Mission Shift in Christian Education, by Jen James

Christian Education has changed a lot over the years. You come to a conference like Next and I hope it leaves you wondering, “What will Christian Education look like in the years to come?” When the mainline churches began to experience decline several decades ago, Christian Education seemed to be the life vest of the sinking boat. The church thought, “If we could beef up these educational programs, it would attract a lot of new families to our churches.” Today the attractional model runs rampant in our churches and in our denomination. Children’s Ministries rely on the latest Vacation Bible School curriculum filled with action-packed activities, catchy songs, and palatable themes. We spend hours of time, heaps of money, and endless energy of volunteers because we claim the thin assumption this is real outreach to the community. Youth Ministries hire young, cool leaders hoping they will attract teenagers like the star football player attracts a crowd at his lunch table. We think free pizza, fun games, and mission trips to cool places are the building blocks for deep disciple making. Adult Education insists on experts to teach their classes and the latest curriculum based on the most current events in order to draw new people.  But in reality the only ones at the table have been there for years and diverse ideas and people aren’t really welcome. It seems the attractional church’s only success is poaching members from smaller churches whose modest budgets can’t support big church programming. But the missional church, the next church, is a return to the original calling of the church – to go into the world to share the Good News of Christ, love our neighbors, and seek the welfare for our community. The missional church turns its focus from internal to external. It seeks relationships with others not to increase attendance, but instead because as God’s people, we are only complete when we are in community with God and all of God’s creation. It recognizes that the local church is only as healthy as the community surrounding it. One size educational programming does not fit all neighborhoods, communities or cities. The kind of ministry in which the church engages must be responsive to the community it serves. Churches must be open to recognize what once was a vital and beloved Christian Education ministry might no longer fit. Consider Christian Education in the missional church to be like a greenhouse. It’s a place for new beginnings where plants are intentionally fed and nourished to become strong enough for transplanting. Plants will never thrive in the greenhouse the same way they will thrive in their natural environment.  Plants that never leave the greenhouse have their growth stunted by their limited context. The natural environment for disciples is being in the world. A plant in its environment depends on its environment for life, but also gives back to that same environment. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The missional shift in Christian Education means our Children’s Ministry Committee will spend more time volunteering at a local elementary school than it will planning Vacation Bible School. It means you are more likely to find members of a Youth Ministry Team at the high school football game, or school play, or chaperoning a dance than in the state of the art youth lounge. It means adults will take a break from their study on Matthew to actually cloth the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisons. It means bringing bagels and coffee to the families at the Sunday morning soccer game, and instead of rushing back for worship, staying to cheer for a child’s first goal. The missional shift in Christian Education does not do away with learning the stories of our ancestors or the teachings of Jesus. But it does change our definition of success. It is less concerned with filled pews and more concerned with what happens when we leave those pews. It is less concerned with a popular youth lock-in and more concerned with youth who don’t have a permanent place to sleep each night. It is less concerned with honoring youth on graduation Sunday and more concerned with advocating for educational changes for students who are racing to nowhere. It is less concerned with providing a theme dinner at the mid-week children’s ministry and more concerned with children who go hungry at night and on weekends. This shift is about making our communities whole for community’s sake because the love of Christ compels us to do so. Because Christian nurture and spiritual formation are bigger than what a publishing company sells us and bigger than a full education building on a Sunday morning. The missional shift in Christian Education means we will stop building up church programming to make ourselves look and feel good.  But instead, it shifts to become servants of the community and recognizes that spiritual formation and wholeness happens in the midst of seeking that wholeness for others. Thanks be to God.