The Unique Task of Teaching Adults

The heartbeat of the church is adults.
The Unique Task of Teaching Adults

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.

The problem, as my lawyer friend showed me, is that many people in churches today have never brought their adult minds to bear on an understanding of the Bible. They tend to assume that Scripture has nothing specific or helpful to say to them about the real world in which they live. For them, the Bible seems like a relic from childhood rather than a living statement of hard-edged truths that demand to be studied and interacted with on a daily basis.

But the Bible was written primarily for adults, to answer adult questions, to deal with adult problems. Finally, then, adult education is vital to the church because it is our opportunity to open the Word of God, the textbook of the church, for people to whom it is ultimately addressed.

Who Are the Adults We Teach?

Adults learn differently than do children, and I've found it helpful to keep in mind the unique characteristics of adult learners whenever I've taught adults. Malcolm Knowles, in his The Practice of Modern Adult Education, has given me a lot of insight here.

• The adult learner is self-directed. Adults like to see themselves as self-directed and in charge of their own lives. But sometimes we inadvertently make them feel dependent, almost like children.

For example, when you put people in rows in a classroom, many adults feel (even if only subconsciously) that they are in a childlike setting. Since many people look back on their school days in a less than positive way, the return to a classroom as an adult can have unhappy connotations.

Furthermore, few adults will volunteer to be placed in situations where they will feel they are being talked down to or treated with condescension. When the teacher is the "expert" and the learner is "talked at," the adult hardly feels in charge of the learning environment.

Some adults, of course, have no problem with such a model of learning, but most adults rebel and vote with their feet; they find another class—or even another church—where they are not made to feel like they've stumbled back into Miss Grimble's sixth-grade class.

• The adult learner has accumulated a large reservoir of experiences. As adults grow, they learn to trust their own judgment and experience more and more, and they test what they hear from others against their own sampling of reality. If what the teacher says is not validated by and connected with their own experience, they will not take the teacher's message seriously.

We are wise if we can put this experience to good use in the classroom. For example, once I wanted to develop a course for blended families. At first, I thought of inviting an "expert" (say, a psychologist) to teach the course. But I decided to draw on the experience of the people who might attend such a class.

So I invited some blended families to meet with me, and I asked them questions such as "What are five areas of concern for parents and children in blended families?" "What are your needs?" "Where does it hurt?" "What has been most helpful for your situation?" and "What is one thing about the blended family experience that no one ever talks about and that you need to talk about?" "How has Christian faith helped you?" We brainstormed and were able to craft a course that had the Bible as its foundation and human experience as its structure.

• Adults are oriented to their tasks, roles, and identity. This means that the learner's identity—as parent, spouse, worker, professional, or recreational hobbyist—profoundly affects what the learner is willing to learn about. Good adult education is intimately linked to people's image of themselves and what they see as their role and function in the world.

For example, in our culture women are vitally concerned about their role and function. The woman who has made the decision to be a traditional wife and mother spends a lot of time and energy concerned about those roles, especially if many of her female friends have careers. Then when she completes the bulk of her child-rearing by her middle forties, she's got to figure out what she is supposed to do for the next thirty-five years. What are the resources of faith for her?

An effective adult education program will integrate such concerns about roles with biblical curriculum.

• Adults want knowledge that can be immediately applied. Probably no more than 10 percent of adults are genuinely interested in learning for learning's sake, to know the Bible simply in order to know the Bible, to know theology or church history or Christian philosophy simply because they enjoy learning. Unlike many children and youth, adults are unwilling to store up theoretical knowledge that may or may not someday be of use to them.

For most adults, the someday of their childhood has arrived, and they want to see the practical benefits of learning today. They want information they can use now. They want connections to everyday life. So it's harder to "market" a course on the doctrinal themes in Hebrews than a course on parenting teenagers. This doesn't mean you avoid Hebrews, but you must connect it to questions they're asking.

Often then, I look for teachable moments in adult lives, windows of opportunity when a course subject matches the felt need of the learner.

For example, I frequently conduct a class called "Teaching Values to Children," and I've found that the time parents are most open to this course is within the first few months after a baby is born. Two years later, they feel they already know how to parent. They've settled into patterns. But later still, when their children move into new and more challenging phases, new teachable moments will occur.

So one of our jobs is to catch people at those transition points in their lives, when they are trying on new roles, exploring new situations, facing new challenges.

That's not to say that adult needs should rule the classroom. Although I recognize the need to touch adults at their points of needs, most of my teaching is essentially Bible-centered. But I always try to find those crucial links between the Bible and real-world living.

Teaching that Connects with Adults

While keeping in mind the characteristics of adult learners, I structure my teaching so that it connects with adults. For me, there are at least six keys.

1. Treat adults as adults. This obvious point is, unfortunately, sometimes overlooked.

In one church where I was working with the adult education program, a teacher whose class was practically evaporating before her eyes came to me in a panic.

"I need you to come observe my class," she said. "I only have a few people left. Please tell me what I'm doing wrong before my class disappears completely!"

So I visited her class, and in the first minute or so I knew exactly what was wrong.

"Now, class," she said in a voice more patronizing than a schoolmarm addressing a roomful of second-graders, "let's open our Bibles and turn to John chapter. That's the Gospel of John, not the epistles. If you have one of the pew Bibles I set out on the back table, you'll find it on page 927. Just run your finger down the margin and find verse. Does everyone have the verse now?" Her manner was like a fingernail on a chalkboard. No wonder her class was evaporating!

Yet there's more to treating adults like adults than the voice or teaching style. The room itself must respect their sensibilities.

Unfortunately, many church classrooms smell like church classrooms: old, stale, and flat. Although we in the church get used to that smell, that can subtly bother people who are new to our fellowship.

By "smell," I mean more than olfactory sensation. Churches also have a visual "smell." A lot of churches—particularly smaller, older churches—consign their adult education classes to a dungeon-like basement with cracked linoleum floors, cold, hard folding chairs, and children's Sunday school posters from the sixties.

One reason many new, large megachurches are so inviting to adults is that they don't have this church "smell." They have windows, sunlight, fresh air, clean bathrooms, fresh paint, attractive visuals, comfortable chairs—in short, all the signs of a place that is alive and open.

As we look at our own churches, we should ask ourselves, "Is this a place where adults would enjoy gathering and spending time together? Does it look clean? Are the chairs comfortable? Can people hear? Are the aesthetics pleasing to adult sensibilities?"

Another consideration: Do we put visitors on the spot? Do we make them feel awkward and conspicuous? People and church cultures vary, but the older I've gotten the less I'm willing to enter a new situation only to be told to stand up and talk about myself. And if I'm made to feel uncomfortable in a given social climate, I tend to avoid it thereafter.

2. Diagnose needs. I am constantly in the process of examining where my people are and what they need. There are three primary ways I do that.

• Interviews. I've had Christian education committees conduct interviews with adults in the congregation. Surveys can be helpful too, but one-on-one or two-on-one interviews reap wonderful results for adult education.

I suggest that people from various categories be interviewed: young married couples, couples married less than three years, longtime members, widowed, never married, single parents, parents of adolescents, businesspeople, working women, housewives, the divorced—the exact categories depend, of course, on the composition of the congregation.

Then the pastor and/or members of the adult education committee have a conversation with individuals or couples, asking questions such as:

— In the last two years, have you undergone a transition, change, or crisis? How might the church have helped you to cope and grow during that time?

— What stage are you at in your spiritual pilgrimage? Beginner? Stumbling along? Mature? How do you feel about where you are? How can the church help you grow as a Christian?

— What are some needs your acquaintances have that the church could address? How could we equip you to meet them?

When the answers are gathered, they shed a great deal of light on how to best teach adults so that their needs are addressed.

• Pretests. Another way to diagnose needs is with a pretest. The first Sunday of a new series, I often give a little test—brief and easy to complete—that lets me know the general level of biblical understanding in the group. For example, I might give the class a five-minute quiz, asking them to define four key words from Romans. This tells me how well they understand concepts like "grace" and "salvation" and whether I need to do factual teaching or can move on to wrestle with application.

Sometimes I've passed out the three-by-five cards at intervals throughout the class to check in. I'll ask, "What's the most important thing you've learned so far?" or "What's the biggest question you have about Romans still?" That feedback helps me keep my finger on the learner's pulse so that I can make mid-course corrections.

• Observation. By staying alert in class, I can gain a number of insights into people by simply watching them.

I notice, for instance, how people enter the classroom. If I see that two sit on the third row on the right, and then two on the fifth row on the left, and then one on the inside aisle up front, and then a few on the back row—I'm probably dealing with people who don't know each other or don't feel comfortable with one another.

If people come and sit in groups, one group to the left, another to the right, it may indicate a certain cliquishness. If people come in and speak quietly but politely to one another, it may indicate they don't know each other well. If people come in boisterous, gently ribbing one another, it may indicate I'm teaching people who know each other well.

Too often we only look at the size of the class after it's full. At that point, it looks like a community because every chair is full. But when I notice how those chairs were filled, I learn a lot about my class.

3. Involve the learners in planning their own learning. The most effective courses always begin this way.

Several years ago, I was preparing to teach a course on women in transition. Although I had taught this subject a number of times and considered myself an "expert," I decided to involve the learners in the planning process. I'm glad I did.

When I gathered a group of women to brainstorm on this subject, I asked them questions like, "What transitions do you think women are experiencing? What do you think are some of the hardest issues faced by women in transition?" They were reeling off answers I had heard before, but then one woman surprised me.

"If the class meets on Sunday nights," she said, "I need to get my husband's permission to come." It had never occurred to me that these women would feel they needed permission to participate in a church activity. Together we began exploring this issue of husband/wife decision making, and we designed a class that would address the many issues surrounding it.

I had originally planned the class for twenty women, but by the time the planning was through, and word had gotten around, 110 women had signed up. Planning with people helps them stay in control of the learning process, helping them address their concerns.

4. Make adults responsible for their learning. I avoid coaxing adults into learning because doing so treats them like children. Instead, I make them responsible for the learning they want to do. I do that sometimes by asking them to make a learning commitment or contract.

I might begin a class in the Book of John by saying, "There are three levels at which you can take this class: Level One: You can come and receive whatever is presented. Just be willing to enter into the discussion.

"Level Two: As you take this class, you will read William Barclay's commentary on John.

"Level Three: Bring a notebook and plan to do your daily devotions and meditations in John. You may even want to do your family devotions in this book."

Then I hand out a simple questionnaire and ask people to make a commitment.

This way I get a sense of the overall character of the class. Sometimes I find I have a class full of people who just want to sit and absorb, so I structure the curriculum to meet their needs. Other times I may have seven people who want to work with the commentary, four who are linking the class to their daily devotions, and one who actually wants to put out a graduate-level effort. Its extremely helpful to know your audience.

I once taught a class on Romans in which the highest commitment level group was given the name "The Royal Fork Club." It was named after The Royal Fork, an inexpensive buffet restaurant. I told the class I would pick up the tab for a buffet dinner for those in The Royal Fork Club who completed all the exercises week by week. I figured that at most five or six people would sign the contract.

Instead, we had over a hundred sign up! Since this idea proved too successful for my own financial well-being, we had to find a donor to sponsor The Royal Fork Club.

5. Help adults see learning as a lifelong endeavor. One of my goals is to encourage a lifelong love and fascination for the subject I teach. The learner should not be able to say at the conclusion of a course on Exodus, "Well, now I have that subject behind me." He should want to continue studying the subject after the class is over. If I teach Exodus in such a way that people say, "I've done Exodus; I'm glad I don't ever need to study Exodus again," then I've failed. I have not ignited the flame of curiosity and fascination in that learner.

One way to inspire a continuing interest in the subject is to provide the right kind of closure at the end of the course. The class should not just stop. It should reach an emotionally satisfying conclusion yet suggest that there is more to learn.

Guided reflection on the learning process is one way I've brought a class such closure. I ask, "What's the most important thing you've learned in this course? What is one thing you've learned that you intend to put into practice in your everyday life? What is one issue arising from this course that you still don't understand, that you still want to study further, or that you still need to work on in order to apply to your life?" They either respond verbally in small groups or write out answers on paper.

In this way, I've communicated clearly that we haven't learned everything there is to know about the subject, yet I've helped them see what they've learned and what difference it will make. The learning process hasn't ended with this course. It has just been launched.

I recently received a letter from a former student saying, "I'm re-listening to tapes of your courses in Romans and Exodus. In fact, this is my fourth time in over five years that I've listened to them. Each time, I'm at a different level of understanding and a different place in my walk with the Lord. I've learned something new at each level."

This, to me, is what adult Christian education is about. It's a dynamic, interactive process where both teacher and learners have a meaningful and ongoing relationship with each other and with biblical truth. We share a journey together, and we each come away not just better informed but truly changed.

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