Gaining Expertise in Matters of Faith

My daughters, ages 7 and 4, are taking piano lessons for the first time in their lives.  Tali, our oldest, has taken quickly to the piano, and really enjoys spending time practicing at our new electronic keyboard.  There's one song she plays over and over and over again – Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.  It is a simple song that requires just three fingers on either hand, using only the black keys.  As soon as she learned this song she was so proud that she doesn't stop playing it.  She sings along as she plays, too!  And so every morning and every evening, in the afternoon after school and at just about any other time, we're likely to hear Jolly Old Saint Nicholas emenating from our living room.  Tali has gained a certain expertise at piano – at least, at this one song on the piano – and that brings her great joy.

Can our churches be places where people gain expertise in prayer and in reading the Bible, as my daughter has gained expertise in playing the piano?

How often in our churches do we hear people say, "I can't go to Bible Study – I'm not smart enough!"  Surely these people are smart enough!  Such a cry is a lament – they don't feel expert in the Bible.  They likely feel expert in almost any other aspect of their lives – at their profession, at parenting, at cooking, at hosting parties, at talking about sports or television shows … but not at the Bible.  Attending church or Bible Study might be the only time during the week that an otherwise accomplished and successful person feels like an idiot, and that's a tragedy.

Of course, we might be tempted to question the person who says such words, saying if you were to go to Bible Study you would learn more.  But on the other hand, many of our Bible Study groups are dominated by people who have some knowledge of the Bible and enjoy the intellectual back-and-forth of a group – a group which may have been meeting for years and is likely very hard for a newcomer to enter into.  As a former Augsburg Fortress sales representative who visited congregations up and down the Northeast US, I heard this time and again from pastors and Christian Educators.  Such a setting that might work well for some people, but is probably intimidating to others.  "I'm no Bible expert like them," and "I feel stupid in that group," are phrases that are said all too often by people who are quite intelligent in reference to a congregation's Bible Study group.

This is why, for example, Augsburg Fortress came out with No Experience Necessary a few years ago, a very engaging Bible Study curriculum that was less concerned with academic study and more with responding to the questions, "What is God saying to me, to us, to the world through this text?"  When I was an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, I sold tons of No Experience Necessary.  The appeal, I think, was that this curriculum kept Bible conversation in real life, and didn't try to take discussion to a cerebral level.  Yet, simultaneously, the materials provoked insightful and faithful conversation and, in the process, gave participants – who previously avoided or felt uncomfortable in traditional Bible Study groups – a level of comfort and expertise in reading the Bible.  "Oh, I can read the Bible!" 

No longer intimidated by some sense that one needed a Masters degree to read the Bible correctly, people began to read the Bible as a Book of Faith (before there even was a Book of Faith initiative!).  People learned that they can pick up the Bible and ask three questions – What is God saying to me, to us, and to the world? – and do so faithfully with sisters and brothers in Christ without any prerequisite of prior Bible study or experience.

Whatever method or curriculum we use I hope that we can increasingly engage Scripture – in groups and in the pulpit – in ways that keep us and the faith to which we cling rooted in real life.  (In addition to the No Experience Necessary curriculu, the so-called African Bible Study method – no curriculum necessary! – is great for this.)  For the Word became flesh and lived among us, in real life.  Shouldn't our reading of the Bible stay in real life, too?

Confirmation Ministry: Age Grouping in a Medium-Sized Program

Like many Lutheran congregations, my congregation's Confirmation Ministry is a two-year, group-graded program involving 7th and 8th graders.  And like most Lutheran congregations, one year of the program focuses on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, and the other year of the program focuses on the Bible.  We have 14 kids in the roster, more or less evenly split between 7th and 8th graders.  Average attendance at the Sunday morning classes and Sunday evening program hovers around 8-10. (Our congregation's average weekly worship attendance is 173.)

There's an odd social dynamic, however, in that each year the 8th graders are confirmed and thus "graduate" from the Confirmation Ministry program, and are released into our high school ministry … which doesn't exist.  We tried last year to have a high school class, but with little success.  We have a smattering of high school kids who come to worship regularly, but getting a critical mass of them to gather regularly for a class has been nearly impossible.  This is an experience shared, I believe, by many Lutheran congregations.  There are a variety of reasons that high school kids' participation drops-off, but one of those reasons, I think, is the sheer lack of numbers.

By the time they are confirmed in May or June, depending on when Pentecost falls, confirmed 8th graders have just completed two years of a somewhat intense, high-expectations program.  From service notes to worship leadership to class attendance to a retreat and other events, they've been keeping busy at church with a dozen or so kids.  But after they are confirmed, and thus no longer in a structured program, the proportion of these (now) 9th graders who actively participate in church drops significantly, and those who do come to church have few, if any, peers.  What results is that we have a handful of kids who just a year earlier had a vibrant, if not huge, group of about 8-10 kids who regularly gathered for class and events.  Now the few who remain are lucky to have a peer or two who still comes to church.

What if, instead of confirming only the 8th graders, we confirmed the whole class – 7th and 8th graders together – creating a larger critical mass of kids who are "released" together into the post-confirmation world of youth faith formation? Even if half of the kids on the class roster drop off, half of 14 provides a bigger critical mass than half of 7, and gives us a fighting chance to create a post-confirmation youth fellowship.

It could work like this: 6th and 7th graders are gathered together in the fall of Year One, and move together through the two year faith formation ministry we call Confirmation.   After Year One the make-up of the class doesn't change at all (unless new families and youth join the church, of course). In Year Two of the program all the kids are 7th and 8th graders, and 6th graders remain in a pre-Confirmation ministry class setting.  At the end of Year Two, on Pentecost Sunday, the entire class – 14ish kids – are confirmed, and advance together into the congregation's post-Confirmation ministry program with a larger peer group than they currently do, a group that has spent two whole years together growing in faith and forming relationships with each other, with the church, and though these, with God.

This means that we would celebrate the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism only every-other year.  That's fine with me.  And this means that some youth would be "confirmed" in 7th grade, and some in 8th grade.  Again, that's fine with me.  

The goal, of course, is that no child would "drop off" after Confirmation, and clearly more needs to be done to support the faith formation of our teenagers and their families.  But assuming that some kids will drop off, I think it is worth while to restructure the program in a way that gives our kids the best chance to maintain a viable post-confirmation peer group as they move from the structured confirmation ministry experience to life as post-confirmation youth in the church.

Have any of you out there tried this kind of age-grouping scheme?

Related Posts:

Teaching the Bible in Confirmation Class

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Is Curriculum Even Necessary?

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the first point.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

First question: To use, or not to use, curriculum?

This is an important question.  Though I used to sell Sunday School curriculum for a living, I do not believe that every learning opportunity in the church requires the use of a published, purchased curriculum.  Teaching and learning requires planning, but we don’t always need a packaged curriculum.  So first ask yourself two questions: what do you want to achieve in a period of study?  And, do you need to go out and buy a curriculum do achieve that goal?

For example, if your goal is to read the Bible with your youth group, you can do this without purchasing a curriculum.  A very popular, simple, and down-to-earth Bible Study method is often referred to as The African Bible Study Method.  This method involves reading the text aloud three times and, after each reading, inviting each participant to share a word, phrase, or feeling that emanated from the hearing of the Scripture.  There is no discussion, no need for historical analysis or heady theology.  It is a shared time of reading and hearing the words of the Bible, and allowing its words and message to speak to our faith and life.  Visit the link for more information.

For an overview of several curriculum-less methods for reading the bible, enjoy this article written by Pastor Paul Lutz, formerly on staff at the churchwide headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and now serving at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Princeton Junction, NJ.  In it he writes about Bible reading methods that seek not only to inform, but to transform.

Simple methods of reading the Bible in community are easily memorized or noted on a folded sheet of paper tucked inside the front of your Bible.  If you, as a leader, want more background in a certain book of the Bible, you can access Study Bibles, commentaries or other Bible study material, without needing to buy materials for your whole group.  But before we reach for fancy (and expensive) materials perhaps we should simply open the Bible and use a method that allows the grace and truth of God's Word to speak to our faith.

A closing comment about reading the Bible in community.  I avoid the use of the term "Bible Study" when possible.  There are many ways to read the Bible in community that are not "studies" in an academic or heady sense.  We can and should read the Bible devotionally, as a faith-filled story that connects with our own stories of faith.  We shouldn't disregard the significant academic issues related to ancient texts, theology, and the traditions of the church.  But these things need not dominate or become roadblocks to the way we read the Bible in community, either.

Of course, going curriculum-free is not for everybody or for every situation.  Sometimes we just need to use a curriculum.  More on how to select and use curricula in future posts.

Next post: On being prepared to teach in the church.