Sep  2017 05
What happened to Christian education?

Once upon a time, not that many decades ago, if a woman was enrolled in seminary, she was training either as a missionary or a Christian educator. (Missionary programs in mainline seminaries died when their host denominations began to see their complicity in colonialism.)

Then, from the early to mid 1970s until recent years, more and more women entered the Master of Divinity (MDiv) program and sought ordination.

Women who enrolled in Christian education programs were discouraged by classmates because a female Christian Ed student represented a restrictive role from which women should be freed. Other critics denigrated the profession and the discipline.

When I was in seminary, a theology professor told a female classmate who was pursuing a Christian education degree, “You should change to the MDiv. You’re too smart to be in Christian education.”

Argh!

Over the past three or four decades, within formerly mainline congregations and denominational offices and seminaries, the number of Christian education positions thinned. Denominational offices with shrinking receipts from unified benevolence budgets could not afford the staff.

Erstwhile multiple-staff congregations cut paid positions, and the Christian education professional became a volunteer position.

Seminary curriculum offerings in Christian Ed and staffing were affected by fewer professional positions after graduation, lower enrollments, smaller core faculties, the math problem of needing enrollments sufficient for a professor to teach five courses (including three-four electives), and culture changes that kicked the support beams out from the discipline of Christian education.

Today, some formerly mainline seminaries continue to offer a robust Christian education curriculum. Many seminaries—mine included, for some of the reasons mentioned above—do not.

Now, I’ve disagreed the voices who want to add more content to the MDiv, already the longest professional master’s degree, without taking something away. In this blog, I don’t intend to make a case for either curriculum or staffing revisions, at Phillips or elsewhere.

But, as one who took a handful of Christian education courses in seminary, who values the contributions to a curriculum by educators trained qua educators, who has enjoyed being friends and colleagues over the years with Christian education professionals (and thus I know the quality of what they bring), and who at the start of a new school year is reflecting on education per se, I thought it was a fitting time to consider the opportunities afforded by professional educators in seminary and church.

Consider the following contemporary circumstances and what a religious educator might bring:

  • The scope and quality of brain research is multiplying fast. That research is changing how we understand how we learn. We’re discovering how core human emotions enable and impede learning. Spirituality and attention are hot topics of scientific research. How is this work affecting educational programs in congregations?
  • Virtually no one would assume that passing on “the faith” using the banking model (teacher is a full of knowledge and student is empty until the teacher imparts knowledge) works today. If Christianity is undergoing change of a scope not experienced for 500 years, then handing on a faith that “worked” in the mid-20th century will not suffice. What are the appropriate educational models to employ today? Our energies and attention should focus on re-imagining what the way of Jesus means and how to follow that path, rather than replicating Christendom.
  • We’re learning much about how screens shape and order our brains. Researchers range between cautious and alarmed as they correlate screen time and attention deficits, brain development, emotional maturity, and empathy. How is that research being used in religious circles in helping persons use rather than serve their devices? What are the consequences of that research for children and teen screen usage and developing a spirituality of using devices (actually, that question goes for all of us who use devices)?
  • And, another side of the “screen” coin: technology provides opportunities for teaching and learning that a face-to-face classroom cannot. What does good Christian education online, or blending online and in-person, look like?
  • How often does an “active” church goer attend church? The answer varies a lot. In some congregations, “active” means multiple times a week, in some it is once a week, and in some it is once a month. What kind of education is possibly effective in a context where “active” means monthly attendance? Given that adults today connect in multiple ways, including face-to-face and online, given that transformational education (and can Christian Ed today be anything but transformational?) takes time and emotional energy, what are the fitting strategies for adult Christian formation?
  • There is a lot of buzz around “public theology,” doing and talking and acting theologically in public spaces. Good! What are the educational theories, strategies, and practices for doing theology in public? The answers will look very different from the educational strategies employed in a Christendom culture.
  • Seminarians often find their theological education sets them apart from the folks at home. How could it be otherwise? As with God’s call to Abram and Sarai to go forth from their ancestral lands, to be educated means to leave where you were. Graduate seminary education involves the whole person, but those at home are not privy to the same experiences. Educational strategies are necessary to bridge the inevitable gaps and render seminary educational useful in each particular context. Where do we teach bridging strategies?
  • In seminaries today, curriculum revision is not a once-a-decade task. Curriculum assessment and revision is continuous. Trained educators who have the knowledge and skill of how to evaluate and sequence learning add a great deal of value to the practice of continuous curriculum revision.

Now, I could make similar arguments for the value of employing full-time faculty members in care and counseling, worship, community organizing and community building, social and business ethics, and congregational change-conflict-leadership.

But in this blog, for today, I’m giving a shout-out to my Christian education friends who are among the smartest and most creative persons I’ve had the privilege of knowing. Their work is relevant and, yes, essential for reimagining the practices and beliefs of Christianity.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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