Last night I hosted and spoke at an evening organised by the Uniting Church Historical Society, South Australia and hosted by Uniting College where I teach. It was part of a project of theirs to document the history of lay education in this state.
A small gathering attended by about 15 people, half of whom were speakers or organisers, and almost all retired folks (yes, Deidre Palmer and I felt quite spritely).
Despite the fact that I thought it might be deadly dull, I was quite pleased to be asked to be part of it. Our time in SA in the mid-80's was profoundly important for me, and lay education was entering a new and important phase then. I've been well aware of developments here in the ensuing years, and of course, quite involved since moving back here in 2003, and it was my main focus at the College from 2005-2010.
Though there was a lot of history, the evening was anything but dreary for me. I was able to hear from (and reconnect with) some of the legends of the past. David Houston's history of lay education since the late 1800's was really a dot point summary, but I was struck again and again by how my great grandparents' generation had been pioneers. We are SUCH a young country (in terms of European settlement!) and in that sense have barely put down roots. I kept hearing South Australian surnames whose descendents are my peers our our students. And although I spent the first 20 years of my life in Queensland, the stories from that era had direct parallels with my own.
Secondly, both Jonathan Barker and Elwyn Penna preached more than spoke, and the fire in the belly of these guys for lay education, equipping the whole people of God, and their sense of what the church needs now, was both inspirational and challenging.
Deidre Palmer and I got to tell the story of the last 15 years. While it was quite significant, and a lot has been achieved, for me it felt a bit like trying to justify why churches don't have Sunday Schools any more. The glory days have passed. We need to reinvent, reframe, remix, refocus. Deidre spoke very well as always about some quite significant developments.
For myself, there were some twisted threads that need unravelling and perhaps reweaving
- fewer lay people coming to any centralised events at the College (the same experience as other states/synods)
- lost of experimentation around intensives, regional delivery, developing multimedia+distance+online learning
- many more groups offering educational activities, with little or no statewide co-ordination
- comments about the need for congregations to be effective in lay education but not too much wisdom about how that might be achieved now
- encouragement for the church to think missionally, and wondering what that means for education
- questions about how the synod works intentionally to assist congregations to be effective in lay education
- the increasing costs of accredited training and the irrelevance of that for most local church leaders
- the critical issue of ministers as 'lay educators' and as leaders of learning communities
- a necessary and strong focus on developing distance and online education, alongside a significant drop in time and energy for face-to-face lay education
I finished my presentation about the last few years with this bit:
In his new book, “From Generation to Generation”, Charles Foster critiques mainline Protestant denominations for systematically dismantling the institutional structures aligning education in the congregation with the purposes and strategies of education in the denomination. There is no coherence between that the denomination offers and what might be expected to work in the local church.
He suggests that we have lost a notion of education as a theological practice within our denominations.
He suggests three challenges
- Reclaiming a notion of learning that is conducive for forming faith in the education of congregations – in particular the interdependence of developmental, practice and discovery learning
- Revitalising congregations as catechetical cultures of faith formation and transformation (both formal and informal processes – relationally dynamic rather than institutionally or ideologically driven)
- Cultivating an ecclesially grounded educational imagination in congregations (how we work with the celebrative events of the church’s year as educative)
As a denomination at the present time, we seem to have many learning opportunities on offer, and we are big on the language of leadership development and mission engagement. But within that, are we fostering the imagination, wisdom and skills for people to be able to grow congregational cultures and practices that foster lifelong discipleship? That I believe is our educational challenge.
On a final note, preparing for this had me looking back over my first 6 years at College, and I did have a modest sense of achievement at 'having a go' at a lot of things.I also realised how much of that recent history is unknown by new people in what is such a short period. This has prompted my to update my portfolio....