Produced by the Learners & Teachers Mission Group
Seekers Church, 2002
9. During Class
The SCL uses a relational model, which assumes that each participant brings some form of wisdom from his or her life experiences in connection with the subject to the class, and that each person will make discoveries about the subject. A relational model does not assume that the teacher is the sole or even primary repository of knowledge about the subject matter. There are a number of goals for the relational model:
• each person should discover and value what he or she brings to a group understanding of the subject
• each person will engage in deep listening to each other, open to changing his/her mind and heart about the subject matter and other topics, and open to the process of being changed spiritually
• each person will develop insights about issues raised and will form a provisional understanding about the topic
• each participant will be willing to re-explore the subject at a later time, and
• the class becomes a small incarnation of the Body of Christ
The method for the relational model is some combination of:
• reading of material assigned in class by the teacher,
• homework questions designed to encourage participants to engage with the material and elicit their contributions to the group,
• discussion in small groups on one or more aspects of the material to elicit each person’s contribution and to build caring, trusting relationships among the class members, and
• group discussion and group exercises to identify common themes in response to the material, integrate responses, and build Christian community among the participants.
Because the teacher is not considered the primary repository of knowledge to be transmitted to the participant, the teacher’s status is not higher than the participants. Instead, the locus of authority is the truth as discovered by the class. The teacher becomes more of a discussion facilitator and coach. (See Figure 1.)
The teacher in an adult Christian education class conducted in the relational model may have little if any seminary training, but is skilled in working with small groups. While the subject matter may be one or more books of the Bible or a topic in church doctrine, it may also be an application of these into daily life, such as Christians’ preparation for aging and death, or how one’s faith is lived out with respect to the environment. The teacher prepares a set of questions about each aspect of the topic that will engage the participants with the topic, divides the questions into those that will be assigned for homework and those that will be used in small group and class discussions, and selects appropriate reading assignments that shed light on the topic.
Because the goal of each SCL class includes building a sense of what it means to belong to an intentional Christian community along with exploring a topic, those interested in teaching in the SCL must be committed to promoting healthy group life in addition to individual discipleship. SCL teachers should be alert to issues in the Seekers Church and the Church around the world that are potentially divisive and have a commitment to working through conflict. Teaching in the SCL is therefore perhaps more difficult than offering a class in other settings. It is not enough to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the subject matter, although this is certainly required. Because the relational model is different than the usual didactic model, additional preparation is needed.
Those interested in teaching in the SCL should have taken several classes using a relational model (preferably in the SCL) so that they are familiar with its style and class expectations. They should truly believe that they do not have a monopoly on the knowledge about the subject that they want to teach. They should be eager to create an atmosphere where all contributions of each person in the class are welcomed and valued, and to create a climate of trust where everyone feels comfortable in sharing his or her spiritual journey.
Those interested in teaching in the SCL must be committed to assisting each participant in the process of spiritual formation. This means that they are committed to grow and change themselves as the Holy Spirit works within them and through the class. They must be willing to listen for the Spirit in their initial and weekly preparations, during each class, and during weekly follow-up. They must be willing to adapt material and to change their methods to those that work more effectively.
Above all, the teacher needs to prepare himself or herself spiritually for the class. The teacher needs sufficient spiritual maturity so that he/she does not expect the class to solve his/her spiritual issues with respect to the subject matter, especially with its most challenging aspects. The teacher must be prepared to model the level of vulnerability wanted from the participants by doing the homework and sharing it aloud in the small group discussion or larger group discussion. Such modeling invites community and trust, sending a message that “You can go there and come back without losing yourself.” As a result, the teacher must have done his or her own “spiritual homework” with respect to the topic. A teacher who has not processed difficult material in his or her heart and soul may be anxious. Tearful anxiety will frighten participants so that they are less willing to share their vulnerability; tearful confidence will indicate that the topic is tender but has a safe place.
If you are interested in teaching but have never taught in the SCL before, we encourage you to contact the Learners and Teachers (L&T) Mission Group to let them know of your interest. L&T may offer a more experienced person to help you create the class and to team-teach with you in an informal mentoring process. L&T will provide a shepherd during your class for you to consult with, to pray for the class and to contact people who are absent to ensure that they catch up on the class’s discussion and the homework.
L&T is committed to offering “core classes” that are fundamental to equipping people on their spiritual journey: the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”), New Testament, Christian Doctrine, and Christian Growth. In addition, L&T frequently offers classes in Christian community, contemplative prayer and silence, keeping a journal, call and mission, spiritual issues in money and wealth, using the arts in spiritual growth, and other topics it discerns are relevant to the members of Seekers Church. Those interested in exploring a new mission might sponsor a class to disseminate information about the call of the mission and gather potential mission group members.
L&T believes that each person has some area of knowledge about his or her Christian journey that he or she cares passionately about and would like to get others interested in. For some people that is scripture, for others it is prayer and contemplation, for still others it is action to address social injustice, for others it is using the fine arts or performing arts and body movement, and so on. We encourage you to discuss potential topics with L&T.
Generally, L&T offers a 12-week fall term and a 12-week spring term, where classes are preceded by a prepared meal and a short meditation. Since those in the process of becoming a Steward within Seekers Church must have completed the four core classes, L&T balances the curriculum to ensure that these are offered throughout the year to enable such persons to complete their requirements within a two-year period. Within the two 12-week semesters, some classes are offered for six weeks and some for 12 weeks; occasionally classes are offered for eight or 10 weeks instead. L&T has found that a minimum of six weeks is needed to promote a sense of Christian community effectively.
In addition, in January L&T offers experimental classes of one, two, or three weeks without a prepared dinner. During the summer L&T may offer a mixture of two to four week classes and single-session discussion groups to accommodate travel and maintain the “habit” of participating in the SCL. Such classes outside the spring and fall term are not structured to create a deep sense of Christian community, although such an experience may happen.
L&T plans its cycle of classes several times during the year. You should consider the topic, your experience in teaching in the relational model, and other commitments in your life when discussing your proposed class with a member of L&T.
a. Shape and prune the content. Do the study necessary to have a firm grasp of the subject material but don’t be too ambitious in terms of how much you will be able to cover. You will rarely have enough time to exhaust the subject matter fully. Think of the questions your participants might be asking about the topic; these may vary depending on the age, life experiences, and spiritual maturity. Such questions can typically introduce the critical themes you want to emphasize. Then, trust the SCL experience: your participants will usually take other classes to pursue the topic from a different aspect or may even repeat the class in a few years.
b. Consider how to present the topic. Remember that your task is to present the topic in such a way that the participants’ LIVES will be engaged. Some people learn best through individual and group nonverbal exercises, so consider a range of methods to promote their engagement with the topic. For example, include exercises that require people to draw or sculpt or make collages or use music or use body movement.
c. Identify questions to energize participants’ participation. Choose questions that might work well in small group discussions, which can be another way to give more people a chance to make connections between the content and their lives. Frame questions for small group and large group discussions so that they are open-ended questions that deepen their engagement with the topic as they share from their individual spiritual work on the topic. Good questions and exercises for the class:
• Are simple and direct
• Cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”
• Ask “how” rather than “why”
• Invite participants to engage more deeply into the reading or the topic
• Invite participants to respond with honesty and vulnerability
• Can be responded differently by different people
• Can be responded differently at different stages in life
• Can be responded to non-verbally
d. Plan homework. Much of the learning in an SCL class occurs outside the class gathering as each participant engages with the topic. The gathered class is the “bait” that serves as an excellent place for the participants’ individual learning to be integrated into their spiritual journeys as they hear each others’ response to the topic. You therefore need to spend a considerable amount of time in selecting a reading assignment and preparing questions for responses that will be bridge between one class and the next. Make sure your homework instructions allow the participant room for creativity, but put limits. For example, you can use the phrase “Write a paragraph in response to…” or you can say “Create a response to…” which allows the participant to draw, or create a collage, or to bring music, and explain orally. Be sure to limit the effort — one paragraph or one page or one drawing, etc.
e. Prepare teaching aids. If you will be using a flip chart, practice your diagrams. Make sure your handwriting is legible and visible across the room. If you are going to use handouts, have them photocopied well in advance of class and always make one or two more than the number of participants.
f. Understand the rhythm of an SCL class. Typically, in the first few weeks the class energy focuses on getting to know each other more deeply and building trust. A common class “history” is built as participants share their responses to the homework. In the next few weeks, participants are stretched spiritually as the material and other participants’ responses to it challenge comfortable ways in which participants have related to the topic in the past. The newly built trusting relationships may be challenged as the Spirit does its work. In the last few weeks the participants integrate the topic into their spiritual life and prepare to integrate their experience of Christian community into their spiritual journey.
g. Do your own spiritual homework with respect to the topic. Be prepared to model the level of vulnerability that is desired from the participants. Meet with the shepherd assigned by the L&T to go over the class design, known special needs of participants, and roles.
Different seating arrangements send different messages. A circle of chairs, whether or not around a table, reinforces the concept that everyone has something to contribute, while classroom or theatre style seating reinforces the concept of hierarchy and usually leads to lectures by the teacher. The circle should include a place for an easel with newsprint and different colored markers. When participants’ insights are written down, they reinforce and integrate themes.
Altars are ancient symbols of sanctuary, so an altar in the middle of the circle creates “safe holy space.” This can be as simple as a cloth covering a small end table or coffee table, open Bible, and a candle. A symbol of something related to the particular night’s topic can also reinforce the theme.
If possible, too bright or harsh lighting should be reduced, but the room should be bright enough for people to read (from their homework).
You may encourage one or more people to prepare the room each week as a means to build group cohesion.
a. Every week. Participants will need a short transition period, whether from their dinner or from their workday. When everyone appears to be present, light the candle and ring a small chime. Encourage everyone to sit quietly and take relaxed deep breaths. Begin with a short prayer that invokes God’s presence.
b. The first week: The shepherd for the class may circulate a class list to collect addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Introduce yourself and why you are teaching the class. Go around the circle and ask each person to introduce him/her self and why he/she is taking the class. Invite them to state their hopes, expectations, and fears. You may consider having each person select a prayer partner as another way to deepen community; if so, you may choose to encourage them to select someone they don’t know well.
Explain how the class will operate. To the extent possible, respond to the significant hopes, expectations, and fears expressed by the participants. State your expectations for the class members, including their attendance, participation in discussion, and completion of assigned reading and homework questions. Introduce the topic and use open-ended questions to ascertain the participants’ familiarity with the topic and their reaction to it.
c. On subsequent weeks: Have them spend 5 minutes with their prayer partner. Have a regular spot for people to pick up their homework on which you have written a response (see “10. Responding to Homework Assignments,” below).
Begin the class with some discussion out of the homework assignment (which encourages them to do the homework). This may take the form of asking what particularly caught their attention in the reading assignment, or asking their response to the first question. Share your own response to the homework, although you should neither be the first person nor the last person to do so. Sharing from the homework reestablishes the connection to the material and illustrates how people can respond differently to the same issue, depending on where they are on their spiritual path. If the class has an environment of acceptance, sensitive issues can be shared and heard respectfully, without an expectation that the class needs to treat them as problems to be solved.
Frequently the sharing is intensely self-revealing, and indicates unresolved issues. If a person displays intense emotions that threaten to disrupt the class it should be addressed so that the person does not leave the class session in an emotionally fragile state, or regrets making himself/herself so vulnerable to the extent that he/she chooses to drop out of the class. The teacher must exercise judgment as to whether to use class time to address the issue, to speak privately with the individual at the end of class, or whether to excuse the person from class and ask the shepherd to meet privately with the person to provide support. The shepherd should also encourage the person to discuss the issues with his/her spiritual director or a qualified therapist.
L&T has found that a class gathering typically divides its time into thirds. The combination of the gathering, prayer partner check-in, sharing from homework, and summing up the theme(s) from the homework should take about 30 minutes. This can be followed by about 30 minutes for input. Depending on the overarching class topic, input can be an activity with the study text (such as scripture), an experience (such as journaling, quilting, body movement, or clowning), or a guest speaker on outreach/mission. Avoid lecturing. This is a good time to use visual aids. This is followed by 20 minutes for integrating the input. Typically, the class subdivides into small groups to discuss a question posed by the teacher or do an exercise (which may be nonverbal) or application. Keep an eye on the time and make adjustments accordingly.
Be sure to save about 10 minutes at the end for making the homework assignment and allowing prayer-partners to meet after the whole group has ended. Have a ritual to end class each week. Typically this includes having someone in the class give a closing prayer or benediction and snuffing out the candle.
Ensure that people listen respectfully and without interrupting. Encourage statements that begin with “I feel…” or “I see it…” or “I believe…” rather than statements that assume that there is only one viewpoint. While allowing disagreement, discourage any participant’s attempts to convert another to his/her viewpoint. Suggest that such a participant try to discuss the topic from the other side.
Guide the discussion. Make sure that everyone has an opportunity to participate. While some will need no encouragement, others may need more time to process information or to feel that the atmosphere is safe enough to risk vulnerability. Do not allow one or two people to use up all the time or otherwise dominate the discussion. Be selective about what you write down on newsprint to keep things focused. If a comment appears to take the discussion way off track, write down only the part that is closest to the main theme. When a comment differs only slightly from a previous one, merely underline or check the first comment.
If significant conflict occurs, interrupt politely and acknowledge it, and suggest that the class can hold such differences safely without resolving them immediately. Remember that an important part of the class is to model how the Body of Christ lives together. Since conflict is a part of that life, modeling a healthy way to address conflict is an important learning.
If a person has a so strong an emotional reaction to something that is said that he or she leaves the class, excuse the shepherd and allow him or her to assist the person.
If you have framed the homework assignment correctly and encouraged a safe atmosphere in class, the participants will respond to the assignment with seriousness, sincerity, and vulnerability. Consider yourself akin to a temporary spiritual director for the participants. Review their responses with an equal amount of seriousness and sincerity. Take time to reflect over their response. Underline or circle significant items. Make short comments in the margins to encourage them to continue to engage with the topic. You may find that asking a relevant question will be most appropriate. Especially during the first few weeks, thank them in a note at the bottom for their honesty and effort.
If a participant is consistently not doing the homework assignment, ask the shepherd to discuss this with the participant. Consider the feedback — you may need to change the amount of the homework, clarify your instructions, or improve the atmosphere in which homework is discussed orally.
Midway during classes longer than 6 weeks the shepherd will distribute or e-mail a “Mid-Course Evaluation” form to the participants for them to complete at home and return. This form is for your benefit; it elicits their sense of how the class is going and provides specific information for you to make mid-course corrections. The shepherd should send the class a reminder to complete the form before the next class and mail or e-mail them to the shepherd, who will discuss significant items with you before the following class.
At the next to last class, the shepherd will distribute or e-mail a “Final Evaluation” form to the participants for them to complete at home and return at the last class. The shepherd should send the class a reminder to complete the form before the next class, collect them via mail or e-mail, and discuss significant items with you and with L&T. Consider this feedback a way to revise the class for the next time it is offered.
1. Having too much content or too tight an agenda
2. Lecturing too much
3. Coming unprepared
4. Springing topics on people without a connection to previous topics
5. Asking questions that encourage “Yes/No” responses
6. Rushing the period of sharing so that people feel objectified
7. Allowing the class to drift
8. Allowing someone to hog the discussion
9. Telling people they are wrong
10. Putting people down or ridiculing them
Boyle, Nancy, Bible Basics for the Next Generation (Faith at Work, 1999). A small pamphlet providing Biblical texts and a method for incorporating them into one’s life to develop a relational theology.
Dozier, Verna J. The Authority of the Laity (Alban Institute, 1982). A small pamphlet challenging all laity to become informed biblical thinkers.
Meyer, Richard C., One Anothering vol 1 (Innisfree Press, 1990). Practical guidelines and exercises for churches seeking to build healthy small groups. Uses the “one-anothering” passages to create a safe and interactive learning community. Volumes II and III complete the process.
O’Connor, Elizabeth, Call to Commitment (Servant Leadership Press, 1994).
________, Eighth Day of Creation (SLS Press, 1971) Basic books from Church of the Saviour that describe how to nurture call and gifts for ministry in the Schoolof Christian Living.
Olsson, Karl, Find Yourself in the Bible (Augsburg Publishing House, 1974)
__________, Meet Me On the Patio (Augsburg Publishing House, 1977) Books that illustrate the relational model of biblical study and exploring one’s spiritual journey in Christianity.
Palmer, Parker, The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass, 1998). An excellent description of how to develop the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. Of particular interest is the final chapter, “Divided No More: Teaching from a Heart of Hope.”
Wink, Walter, Transforming Bible Study: a Leader’s Guide (Abingdon Press, 1980). Using both sides of the brain, Wink invites whole-brain engagement with the texts of scripture. This is a practical book with sample questions and exercises.
The Didactic Model of Adult Christian Education
Christian education in many churches is based on the common secular model of American education: the teacher knows the subject matter, and attempts to communicate a selected portion of what he/she knows about the subject to the students, who know less about the subject matter. The goal is for each student to understand and retain the subject matter that has been communicated.
The method of communicating knowledge is some combination of:
• student reading of material assigned by the teacher,
• teacher lectures,
• classroom discussion of the material controlled by the teacher to clarify the material and reinforce the student mastery of the material, and
• student individual or small group exercises assigned by the teacher to reinforce student mastery of the material.
The teacher is thus an instructor (hence the name didactic model) has the critical role, and is the locus of authority. Two metaphors capture this model: (1) the teacher as container, pouring out the fluid of knowledge into students as empty vessels (figure 2), and (2) the teacher as the apex of a pyramid, with knowledge flowing down each side to the student as the base (figure 3).
The teacher in an adult Christian education class conducted in this model is frequently the pastor or other seminary graduate. The knowledge to be communicated, usually one or more books of the Bible or a topic in church doctrine, is divided into a series of weekly reading assignments and lectures, with homework questions as exercises, and re-divided into selected of topics suitable for class discussion. By the end of the class, the students will be familiar with and understand the content of the Bible book or doctrine.