One of the things I remember the Search Committee saying about Grace during my interview process was that we were not afraid to experiment: to try something new, see how it goes, and then evaluate it as a community. I have found that to be true. Start a ukulele band? Why not! Try having a bake sale for Election Day? Let’s see how it goes! (Pretty well—we turned muffins into lots of Russo’s vegetables for the Food Pantry.)
As most of you know, our latest experiment will begin this Sunday, and last for six weeks. We will be experimenting with how we do Christian formation at Grace. What is the difference between Christian education and Christian formation, you ask? Well, we usually associate education with a classroom model, with a teacher, and students, following a course of study, often situated in a classroom. The Latin root of the word education means “to lead out,” as in, someone is doing the leading, and others are being led. For many kinds of learning, the approach works very well.
However, in Christian community, we are all disciples; we are all life-long students. We share the ministry of teaching at different times, but our great teacher is Jesus. Rather than leading or being led, we think of being formed in faith our whole lives. We are the clay, and God is the great Potter. This formation happens in the midst of our life together, as we worship, care for each other, learn, work, and seek justice in Jesus’ name.
Or, to use the analogy I used on Sunday when I read a short parable at announcement time: children don’t learn to swim by going off to a separate room and reading about swimming, or by hearing stories of great swimmers of the past. They learn to swim by getting in the pool, and having someone show them how!
At Grace, as at many other churches, we’ve been using a method of educating our children in faith that was developed in the 1940s and ‘50s, when the church wanted to incorporate more of a schooling model into parish life. It worked pretty well for a long time. (Our church school classrooms at Grace were built in the ‘50s.) Our children are separated out by age from the rest of our community, and sent to class while the adults are in worship.
In our own day, there are some problems with this model: the first is that the Church is not very much like a school to begin with. We are more like a group of monks and nuns (!), or like a swim team, or a scouting troop. Meaning that our learning is mostly formation, doing things together. Study is only a part of what we do. We also worship together, eat together and do social things, care for each other in many ways, reach out to our community in ways that reflect our values. So it would follow that rather than separating children out from the life of the parish, we should include them more, especially in our worship life. They should be learning and being formed in faith alongside the rest of us, who are learning and being formed in faith too! This kind of approach was actually what was happening through most of Christian history; we just took a sixty-year break from it.
The second problem with the classroom model is that many of the other supports to faith development that used to exist in our society have now disappeared, or are very weak. A Church School model did well when it was one of a number of ways that faith was being transmitted (families reading the Bible and praying at home; cultural expectation of belonging to a church; faith discussed in schools; lots of religious publications, etc.). But without these other factors, this model falls short, as sociologists and Christian educators have learned from a number of studies on how faith is passed on to the next generation.
A third problem is more practical: in order for adults to be mentors in forming our children in faith, in our current model this means they have to miss half of our worship service. And every week, our middle school class is cut in half, since our youth serve as acolytes in worship. So our pool of teachers, and our middle school class, tends to stay small.
So in a way, our “Eastertide Experiment,” as we’ve been calling it, is about going back to the future, dusting off the old way of doing faith formation that was supplanted by a classroom model. We are going to give this whole-community formation model a test-drive and see how it goes.
Here’s how it will work:
For the inaugural session, we will be learning about the Bible stories that tell of what happened after Jesus was raised from the dead by building these stories out of Legos in small groups! We will be expanding the ways children and youth can serve in the service (greeting, reading, leading prayers).
It all starts this Sunday. (And yes, snow is in the forecast for Sunday!!) Hang on to your hats, say a prayer, and let’s see what happens!