This is my 5 page reflection paper for my “Teaching the Bible in Church” class at Princeton Theological Seminary. For more info on the class, see my separate post about it.
Thus far in life, my perspective on education has been based mostly on my experience as a student or “learner” as I have learned may be a better term to use. I have known for quite some time that there were different learning styles and had an inkling of an idea that there were different teaching styles though I did not know what they were. I have also understood that learning is more about connections that it is about pieces of information. In light of that, the opportunities I have had to teach I have gone into them with the explicit goal of helping people make connections which is a hefty expectation to be sure. In delving into the arena of Christian Education in this class, I have begun to see that I have only begun to see the tip of the iceberg and that learning and teaching are very intricately nuanced in and of themselves. That said there are three topics that seem to influence education in every aspect, whether directly or indirectly, namely the culture of the church in question, the question of assessment within the church, and my personal reflection on what God has revealed about teaching through the incarnation of God the Son.
In some respects, it seems that learning and teaching is very practical and predictable. If there are certain conditions that are met and the teacher presents the information so people of all learning types are able to interact with the topic in a way that works for them, learning will take place. While focusing on the processes of teaching and learning as well as the logistics involved in educating a group of people, it seems to me that the culture of the church is, in many ways, the determining factor for education in the church is the culture of the church itself. As I wrestle with this idea, I have begun to realize that I am very much out of my comfort zone so to speak. In terms of Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development as mentioned in class, I feel as though my current level of understanding coupled with my teaching experience thus far is insufficient to thoroughly interact with this idea in any way other than the hypothetical. It seems to me, however, that even realizing it is a piece of the puzzle is quite significant. I can envision myself stepping into a ministry at some point and wondering how my ideas will be received. At this point I have more questions that I do answers. How have things been done in the past? What is the vision for the future? How does this congregation, school, or ministry view education in general? What priority is it given in the life of the organization? Is the emphasis on cerebral understanding and memorizing facts or Biblical wisdom and living out the gospel? The answers to these questions will affect every aspect of any educational planning. I am sure that whether they are actually incorporated is a different story entirely, but regardless the affect is still there. While there is also the question of trust involved with making changes, it seems that waiting at least a year to make any significant changes in any given church or ministry is wise in order to truly discern the culture of the organization in hopes of tailoring educational planning to meet people where they are currently with respect not only to current understanding, but current philosophical disposition as well.
How an education plan incorporates assessment, or even whether or not assessment is included, will affect the educational process immensely. If there is no assessment, this becomes an aspect of the null curriculum. By not including assessment, it is possible the learners will understand that what is being taught really is not all that important. If that is truly the case, why teach it? And if that is not the case, not including assessment seems counter-intuitive. In those cases where assessment is included, I am beginning to see that how it is included is very important. While it is, once again, directly related to and/or dependent upon the culture of the organization in question, it seems as though there is more reticence to assess learning in adult ministry settings. One reason for this could be the increased possibility that adults are more concerned about how they will be perceived based on their scores. If this is the case, it is more probable that assessment could scare them away from further learning experiences because the stakes are two high and the educational opportunity becomes too intimidating. After discussing this with my peers in precept, it seems to me that one way around these potential downfalls is to turn the table. If instead of assessing the learner we allow the learner to assess the teacher and the course itself, this could be one way to assess the efficacy of the way the course was set up, what was taught, and how it was presented. Another suggestion that was mentioned was the idea of giving a content based test before and after the course in order to see how much people learned. If these tests were the same at the beginning and end of the class and if they were conducted anonymously under the auspice of assessing whether or not the teacher and/or class was helpful, it seems people would be more inclined to participate and less intimidated by the process.
While testing was a large part of the conversation during this precept, mentorship was also agreed upon as possibly the most effective way to assess learning within the church. If within the context of mentoring relationship an individual was asked not only what they were learning, but how that was manifesting in their lives, the mentor would have a very good idea of the quantity of information they were learning as well as whether or not there was any head-heart connection involved in what the person was learning. Since it seems to me that learning for learning’s sake is not the goal of the church, helping people learn how to be better disciples of Christ and how to love God and love others could be better assessed through mentorship. Based on my experience, this is something the church as a whole is not particularly good at. While there are some that are able to succeed at changing the culture of the church to include mentorship, it seems as though it is a neglected way in which to assess the overall effectiveness of Christian education.
When during lecture, the way the incarnation of Christ was presented as a way in which Christian educators can reflect on how God chose to reach out to and teach humanity, it really resounded with me. It made me the question, “What does the incarnation say about how God teaches humans?” Thus far I have arrived at two things the incarnation teaches us about teaching: it involves extreme patience and radical humility. In church this morning, my pastor said, “Last week Jesus was a baby. This week he is 30 years old.” And that got me thinking. While we may never understand the way in which God became flesh, to think that Jesus sat at the right hand of God the Father, and then was embodied in a tiny baby not yet born is a truly strange and wonderful thought. Even if time is not linear for God, once the incarnation took place, Jesus was bound by time and space. While I am merely human and not fully human and fully God as Jesus is, it seems to me that it would have been extremely frustrating to be God in the flesh. Extreme frustration would undoubtedly require extreme patience. Indeed it would require infinite patience of the kind that humans are probably not even capable of. And yet, as educators, we are called to exhibit extreme patience with those who are placed under our care since it is not just their minds we are teaching but their hearts.
With respect to radical humility, this point is something I will not be able to forget. In one of the first classes I took here are Princeton Seminary, I approached one of my professors and not wanting to interrupt him if he was in the middle of something, I asked if it was a good time to ask a question. His reply blew me away when he said, “Absolutely. I am your servant.” In light of how surprising my professor’s response was to me, to think that Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7) is mind boggling. Considering that this statement is prefaced by the challenge that “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” who did these things, it seems pretty straight forward that in general all those who claim to be followers of the way are to “consider others better than [ourselves]” (v. 3). How much more then, does this apply to those who are called to teach the way?
The incarnation most assuredly presents the most important lessons a Christian educator could learn. While mentioned third in this reflection, it is definitely that which should inform the way in which the culture of a church is shaped as well as how assessment occurs. And in all three, an educator finds an inescapable aspect of Christian education. It seems to me however, that these are challenges worth facing in light of what is at stake. For it is not just the Sunday school program’s approval rating, nor the pastor’s curriculum vitae, but the churches participation in the life and mission of the body of Christ as a whole. For “how…can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15b). The last question I would add to this is “How can they be sent unless they have been taught the living word of God?”
 All Bible references are from the New International Version and taken from www.Biblegateway.com.