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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 19–27 

Pastors’ Roundtable on Christian Education

Dave Wiebe, et al.

Dave Wiebe, John Unger, Grayson Piepgrass, Nadine Friesen, Michael Dick, Harold Schroeder

Six church workers met together at the Denver Study conference (1992) to talk about Christian Education. Grayson Piepgrass is associate pastor at the Dinuba (California) Mennonite Brethren (M.B.) church responsible for Christian Education. Harold Schroeder is pastor of Good News Fellowship M.B. church in Ferndale, WA. Nadine Friesen is associate pastor at Hillsboro (Kansas) M.B. church as minister of Christian Education. Michael Dick is associate pastor at South Langley (BC) M.B. church in charge of Christian Education. John Unger is pastor of Richmond Park M.B. church, Brandon, Manitoba. Dave Wiebe, chairing the meeting, is Executive Director of Christian Education for the Canadian M.B. Conference.

Do we repair the program or trade it in?

How does Christian Education fit into the vision and goals of your church?

Michael: It is integral to all that we do. We use it as a key vehicle to reach out into the community, to contact families. We use the various ministry programs to serve the needs of people and to educate them in faith.

Nadine: We have stated our purpose as glorifying God through growing in Christ and in His word, finding fellowship, and revealing Christ to the world. I see us emphasizing different ways in which Christian Education may work at that. It certainly isn’t a separate arm from anything else that happens. It’s very hard to find anything that isn’t Christian Education in the church.

John: Earlier this winter we met for a Friday night {20} and Saturday to hammer out our vision. We developed a fifteen-word statement: “We want to change lives by building relationships with God, each other and the world.” Barna says relationship is the one product that the church has to offer. The church should build relationships better than anyone else. Anything else, other people can do better. We in our church said: We want those to be discipling relationships, caring relationships, and witnessing relationships. So now we’re asking two questions of most everything we do: Does the activity build relationships, and are those relationships life-changing? If it does, and if they are, do more of it. If it doesn’t or if they aren’t, then let’s fix it or else let’s replace it. We’re asking those questions of Christian Education, and Christian Education is asking the questions of its programs.

Grayson: We developed our vision and then went to each one of our boards and committees and said, “Now how can we incorporate this from an adult perspective, from a children’s perspective, and a youth perspective?”

Dave: That’s my goal for our Canadian churches. I want them to say, “This is our church’s vision and this is how our Christian Education committee and its programs will contribute to the success of that vision for our church.”

Nadine: Doesn’t that depend upon the definition that people in the church have of Christian Education? If they view it just as Sunday School, then it becomes a little segment off in the corner. But if it is viewed more broadly, then it carries a lot more influence.

Is Christian Education just nurture or more than that?

Harold: I think Christian Education might be a little broader than nurture. I think it would include evangelism.

John: Nurture brings to mind the caring, the unfolding, the holding, the feeding kinds of activities you do particularly for young Christians or for children. For me, Christian Education is a little broader in that it has a bite, there are also some teeth to it—the tough parts of discipleship that mature believers need. Our adults in Sunday School want something with a little bit more content. In our setting we have taught a couple of courses now, certainly not on a seminary level, but on a college level at least. Also, what about equipping with skills for ministry? I think that would certainly be part of Christian Education, helping people discern their gifts and becoming competent in using those gifts. Whether that’s nurture or not might depend on the definition.

Grayson: I don’t think I like the term Christian Education, because “education” makes us think “classroom.” Christian Education extends far beyond that as we work with parents and with children. That involves not {21} only content, but also a lot of context.

Harold: Christian Education often carries the implication of curriculum you’ve got some books you’re going through.

Nadine: . . . And children. Because they’ll say, we have someone to work in Christian Education, but we don’t have anyone working with adults, which just about turns me inside out! Personally, I try to connect nurture and nourishment. I need nourishment until the day I die.

Michael: I would view nurture as including the discipleship kind of things you do with the mature believers as well as the immature, with the new Christian as well as the old. When you teach people to use their gifts more effectively, it’s still nurture in my understanding.

John: Well, what does it take to develop into mature Christians? I think that’s the bottom line. When we looked at our vision statement, we said that most change and shaping of “who I am” happens within relationships. The program and curriculum may well be part of that relationship, but it’s broader than the curriculum and the classroom down the stairs behind the furnace room.

Dave: That’s right. In the educational sense, the class meeting behind the furnace has got so much against it. Yet because we’re talking about Christian Education as having more dimensions to it than just the facility and the curriculum, you’ve got a lot of potential for the class behind the furnace.

So what are the key issues we face in Christian Education today?

John: One of the things we’ve just talked about: When you say Christian Education, people think programs. But programs are only a vehicle. If you take a trip, you’ve got a goal and a path you will take—that’s our church vision. And Christian Education contributes to the strategy that makes the vision work. The programs are like your car that gets you to your destination. You do maintenance and you trade it in every so often. Programs need regular maintenance, and sometimes you trade them in. But yet if we think of Christian Education as only the vehicle [programs], we won’t have direction.

Nadine: We need to ask, “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” We have to fit our programs to our purpose and direction, because some programs have been a part of our tradition for so long. We assume they will go on unchanged. We also need to recognize the need to be trained or educated as a Christian. Equipping and discipline are as important as relationships.

Michael: I think one of the biggest issues we face is time. The drying up of time and the pool of volunteers forces us to evaluate the core needs. What is going to be most effective to nurture and to ensure that the next {22} generation has faith? In other words, let’s not assume that Pioneer Girls and Sunday School and these other programs are going to continue forever.

Nadine: Or even that they are communicating the truth that needs to be taught. We can’t just assume we have this program so we are meeting that need. How often do we check to see what’s really happening in that program?

Harold: That’s where I’m convinced we need to understand the questions before we go to the answers. I think much of Christian Education is giving answers to questions that aren’t even being asked. We have to understand where the people are.

Grayson: Three practical areas are causing us to ask very hard questions. We’re a conservative, family-oriented church that’s been seventy years in a rural community. As we reach out in our ministries, we are bringing in people from seriously dysfunctional families. Secondly, as we seek to be more honest in our relationships, we’re finding that there is dysfunction within our own circles. There is a naiveté among us that leads us to deny that these problems—alcoholism, child abuse, incest, sexual addictions, food addictions—exist in church families. But they do. The fragmentation of the last thirty years has caught up with us. Another issue that’s facing us is the ethnic immigration growth in our own community. We’re 60% Hispanics along with Muslims and East Indians, and we’re beginning to get some of those in the church. How do we as a more middle class church begin to reach the diversity that’s there?

Nadine: We have some kids faithfully coming to Sunday School and Wednesday night, who go home to a father and a live-in woman. They are just thrilled that they now have a mother. How do we communicate the truth of Scripture, “This is what God says about sexual purity,” without them going home feeling they are party to a den of iniquity? We have to teach the truth, because our kids desperately need it. We don’t want to water it down to make everyone feel comfortable and merely build relationships. But will they march home and say, “You’re not my mummy and you’re a sinner for living here. That’s what I learned at big M.B. tonight”? Then how do we hope to reach into that family?

Dave: I picture the teacher and the student on either side of an interest gap. You as a teacher have Biblical content, the faith traditions, and your experience which need to be conveyed to the student who says, “So what?” You need to build a bridge to the students so you can teach what they need to learn. The bridge has to consist of three parts. One is relationship, which is the foundation. If you don’t have a strong relationship with your student, you can’t roll any kind of a load across to that student at all—they won’t be listening. But relationship isn’t enough. You’ve got to have the skill too, the skill to teach and the ability to communicate outside of lesson time in a {23} meaningful way that contextualizes the truth. Then the third part is your authority and leadership which draws students to follow and learn.

Harold: All of this assumes the other person is interested. Many would rather not hear you or they’re not ready to hear what you have to say. There’s a lot of variety of interest there.

How can our Christian Education ministry become more effective? What about Sunday School? Repair or trade in?

John: Right now we’re caught. When we in our church first hammered out our vision statement, our Christian Education people got pretty excited about trading the whole thing in, doing something quite different on an evening during the week. However, one reality is that the old program is very entrenched. When something is like apple pie, it is very hard to trade in because of the sentimental value. Second, Sunday morning is still a time when you’ve got a pretty good representation of kids, both church and community. As kids get older and have jobs, homework, band, sports etc., Wednesday night gets some stiff competition. You don’t have that kind of competition on Sunday morning. On the other hand, we’re saying that our teachers have a 45-minute contact slot, which is sometimes the only contact they have with those children throughout the week. The relationship building is pretty minimal, so it’s not pulling us very well in the direction of our vision.

Harold: I’d like to see Sunday School classes become groupings of families, meetings with all the ages--grandparents down to the smallest--, not always grouped by age or peer groups. I think Sunday School could become more effective if we would teach families within a family context.

Nadine: I definitely think it’s something that’s missing from church life. Other than sitting in straight rows together, we very seldom mix ages for anything.

John: People coming from a dysfunctional home would find this setting marvelously healing and growing.

Michael: On the other hand, I have adults coming to my office and saying, “I’m so short on relational contexts. Couldn’t we create a Sunday School structured even more by breaking down the groupings of our adults? So that I’m in a class with 40- to 55-year-olds and we learn and grow and cry together, because that’s where I am, and the space that I’m in.”

John: Sometimes I worry that we think that we can only have quality relationships with those of our own age. There are common agendas across age lines.

Grayson: I think the future of Christian Education depends on flexibility. When something stops being good, stop doing it and switch to something {24} else. Three years from now it may not work, and then trade it in. Colson uses the term “little platoons”: Where there’s a need, you respond to that need. Once a month, on Wednesday night, we have a singles ministry meeting the specific needs of three women. We have some other things like that. I see flexibility. It may seem easier to stay with the old things, but I think the times dictate tremendous flexibility.

Nadine: More and more I view Christian Education and church ministry, as a whole, as a smorgasbord. You put out as many options as you can cook up recipes. That has some weaknesses too, because you get too many going, and then nothing goes real well. But we need to offer choices and say, “Go through the line and pick out what feeds you. Just make sure that you have a balanced diet and don’t feel guilty if you’re not taking on everything.”

Dave: Out of the 168 hours of the week, children will only spend 2 to 3 hours in church or in church-related experience. Add to that the spiritual formation time with parents. We could talk maybe 2 to 4 hours a week maximum. Is that enough? If not, how can we think about that?

Michael: I don’t think in today’s society that you are in any way, shape, or form, going to be able to increase the amount of time that is spent in the church. What I think we have to do is work with and educate parents to be more effective in their role of teaching their children and modelling the faith.

Grayson: There are a number of men my age coaching Little League baseball. We have talked about the influence we have as coaches. I’ve had to ask my kids for forgiveness more than once. That’s still part of modelling to say to other kids, “Hey, I blew it.”

Nadine: Something we’ve done is to have parent-teacher conferences. They get together and say, “Now how are we going to work together at molding your child’s life? This is what you can do in the home that we can’t do in the church, and this is what we can do in the church that you can’t do at home. What do you expect of us?” We avoid putting guilt on parents and build a team instead.

I would like to hear you talk about confessional integrity relative to our conference vision statement. Do you see Christian Education playing a role in all that? Is this a curriculum question?

Harold: We should be careful not to develop the mentality that some of us have the whole truth. That’s really a dangerous position, because none of us knows it all. I think we should create an inquisitive atmosphere: “What {25} is the Bible saying? What does it mean to you?” Allow for diversity and variety.

Nadine: This question raises a recruitment concern. Staff is probably the key to teaching our confession because individual teachers do what they want with the curriculum. How much do we screen them? Do we ask for their doctrinal positions? We need to make sure that the people who are giving out are also taking in, providing opportunities for them to be growing and understanding Scripture. But we can’t sit in on every class, making people feel like we’re there with a clipboard.

John: I think for us it’s two-pronged. It’s curriculum, but also, as you said, who is teaching. We have some people teaching now who come from very different backgrounds. One was baptized as an infant, is not a church member, has not been baptized as an adult, but is very sensitive to where we are as a church. The other day he said, “This is the kind of material I am working on. How do you feel about this?” He came to me at his initiative, because he wanted to be sensitive to our church’s positions. Any Christian Education director could covet that kind of sensitivity on the part of teachers, member or non-member.

Let me hear your heart about ministries to children, to youth, to adults.

Let’s start with children.

Nadine: Mine’s in very general terms. I would like to find a way to instill in children at a very early age a thirst for God.

Grayson: I like that. One of my dreams is about children from dysfunctional homes: that, in spite of all the things going against them, because of the power of God and people relating to them, they will thirst for God. It may be shaky at first, but when they get to being adult, I hope they will want to reverse the dysfunctional patterns they have known in their home. The Holy Spirit can use even one hour a week. We have to work on that assumption, or we’d become very frustrated.

Michael: I dream sometimes about having an integrated program that would combine what we’re doing in Sunday School and in clubs into one program that would be really focused. It would grab parent and child and pull them together to process and grow in their faith understanding. Somehow I think we could do better than the fragments we have now.

John: I’d like to see each child have a significant relationship with at least one adult, a mature and growing Christian who models what it means to love the Lord. Someone who reads the Bible, but it comes off the page, it {26} becomes alive, it’s life-changing, there’s an excitement about God’s Word, and how it’s applied to life. I think if a child can have that, what curriculum you use doesn’t matter so much, or when you do it in the week, or even if the time is fairly compressed.

Harold: John has taken the words out of my mouth. It would be tremendous if people showed their excitement . . . if a pastor were excited about the word of God, and the work of God . . . if a Sunday School teacher was excited and not droning on through a lesson. Somebody told me once that people are attracted to a church not because it’s friendly, but because people are excited.

What about youth?

Michael: I think the link with a significant adult becomes stronger in youth years. We have worked at a prayer partner relationship with every one of our youth and college and career people. They need to see an adult who has processed his/her faith and who hangs onto God through turbulent times.

Nadine: That’s interesting, because we assign our kids, even as infants, to an adult. The little kids are so thrilled, but the youth are not sure that they want this relationship. I think that they want it, but are not sure what to do with it.

John: I think Michael is right. Every parent at that point needs other Christian adults who are feeding stuff into their kids. My kids hear it better from them than they are going to from me at that point. Those people need to be there.

Michael: The second thing for young people is that they have opportunities to get involved in ministry, not just always take. They learn more in serving than in receiving.

Nadine: I wish all ages, particularly youth, could believe they can be honest with the church, and we’d still love them. I think in those years we start sending messages more and more strongly which read, “Say what we want you to say, or you’re pushed off to the edge.”

What about adults?

Grayson: One of my dreams for adults is that we would be willing to let youth ask questions and not be threatened by them.

Dave: That’s a reversal. I think we’re afraid of other adults who ask questions. Can even I have doubts and ask questions?

John: I think the question is, can we be honest with each other, and still be accepted and loved and forgiven? Can I voice my doubts as a pastor? My vision has to do with something that grew out of our process in our congregation. Within two years we want every adult who wishes, to be part {27} of a small group, whether a support group, Bible study group, fellowship group, task group, or whatever. Most adults struggle with friendship issues. Who are your close friends? To whom can you talk? I have heard that most Canadians move every three years. That’s devastating to friendships for adults. It takes us about that long to make friends.

Nadine: A final point. I’ve been wondering recently, how many adults in our churches really feel that God smiles on them? How many adults are living under a cloud of doubt and judgment? Somebody said this morning, “All of a sudden it dawns on me; it’s not because of what I’ve done, but because of God’s grace that’s made me accepted.” I wish more adults could really feel that.

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