Stand back! The Religious Education of Adults, by authors Leon McKenzie and R. Michael Harton, takes aim, shoots straight, and assigns blame for substandard religious education practice in the church.
What’s an educator to do? It is here that McKenzie and Harton offer intelligent yet clear; practical yet challenging pathways to a generative model for congregational adult religious education.
McKenzie, a Catholic, is a retired professor of adult education at Indiana University. Harton, a Baptist, is a former congregational educator, seminary professor and group leader at the Virginia Baptist Resource Center.
Most honest parish educators of any capacity will admit to believing at least some of the conventional and populist wisdom that the authors say contributes to a lack of parishioner attendance. Educators often attribute non-attendance to a lack of parishioner commitment, but McKenzie and Harton sound a clarion call for educational professionalism among ministry leaders. Being a manager or minister, or even a theologian, is not sufficient alone.
The book’s introduction and the first few chapters explore the history and problems of adult religious education. Problems, according to McKenzie and Harton, center around five concerns: the determination of program content, preference for formative over against critical education, separation of sacred and secular adult concerns, diminution of education over theology, and the absence of critical research. These five issues form the basis for the continuing critique of parish religious education for adults.
This helpful identification receives backing from the 1990 Search Institute’s national study of effective Christian education, to which the authors refer. Though it is somewhat dated, the findings of this study paint the portrait of an adult Christian education that leads to faith maturity. The bull’s-eye is identified. The report describes faith types among adults, measures faith maturity on an index, and defines an adult person with mature faith.
Before launching into education theories and praxis paradigms, the book examines the post-20th century adult. This is necessary and even critical for the church, which many view as being unresponsive to contemporary concerns. This discussion, however, relies heavily upon the dated Search Institute material, a weakness. A better context for understanding the postmodern adult would be the globalization epoch, where today’s adults are seeking to survive and thrive as they make meaning out of their lives.
The problem identified in adult religious education is so revealing and convincing that most educators will accept some responsibility for it. But there is also a cogent and concise pathway for repairing this dilemma. The authors’ presentation of education theory and parish practice creates hope for generating sound and engaging venues for a faith maturity plan in the parish.
The Christian education committee of any church, along with its educational staff, will be able to tackle this book for a critical examination of its adult education ministry. The genius is the generative notion of the book: it does not offer a plan. Rather, it invites the educators into an educational review for the purpose of designing sound theory for relevant practice. No doubt this application promises to attract adults.
Stand down, educators! Gird your loins! This shot will hurt, but it will also invite you into considerations for healing the diminished credibility of congregational adult education.
Ken Meyers is a religious educator at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.
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