Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Red Group and the Chartreuse Group

Back in the mid-Sixties, when I was in the first grade, for about an hour and a half each day all the first graders in my elementary school were separated into different reading groups. We had the Red Group; the Blue Group; the Yellow Group; and (I swear I am not making this up) the Chartreuse Group.

Of course, by about the end of the second week the kids had all figured out the pecking order of the system. The Red Group was for children who couldn’t read, or at least couldn’t read much more than three-letter words like red. The Chartreuse Group was for the kids who’d blown through their initial reading aptitude tests, were surreptitiously reading ahead (despite threats of punishment) in their other textbooks out of profound boredom and generally annoying their homeroom teachers by not staying on the expected developmental schedule. The other groups fell somewhere in between. And once you were tracked into a particular group, chances are that that’s where you stayed, all that year and beyond.

I was reminded of reading class the other day while thinking about my upcoming lay ministry retreat.

I've given myself a positive attitude adjustment about going – made easier by finally being fever- and headache-free, after three weeks, although I’m still physically exhausted – and am actually looking forward to attending. The Book of Revelation is a lot like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books; much more interesting when comprehensively annotated, especially by an engaging instructor. Our retreat in a community with which I’m familiar, so I won’t be driving around strange urban traffic configurations in terror and confusion; it’s also near a food cooperative where I can run in and grab some of my favored crunchy-granola foods and household products during our brief free time. So this retreat is a good thing.

But anyway, as I was thinking about it and about the whole lay ministry program, it started to bother me that the information we have access to in our classes is so undemocratically disseminated in the church. You have to be highly motivated to access it; you have to be part of a congregation that’s on board with the concepts of lay ministry and of extra-congregational continuing education for adults in general; you have to be recommended to enter and continue in the program; you have to have the time and money to attend retreats and weekend classes, and to obtain the reading materials.

It’s a little like the Red Group and the Chartreuse Group.

I’m not comfortable with the assumption that most people are in maybe Stage 2 of Fowler’s stages of faith so that’s where the default line, if you will, of adult Christian education should be drawn. I’m not comfortable with the idea that it’s too difficult or divisive to try and raise the biblical and theological literacy of church members above whatever pastiche of Sunday School stories, half-remembered confirmation-class lessons and pop-culture Christianity is the norm these days. I think that attitude is defeatist, and/or, in an ironic way, elitist.

Why can’t we raise the bar? Why are the only alternatives, in many congregations, the equivalents of the Red Group or the Chartreuse Group? (If there even is an alternative to the Red Group?)

I’m just asking.


Derek the ├ćnglican said...

Or--where is it constituationally mandated that adult ed programs in the mainline denominations have to *suck*!!

I'm so with you on this one...

zorra said...

I'm still wondering how to get the majority of adults to WANT to come to Sunday school or take advantage of other learning opportunities. It doesn't matter how many surveys you have them complete about the types of topics or classes they would enjoy; when those topics and classes are then offered, only a few show up. There are some exceptions--Bible in 90 Days has been well-received in our congregation.

But when I overhear a charter member of the congregation, when asked if he had been in Sunday school that morning, reply with some pride, "I quit going to Sunday school when I was twelve," then--I don't know what to do.

I will say that I think adult Christian education has to be suported and encouraged from the pulpit in order for the majority of the congregation to take much interest. If it's not, well....

Susie said...

I'm finding an interesting dynamic that adult formation stuff that isn't led by clergy (or clergy is part of a team of leaders) has much better attendance than anything clergy-led... Anyone else seen that?

Anonymous said...

LC, this is what I've been saying for years! And interestingly, courses and whatnot that require commitment seem to do better than those that are "come when you can"--similar to challenging kids in school and expecting a lot of them generally leads to better results. and yet we refuse to "ask too much"--which means we refuse to ask anything.

Susie, we have found here that adult ed not led by clergy gets NO attendance at all. Not just low, but none. But the class taught by the pastor is normally attended by about 75 people. We cannot explain this phenomenon. thoughts?

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Interesting comments. The GIFTS week at Luther Seminary is well attended by "regular" Lay people and by those lay people in some positions of ministry. One just has to sign up. Of course, it covers a number of synods, so the attendance should be good. And it means a few days away from work, so that doesn't work for most people. But it is well received by those I've known who have gone. I went once.

I'm guessing that Biblical literacy of the young Lutherans I know would be far less than that of my generations. Sunday School isn't what is used to be [ie year round, solid lessons, memorization.] OTOH, the young people at my church are learning much more about service and putting faith into action than anyone ever even mentioned in the church of my childhood.

It is a bit scarey to think what the future of Biblical literacy will be given that some of the most public preachers have some of their own interpretations. Which isn't to say that they are wrong, necessarily, but some don't stand with tradition. And the other groups that may be cult-like can pick on lack of good knowledge and twist partial knowledge to obtain converts.

My experience with classes withing my church over a period of nearly 30 years is that the attendance and committment depend firstly on how well and how long it is advertised, and also on the reputation of the pastor (or other person) as a teacher.

Anonymous said...

LC, you always ask such good questions.

I wonder if your comparison of Red groups and Chartreuse groups and Adult Christian Ed may be more on the mark than you realize.

Biblical and theological education depends on basic literacy skills hopefully learned in some kind of elementary and secondary school education. Not everyone learns those basic literary skills equally well, for a variety of reasons. Not everyone learns how to learn. Not everyone values general education, and I suspect that people who don't value learning in general won't value Christian Ed either.

Wonder if the church charter-member Zorra mentions liked attending his elementary or her high school as a young person? Our education as young people, sometimes fortuitously, sometimes not, shapes how we learn for the rest of our lives. If you always were stuck in the Red group in grades K-12, why would you expect your church education to be any different ...? What would make you want it to be ...?

Of course, our early schooling also trains us to believe that we can master a subject or a curriculum to some degree and then graduate. The idea of life-long learning --necessary for a mature and maturing Christian faith-- doesn't always come across to us.

I have a Master of Divinity degree. But what have I really "mastered?"

I also have a BS degree --is anyone surprised? ;)

Anonymous said...

Regarding attendance at Christian Ed. classes--I have found that some personal contact goes a long way (not that kind!). Just talking to a few key people during social time, or calling them and talking it up, really helps. This should be done by the teacher(s), BTW, as well as the pastor. Even if the person spoken to doesn't want to or can't participate, s/he may pass on the information to others. Word of mouth is the best advertising...

I gave up on Christian Ed. for a while--too difficult to find decent materials appropriate for my congregation and not enough time to create my own. But now I have a partner in crime (Hi RDQ!) with whom I am sharing materials, so that will be starting up again for Lent.

Bag Lady said...

I'm late to this conversation, but here I am anyway.

In my former (Episcopal) parish, we had a number of people who believed strongly in lay teaching (almost militantly so)--and I have to admit that, coming from my Lutheran background (where only the pastor truly taught) I was kind of surprised.

Our Adult Ed had a variety of topics (not just theology/worship/etc.) and presenters, lay and clergy, and was usually well-attended (even when two or more sessions were offered simultaneously).

We did have Seabury-Western Seminary in our "backyard," and a number of the professors there were members of the parish as well (mostly priests), and they gave generously of their time to "Christian Formation" (AKMA, for one).

Not sure I can draw any conclusions from this--maybe we were an anomaly (though coffee and rolls, etc. were prominently offered at the beginning of sessions).