Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Learning at Church
With summer well underway and fall approaching, Christian education and catechesis always seem to come up in our parish. Are we having a fall Bible study? Do we need a longer new member’s class? How about Sunday School? Are we offering enough opportunities for people to learn their faith or drowning them in information?
There is no question that part of the church’s ministry is to offer people the opportunity to learn and deepen their faith. However it’s in the methods by which we feel this can be accomplished that we find differences, and our vision of the church comes into play.
How do we see the church and its mission to teach? Is church primarily a school where classes are offered and the faith taught systematically at all ages? Are newcomers brought into this educational system so they can be brought up to par with the doctrinal conviction of the parish? Or, is the church envisioned primarily as a family with learning and growth happening organically as people live the life of faith? There does not have to be an either or approach to this question, but we each seem to have preferences based on our own experiences.
Personally, I prefer the latter approach. Maybe it’s my reaction to endless hours of studying for exams, licensing boards, continuing clergy and medical education; its dull and forgettable! When it is not, I suspect it can contribute to our storing information divorced from its context! Information without life, not linked to emotion or experiences, apart from a setting to color its meaning, and with no relationship to real people, can be less than helpful to growing in the spiritual life. I have met very uninspiring people educated this way! Some with very a very impressive knowledge base, lots of information about Bible verses and theological concepts but oh so dry!!!! I have also encountered others, perhaps unable to cite a chapter and verse of Scripture to prove a point, but whose lives irradiated the love of God and his presence.
For me, nothing compares to the learning that happens in ones daily life and experience. We live it in our own homes! Most of us do not hold formal toilet t raining classes for toddlers, nor dinner etiquette lessons with an exam, nor pimple care for teenagers, it happens naturally in the context of family life. There, by conversation, redirection and plain interaction most of the things important to family are learned. The things we value, those that are acceptable, the things that make us laugh, those that we remember with sadness, dress codes and music appreciation, are all part of rich lessons while living in family and community!
It is the same in the life of faith, and though we may hold classes to help people get a basic understanding of what it means to be a Christian, the business of knowing and loving God and neighbor is not something one can learn in a classroom!
For Episcopalians living through the liturgy, as we go through the year, is a great aid in instruction. Our observation and interaction around Scripture, creed, prayer, and sacraments can be an experience of learning in the context of our life together as a family! No amount of book learning taught me about devotion to the Lord in Holy Communion as the experience of seeing it in the faces, outstretched hands and lives of real people with whom I share the life of faith. Likewise with so many things in our Christian walk; The baptismal covenant in the context of a baptism, a Taize service teaching the value of silence, a good Charismatic service opening our ears to speaking in tongues , a child’s first communion, a workday, prayers for healing! God and His words come alive, not just in a classroom setting but in the lives of his people, in their journey together, their joyful celebrations, challenges, sorrows, devotions and suppers, births and death.
The idea of catechesis incorporated into life this way feels so very natural to me. It may be slower, but in the end I think it will be deeper and more true to life. I also am very aware that it will be uncomfortable for some. We crave information and live in a time where it is instantly available at our fingertips. Some will want a new member’s class covering all the bases. Others will insist in a structured program of Bible study and Sunday school. Some will think there is too much already and for a few, there will be no amount of educational opportunities and offerings which will be enough! Yet for the patient seeker, who wants to not just learn about but also experience the marvel of growing in grace and the knowledge of God, every day, every Eucharist, every encounter holds a promise of growth and discovery.
May God be our teacher and the Holy Spirit always near to lead us to all truth.