Christian Education in the Small Membership Church
Karen B. Tye
Chapter Two Review by The Mustard Seed
“We teach people, not lessons. It doesn’t matter where we are or what we are teaching, people are at the heart of the educational endeavor. This is especially obvious in the small membership church. We can’t hide behind numbers and assume people will be there to take part in whatever is planned. In the small membership church, we have to think about the people, who they are, what they want and need, and what we can expect of them.” (p. 19)
We must always consider the “who” when discussing Christian education: the participants. In the second chapter, the author proposes that the discussion begin by reflecting on “our general commonalities as human beings. What do we have in common that impacts the work of education?” (p. 19) After establishing how we are alike, we then carefully study our differences. “What is different about people in the small membership church that affects Christian education there?” (p. 20) When considering the commonalities and differences, group the members of the parish in order of children, youth, and adults to better recognize the specific and differing needs of these individual groups.
Understanding the commonalities we share is vital to the work of education. The author highlights three of these commonalities and urges educators to remember these commonalities as they will fundamentally influence our efforts in developing a solid Christian education program:
1. People are biological beings. “It is important to remember that the people we work with in education in the church are biological beings. This affects the way they interact with the world and the way they learn.” (p. 20) Everyone has biologically based abilities and limitations, and depending on which stage of biological development a person has reached, certain tasks are not yet possible or are no longer possible. Young children may not have developed fine motor skills yet, so Bible lessons using whole-body, big movements may be more comfortable than cutting and pasting intricate figures. Studies suggest that adolescents operate on a different internal clock than children and adults, which can explain lack of energy on Sunday mornings – “finding other times to involve him in church may be an important education move based on biology.” (p. 21.) And adults experience a decline of sight and hearing with age. Plan accordingly for adult education events by ensuring that they can hear what is being said and can see what is printed on handouts.
2. People are on a developmental journey. This is our “cognitive development”, knowing and understanding. “Think carefully about what children will hear and how they are developmentally ready to interpret what they hear when working with the Bible with them.” (p. 22)
3. People are learners. We all have a brain. We all use our brains to learn. “Our work in education is to help [people] learn in ways that are brain-friendly, that work with their brains and utilize all the rich potential in those brain cells.” (p. 23)
Now, let’s move on to the differences we share. The author focuses on two areas in which people in a small parish are different from those who attend a larger church. These differences cannot be ignored because they are significant and shape our work in education.
- Numbers. “Small membership churches have to think outside the box in terms of Christian education. The difference in numbers challenges us to be creative. If structured, age-graded classrooms are your only image of Sunday school, it generally won’t work in smaller churches. Drawing on images of the one-room schools or homeschooling offers greater potential for our context.” (p. 28) We must think of new ways to structure Christian education for the participants AND in terms of teachers and leaders. The author discusses education models for the small membership church in the next chapter, so for now let’s consider the next difference that small membership churches share.
- Everyone is family. Just as one of the qualities of a small membership church is that everyone is like family, this is also a difference in comparison to a larger church. This difference provides the unique and special opportunity for multiple generations to regularly interact together. “Family education is more like an apprenticeship, where one learns through doing and from the guidance of one who knows the way.” (p. 30)
After taking time to study our commonalities and differences, we find the need to group people in ways to best help us provide for their particular educational needs and interests. As stated earlier, these groups are children, youth, and adults. Fully digest and analyze the author’s words below and think about how they apply to the Christian education program already in place in your parish, perhaps sparking ideas on how to grow and improve.
Children are the church of today. “Children aren’t simply Christians-in-training; they are full participants in the Body of Christ now. In the small membership church, we are easily able to include children in the ongoing daily life of the community of faith at every opportunity.” (p. 32-33)
Children are on a developmental journey. “With limited people resources, the small membership church also offers opportunity for children to take on necessary tasks and feel truly needed. When they do these tasks well, they develop a sense of competency that contributes to their overall sense of worth and well-being.” (p. 34)
Children are active learners. “We need to involve all of the senses in our educational activities.” (p. 34)
Youth are also the church of today. “While youth are indeed growing and maturing in their capacity to think and make wise choices, they still have much to offer out of their own perspective and experience. The small membership church provides just the right setting for youth to see themselves as leaders and capable participants in the church today.” (p. 35)
Youth are looking for more than entertainment. “Teenagers are at the stage in life where they are searching, testing, and looking for something of lasting value and importance. They are open to risking and thinking new ideas and thoughts, trying out new beliefs, but they need guidance…Small churches are indeed the right size to offer youth a place to know and be known, to find mentors and guides who walk with them and work alongside them and give them opportunities to lead.” (p. 35-36)
Numbers are not important. “Any church with at least one young person has a youth ministry already, whether it knows it or not…Be creative, and you will see the multitude of ways even a single youth can learn and grow in the small membership church.” (p. 36)
“The small membership church has a unique opportunity…In many of our small congregations, the membership is skewed toward older adults. A large percentage of those in the pews are senior citizens. We can dispel the myth that Christian education is only for children and youth by creating vital and dynamic educational opportunities for our adults.” (p. 37)
Further Reflection (p. 38-39)
In what ways has your church dealt with the issue of numbers when planning for Christian education?
What do you think is important to know about the children, youth, and adults in your church?
- Plan one-on-one conversations with your children and youth. What did you discover that you didn't know? What difference can this knowledge make in your educational ministry?
People are the heart and focus of Christian education in the small membership church. We -children, youth, adults- are all the church of today, even though members of these groups are at different stages of their biological and developmental journey. These differences, along with our commonalities, must be considered when planning Christian education. We celebrate the inter-generational educational opportunities provided by a small church's family-like dynamics, with knowledge that these opportunities likely would not be possible in a large membership church. Small numbers provide promise, not problems!
We'll continue exploring Christian education in the small membership church by learning about the where and when of education, which whenever possible should always be more than traditional Sunday School classes that last one hour each week. We need more than that! And the small membership church is capable of more than that! In the next chapter, the author provides further insight on building a successful Christian education ministry within a small membership church, so the next post in this series will highlight teaching and learning methods that fit the circumstances of a small parish.