I recently finished speaking at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Ohio Staff Training Conference. I was invited to speak about how to communicate faith to youth with different approaches to faith. In other words, if we have a group of campers who come from (1) no religious or spiritual background at all, (2) spiritual but not religious contexts, (3) nominally religious homes, and (4) families that embodied religion as a daily lived commitment, then how do we communicate to all those different people? It was no small task!
Even so, it gave me a chance to compile some of my learnings from campus ministry and congregational life. Throughout that time, I've seen plenty of things fail. Fortunately, what's proven reliable is effective for people from all backgrounds. Of course, these things won't necessarily make them believe the content - that's the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts - but they will make it more likely for people to remember the stories, theologies, and practices you teach to them.
1. Before you teach it, you have to know it. This is true of Scripture, because before you tell the story, you have to know the story. Before you describe the theology the incarnation, you have to recall the details. Before you teach someone how to lead worship, you have to have command of the practices yourself. On campus, the most effective formation of faith I see in college students directly reflect the knowledge that I know the best.
Notice, though, that this should be an encouragement to learn more, not to simply teach the stuff with which you're comfortable. Church leaders should always be deepening their knowledge of scripture, of church history, of theology, of practical ministry concerns, and especially how these things relate to issues that affect the daily lives of congregants. The more you know, the better you can teach, so commit to learning yourself.
2. Acknowledge your limitations. None of us are experts on everything. Humans are necessarily limited creatures, so enter these situations with humility and a willingness to learn from others as well. If you don't know it well enough to teach it extensively, admit that to yourself and invite other leaders with more expertise to lead in those areas. This isn't weakness. It is wisdom.
You can also utilize a plethora of other teaching resources, like The Work of the People, Why Christian, or SparkHouse. Some of the best leadership is curating resources that fill in the gaps within your knowledge, even as you develop further knowledge and additional skills.
3. Repetition is the mother of mastery. I learned this phrase from Jim Duxbury, my high school Environmental Geology teacher. Rather than cram before a test, Mr. Duxbury taught us to take five minutes at the start of every class to review all of our notes from the semester. The repeated engagement with the material familiarized us with the words, the concepts, and their relationship to other important pieces of the course.
We employ similar practices in the church. Memorizing biblical verses engrains not just the words, but the associated emotions, into our beings. Reading the same lectionary scriptures every three years centers us on a particular set of biblical content. When I was in confirmation classes, I learned the books of the Bible by repeating a silly song over and again, and I learned Martin Luther's explanation of the 10 Commandments by first repeating the commandments and then repeating the explanations.
No matter how well we know something, repetition helps us to better know it and to ingrain it more deeply within our hearts and minds.
4. Apply and reapply. This is where you can get specific and address on the person's personal background. It's not exactly rinse and repeat, because it's going to be a different application depending on the person(s) with whom you're working, When you are sharing faith content, generic stories and general ideas don't make the same depth of impact as incarnated theology. After all, it was God becoming human that made all the difference in the world. The best theologies we have are the ones that come alive in the lives of our people, and in so doing, promote God's abundant life within them.
Teaching, say, the story of Jonah will different not only based on age groups - for instance, seven year olds likely won't understand how genre magnifies the meaning of the text, but seventeen year olds will - but on familial context. A child with no introduction to religion might hear this story as something like Aesop's Fables, while a young person raised in an evangelical home might argue the historical veracity of the events. In so doing, both may miss the content arc of God's radical grace and narrative plays that suggest Jonah is some of the earliest recorded satire available. Yet, you can help them see those markers and how big God's truth can be within the myth, regardless of the story's historicity.
5. Find and utilize the common ground and goals. Much effective teaching begins from the same level as learners. Common ground, simply the reliability of the teacher, helps your content become more palatable and approachable. Discovering or developing shared goals can help to overcome some obstacles in the educational process. The way that we often structure classrooms, with a single authority at the front of auditorium-style seats, suggests a strong division between teacher and student. Destroy that barrier. Instead, find ways to flip the learning experience, where you exist among the learners, as a learner. Mutual education provides an opportunity for you to be heard as a trusted source and allows you access to the lives of students that enhances your understanding of how information may impact their lives. Commonality breeds common understandings, so establishing common ground and goals will help the information at hand take root in the soil of the entire community.
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Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.