Graduation Day- we look forward to it with great anticipation. It’s a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. This rite of passage maybe true for Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Most great teachers will tell you that the schooling received prior to graduation is only a preparation for “learning to learn” and a lifetime of learning. And so it must be with Christian education. Unfortunately the goals of excellence, continuing education and self improvement seem to be missing from our attitude when it comes to Christian Education.
The age of graduation from church school differs from parish to parish. Survey indicate that it happens somewhere in the teen years. In my experience it peaks just prior to receiving a driver’s license. Teachers and students manage to endure religious education programs until fifteen or so. Unfortunately the attitude that “ Now I am out of Junior High (or High School) so I don’t have to go to church school classes any more- that’s for kids”, extends beyond the classroom to other areas of Christian life: attending liturgy, fasting, and praying.
It’s easy to see why our children fall into this trap. An obvious reason is young people do not see adults going to class, studying in the home or anything that resembles continuing Christian education. From their observation religious education is for “children only.” For most, the message of our Christian education programs and graduation ceremonies is that we have learned it all by the age of sixteen. When adult classes are offered, a rarity, they are poorly attended. Our Orthodox laity is lacking in knowledge of their faith. When asked about question concerning their faith, they remember what they can from their childhood and then recommend asking a priest. It is difficult to convince others to believe in a faith that we ourselves cannot proclaim. That is not to say that we must be able to answer lofty theological questions; but, we must certainly be able to speak clearly about what the Orthodox faith proclaims.
So what about Graduation Day? The emphasis on graduation should not indicate an end but a beginning or a proficiency to pass from one stage of Christian education to another. Everything that happens in a parish- good and bad- is an educational opportunity. Every one is a teacher and everyone is a learner within the context of the church community. So let’s talk about the next stage- Adult Christian Education.
Christian education directed toward children is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Sunday School Movement, started in 1780 in Gloucester, England by Robert Raikes for poor illiterate children, was transplanted from England to America in the late 1700’s. In 1824 the American Sunday School Union was founded. For the first time in history an emphasis was placed on children’s Biblical education. Prior to that, Christian education was primarily directed toward adults. Along the way the Christian education model was turned upside down with most of our educational activity and instructional life occurring prior to the age of sixteen, when we have the least amount of life experiences to relate them to. The least activity and instruction comes later in life when life experience- parenthood, death of spouses, childbirth, etc, are the most relevant and the most fertile ground for mature Christian education to take place. Because we have reduced Christianity to a childs’ message, adults often go through life with an immature understanding of their faith. The important point here is that people learn developmentally throughout their lives. This statement applies most of all to Christianity because life experience is one of our most important texts.
Early Christian education was for adults. Jesus, The Great Teacher, taught adults. For the first several centuries the primary method of religious education was provide by catechetical classes for adults with children being instructed in the traditions of the faith in the home by their parents and through modeling.
What are the advantages to teaching adults? Joan Cronin’s research on adult education provides valuable insights. Adults carry with them an awareness of cultural, ethnic, religious differences, and life experiences as resources. Adults, physically and mentally, are capable of a wide variety of learning activities and opportunities. The most effective means of Christian education is direct experience and adults are best suited to direct experience teachable moments, because of their mobility and independence. Adults can be involved in planning and setting up their own learning goals. Adults learn well with peer groups.
There are two primary methods for teaching adults – the Impressional Method- in which content or information is transmitted. This is typical of Lectures or Bible Studies. It utilizes lecture or group facilitator as a primary method of teaching. The effectiveness of such a setting is dependent on the skill of the lecturer or group leader. Its weakness is the lack of active participation. The other method employed with adults is the Expressional Method. The Expressional Method involves the transmission of feelings and emotion as opposed to information. Expressional teaching techniques employ role playing, group discussion, direct experience or creative writing. This method is best for adults because they can draw on a wealth of their own life experiences to share with each other.
What do adults want in a Christian education program? Firstly, adults want practical needs related programs that they can apply to their daily lives. Secondly, one of the advantages of working with adults is that they are independent and self motivated. Therefore, programs for adults can involve self-directed learning and/or independent study. Thirdly, time is of a premium with adults because of jobs and children, the program must be flexible in nature to accommodate their needs.
Adults like to be involved in planning and setting their learning goals. Adult teachers need to recognize that the adult teacher, to be effective, becomes a coach or enabler rather than a teacher in the traditional sense- “If you want to know you must exercise your own intellect.” The adult teacher needs to get beyond content to their real meaning. The secret is to teach principals, in such a way, as to generate those principals in the lives of students. This changes the focus of the learner from “What” to think to “How” to think. Fro Christians to graduate and grow, they need to be able to think and act independent of their teacher.
One of the great advantages to an adult program is the wide range of curriculum. It can be a movie, play, book of the Bible, a social issue or a church problem. With my class I have discussed the Divine Liturgy, embryonic stem cell research ( as part of a module on The Holy Spirit (the Lord and Giver of Life), the history of the Orthodox Church in America, Love, the Creed, Romans, etc. Currently an adult group in the church has requested a six week Greeter Program. The opportunities for teaching and lessons are myriad.
How should an adult Christian education program be organized? The most common method is by age group, with seven to nine year intervals- 18-25, 26-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-65, 65 and over. An additional age grouping is 15 year spans of major age groups- seniors, young adults, young middle adults, and middle adults. In addition, churches sometime group by life experience groups- seniors, young parents, adult singles, and divorced. Both methods have merit.
Each day of our Christian must be lived to acquire the Holy Spirit and become the likeness of God (theosis). This is accomplished through prayer, living Christ in our daily lives, and learning more about our faith. Each day of our lives is a new day in Christian school until our graduation into life eternal. Adult education programs should play an important part in giving meaning to wherever we are in our life experience providing a Christian context for our final Graduation- to life eternal.
Robert J. Snyder is the Diocesan Coordinator for Toledo and the Midwest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.