Education & Formation: Fourth Case Study
Statement of the Case
The elder board meeting at Valley Community Church (VCC) has gone into extra innings because of an increasingly heated debate on the proper place for teenagers during Sunday morning worship. Pastor Robyn was compelled to accept the position as lead pastor at VCC just two years ago because of its reputation in the community as a church of both theological diversity and incredible unity. Apparently, somebody forgot to bring the “unity” tonight. Here’s why:
For years Jim, the longtime youth pastor, has been teaching a popular and growing Sunday School class for high school youth. With so many other churches in the area struggling to even get youth ministry off the ground, VCC has celebrated Jim’s program that attracts dozens of teenagers on both Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. “Jim does wonders with these kids. Just getting them here is a feat, and after all, if kids are coming then what could the problem be?” argues Mike (one of the elders) in the meeting. Several others nod in agreement.
The problem, in Pastor Robyn’s mind, is that Jim’s Sunday School class meets in the basement during Sunday morning worship. Families show up to church and parents go to the sanctuary while teenagers shuffle downstairs for a time of games, donuts, and apparently a bit of Scripture. Although she’s uncertain of the exact ratio of donuts to Bible, Robyn has a suspicion that it’s a pretty jelly-filled excuse for Christian education. Since taking the helm of VCC she’s been trying to get youth Sunday School moved to another time — maybe Sunday evenings — so that teens can participate in the Sunday morning services. She especially thinks it’s important that youth participate in the Communion services that happen on the first and third Sunday of every month. Frequent Communion has been one of the distinctives of VCC since it was founded as a community church in the 1970s from the odd remnants of three dying congregations from varying theological heritages. But these days the youth are never present to participate.
“That class is the reason my kids come to this church,” shouted Roger in a tone that startles most everyone in the meeting. With a twinge of both parental fear and sheer outrage Roger explains that his teenagers hate the worship service and would stop coming if they were forced into the morning service. “Making kids sit through worship and a sermon is ludicrous. They don’t have the attention span for that — especially with the length of the sermons lately. These kids are down there in that class, learning the Bible, getting the meat of Scripture, and learning how to apply it to their lives. That’s exactly what they need, and you want to take them out of that class so they can have Communion? A move like that will send our youth ministry into a tailspin, and send our youth elsewhere.” Despite the harsh tone, Roger’s thoughts on the subject are echoed by many in the room.
“Look, maybe we can compromise on this,” said Jan, one of the matriarchs of the congregation and the longest serving elder. “Instead of moving Sunday School to another time, or cancelling it twice a month, why doesn’t Jim simply bring the children up from the basement at the end of the service twice a month so they can take their Communion before they go home? He can just end his lesson early on those days.”
“Jan, that simply won’t work,” Jim replies. “We need every moment we can get down there, and the last 15 or 20 minutes of class time is the most important, it’s when we finally get to the point of the Scripture that morning. It’s when our teaching really kicks into high gear, and we apply the Scripture to kids lives, and they come away changed. If we cut that last bit, the whole morning is a loss. But I’ll tell you what, why don’t you send the Communion elements downstairs, and we’ll give them to the students when we pray at the end? That way, they get Communion.”
Finally, there’s a moment of silence in the room as people ponder Jim’s impassioned plea. And then slowly eyes turn toward you. You may be new on the job as Associate of Education and Formation at VCC, but they all know you’re seminary educated. “You’ve been awfully quiet,” calls the chairperson from the other end of the table with a smile and a wink. “So, come on now — put that Princeton degree to some use, and give us some wisdom here.” Everyone chuckles, but then it grows quiet again as they await your words.
Form a response that considers the theological, developmental, educational, and pragmatic issues at hand. Be sure to consider the relationship between Eucharist and education/formation. Based on your response, suggest a possible course of action for resolving the dilemma.
Jan's desire to have the youth participate in Eucharist along with the greater church community is certainly admirable. But from a practical standpoint, she is a relatively new pastor in conflict with a veteran youth director who is successful (in the eyes of the community, at least) and unwilling to negotiate very much. Two elders have already expressed their resistance to her viewpoint, and the rest of the board (through nods and murmurs) has pretty clearly expressed their agreement with Jim. In short, if she pushes the issue to a vote, she'll most likely lose. And if she somehow succeeds in forcing a change, she runs the risk of losing her position. If I side with her, it's also possible that my Princeton Seminary education won't be worth much on the way out the door.
Educating the youth, the congregation, and even the elders about the purpose and nature of communion is a good long-term goal. But any short speech I could give in this meeting could not possibly accomplish that in time to resolve the crisis at hand. I also have to operate on the assumption that as someone who has been in ministry for several years, Jim has at the very least a basic understanding of communion, and its place in the life of the church--and yet he still believes strongly that what he does is more important for the youth.
To be honest, I have to consider the possibility that he may be right. The mere fact that communion is offered in the worship service does not in any way necessitate that it is a meaningful experience. In this case study, we know nothing about how it is administered, explained, or connected to the context of the worship service and the life of the congregation. We also don't know much about the content or quality of Jim's teaching, but we know at the very least that it engages the youth. From at least one parent's perspective, it would seem that the worship service fails to do this. Is a poorly administered communion service still better than a well-administered Sunday School class--especially if the communion service has the potential to actually mis-educate or mis-form a youth's perception of the Eucharist?
In my experience, most churches desperately want the youth to engage with the congregation and participate in the worship service. Again, this is admirable. But rarely are they willing to undertake the foundational changes to a worship service that would be required for youth to actually feel welcome and engaged in worship. In fact, I suspect most worship services (communion and otherwise) are not that conducive to adult participation and engagement, but we are more accustomed to the traditions and are better able to disguise or redirect our wandering attentions. Youth, on the other hand, are more honest, and less tolerant of hollow tradition. I realize that "hollow" is a strong word to apply to the practice of Eucharist, but in preparation for this response, I've taken a very informal and unscientific poll of people in my life and their attitudes on communion. Along very clear lines, the vast majority of seminary students, seminary professors, and pastors I know assign deep meaning and significance to communion, while the vast majority of church lay people I spoke with do not. Many recounted partaking of communion while contemplating football scores or distracted by the child picking her nose prior reaching for the communion bread. I suspect that in the average mainline denominational church, those for whom communion is something to "get through" outnumber those for whom communion is deeply significant.
It would be easy to criticize them, or attribute their lack of enthusiasm to a mere "failure of education" about the true purpose of communion. And yet, I've been in churches where the pastor has "explained" communion at great length, with obvious enthusiasm, but to little or no avail. There are thousands of churches who employ Christian Educators (Princeton Seminary graduates among them) who are skilled educators passionate about communion. And yet, their congregations still seem to reflect the same apathy. Did the Christian Educators just "not try hard enough?" I'm sure there are exceptions to this among individuals and congregations, but they seem quite rare, perhaps pointing to a larger cultural disconnect between the general practice of communion and the importance attributed it by the "professionals."
If we are serious about bridging this disconnect, I think we need to be willing to radically revisit the origin and purpose of communion. When Jesus said "do this in remembrance of me," what did "this" refer to? The bread and wine alone? Or the entirety of the last supper? Are we to do this and remember him only when we gather for worship, or instead every time we eat any food? Or perhaps are we supposed to eat food every time we gather for worship, and worship every time we eat food in the presence of other believers? There are, of course, many possibilities. But I can certainly sympathize with those who find it hard to evoke the full ethos of the Last Supper by shuffling down the aisle and standing in line, to rip a piece of bread and dip it in grape juice, before returning to their seats, all to the accompaniment of music. The same holds true (maybe even more so) with a little wafer and a thimble of grape juice passed down the aisle.
I suggest that if we want to make communion more meaningful for adults as well as youth, we might start by offering it within the context of a community meal. I don't know if this would entirely solve the problem for everyone, but perhaps it would be a start. This is in keeping with my philosophy of education, which is (in a nutshell) that education is something that happens constantly when we engage with the world around us. It need not be structured, planned, or even intentional, to be formative. It just needs not to be hindered. Engagement is key. When we sit down at a table with family, friends or even strangers, our proximity shapes us. The tastes, smells, and sounds become imprinted on our memories. And where church people are gathered, the conversation often turns to spiritual things. Opportunity to tell the story of the last supper presents itself. The holy spirit is given the space and freedom in which to move, and this is where education and Eucharist meet.
That blessed vision, however, does little to address the immediate issue at hand, and would be more effective when shared in personal conversations over lunch or coffee with pastors, elders, youth directors, or congregants. So back to our fictionalized reality: What would I suggest to move the church forward, when neither side is willing to yield much?
Since Jim isn't willing to move his class or cut short his Sunday School lesson by 15 minutes, I suggest that Robyn extend her service by that much. If parents are coming to the worship service and dropping off their kids at Sunday School, than this is likely their only time of "adult education and formation." This way, neither time of education and formation will be cut short, and all can participate in communion together. There will be complaints about the length of the service, but not as many as would be generated by "tampering" with the successful youth program. Extending the service for communion has the effect of highlighting and emphasizing it, giving Robyn opportunity to explain to her congregation why it is significant (although I still have doubts about how effective that would be). I would also recommend that, once or twice a year, Jim plan his "theme and message" around the significance of communion, and it's scriptural story. Finally, I suggest the church plan a potluck immediately following the service every "communion Sunday." That way the extended service won't make people "late for lunch" elsewhere, and someday when I finally manage to convince everyone that communion should be done in context of a community meal, it will conveniently be ready and waiting.
Responses from Others
The World Council of Churches document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry notes that the eucharist “demonstrates and effects the oneness of the sharers with Christ and with their fellow sharers.”<ref>“The Eucharist as Communion of the Faithful,” Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper no. 111 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982).</ref> At first glance, it might seem that the lack of “oneness” in our case study church stems from a disagreement about the role and importance of eucharist in the life of the church. This perception colored my initial response, and while much of my approach and eventual way forward remains the same, my understanding of the basic nature of the problem has progressed.<ref>Because my initial response (at four pages) was significantly more “developed” than my other three initial responses, and because my approach to the situation has remained unchanged, this paper will actually be an attempt to pare down and focus the argument previously presented, and as such will borrow significant language and phrasing from it, albeit reflecting an updated understanding of the nature of the conflict.</ref> Since (per the quote above) eucharist not only “demonstrates” oneness, but actually “effects” it as well, I believe it is precisely the lack of a meaningful, shared eucharistic experience that has brought the church leadership to such a divided and bitter state.
Robyn's desire to have the youth participate in eucharist along with the greater church community is admirable. Jim's desire to make education and formation of youth relevant and engaging is equally admirable. But both display an inflexibility and disregard for the other's point of view that hints at a deeper rift in their relationship as brother and sister in Christ. Jim's inflexibility manifests in his refusal to adjust the time or duration of the class in order to effect a compromise. Robyn's suspicion that Jim's teaching is sub-par implies a disregard for his success and longevity as the youth director. From a practical standpoint, the church board seems to favor Jim, making it unlikely that Robyn will be able to simply force a change. However, because the lack of a shared eucharistic experience is at the root of the problem, “no change” will likely only continue to exacerbate the problem in the long run.
Educating the youth, the congregation, and even the elders about the purpose and nature of communion is a good long-term goal. That said, if education consists of attempts by Jim to “explain” the relevance and importance of eucharist to the youth, I don't think he will be successful. Education can occur in many ways, and an actual experience of the eucharist might serve as a better teacher than any words Jim could utter.<ref>John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Touchstone, 1938), 19.</ref> Before this can happen, though, it might be a good idea to consider what the current experience of communion is like in the “adult” worship service.
In my experience, most churches desperately want the youth to engage with the congregation and participate in the worship service. But rarely are they willing to undertake the foundational changes to a worship service that would be required for youth to actually feel welcome and engaged in worship. In fact, I suspect most worship services (communion and otherwise) are not that conducive to adult participation and engagement, but we are more accustomed to the traditions and are better able to disguise or redirect our wandering attentions. Youth, on the other hand, are more honest, and less tolerant of traditions that seem disconnected from their experiences and devoid of practical application.
If we are serious about bridging this disconnect, I think we need to be willing to radically revisit the way we do communion: When Jesus said "do this in remembrance of me," was he merely referring to the partaking of the elements, or rather the partaking of the love and companionship Jesus shared with his disciples a the last supper? Removed from its original context, the eucharist is prone to becoming a “stale individualistic ceremony, rather than a meaningful corporate event.”<ref>George Barna and Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices (Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 197.</ref> A walk down the aisle for a wafer, a thimble of grape juice, and a quick prayer hardly seem conducive to the kind of deep sharing that transforms and binds communities together.
I suggest that if we want to make communion more meaningful for adults as well as youth, we might start by offering it within the context of a community meal, in the vein of Jung's concept of a joyful feast.<ref>L. Shannon Jung, Sharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006) 62-65.</ref> When we sit down at a table with family, friends or even strangers, our proximity shapes us. The tastes, smells, and sounds become imprinted on our memories. Through table conversation, friendships are formed and renewed. And where church people are gathered, the conversation often turns to spiritual things. An educational opportunity to tell the story of the last supper—in an authentic context—presents itself. The holy spirit is given the space and freedom in which to move, and this is where education and eucharist meet. The traditional movements of the Lord's Supper need not be absent, but can be practiced at an appropriate pause during the meal.<ref>I'm refering here to the nine traditional components of the Lord's Supper articulated by Dr. Mikoski in our final lecture, December 3, 2008.</ref> In fact, some of these, like thanksgiving and anamnesis, seem even more appropriate and natural in such a context.
If the idea of a community meal seems too radical of a departure, then an intermediate step might be to extend the worship service by 15 minutes on communion days, allowing youth to participate with adults after their Sunday School class is over, and following the worship service with a potluck dinner.<ref>Taking an incremental step is, of course, a nod to Vygotsky's “Zone of Proximal Development” and the recognition that there are likely congregants for whom the current practice of communion is a meaningful tradition.</ref> That way the extended service won't make people "late for lunch" elsewhere. In time, when the new tradition begins to take hold, it wouldn't be that great of a shift to celebrate the eucharist in its rightful and original place within the feast of remembrance, surrounded by a community that shares the memory, the identity, the food, and the life together.
At the outset of this paper, I indicated that it was the lack of a meaningful, shared eucharistic experience that was at the root of not only the surface tension surrounding the youth participation in communion, but also at the core mistrust and broken relationships among the church leadership. Conversely, by rediscovering this practice of shared communion, I believe that the challenges of scheduling, authority, and programming will ultimately fall into the proper perspective, as around the eucharistic table the body of Christ is broken to heal the broken body of the church.