The Educational Bar Mitzvah: Thoughts on Christian Adult Education

[published in LEADER, Dec-Feb 1999-2000]

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA www.allsaintspresbyterian.com 

Do we have an educational bar mitzvah, a transition of child to adult in Christian education? I do not mean a rite of passage-though that might be instructive. I mean a conceptual bar mitzvah. I believe that in the pages of the New Testament we have pictures which are very suggestive of this. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, the Apostle Paul uses a familiar metaphor, "When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things." Later in the same epistle, he says, "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature" (14:20). In Ephesians, the same author, draws upon this metaphor again. He contrasts attaining "the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man..." (4:13) with no longer being "children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine..." (see also Hebrews 5:12-14). 

So it seems that the Scripture recognizes distinct capacities in adulthood. The reasoning of children is different than adults. Of course, it is not only the Word of God that says this, the world of God shouts it too. Every person's experience makes this plain. So, we should consider how this affects adult education in the church. In the 1970s, a special term for adult education was popularized by a leader in the field, Dr. Malcolm Knowles: "andragogy" (from the Greek terms for "man" aner/andros and "leader" agagos). This term is distinguished from "pedagogy" (leading a child, paidon). Knowles observes that andragogy assumes that adults have - 

Suggested Educational Applications

More effective educational ministries to adults involves seeing and applying these insights. More effective educational ministries to adults involves keeping the truth of God as the unchanging content. Scripture and educational effectiveness constrains us in two ways, then: first, we must impart the content of the faith to adult learners; second, we must do so in a way that is relevant to their needs. If we take these two concerns at face value, the basic structure of a CE program for adults emerges. It must include both classroom settings and informal small group settings. There is still a balance to be kept. The classroom type of adult educational settings are not to be so "content intensive" that we overlook the relational dynamics and life relevant applications. And the small group contexts are not to be so relational that we deny that we have a content-faith "which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3).

Let me suggest a few educational tenants which relate to andragogy. These theological and educational thoughts are merely suggestive and are certainly not exhaustive.

Suggested Practical Applications 
  In summary, I believe that Christian education for adults must have two central components: (a) the contextual component, which recognizes the relational and personal realities of people in the image of God; and (b) the content component which recognizes the unchanging truth of God in the gospel of His Son. Therefore, in the context of true koinonia (fellowship) in the life of Christ, we must communicate the unchanging truth of God's Word.