Thursday, March 2, 2017

Meeting Diverse Adult Learners (Part 1?)

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

At every church I've ever served, I have taught classes covering the Bible, spirituality, several of the social sciences, theology, vocation, stewardship, and even current events. In 18+ years of ordained ministry, in many ways I have enjoyed these opportunities more than leading worship. Maybe it is because I have not crossed the worship space barrier of impromptu communication between leader and congregation. I'm not that edgy. I like trying new things. But I can't have EVERYTHING be new. Newness abounds for me in the congregation I serve. Not revolutionary, necessarily, but it is new to me.

I do not teach classes in my life as a pastor in a church anymore. While I enjoy the preparation, I had too many classes where either one or two people attended, or none at all. Regardless of my principles of the nobility of the subject matter, I could not justify investing so much time in my own interests, let alone in when I discovered in what others have interest. This does not seem to bother the leaders of the congregation. Some of my older members lament that many do not show up to classes. For other leaders, they did not think I should take offense, but rather the tradition (probably not that long of one) of the church offering programmatic classes was not something that people were looking for in a church.

The relationship between church and teaching has always existed, but how should it exist? I have spent much time and reflection on why classes don't seem to work at my congregation. I have a few theories and circumstances to share. My job does not hang on carrying these things out, but it does matter that exploration continues in maintaining personal integrity.

  • I have several career military families in the congregation. In speaking with military chaplains, congregational life is not necessarily a priority for the U.S. military. Occasionally it happens, but it is not because of any particular sense of mission. Therefore congregational life in a broad sense is not reinforced by my military-oriented households.
  • People invest less time in community endeavors (think Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone"). When the budget of time is trimmed, sometimes it's congregational life that sees the cut.
  • I have many people in the congregation who live on significantly different levels on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Sometimes classes in congregational life are more about self-actualization than the personal/household safety concerns that many people I know have. I have been lectured by some people not in my congregation that people need the word of God as much as they need bread. Regardless of whether that is true, I am not going to manipulate people with forcing them to take a Bible class in order to get fed. I know ministries that do this, and I refuse to work like that.
  • My congregation is the most diverse I have ever served. We have many first generation immigrants. We have people who live in poverty. We have people who live here a short time because of military itinerancy. I also have people with multiple years of graduate education. The biggest category of people is empty nesters. They are invested in the life of the church, but they are often gone. It is challenging to gather such a diverse group of adult learners. 

What I have realized is that I never really had these challenges in the demographically similar congregations I served in the first 12-13 years of ministry. I am glad to have these challenges.

I am thankful for anyone who shares their own experiences in an evolving church related to adult learning, or could point me to particular resources that could be helpful. On top of all of this, I am part-time. I have to be strategic about where I invest my time. I am not afraid to fail, or let go of something that is not working, but I also can't operate like the Parable of the Sower and throw seed around haphazardly.

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