It’s 34°C in Toronto today, with a humidex reading of 41°C (that’s 93° and 105° for those who live in Fahrenheit locales). It’s been steadily hot and dry for the past week with no relief in sight, so it seems a little odd that I want to talk about an ice age today. But, it has been proposed, an ice age is coming.
Prompted by recent articles I’ve read, along with conversations I’ve been having with other church educators, I want to spend a bit of time in this article considering what we’ll be doing this fall in the area faith formation. This spring we were challenged by the initial weeks and months of the Covid-19 pandemic. We rose to the challenge as we accommodated children and youth in online worship, ‘Zoomed’ Sunday schools, bible studies, and coffee hours. We worked really hard to keep relationships our greatest priority in the face of physical distancing. We revised and re-wrote VBS curriculum, dropped off bible storybooks to homes for families to read together, and circulated a daily family examen as a great way to grow faith at home over these summer months.
While all of these adaptive approaches have been welcomed and celebrated in our churches, we are still left with the question, “What about the fall?” It sits there on the horizon and, as many are suggesting, our continuing approach to faith formation will be very different for many more months to come.
So, how do we do educational ministry in an ice age?
On March 20, 2020 Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker and Dave Blanchard, working with The Praxis Journal, released a podcast and essay entitled, Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup (link to Crouch, Keilhacker and Blanchard article). As the reality of the pandemic was beginning to sink in and our churches figured out new technologies for online worship, Sunday schools, and bible studies, these three innovators were looking much further down the road on behalf of our churches and non-profit organizations. In their podcast, Crouch and Blanchard speak of our present reality posing the greatest leadership crisis we will ever experience within our church communities. Using three chilling metaphors, they propose that we are not merely living through a blizzard, or even a season of bitter winter, but that we are headed into a ‘little ice age’. How we respond to this era or age, they state, will be defining for our future.
Crouch and Blanchard note that when we’re caught in a blizzard we hunker down and take extraordinary measures to weather out the dramatic storm. Because we know that a blizzard only lasts only a few days, or even a week at most, we just hang in there. Schools and shops close, we dig out as best as we can, we check up on our neighbours, we eat whatever we have in the fridge, and then we pull out the board games to wait it out. We know that what we do to survive blizzard conditions is unsustainable over the long haul, but we also know that because blizzards are short-lived, they are manageable for most people. Crouch and Blanchard suggested in March that the church and America was primarily viewing this pandemic crisis as a blizzard; difficult, requiring significant accommodations, but soon over after which we would return to normal once again.
When churches were told that their buildings must be closed in March they responded quickly with a shift to online platforms to provide worship to their membership. Sunday schools emailed parents lesson plans and asked parents to take on the role of teacher to their children. Bible studies were held over Zoom, unexpectedly expanding with new members who had not been able to attend before in light of their schedules, living situation or geography. Youth leaders touched base with their young people, making sure that everyone was okay and wrestling with questions about God and a worldwide pandemic. Everyone did everything they could to transfer the most that they could to technology platforms and phone calls and texting became the means of keeping in touch. The church worked hard to keep everyone connected and safe while they hoped that we’d be back in our pews by Palm Sunday, or Easter Sunday at the latest.
Winter, they say, might start with a blizzard, but continues into a lengthy season of many months. Severe weather blips interspersed throughout a season of constant chilling conditions requires adaptation rather than simply hunkering down if you want to survive and even thrive. We buy snow shovels, warm coats, hats and mitts, and fill the freezer with comforting foods to live through a Canadian winter. We even embrace the season by skiing, skating and building snow families in our yards. As we orient ourselves to a pandemic season, Crouch and Blanchard say we must reconfigure countless aspects of our ministry. This kind of shift, they suggest, is a huge challenge for organizational leadership. In the article they predicted that we would be living in a season of winter conditions until July or August of 2020.
When we did not realize our dream of an Easter re-opening, church educators shifted their focus from holding tight to reconsidering how we might better do educational ministry with our children, youth and families for an extended period of time. Intentionally inclusive worship became the theme of many conversations I had with church leaders in the synod. Illustrated Ministry and Sparkhouse responded with specifically written and redesigned materials for churches to use that took into account some of the concerns churches were raising. Child-friendly colouring sheets and themed conversations that would compliment online worship services were freely distributed to churches, and simple, pre-videoed Family Sunday School lessons replaced the child-focused, traditional lessons plans that had previously been sent home to exhausted parents to teach. VBS plans were also adapted to an online platform with stories, music and activities being pre-videoed, and craft materials dropped off on families’ doorsteps. These adaptations assisted many of our churches that were struggling to keep their kids engaged.
But, as we come to the end of this winter season, and turn our attention to the fall, it is evident that things won’t be going back to normal anytime soon.
A Little Ice Age
Using the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia as an example, Crouch and Blanchard propose that this pandemic must now be viewed as a little ice age. As a consequence of the eruption’s ash plume, 1816 saw solar radiation reductions, unprecedented summer frosts, extensive crop failures, and economic disaster throughout Europe and North America. This time came to be known as ‘The Little Ice Age’. How communities responded to this large scale event mattered. They suggest that the effects of the 2020 pandemic on the church and non-profit organizations will similarly stretch far beyond months and even years, and that how we respond now will be paramount to our survival.
So, how do we live into, survive, and even thrive in an ice age?
Crouch and Blanchard suggest we begin by recognizing that we’re not going back to normal – ever, and that we need to understand that our assumptions and approaches must change for good. They suggest that we now find ourselves in a new start-up organization, and that our old business no longer exists. This does not mean that everything gets thrown out the window and we start all over again with nothing on the table; our audience, our need, and our fundamental vision remains the same, but our strategies, tactics, and financial models now need to reflect our new realities.
As I read this article, and Crouch and Blanchard’s approach to living into and thriving through this pandemic, I found the metaphors of a blizzard, a winter season and an ice age very helpful. Each weather condition requires a different form of response, and by recognizing and acknowledging where we are situated we are better able to consider how we might move forward in the months and even years ahead.
Planning for the Fall
So, this is where we find ourselves right now; contemplating what our fall might look like with the goal of providing the best transformational educational ministry we are able to provide during this ice age. While I don’t have specific answers to this question, I want to present some prompting questions for your church’s reflection that I believe might help each of us discover our own answers for the fall.
To begin to answer this question, I believe we need to start by revisiting and/or defining what our church’s overall purpose for Christian education and faith formation ministry is. Each church needs to ask itself what they want for their community of children, youth and adults. Is your primary purpose to teach the stories of scripture so all ages might grow in knowledge and belief? Or, is it to offer opportunities for all ages to experience God’s love and find their identity in Jesus? Is it to challenge people to live differently in this world in response to God’s love for them? Is it to grow all people into mature adults of faith that continue to participate in a worshipping Christian community? Or, is it something else altogether?
Your church may already have a clear purpose for educational ministry already in place. Now is a good time to get it out and review it. Does it continue to be true, helpful and guiding for your church community? Do you need to tweak it? Or, perhaps it’s time to ask the question and create a clear understanding of your church’s education and faith formation purpose. Gather key leadership, parents and participants and ask the question, “What do we want for the children, youth and adults of our congregation? With this in hand you can begin to contemplate the practical aspects of the educational ministry approaches you will provide this coming fall.
This primary faith formation purpose will establish the foundation on which you build your 2020-2021 educational ministry plans. As you consider each of your present approaches, activities and programmes critically, you must ask yourselves if they presently fulfill your primary purpose. Your answers might prompt you to hold tight to some things, adjust others to be more consistent with your purpose, or draw to a close others which are no longer helpful and not worth carrying on. As you dream of new approaches, you must continually refer back to your primary purpose ensuring that each are a good fit. Just because it sounds exciting, doesn’t mean you should invest precious resources in it’s delivery if it takes you away from your goal. You may find that doing less, but better and with a clear purpose in mind becomes your fall plan for these days.
While re-visiting our purpose and keeping that always in mind, I believe, we also need to spend time revisiting what we know about how all ages come to experience God and grow in faith. We need to review what we have more recently discovered about faith formation; new knowledge that we have may have been striving to adopt and integrate into our pre-existing educational ministries, but may not have have been able to apply to the degree we wish up until now. Keeping what we know about the significant role of parents, grandparents and mentors in the faith formation of our youngest members in mind, reflecting on recent research regarding our innate spirituality and deep passion for hearing the stories of our faith through a lens of wonder, awe and mystery, and reminding ourselves of the importance of ritual and long term, trusted relationships in the development of young people’s faith are among the many factors we need to keep in mind as we begin to imagine new forms of educational ministry that will be transformative in this era.
Reviewing our knowledge of how people grow in faith might cause us to place most of our emphasis on faith formation in families, multi-sensory and generationally inclusive worship and through smaller, relationship focused programme offerings this fall. It may even cause us to drop our traditional Sunday school model and pick up a more appropriate possibility for cognitive learning. Hopefully this exercise will open up our imaginings and give us permission to try and test new offerings that are most appropriate for great faith formation and our ice age circumstances.
Which leads to consider the context in which our educational ministry activities will be delivered. For some, church buildings will re-open for worship with children’s onsite classes suspended as per the guidelines for Ontario religious services (link to Ontario Ministry of Health document). For others, church buildings will remain closed with technology platforms and small, physically distanced meet-ups providing the context for educational activities. Still others, may create a blended context that uses the church building for worship and also provides opportunities for online concurrent worship with additional programming options. The choice around context will be made by and must be appropriate for each church community. Striving to discover the best way to do educational ministry within your physical context will then be each church’s goal.
As well as our physical context for ministry, there are other aspects that reveal each church’s unique context. Take note of your participants; remember their names, their ages, the number of people in each age grouping, their families and their schedules, consider each person’s needs in these days, their interests, questions, and dreams. Remind yourselves of your educational budget limitations and possibilities. Consider the number of volunteer leaders you have and/or might call into ministry, and remind yourselves of the gifts that each of these leaders bring. Review the curriculum and resource materials you already have at hand and imagine the kind of curriculum that would best meet your needs. Then research the possibilities.
In all of this know that God is with us. Pray for God’s nudging and continued care for all of the people of your community and throughout the world. Pray that all will know that God is holding all close in these days. Pray that the unexpected might happen, and pray that your planning and preparing might take your church into the upcoming ice age with the best of news for the years ahead.
God is with us. God loves all of creation. And, God’s greatest desire is to be in relationship with us all. And for this we give thanks!