The Unique Task of Teaching Adults

The heartbeat of the church is adults.
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Some years ago, I knew a Christian attorney who was appointed by the church board to be chairman of the adult education program. He was perfectly willing to oversee the program. He was willing to teach. He was a good teacher. But he was completely unwilling to take a course. I asked him why.

"I learned everything I need to know about the Christian faith when I was a kid in Sunday school," he replied. "Now I'm an adult and the challenge is to live what I already know."

To him adult education was remedial, for adults who somehow missed getting a Christian education when they were younger.

This is not an uncommon view. It arises, in part, from the common attitude toward all education in our culture, that schooling is something you do when you are young. At a certain point you graduate and you are all done with education. Even worse, the attitude upon graduation may be Thank goodness I don't have to do that anymore!

Often our Sunday schools, confirmation classes, and youth programs parallel the public education experience so that we send the subliminal message. Education is for children. The sooner you're through with it the better.

But that attitude can be turned around. When I first came to one church, there were fewer than 200 people in Sunday morning classes out of a congregation of 4,000. That meant only 5 percent of the congregation was involved in adult education.

Eventually we found ways to increase involvement to 1,000 adults, or about 25 percent involvement—still not phenomenal, but better. Obviously a significant number of adults began to change their view of adult education.

Here, then, are a few insights that have guided me as I've worked with adults in various educational settings, ideas that not only have helped adults get involved but have changed lives as well.

The Importance of Adult Education

To begin with, I've had to remind myself and the churches with which I've worked about the importance of adult education. Often children and youth education gets top billing in congregations, and for good reason. But often that's at the expense of adults.

Without slighting the importance of children and young people, I've always felt that the heartbeat of the church is adults. Jesus loved children, but he did not call children as his disciples. He called adults. We have no example in the Gospels of Jesus teaching children. But we have many, many stories of Jesus teaching adults.

Furthermore, it is adults who shape the world, for good or ill, and it is adult Christians who are called to be salt and light in a dying world. It is adults who vote. It is adults who work and who control the governments, schools, corporations, unions, social groups, charities, and other institutions of our society. It is adults who are called to actively disciple their own families. It is adults who decide the church's priorities and budgets. To teach adults is to be on the firing line of Christian ministry and social change.

Consequently, when we address adults, we can address some significant issues. For example, I find that many Christian men as they reach mid-life are troubled by issues of boredom in marriage, disillusionment with the church, and suffering that seems to have no purpose.

But often they ponder these questions alone, in silence, with no one to empathize or even listen to them. In adult education, we have the important privilege of helping people understand their fears and work through tough issues with a mature biblical perspective. We can touch the throbbing pulse of human pain, anxiety, hope, and joy.

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