sex, drugs, and crime. It is love for life and social interaction that attracts youth to ski trips and beaches. It is love for God and the sacred that underlies the growth of diverse spiritual pursuits. And it is because we love both our children and our God, that we want them to be actively and happily engaged in education and formation within the church.

Fusing these two ideas together--one laid out by me as a pastoral vision, and one arising organically from the group discussion-- "Love" and "Relevancy" then become the twin poles by which we balance our ministry, evaluate our current and future education and formation opportunities, and understand our context.

Once enough people are on board with these two concepts (and it might take some one-to-one personal conversations outside of the "meeting" environment) I would suggest that it isn't enough to merely understand our context. Any programs, curricula, or events that I, as pastor, or the governing board might propose on our own would fail to meet the "relevance" criteria unless we are actively engaged with our context. In order for our church (and by extension, the gospel) to be relevant, engaging, and "fun" to younger church members, their opinions would need to be solicited and given voice, especially in the leadership of the church. In order for us to be relevant in the midst of spiritual and religious diversity, we need to enter into loving conversation and service with our brothers and sisters from different faiths, and in "religiously mixed families." This in particular would have the added benefit of helping us (as children and adults) to better understand our own faith and its place in the community. Finally, in order to be relevant on tough, urban issues facing our children (and adults), we need to be active in the places of our community where "drugs, sex, and crime" are prevalent. For through personal experiences and deep understanding of these challenges, not only can we offer relevant education and formation to our children, but we will also then be in a position to offer the healing power of love to our community, teaching our children by example, and ultimately renewing our own spiritual development and the life of our "struggling" congregation.

Developed Response

In my initial response to the case study, I focused significant attention on understanding and affirming the comments made by church members, as well as finding common ground between their concerns and my own “Augustinian mini-lecture on the central importance of love.” This was an attempt to be pastoral, and I stand behind the necessity of this approach. However, both my peer reviews and my own self-assessment pointed out a need to better address the second criteria: Does the response provide a potentially viable strategy for intervention in the case?

I am still hesitant to make what one peer referred to as a “more meat and potatoes explanation of what, exactly” I would do. While this does mirror the implicit question of the governing board, Schreiter, in Constructing Local Theologies, warns of “outsiders, barely familiar with a culture [making] decisions about adaptation and what would be 'best' for a local culture”<ref>Robert Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 39.</ref>. As a new pastor in an established church, I am an outsider—at least to the local culture of the congregation—and would be unwise to assemble a comprehensive educational program solely from my own context. Such an endeavor might initially meet the approval of the congregation, but might also create larger problems down the road<ref>#See Schreiter, 6-12, as well as Chapters 6 & 7 for a discussion of the long term effects of translation and adaptation approaches.</ref>.

With that caveat firmly in mind, I do think it is possible to at least begin moving in the direction of a viable strategy for intervention. This can be accomplished through a process of listening to and analyzing the culture of the church and community. Schreiter devotes more time in his book to cultural analysis than any other single topic<ref>Chapter 3, “The Study of Culture” is the longest of the seven chapters. When taken together with chapter 2, “Mapping a Local Theology” which is of similar emphasis, this accounts for 32% of the text. </ref>, and this forms both starting point and deep foundation to the enterprise of constructing a local theology. It is important that this process not be a passive one confined to the governing body of the church, but rather an active process that reaches out and engages the entire community in reflecting, communicating, and seeking out the Incarnate Word already at work in our midst<ref>Schreiter, 39.</ref>. From a pastoral standpoint, I would also hope that this “active” process of analysis would reassure those eager to see concrete action begin immediately, while at the same time not hastily throwing out or replacing cherished traditions and cultural values without careful consideration and consensus.

The seeds of a robust local theology<ref>I don't know how important it is to explain the concept of “developing a local theology” to the congregation in order to begin this process—it might actually be a form of translation or adaptation, per Schreiter 6-12.</ref> are already present in the three church member comments highlighted in the case study. As pastor, my goal should be to help the governing body of the church analyze their own words, seeking deeper understanding of the underlying hopes and fears in the comments they have already made, as well as common themes that suggest points of departure for more “active analysis” in the larger church community. As the resident professional theologian, this puts me in the role of “guide” and “facilitator” rather than as a “hero” or “problem fixer.”

The concern of the first commenter, acknowledging the “hard realities” of urban life, is a hopeful one. It is outwardly focused, and expresses a recognition of the larger community context. It is possible that the commenter is concerned only for protecting the children within the church from “drugs, sex, and crime,” but this seems improbable when taken in light of his reference to “kids all around us.” Words like “tempted” and “deal with” indicate a posture of confrontation with the culture. Perhaps the commenter and other like-minded congregants are speaking with the voice of the prophet<ref>Schreiter, 18-19.</ref>, and might be encouraged to explore and study the underlying causes and issues faced by those in “broken homes,” with an eye toward potential advocacy<ref>I would also recommend Ruby Payne's book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty (Baytown, Tx: RFT Publishing, 1998).</ref>.

What at first seems like a case of church-envy from the second commenter could also be viewed as a plea for relevance in youth ministry. This comment is also outwardly focused, and recognizes that fun, social interaction is both important and relevant in the larger context of adolescent culture. The commenter seems to be asking the church to emulate this aspect of the culture as found in another church. There are times when that approach is called for<ref>Paul's words about being all things to all people in order to win some comes to mind (1 Cor. 9:20-23).</ref>, and this might present an ideal opportunity for the commenter and a few other congregants to reach out and begin a conversation with the other church, learning both the strengths and challenges they face with their approach to youth ministry. At the same time, while it is common to compartmentalize youth programs in order to make them relevant to the unique tastes and needs of teenagers, it's also worth considering how relevant and accessible other aspects of our church life are to youth, including our worship services, and our leadership structures. This cannot be done without involving them, giving them voice, and including them in the analysis process.

As with the previous two comments, the final one is outwardly focused and acknowledges the spiritual diversity in an increasingly pluralistic age. The choice of “ignoring” other worldviews or “preparing” to become “good neighbors” suggests a posture of engaging with culture, as well as fear that we are in danger of losing our unique identity as followers of Christ. Here is where the contribution of the poets<ref>Schreiter, 18-19.</ref> can be sought out in the church—those voices that weave our symbols and identity back into our common story, giving us sufficient security to engage and even dialogue with other faiths, learning more about them, ourselves, and our shared community context. Again, I would suggest that this commenter, along with like-minded congregants, begin to reach out to leaders of other religious traditions, perhaps initially through our “mixed families.” At the same time, we might also look inward for those poetic voices in our congregation to solidify our identity as a community of faith in Christ in our own local context.

Though all of these suggestions point toward deeper, ongoing analysis, there is a dialectical process at work here: By actively reaching out and bringing people into the reflection process, our analysis infuses and becomes our praxis, and vice versa. At some point I would hope that this “active reflection,” or reflection as praxis would develop more thoroughly into what Schreider calls theology as praxis, which he ties closely to the theology of liberation<ref>Schreiter, 91-93.</ref>. While this ultimate incarnation of local theology is beyond the scope of this paper<ref>A true local theology would need to be developed over time, collaboratively, and in its context.</ref>, by starting with reflection as praxis, we can at least begin to achieve our goal of providing a potentially viable strategy for intervention in the case. In the words of another educator/liberator:

Leadership and people, co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling 
that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of recreating that 
knowledge.  As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they 
discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. In this way, the presence of the opressed in the 
struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation, but committed 
involvement.<ref>Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Opressed (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 1970), 69.</ref>

In moving from a “pseudo-participation” reliant upon the leadership of a pastor, toward a “committed involvement” of the entire congregation and community, we find ourselves well on the road to what Schreiter calls “the most powerful approach to social transformation available to theology at this time”<ref>Schreiter, 92.</ref>.