by Kevin E. Lawson
Descriptions of the forces shaping the educational ministry models national churches were using, problems encountered, and suggested strategies for strengthening the educational ministries of growing national churches.
The morning worship service was moving. The young people who led the singing were enthusiastic and talented. Some of the chorus tunes we sang were familiar, but I understood very few of the words. From the courtyard came the smell of overripe papayas, and from my seat I could see the open-sided classrooms that would soon be filled with the children and youth in Sunday school classes. I had traveled over 3,500 miles to be here for this strange and wonderful experience.
Because all of my educational ministry experience had been in North America, in 1993, I traveled to South America to study local church children’s and youth ministry in another cultural setting. I visited three countries in the Andean region where the Christian and Missionary Alliance has national churches: Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru.
Over three weeks I visited 18 churches. I interviewed 18 missionaries, 19 national church staff members, 37 volunteer teachers, and several others interested or involved in educational ministries with children and youth. I also participated in church services, examined curricular resources, and observed educational ministries in action. I found the interviews to be fruitful and the people open concerning their Christian education ministries, including both their joys and struggles. What follows are descriptions of the forces shaping the educational ministry models they were using, problems encountered, and suggested strategies for strengthening the educational ministries of growing national churches.
CULTURAL ADAPTATIONS OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION
One of the major reasons I went to South America was to see how educational ministries there compared with those in North America. I wanted to understand how the ministries developed and why they took the form they did. What I found was both a heavy reliance on the educational ministry models introduced by North American missionaries and a desire to be more creative and responsive to the unique needs of their congregations and communities. Most of the educational models had been brought by missionaries decades ago. Now, as the churches were growing in size and experience, missionaries and nationals increasingly recognized that not all of the traditional North American educational ministry approaches were effective in their cultural setting.
CONTEXTUAL FORCES SHAPING CHRISTIAN EDUCATION IN SOUTH AMERICA
“Some fathers in our city take their sons at age 15 or 16 to a brothel to turn them into men” (teacher in Ecuador). Strong cultural forces and tremendous changes were putting pressure on churches in South America. The economic situation (average monthly wage in Venezuela, $150) placed great restrictions on churches, including: limiting leadership and educational facility development, restricting curriculum purchases, and limiting educational equipment purchases. In addition, in these countries where the public school systems were so poor, the majority of middle-class church parents worked hard to keep their children in private schools, even working two or more jobs.
One consequence was the strain on families. A teacher in an upper-middle class school in Ecuador reported that approximately 60 percent of the students had divorced parents. The parents each worked 10 to 12 hours a day, and over time lost all contact with each other. Even parents who stayed together had little time with their children, many of whom were home alone five to six hours a day. “Our children are growing up alone!” one group of Sunday school teachers lamented. In addition, the “machismo” male culture has not valued marital fidelity or commitment, leaving many women and children without husbands and fathers. The churches were facing an increasing divorce rate, the special needs of a growing number of single mothers and their children, and the imperative to strengthen families before they fall apart.
Because most adult converts came from a Roman Catholic background with little or no Bible teaching, few church members had any experience with children’s and youth ministry oradult Bible study. This required constant teaching and modeling to help new converts appreciate the value of these ministries. At the same time, this lack of experience encouraged continued reliance on North American educational models.
In Peru, the C&MA national Christian education office estimated that 50 percent (in Lima) to 80 percent (in rural areas) of the children who grew up attending the church’s educational ministries left the Christian faith as adults. The church was struggling to provide educational ministries that adequately nurtured its children and youth.
THE DOMINANCE OF NORTH AMERICAN MINISTRY MODELS
“Sunday School is the fountain of learning the Bible, doctrine, and Christian living” (teacher in Venezuela). Most of the churches I visited in these three countries were using the standard educational ministry models found in most North American churches: Sunday school, children’s church, vacation Bible school, and youth fellowship groups. Missionaries had brought these programs years ago, and they were still viewed as the proper way to carry out educational ministry. In some cases missionaries and national leaders tried to adapt the programs a little, but they did not question them. Whether these models were biblically faithful and enhanced education in a Latin American context was not being adequately addressed.
CHILDREN’S MINISTRY MODELS
“We’re trying to open our kids’ vision in evangelism, to have it take root in their hearts” (Christian education director in Ecuador). One adaptation some churches had made to North American ministry models was the length of Sunday school. Many ran Sunday school for children concurrently with the worship time for adults and youth. Most of these worship services lasted for more than an hour, with some going as long as two and a half hours. In some churches, the children’s program was expanded, with time taken for teaching, games, snacks, crafts, and singing, similar to a vacation Bible school program.
Another approach was the “Childrens’ Campaign,” modeled after the adult “Encuentro con Dios” evangelistic outreach in Ecuador and Peru. Children were invited to the church for a few hours after school for a large group program consisting of movies, puppets, and stories, always with an evangelistic message and invitation. Children who responded to the gospel were encouraged to come to follow-up Bible clubs and to the church’s Sunday school.
Many churches also used vacation Bible school programs. The Alliance churches in Lima each carried out the same program during the summer. Their teachers were trained at the Instituto Biblical Alianza.
YOUTH MINISTRY MODELS
“What I like about our youth group is that we all care for each other, we call each other when one is missing” (youth in Venezuela). Youth ministry in these three countries was an interesting contrast to youth ministry in North America. In general, youth in these countries were any unmarried people from about ages 12 to 30. Where churches could, they divided them into “adolescents” (ages 12-18) and “youth” (19 and up). These dividing lines varied from church to church and from country to country, but in general, youth ministry addressed a broader age range than in North America.
All of the churches I visited held youth fellowship meetings on Saturdays. This allowed youth from the broad metropolitan area to meet in the daytime and avoid the dangers of night travel. The meetings lasted from two to three hours with time for singing, a Bible or topical study and discussion, games or competitions, and informal conversation. There was a caring and accepting family atmosphere to the groups.
Besides youth fellowship meetings, many churches had special youth prayer meetings. Youth were also heavily involved in carrying out the church ministries. Many youth served as Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, and evangelistic workers. The churches needed these youth to carry out their ministries. I wonder if in North America we feel we don’t really need our youth, but ratherare doing them a favor by allowing them to participate in our “grown-up” ministries?
LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT MODELS
“Our teachers have more liberty in lesson development because of their extensive training” (Sunday school superintendent in Peru). Because of the challenges these churches faced in developing recent converts into teachers, and in locating or developing relevant teacher training materials, some unique models of teacher development were being carried out.
In Venezuela the Alliance churches had three programs for teachers. First was a three-year program of courses covering Bible survey (Thursday evenings), Bible doctrine (Tuesday evenings), and teaching (Saturday evenings). These were six-week courses offered twice a year over the three-year period. This intensive study program was aimed at potential teachers and young people as well as current teachers. Second, every two to three months, workshops were offered on different aspects of Christian education. And third, there was an annual Teachers’ Day where instructors gathered for affirmation, encouragement, and instruction. This three-pronged approach helped ground new converts in their faith as they prepared to take on ministry responsibilities. It also provided support to those already teaching.
In Ecuador the national church leadership developed a Christian education training program at their seminary in Guayaquil. In addition, they had two staff members who conducted training programs in local churches.
An intensive teacher development program in Lima served the 35 Alliance churches in the city as well as churches in neighboring areas. The national church ran a “School of Teachers” on Saturday mornings for eight months each year. This program had 100 in attendance. More than 360 had graduated during the previous seven years. Citywide teaching workshops were also offered each month. The national church also ran retreats for teachers and Christian education directors. In addition, it sponsored leaders’ conferences and Christian education congresses in four other locations.
BURDENS AND PROBLEMS OF CHRISTIAN EDUCATION IN SOUTH AMERICA
The churches varied in the strengths of their educational ministries and the types of resources available, but they generally faced great difficulty. Below is a sampling of the major problems and burdens.
1. The need for new educational ministry models. “Christian education here is stuck in the 1940s” (missionary in Ecuador). The educational ministry models brought to South America decades ago needed to be reexamined to determine if they really fit the present. Churches, having heavily relied on these models, had not reflected on what current needs were being missed or inadequately addressed. There was a danger of perpetuating an inadequate form instead of identifying what adjustments and new forms were needed to more effectively minister.
2. The curriculum desert. “Some of the themes in the curriculum just are not appropriate to the culture” (missionary in Ecuador). A unanimous concern of the church leaders was the inadequacy of the Sunday school and other educational program curricula available. Most materials reflected North American life and were not always relevant. Contextualizing the curriculum was confusing and difficult for teachers, especially those who were recent converts with only a basic understanding of the Bible and Christian beliefs. The leaders in each country told me they needed to develop their own curricula but did not have the time, knowledge, or financial resources. This lack of knowledge and resources was a tremendous hindrance.
3. The challenge of leadership development. “We need a Christian education institute to prepare teachers, supervisors, and youth workers for local church ministry” (national leader in Venezuela). The ministries of the C&MA in these countries had outgrown the ability of missions staff to provide leadership, and there was a demand for national leaders to direct the church and its ministries. In Christian education the need was acute;few of the missionaries had much training in it. The churches were attempting to develop programs through local and regional courses and programs at Bible institutes and seminaries, but, again, the financial, curricular, and personnel resources were limited. Until this changes, the cycle of dependence on missions personnel to lead in the development of educational ministry strategies and resources will likely continue.
4. The financial squeeze. “We used some Mexican curriculum materials, but due to the cost we haven’t kept it up” (assistant pastor in Peru). Each of these countries faced tremendous economic hardship that trickled down to the churches, which were striving to carry out their ministries in spite of limited financial resources, spiraling inflation, high interest rates, and uncertain employment. A few of the churches, especially those of the middle and upper-middle class, had excellent facilities and could afford the resources they needed for their educational programs. Most of the churches I visited, however, could not. Economical ways to develop and distribute local resource materials need to be identified and implemented. By comparison, North American churches have a wealth of financial and curricular resources.
5. The growth of family ministry needs.“If the children have no weekend contact with their dad, this upsets them—they can’t work well during the week” (private school principal in Ecuador). Families were under great pressure due to their economic hardships and work responsibilities. In addition, the “machismo” culture encouraged male infidelity and a lack of commitment to both marriage and family. Some church leaders said their churches needed to strengthen this basic institution of society, to provide ministries that would teach God’s perspective on marriage and family life and new patterns of relating. They also needed to develop ministries that would help parents provide the nurture and care their children need, such as after-school programs, parenting classes, and small group ministries for fathers and single mothers.
RESPONDING TO THE NEEDS OF GROWING EDUCATIONAL MINISTRIES OVERSEAS
As missions efforts are fruitful and national churches are established, we need to broaden our focus from evangelism and church planting to include the development of culturally relevant and effective educational ministries for children and youth as well as adults. To do this well we must address three needs.
1. Culturally relevant educational ministry models. James Pluedde-mann (1991, 353) affirms, “One of the most urgent needs of the rapidly growing churches around the world is for culturally sensitive Bible teaching.” Some of the educational models missionaries have brought to South America have been readily accepted and have borne some fruit. Whether all these North American approaches are adequate for discipling new believers and their families is seriously questioned by some of the missionaries and church leaders.
Roger Coon (1981, 389, 390) discusses the need for national church leaders to be helped to create indigenous structures to facilitate teaching at all age levels. For this to happen, missionaries will need to be trained in educational ministry philosophy and principles that apply cross-culturally. This training will need to be shared with national church leaders so they can develop strategies that are biblically faithful, educationally sound, and culturally relevant. At times established patterns of formal education that are not conducive to nurturing spiritual growth (i.e., overemphasis on memorization of content without adequate comprehension and life application) will need to be challenged. In other situations, this team effort may call into question an educational ministry structure imported by missionaries that is not culturally relevant (i.e., closely graded classes for Bible instruction). Only as we develop an understanding of sound educational ministry principles, and a sensitivity to the culture, can we identify and develop appropriate strategies.
2.Culturally relevant curricular resources.We urgently need to equip people to develop curriculum materials within their own cultural contexts. Few missionaries, and even fewer national church leaders, have this training, yet it is an almost universal church need. Cook Communications Ministries International has moved in this direction, developing training materials for writing culturally appropriate Bible lessons (Brook, 1994) and curriculum (Brook, 1995). These materials have equipped church leaders who have come to the U.S. for extended seminars. Cook has also sent teams of instructors to teach national church leaders how to develop their own curricular resources. These kinds of efforts need to be expanded.
In addition, seminaries and Bible institutes need to give more attention to this type of training. Missions students should have access to courses on cross-cultural educational curriculum development. This knowledge then needs to be shared with national church leaders, empowering them to develop materials that will meet their churches’ needs. Local production can help make these resources more affordable. Partnerships could be also be developed between regional and North American seminaries to provide this type of education to national church leaders.
3. Missionaries becoming educational consultants.As national churches grow, the need for educational ministries increases, and missionaries are often looked to for help. The problem is, few of them are properly equipped. So the education of future missions candidates should include course work in both developing and implementing culturally relevant educational ministries. This should include ministry strategy and curriculum development (mentioned earlier), as well as practical issues relating to working with volunteers, teacher training and supervision, and fostering team ministries. This same type of education also needs to be provided for national church leaders, reducing their reliance on missions personnel. Again, a partnership between North American and foreign seminaries may be one way to do it.
STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
For the missionary, the questions are “Where do I start and what should I do?” Here are some suggestions.
1. Take time to study how people in your field learn, both formally and informally. Visit the local schools and examine the structure and methods being used. Look at the outcomes. What do students seem to respond well to? What seems counterproductive? Also, study the informal learning within the home and community. How do adults teach their children? What cultural forms of informal learning are present? Can the church use these models, instead of relying so heavily on the formal schooling models? Tackle this effort in partnership with a few national church leaders, and see what insights you gain.
2. Evaluate your educational ministries, using your purposes and goals for the outcomes as your measuring stick. Are they producing the kinds of growth and learning you seek? If not, brainstorm on hindrances with others involved. What you identify may give you insight into where the structures, models, methods, or curricular resources are ineffective. Discussing these problems out in the open can lead to new approaches and models. You may want to explore a partnership between seminaries that could bring knowledgeable and experienced educational consultants to help you. There may also be well-equipped national educators in your area who should be involved.
3. Evaluate your churches’ curricular materials to see how helpful they are for teachers and students. Involve teachers and students. Get their perspective on what is and is not helpful. Use the information to search for materials that you can recommend to church leaders. When you find good materials, promote them and provide assistance in acquiring them.
4. Gather and read materials on cross-cultural education and curriculum development. Although the Breckenridges’ book (1995) What Color is Your God?: Multicultural Education in the Church is focused oncross-cultural North American educational ministry, it can provide you with ideas and insights as you evaluate your own ministry setting. The Plueddemanns’ book (1990) Pilgrims in Progress: Growing Through Groups addresses cultural differences in small group ministry. It may help you evaluate your cultural setting and identify ways to strengthen your efforts.
5. If possible, establish a curriculum development team. This team, consisting of national church leaders and missions personnel, should be familiar with the results of the work done in the previous four steps. Contact Cook Communications Ministries International or another curriculum development organization for assistance in acquiring resources or training in curriculum development. This could be a good partnership project to work on with another mission organization, or with missionaries and church leaders in neighboring countries. Alternatively, a regional seminary may have resource personnel who could provide training or other assistance.
6. Invest in the equipping of teachers in the church. Even the best curricular resources will not succeed if they are used ineffectively. Help your teachers understand the goals of their ministries and how the curriculum is a tool to help accomplish these goals.
7. To strengthen your role as a consultant, during your next home service consider taking courses in educational ministry. Classes on teaching methods, curriculum development, working with volunteer teachers, cross-cultural education, etc., can spark new ideas.
The first step is to assess your needs. The second is to get the necessary help to address them. It will be a time-consuming challenge, but the results in the lives of your children and youth will benefit the church for years to come.
Breckenridge, James and Lillian. What Color is Your God?: Multicultural Education in the Church. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1995.
Brook, Larry. How to Write a Lesson: For Christian Education Materials Developed in Your Own Culture. Elgin, Ill.: Cook Communications Ministries International,1994.
Brook, Larry. How to Develop a Curriculum: For Christian Education Materials in Your Culture. Elgin, Ill: Cook Communications Ministries International, 1995. The address for Cook Communications Ministries International is: 850 N. Grove Avenue, Elgin, Ill. 60120 U.S.A.
Coon, Roger E. “Christian Education and Missions,” in Introduction to Biblical Christian Education. Edited by Werner C. Graendorf. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981.
Plueddemann, James E. “World Christian Education,” in Christian Education: Foundations for the Future. Edited by Robert E. Clark, Lin Johnson, and Allyn K. Sloat. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.
Plueddemann, Jim and Carol. Pilgrims in Progress: Growing Through Groups. Wheaton, Ill: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1990.
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