Thus far in this series I’ve been writing about hiring someone to be a “resident scholar”, director of education, or even a teaching pastor who is involved in the academy (i.e., they write, publish, attend academic conferences, and so forth). Of course, one concern with hiring someone like this to work in your church would be that they will be so academically minded that they are no ecclesiastical good. Let me explore how that might be adverted in a class setting as well as some of the unique benefits a resident scholar can contribute if given the chance:
Communicating with Diverse Audiences:
When I taught at my local church in Portland, OR, I had a very diverse class of learners. There were some students who were quite elderly (in their 80s and 90s). I know that at least one student was there one Sunday morning who died prior to the next. The youngest students were adolescents. Some student was homeless. One of the men who was very inquisitive and who seemed to appreciate the class went from coming every week to disappearing forever. I don’t know what became of him. Others were comfortable financially owning their own homes and vehicles. One student was trying to complete her GED as she wrestled with developmental disabilities. Then there were a few who attended seminary or who had attended seminary. When you teach the Gospel of John to people from many age socio-ecnomic backgrounds, age groups, and education levels it can be difficult to know how to make sure that everyone present is learning.
Teaching at the local church level is not the same as teaching in a college or teaching in a seminary. Sure, there are some churches where almost everyone has a similar educational and socio-economic background so that the teacher doesn’t have to worry about educating diverse groups in a single setting, but this is rare. Usually, a church consists of a wider array of people than a college or seminary.
When you have an audience where some have been to seminary and some never graduated from high school how do you talk about “predestination” or “apocalyptic literature” without being too wordy for some or too simplistic for others? When you say, “In the original language this text means….” do you isolate your hearers, inform them, or split the group? Should you use the word “supralapsarianism” ever, anywhere?
In part, I think that if a diverse classroom will survive it must have a group dynamic. Lectures don’t work. When I teach in a church I do the studying, I outline the lesson, I create the handouts, and I do most of the talking. Likewise, I make sure to stop and ask if what I said needs clarifying. I answer raised hands frequently (for some it is hard to keep an idea in one’s head for more than a few seconds). Most importantly, I try to cultivate an environment where those who are more educated can comment in the class giving them a sense of participation while also helping me find a way to educate those who are struggling in the class.
When I tried to work through the Father, Son, Spirit language of John 14 I was pleased when others added their thoughts to the mix or provided ways of saying something that was better than how I had said it. When you allow there to be a group dynamic (rather than a lecture) you are less likely to bore someone because everyone is teaching each other and everyone is learning from each other–including you as the main teacher and facilitator.
On a side note, let me say this: don’t split the church into classes like “standard” and “advanced”. I’ve never seen this go well. When you label one class “advanced” it makes some feel dumb or excluded by default. When you label another class “regular” or “standard” it minimizes the importance. Let those who are more educated join you in teaching those who less educated as I mentioned above.
Obviously, small groups sometime during the week are a great idea. I’ve seen small groups done many ways. Sometimes groups are regionally based and every group is studying the same topic. Sometimes the groups are divided into categories like “singles”, “married”, “youth”, “college aged”, and so forth and so on. That works, but I am not a big advocate of these more sociologically organized groups.
I have written about the need for churches to hire people as director of education or an associate pastor with teaching responsibilities. I think part of the benefit of this is that you can ask this person to write materials for small groups that are relevant to the local community. Sure, you can buy some prepackaged small groups lesson online, but there seems to be something artificial about this in my experience.
When you hire someone into a position where they create the materials it allows them to be “on location” preparing to teach the community as the person learns about the community. Also, this person would be able to assist your small groups leaders teaching them how to be better educators spreading this desire to teach and learn through the whole church.
I think that someone who is hired to be a director of education or a teaching pastor should be given the time and space to do their own writing, whether for books, journals, or magazines. The church can benefit from this if said hire decides to write a blog, or contributes something to the weekly church newsletter, or both! If a person is given the freedom to pursue their academic interest they will be more equipped to share fresh content with the local church.
If you hire someone who attends AAR, SBL, ETS, or some organization like this it is possible that they will make connections that benefit your church as regards inviting guest speakers to come teach and do public events at your church. I’ve seen some churches host events with N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Craig A. Evans, Michael Licona, Amy-Jill Levine, and others. This is made easier through prior connections.
Also, if you hire someone with these connections they will be a great asset if the time comes when younger men and women in your church sense the desire to move forward in their education in areas like going to seminary, doing graduate degrees in biblical studies, writing, and so forth.
Life Milestones (and other alternative forms):
Of course, “teaching” is not limited to head knowledge. In earlier posts I mentioned life milestones like dedication, first communion, baptism, a “coming of age” ceremony, and so forth. These are celebrations and festivities that teach a child that they are part of the church and that being part of the church is as much a way of living as it is a way of thinking.
These are a few of the benefits I can imagine coming from hiring someone at the level of the local church to be the “resident scholar” of sorts. I know some churches do this already, but I don’t see many in the evangelical tradition doing it, and I think that’s a shame.