Following is an interview Acacia Resources conducted with Israel Galindo, professor of Christian education at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and executive director of Educational Consultants, Inc. Galindo talks about the role of Christian education in congregations, challenges Christian educators face and ways churches can improve and enhance their Christian education ministries.
Acacia Resources: You’ve studied and observed congregational Christian education for a number of years. How has its role, and more specifically the role of adult Bible study, changed over the years?
Galindo: In the congregational context, there seems not to have been too much change in terms of Bible study, though some factors can be identified. Things that have not changed include the appalling level of biblically illiteracy among the members of the congregation (arguably, it’s even worse now); the lack of effective teaching methodology due to the poor job congregations do in training their dedicated volunteer teachers; the lack of support given to the educational enterprises in congregations in terms of staff and budget; the overdependence on curricular resource products and the reality that much of what passes for “Bible study” is non-transformational in the lives of most members.
At the same time, we do see some changes in the landscape, some of which are positive. These include the willingness of churches to seek out more effective resources regardless of which denomination produces them; the continuing awareness in some congregations about the power of small group Bible study and the influence of more responsible (less doctrinaire and uncritical) Bible study interpretation resources for laypersons. While the recent emphases on “spiritual formation” as the new catchphrase for “Christian education” may be a positive step, the reality is that in most congregations, it’s been merely a change of name without a change of understanding or educational approaches. Few seem able to define what “spiritual formation” is, or know how to go about shaping an educational enterprise that actually facilitates spiritual formation.
Acacia Resources: What unique challenges do congregational Christian educators face today as they plan for and provide Bible study for adults?
Galindo: I don’t think the challenges are unique or need be defined by contemporary conditions. The fact is that in terms of spiritually, people today learn the same way people have always learned. The most critical issue today, I think, is relevance. Bible study needs to be perceived as, and in effect be, relevant to the lives of people—and they are less tolerant or patient when it is not. While we may wish that Bible study for the sake of Bible study would be enough for most believers, the fact is that unless the message and the manner in which they study the Bible is relevant to their lives—that is, actually makes a difference in the way they live, the way they think, the choices that they make, and the relationships they have—then Bible study in and of itself is no different than any other activity one could choose from. And if it makes no difference, then why would they not choose something else?
The challenge for Christian educators, then, is to facilitate those “ways of knowing” and those approaches to Bible study, corporate and as an individual discipline, that makes the message of the Bible relevant in the lives of the believers and which makes a difference in their lives.
Acacia Resources: In what areas have congregational Christian educators excelled? As you visit churches and work with congregational leaders, what areas of weakness do you most often observe? What do we need to do more effectively?
Galindo: This is one of the areas of greatest challenge. The function of Christian education is critical in the life of every congregation—it is the single most important force, in its potential, for helping people mature, grow spiritually, and for making them true disciples of Jesus Christ. And so, the role and function of the congregational educator is critical. The pragmatic reality is that most congregations go a long time before they can call, and financially support, a paid educator to develop and lead the educational enterprises needed.
Too many congregational educators, for a number of possible reasons, seem to not be “real educators.” That is, they are too dependent on programmatic approaches and lack training and education in theology, educational theory and philosophy to help them do what an effective educator actually needs to do. To say this is not to disparage their calling, their passion or their good intent. It just seems that what passes for “Christian education” in most congregations is not educational at all, and that it is uniquely Christian is suspect. The potential and importance of effective Christian education is too critical for us to be content with this state of affairs.
I’ll provide two specific examples. I visit many churches and spend time with many congregational educators (both clergy and lay) across the country. It has become my habit for the past several years to ask two questions of the “resident educator” in the church. First, I ask, “What is your philosophy of Christian education?” The typical response is a blank stare. Having asked this question for over ten years, I’ve not had one single congregational Christian educator able to answer that question. The second question I ask is about programming. Specifically, I ask about the retreats that the congregation offers for its adult members. Most Baptist congregations do not offer spirituality retreats for their members. For the few that have offered retreats, they tend to be no more than glorified workshops, for the men, or for the women, or things like a “marriage retreat”; or they restrict retreats as an activity for the youth (which involves more hours in recreation than anything else). The reason this is telling is that if you’re in the business of “spiritual formation,” then practicing spiritual disciplines, like retreats, is necessary. Yet most churches do not program or offer this formative experience (emphasis on “experience”) for their members.