Focus on community, not just content
“I think we need to refocus on the community aspect…
Bible class teachers have it tough.
Every week they’re expected to lead thought-provoking, deep dives into Scripture. Most are volunteers who agree, sometimes grudgingly, to teaching stints of three months or more.
Now, bless their hearts, they have to compete with Aaron Sorkin.
The award-winning screenwriter of films including “A Few Good Men” and “Moneyball” — not to mention the bingeable TV series “The West Wing” — is part of an online “MasterClass” that allows students to log on and learn his writing techniques. Or they can learn photography from Annie Leibovitz or science from Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“And now you’re their Bible class teacher,” said Jennifer Gerhardt. “The quality of what they’re being fed outside is what they bring to your Bible class.”
Gerhardt spent five years in the role of storytelling minister for the Round Rock Church of Christ in Texas, where her husband, Justin, served as lead minister. Developing content to engage adult learners was a key focus of their ministry.
After a year of pandemic, “it really asks a lot of us, to show up for these classes,” Jennifer Gerhardt said. “We just need to bring something better.”
Even before COVID-19, people were doing a lot of learning online.
But the virus propelled the trend to warp speed.
For too many churches, the reason Bible class is done the way it’s done — or why it’s done at all — seems to be “we did it last week.”
Now church members attend virtual seminars for their jobs. On YouTube, they peruse TED talks on psychology and economics. On TikTok, they watch an Australian man sing his favorite air fryer recipes.
As disruptive as the pandemic has been for churches, it also has served as a “reset button,” said Josh Diggs, teaching minister for the Clear Creek Church of Christ in the Chattanooga suburb of Hixon, Tenn. “It’s been an interesting laboratory to figure out what we’re doing.”
Reevaluation is overdue, Justin Gerhart said. He’s been in meetings with church leaders and asked what they think the purpose and goal of adult Bible classes should be, only to hear vague and conflicting answers. For too many churches, the reason Bible class is done the way it’s done — or why it’s done at all — seems to be “we did it last week.”
In Chattanooga, “we prefer to not restart adult Bible classes on Sunday the way they were before the pandemic,” Diggs said.
Like many churches, the 1,100-member Clear Creek congregation had adult classes with “a lot of content,” he said. But “some had accidentally turned into reservoirs, not rivers,” taking in a lot of Bible knowledge but not allowing it to flow into their communities.
Adult Bible classes should function less like “little country clubs” and more like “micro-churches, missional communities,” Diggs said. To equip believers for the task, he added, Bible classes should focus on evangelism. He envisions a “growth track” in which church members complete classes focused on church membership, small-group ministry, discipleship and service.
Oddly enough, as Christians return to the building, the church needs to “invest more in getting people out of the building,” Diggs said. “We need to avoid the mindset that church is a destination and that church happens only on certain days of the week.”
Earlier this year, the Gerhardts hit a “reset” button of their own.
The couple stepped away from their roles with the Round Rock church and moved with their two daughters to the seaside town of Weymouth, England. They plan to travel the world as they produce Christ-centered media for new generations of believers. Justin Gerhardt’s current project is a podcast titled “Holy Ghost Stories.”
“We’ve got a lot of … time-tested ways, vehicles of communicating truth in the church, and that’s great,” he said. “I’m all for that, devoted 20 years of my life to that. But also, I feel like there’s room for exploring some new avenues of communication.”
Jennifer Gerhardt, who is focusing her time in England on writing, suggested that churches provide or point members to on-demand content that will help them learn outside of traditional Bible class times.
“I think church is just becoming less and less about Sunday morning and Wednesday night,” she said. “I think people are so often encountering their teaching on Tuesday or while they do the dishes on Wednesday. They’re not only looking to Sunday to be the (time) they experience God’s truth.”
In addition to regular study of Scripture, Justin Gerhardt suggested that churches utilize their members’ expertise to offer short-term courses for their communities. A financial planner in the pews could teach “how to set up and live on a budget that reflects your Christian values,” he said. Other believers could teach on “some narrow aspect of parenting, friendship … all of these parts of life that are driven by our Christocentric values.”
Students should feel a sense of accomplishment for completing these courses, he added, perhaps receiving some kind of certification — or even something like the merit badges given by scouting programs.
Just before the pandemic, William and Aida Jackson taught members of the San Jose Church of Christ in Jacksonville, Fla., a subject that turned out to be most timely — how to use new technology to enhance their study of God’s word.
“We had people who didn’t even know how to use their phone, oh wow!” said Aida Jackson. Her husband has 33 years of teaching experience. He conducts workshops on STEM, an educational discipline focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and STEAM, which also incorporates the arts. He helped the church members undestand the technology and talked them through the finer points of online interaction.
“Ten weeks of absence is enough to decimate a Sunday school program. What do you think 10 months will do?”
The class proved to be providential. Within months, the whole world was on Zoom — Bible classes included.
In Chattanooga, as the Clear Creek church relaunches its Wednesday night program, it plans to introduce short-term, focused courses that Diggs described as “bite-size” and “actionable.”
“Our recognition is that the world already is looking different,” Diggs said. People seem less willing to commit to a long-term experience, but their need for Bible knowledge that’s applicable to their lives is great.
“Many of our churches have all but shut down Sunday school for the better part of a year,” said Keith Stanglin. “Ten weeks of absence is enough to decimate a Sunday school program. What do you think 10 months will do?”
Nathan Guy, president of Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Ala., launched the podcast after his congregation, the Sherrod Avenue Church of Christ, asked him to serve as a part-time education minister.
In addition to Stanglin, Guy has interviewed the Gerhardts and other church members including Josh Kingcade, education minister for the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, and retired Bible professor Randy Harris, who taught for 33 years at Abilene Christian University in Texas and Lipscomb University in Tennessee.
Related: Focus on community, not just content
“Many of my guests are saying similar things,” Guy said, “that adult education is often neglected, that teacher training is in great need and short supply, that helpful resources are in high demand.”
Bible classes don’t have to compete with Aaron Sorkin to be effective, he said, but they need to be intentional.
“Fire up your people with a shared vision of how adult education can be a response to the Great Commission, a way to encourage and develop spiritual formation and a way to guide others toward answering the call to greater discipleship,” Guy said.
Socialization also is vital, he added, especially in the post-pandemic church.
“Walk together as a class through the week,” he suggested, “engaging in spiritual practices and relearning habits that our long hiatus may have broken.”
Despite the challenges, Stanglin said, “we can do something great with adult education.”
He encouraged churches to take “the best of what we have done in the past, much of which has been very good, but also to experiment with new and creative ideas. If the new things don’t work, it’s not going to be worse than what we have right now, which is, in many churches, nothing.”
The need is great, he added. In the post-pandemic world, fewer Americans regularly attend church — in person or online — than in years past. A recent Gallup poll showed church membership in the U.S. below 50 percent for the first time since the research group started measuring in 1937.
Fewer and fewer people spend time reading their Bibles, other studies show. Biblical literacy is declining nationwide.
“Anyone with just a little historical perspective,” Stanglin said, “and a smidgen of knowledge of the current scene knows that if there were ever a time when we need a robust education program in the church, it’s now.”
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