Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Your Class Is Too Small
distributed 10/22/10 - ©2010

Way back in 1952, J.B. Phillips wrote the book, Your God Is Too Small. His little (dare I say small?) volume is recognized as a classic for calling believers beyond Sunday School notions of the divine, and toward theologies that can encompass challenging life experiences.

Sixty years ago, Phillips didn't write about the ecological factors that might stretch our notions of God. It is clear -- to me, at least! -- that 21st Century Christianity's ongoing quest for relevance and a bigger God requires us to pay more attention to all creation, and not just people.

Our theological and ethical expansion hits a roadblock, though, when our education is too small. When our churches are limited to a "Sunday School" understanding of educational programming, then we'll have trouble bringing our members into Earth-honoring theology and practice.

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We usually think of religious education as classes which impart knowledge. Classes are important, but a larger vision of education opens new and enticing possibilities.

On several occasions, Eco-Justice Ministries has offered a workshop, Greening Your Church: with a focus on education. The session is designed to help educators, clergy and "green team" members look at the many ways that we learn, and at the variety of goals that educational programs might address. We start the workshop with a small group discussion.

In groups of three or four, participants share stories about the question, "When did you learn to drive?" They're encouraged to go beyond a short, "when I was in High School", and talk about all of the steps that were involved in that learning, how long it took, and how it felt.

The conversations reveal that learning to drive is complex. The groups quickly come to the educational insight that there is a difference between learning practical driving skills and the "book learning" of laws. People remember vividly that there is anxiety about learning new behaviors (and about teaching them!). They realize that learning to drive is a life-long process while they deal with new technologies in cars, more crowded streets, and the personal changes that often accompany aging.

Then we asked a slightly different question: "When did you learn that you wanted to drive?" Did you ever take a class that taught you to want that knowledge? The second round of small group discussion lifts up the "hidden curriculum" which built that interest in the first place. The desire to drive is soaked up from advertising and movies, friends who drove, parents who were eager to have their children learn (or not), and the cultural sense that getting a driver's license is a rite of passage.

In all of the discussions, nobody ever spoke of going to a class that was designed to create an initial interest in driving. There is teaching and education involved in creating that desire to drive, but it does not happen in the classroom.

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Many of us, I'm afraid, have planned wonderful classes for our churches about environmental issues and ecological theology, and been disappointed when few people turn up. The problem is not with the amount of publicity we put out, or a title that wasn't catchy enough. We have small classes because the church's hidden curriculum hasn't been used well to generate interest and excitement.

Congregation members are far more likely to turn out for scheduled classes on environmental topics when the culture of the church emphasizes that a mature and rewarding faith has given thought to these important questions. There are specific educational steps that churches can take to build that culture. Way before any classes are offered, we can and must teach our members about what we value.

  • The listing of helpful tips in church bulletins or newsletters -- change light bulbs, use cloth shopping bags, recycle cans -- may get some people to change their behavior. Just as importantly, they communicate to everyone that the church considers those behavior changes to be worthwhile. (The tips are more effective on all levels when they're tied to a church member: Jan Black always takes canvas bags to the store.) When common environmental behaviors are encouraged at the church -- when the church has recycling bins, and people are reminded to turn off lights -- the lesson being taught is about both actions and values.

  • Worship experiences are at the heart of building the congregation's ethos. If an awareness of God's whole creation never enters the Sunday morning hour, then it is almost guaranteed that crowds won't turn out for classes on the topic. As eco-justice themes become more common in worship -- in prayer concerns, litanies, children's stories, sermon illustrations, hymns and anthems, sanctuary decor and bulletin art -- then it will be easier to recruit people for classes.

  • Word of mouth affirmations and mentoring are essential. The brave or committed folk who have come to classes need to talk it up in exciting and personal ways. "Our discussion group on Food and Faith has given me fresh hope that I can do good things personally and institutionally, and I have a new appreciation for the daily gifts of food!"

Those ongoing, subtle messages are part of the educational program of churches. They need to be part of the planned curriculum that we use to teach our members about faithful living.

Take a few minutes today to think about the education taking place at your church. Is the necessary groundwork being done that will make people want to learn about ecological theology and environmental issues? Is the hidden curriculum an intentional part of educational planning?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." In our churches, how do we teach a longing for environmental living that will change their behavior, and maybe even bring them to a class?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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