What is marriage, and who has the right to define it? When is it right to go to war? Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
Questions like these form typical Sunday morning discussion fare for adults in the Faith and Issues class at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
A diverse group, the class is open to anyone who likes to explore current events and issues from a Christian perspective, according to Kathy Dobbins, minister of adult education and outreach. Dobbins and church member Richard Swindle facilitate the class.
Its approach represents a perfect blend of Dobbins’ faith, interest in current events and philosophy of Christian education.
“I love the challenge of thinking about current events through the lens of my faith and the lively, open discussions,” she says.
“My philosophy of Christian education is to create learning experiences that bring about spiritual formation in a person’s life. I believe we must engage Christians to think about what they believe and why. Otherwise, our faith is meaningless in a diverse and global society,” she explains.
A magnet for people previously unconnected to more traditional Bible study groups, the class formed in September 2003.
“We knew there were many people in the church who were no longer active in a class or who did not find any relevance in studying the traditional Sunday school literature,” Dobbins says.
Not just anything goes, however. A carefully crafted purpose statement keeps the group focused.
“We seek to be a community which is intentional about learning how to follow Jesus in a changing and challenging world. We believe in the worth of every person, openness to diverse views, and—as an essential part of a growing faith—a willingness to ask questions,” it says.
According to Dobbins, it is “important to have a statement of purpose to set the tone and direction for this unique kind of group.
“This purpose statement sets out in a deliberate fashion the importance of respect for others’ opinions. Often the topics we cover are controversial and emotionally charged. We also have a class theme: Following Jesus in a Changing and Challenging World.
“Our theme demonstrates that our discussions are not for the purpose of holding debates, but on the contrary for the purpose of reminding us that we follow Jesus, which means we pay attention to his words and actions.”
The importance of the purpose and theme statements became clear on the second anniversary of 9/11, for example, when the class explored the “just war” theory.
“We thought there had been enough time to process the situation. There had been so much debate in the media about this, both Christian and secular. Most of the struggle with this revolved around issues of security versus right response and government accountability,” Dobbins explains.
Suggestions for discussion topics come from the 20 or so permanent members of the class. Dobbins and Swindle then determine how many weeks the class will focus on a particular topic and what ideas can be grouped into a series.
“We use a variety of resources to help us prepare,” Dobbins explains, “such as the secular and religious press and the Internet. We have also used books and movies. For instance, we reviewed Mel Gibson’s movie, ‘The Passion of Christ,’ after its release. We did several sessions on Charles Kimball’s book, When Religion Becomes Evil.
“EthicsDaily.com is a favorite resource of mine because it always includes stories of interest in a succinct, easy-to-read manner.”
Dobbins also draws from the expertise of other church members and people in the community at large, enlisting them occasionally as guest facilitators.
On one occasion, a church member who serves as a magistrate court judge talked with the class about the judicial system. On another, a rabbi from a local synagogue helped the group better understand Jewish worship and traditions and why interfaith dialogue is important.
People are free to join the class permanently or drop in for a particular topic from time to time, Dobbins says. The church’s Web site and other publications announce topics well in advance.
On the last Sunday this month, the group will talk about ways to simplify Christmas and make choices that preserve its true meaning. December’s topics include a three-week series on giving that honors Christ.
Early next year, Dobbins plans for the class to view and discuss the documentary film “Theologians Under Hitler,” which explores Christianity’s role in the Holocaust.
“This is an important film for all Christians to see. I want to schedule a viewing open to our whole congregation and local community with a follow-up discussion,” she says.
Current events, controversial issues, compelling questions, thoughtful dialogue, respect for everyone, attention to Jesus’ words and actions—all important components in Christian education that nurtures meaningful faith.
Jan Turrentine is curriculum editor for Acacia Resources.