By: Debbie Hough
In the midst of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Bob Dylan sang these words: “…the times they are a changin’….” In the 2010s I find myself singing the same song. Change is everywhere.
To give you some perspective, you should know that I have been a professional church educator for more than 30 years. During that time, I have witnessed a host of changes.
- The denomination I first worked in is gone.
- No longer do I worry about 16mm films or filmstrips or saving used masters on mimeograph machines.
- The cassette and VHS tapes I prized now collect dust on the shelves.
- Today I carry the Bible on my phone in several versions. Gone are multiple volumes of books.
- The games I play with children rarely require boards or spinners but hand-held devices designed to make my thumbs fall off.
- My frustration level rises when my instantaneous email fails, when I used to wait weeks for responses.
- Sports teams for children and youth make no apologies for cutting into Sunday mornings (and no one, especially parents, questions this occurrence).
- I communicate with friends and strangers all over the world on a daily basis through the Internet – amazing.
- The world communicates with me so quickly that I know of the good, the bad, and the ugly at a moment’s notice, with very little time to process the breadth and depth of these situations.
- I am trying to understand what life on the autistic spectrum means for persons, families and the church (unheard of when I began my work).
- The eight multiple intelligences are incorporated in my worship and program planning and curriculum writing.
- Computers now fit in my hand instead of the room-size one I first worked with in college.
At the same time, I’ve gone through my own set of changes.
- The beloved school I attended to learn about Christian education no longer exists and no other institution has filled in the gap.
- While I have (and still am) been blessed to work in stable congregations, more churches than ever are experiencing dwindling attendance and budgets. The staff positions of my friends are being cut left and right (especially those in educational ministries). Many have no funds to support their critical continuing education.
- I am more convinced than ever that ordination is important to our ministry as educators. I became a ruling elder many years before I started working in churches and that made a huge impact on my ministry by opening doors to font and table and to the larger world of the connectional church. I have also done the struggle with ordination to Word and Sacrament (I have my M.Div.), and sense that this is not my call, at least not within the current church structure. But I do wish the church could get more creative and ordain educators as elders.
- These days I wonder if being a commissioned lay pastor in a small church might be the next change in my ministry. Time will tell.
This list could go on and on, but you get the picture. In fact, you live in the picture, too. We all experience change in our daily lives and in our calling as educators and ministers, elders and deacons, commissioned lay pastors and presbyters, members and staff. “The times they are a changin.’ “
Harvey Cox in his recent book, The Future of Faith, opens with a question: “What does the future hold for religion, and for Christianity in particular?” I ask myself this question at times of frustration. Times when I can catch a small glimpse of the kingdom and am very excited. Times when I wonder if I am holding back the particular church I serve because I can’t keep up with the volume of information, let alone the technologies. Times such as this.
Cox’s thesis is that the church has come through two distinct periods: The Age of Faith (first three centuries) and The Age of Belief (fourth through 20th centuries), and has now entered a third, The Age of the Spirit. As the book jacket simply puts it, “In this Age, Christians are ignoring dogma and breaking down barriers among different religions—spirituality is replacing formal religion.” Cox says in the final chapter: “The content of the faith of non-Western Christians is much like that of the early church, even though the embodied style of their religion often resembles that of their non-Christian neighbors” (p. 222). John Roberto says much the same in Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation.
If Cox and Roberto are correct, how do I, do we, as Christian educators, help to prepare folks to live into this future? I have long maintained that I have a responsibility to share and teach a theology consistent with the church I am serving. But, in the future, will my baptismal theology matter? Will it make any difference when I correct the language of elders from “altar” to “table?” And Sara Miles’ Take This Bread certainly did a number on the way I think about communion these days. More changes….
Not long ago, I had the privilege to spend time with Phyllis Tickle. Her book, The Great Emergence, How Christianity is Changing and Why, has stuck in my mind. Her thesis is that we are somewhere in the midst of a 500-year period of time in which the church is undergoing massive upheaval, much like the last one called the Protestant Reformation. I recall first reading something similar years ago in The Once and Future Church by Loren Mead. But now, it seems more tangible and real and I had the chance to talk with her directly. We talked about the difficulties of being the church today. I asked Phyllis if she had any wisdom to share with those of us who were doing our darnedest within the realm of Christian education. She looked me straight in the eye, as only she can do, and said “I don’t know what to tell you.”
I knew this to be the truth, as I do not know what to tell you, the reader, to do either. What do we as educators serving in churches or governing bodies (maybe soon to be called councils—even church government for some of us is on the cusp of major change) do in “such a time as this?” Do we keep on keeping on, whether people come to our programs or Sunday Schools or not? For now, I say a qualified “yes.” Somehow we must keep telling the story. The story passed on to us. The story of generations of the faithful who came before us. The story the psalmist intends in Psalm 78: 3–4 (NRSV), “Things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”
As Jack Stotts told APCE in 1988, “Christian educators are theological ophthalmologists, those who assist in the correction of vision of Christians and those who are on their way to being Christians; all those who seek to learn, to worship and to engage in mission.” I don’t think that has changed.
But, I must also say a qualified “no.” Our Christian vision as educators must be more 3D these days. We must struggle to find ways to share the story of faith in new ways and in new places so it will be heard. Perhaps a coffee shop or bar. Perhaps from an mp3 player or iPod in a gym or on a walking path. Perhaps in a car shuttling family members from dance to sporting venue to grocery store to fast food restaurant. Or perhaps in the online church school class attended by those who can only do their Christian education in the middle of the night.
Harvey Cox, John Roberto and Phyllis Tickle certainly do not end with pessimism for Christianity. Today, Sara Miles has a tremendous food ministry. God’s Spirit is still blowing over the deep. The light of Christ still shines in the darkness. God is still working God’s purpose out for the world. I may not always be aware when this happens, but I must trust that it does. For such a time as this, I leave you with one last reminder from Scripture for the times ahead: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14 NRSV).
APCE Advocate, Vol. 13, NO. 2, May 1988, p. 2.
Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation, John Roberto. Naugatuck, CT: LifelongFaith Associates, 2010.
The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
The Great Emergence, How Christianity Is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.
The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier, Loren B. Mead. The Alban Institute, Inc., 1991.
Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.
Debbie Hough, director of Christian education at Derry Presbyterian Church in Hershey, PA, is a graduate of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and Princeton Theological Seminary. She is an elder, Certified Christian Educator, APCE member and currently serves on the Educator Certification Council