Learning Unit Essay

Prior to taking this course, I understood religious education as the task of conveying scriptural knowledge to others in a somewhat objective sense. My thinking was that if my own engagement of scripture was transformative for me, that if I conveyed enough information, it might be transformative for other learners. To be honest, I still believe that knowing the stories of scripture, and knowing something of our particular faith tradition, is crucial for us to make better sense of what our congregations say and do. I also think that if koinonia is a community that spans time, then this knowledge facilitates us locating ourselves within that community. But ultimately, I recognize that this approach to religious education is fairly transactional, and focused on transmitting information, almost for information’s sake.

In The Church as Learning Community, Norma Cook Everist presents a much more incarnational image of religious education. Everist asserts that “what is important is not teaching about the Bible, trying to prove what it is or is not, but, insofar as it is inspired revelation and God’s outpouring of love, making it the solid foundation for religious education, which is encounter with the living God.” (p. 22) Throughout her book, she speaks of the church as a learning community, rather than talking about religious education in a merely programmatic way. Hence, she focuses on the nature of a learning community, and how to foster that sense of community. Though she does state that “religious education is the ministry of all teaching activities, verbal and nonverbal, including cognitive, affective, and life activity” (p. 22), her overwhelming objective is to explore how the church becomes an arena for incarnational encounter with the living God. She furthers this sense of incarnation in a discussion of curriculum being God and God’s people in this time and place, while all else is resource (p. 44).

As I read the Everist book, I found her incarnational sense of religious education to be resonant for me. For example, worship became much more vital for me as I began to experience it incarnationally. Attending worship ceased to be a duty or obligation for me, as it transformed into an opportunity for me to encounter the living God. While I may already have relationships with the people with which I worship, what new, unexpected thing will I hear from God, through them, within our shared worship experience? In this way, I can see how faith formation might seem obligatory to someone, and that there exists a potential for it becoming a much more transformative experience for them. And so, for me, how can my shifting incarnational perspective inform my educational leadership, such that the learning experience might become incarnational for others?

To explore this possibility, I have chosen a classic piece of content from my Lutheran tradition, in order to consider how it could be taught in such a way as to invoke a sense of incarnational encounter with God. From the Augsburg Confession, Article Seven states:

Likewise, they teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Ephesians 4:5, 6]: “One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .”

I chose this particular piece of content because it reminds me of the pervasive debate surrounding worship forms. In so many congregations, and certainly in congregations I have attended, I have been witness to countless arguments that pit “contemporary” worship against “traditional” worship. My take is that this argument boils down to a tension revealed as peoples’ different embedded theologies are brought into the light of collective evaluation. This particular piece of content is classic to the Lutheran tradition as an article of the Augsburg Confession, and I think it speaks to how we might hold together otherwise conflicting concepts of worship within some manner of congeniality.

The teaching context I will consider is an adult population within a middle to upper-class, suburban, predominantly white, predominantly college-educated, ELCA congregation. This profile fits with a number of congregations I have attended, particularly when there exists a perception that nearby congregations employing a more contemporary worship style seem to attract larger numbers of worshipers. I find myself wondering whether this particular piece of content can be the basis of an exploration of how worship can be incarnational, and how it might bear upon the conflict surrounding worship style.

Educator Jane Vella describes an approach to adult education called “dialogue education”, which shifts the focus of education from what the teacher says to what the learner does, from learner passivity to learners as participants in the dialogue that leads to learning (Wikipedia article on “dialogue education”). She proposes twelve principles that I will use as a framework for imagining how to teach my chosen content. Then, I will reflect on ideas from Everist that tie together Vella’s principles with specific ways to engage this content.

Vella’s first three principles seem together to bear upon choosing what one might teach in a learning environment. “Needs assessment” states that learners participate in naming what is to be learned. It seems that any ongoing debate within a congregation is a good indication of a subject that participants wish to explore. “Safety” states that people need safe environments in which to trust themselves to dialogue. In the context of a debate, safety is paramount for empowering peoples’ sharing, especially when they disagree. “Sound relationship” seeks dialogue between men and women who consider themselves peers. With respect to worship, because it is actually shared between the teacher and all learners, it seems to be a subject that lends itself to a more peer-oriented learning environment. Then, beyond these three principles, “immediacy” seeks to learn and teach what is really useful within a particular context. For a community of people debating appropriate worship style, this content can have great bearing over an ongoing matter of importance for the congregation.

To teach this content, the learning experience needs to begin with peer discussion. Learners need to be encouraged to share what they believe their preferences to be, with regard to worship style. Reflection questions can then be used to help learners to uncover underlying motives or histories that might bear upon how they understand their current preference. This format connects to Vella’s principles of “action with reflection”, “learners as subjects of their own learning”, “clear roles”, “teamwork” and “engagement”. As all learners make initial contribution to the subject at hand, they have a role in identifying the material to be considered by all learners. The reflective nature of the discussion questions introduces a reflective component to the learning experience. Also, I think that learners are likely to have a natural curiosity about what their peers think.

In addition to the initial reflection questions, it might be helpful to take some time to look at example resources from both contemporary and traditional worship styles. This can potentially help learners to better articulate their feelings, by reacting to material before them, and possibly reduce the potential for making sweeping generalizations from preconceptions or cloudy past memories. This can also help to better uncover what the learners consider “contemporary” and “traditional” to mean. This technique actually ties to Vella’s principle of “learning with ideas, feelings, and actions”.

Then, Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession can be introduced as a resource for considering what is or is not adiaphora for worship. Introducing this core content later in the learning unit reflects Vella’s principle of “sequence and reinforcement”. Once the learners have somewhat articulated their feelings and perceptions, and some shared meaning has been uncovered surrounding “contemporary” and “traditional”, Article Seven has the potential to help learners to consider that the worship style debate is not central to the purpose of Christian worship. My hope is that for what can be a heated debate, there exists within Lutheran tradition, a resource that can help faithful believers on both sides of the debate, to find common ground, and perhaps to learn a new respect for each others’ differences. Moreso, I think that this content strives to re-attune us to central elements of worship that allow for varying concepts of worship to be respected. Granted, this is not the same thing as embracing other worship forms, but there is immense value in acknowledging the meaning within how others worship.

Everist provides a number of ideas that are helpful and relevant for the discussion emphasis of this learning unit. In her chapter Creating Effective Learning Environments to Be Different Together, she discusses issues related to authority (p. 83), where the teacher tries to gain control, but is afraid to exert authority, and in turn, the group is always merely on the verge of learning. If the discussion risks disagreement that can derail the intended progression of the learning unit, it is crucial for the teacher to articulate and enforce boundaries for respectful sharing and disagreement. Also, Everist discusses the emotional factor of learning, where the learner can sometimes react to what they thought another learner said, versus what the learner actually said. Everist enumerates a number of helpful suggestions (p. 87) whereby the learning unit can actually also serve to help learners learn how to listen more actively, take greater responsibility for their own feelings (using “I” instead of “you”), and to reflect what they think they heard someone say, to assure truer communication and understanding.

Ultimately, my hope for this learning unit, is that learners would be encouraged to consider that no one worship style is properly “Lutheran”. This is not to attempt to push people into worshiping through an uncomfortable form, but rather, to encourage people to better consider that while others may worship with a form that one finds uncomfortable, that one can still respect the difference. I am reminded of a passage from Greenhouses of Hope, where Margaret Crain postulates that “maybe reflecting on our God moments with each other can open us up to the idea that God appears in many ways, and that we don’t have to do worship just one way for this. We can learn to appreciate different styles even without loving them ourselves” (p. 34).

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