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Christian education programs vital to congregational health

Some churches are seeing a consumer mentality when it comes to religious education. The trend highlights the importance of preparing Christian educators for the future.

Loyalty to one’s church is admirable. Few would argue that. And yet, sometimes leaving can be a sign of Christian commitment.

That was one of the conclusions reached by Dr. Carol E. Lytch when she conducted research for her book Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). It surprised her.

“I personally always regarded changing churches as a negative thing,” says Lytch, now assistant executive director at the Association of Theological Schools, which serves as accrediting body for more than 250 graduate schools in North America.

Lytch studied youths from Roman Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant households in Louisville, Ky., to discern patterns that influenced how committed the teens were to the churches of their childhoods. She found that today’s families don’t necessarily stay forever in one church, and a yearning for strong Christian education is one reason why.

The findings have long-range implications for how seminaries prepare Christian educators for the future. There were nearly 1,700 students enrolled in Christian education degree programs at ATS-accredited seminaries last year. More than ever, those students need to be prepared for the challenges associated with shifting church loyalties.

“In my research, I did see some of the most committed families shift churches on the basis of their children’s needs and how they changed as they were growing up,” Lytch says.

Though she hadn’t really thought of it that way before, “actually, changing churches correlated with high Christian commitment in families. That’s one thing they did: They cared enough about their children’s faith formation that they would switch their church if it wasn’t meeting their children’s needs.”

Because of their scale, megachurches often can offer not only more age-differentiated classes, but also teachers trained in working with disabled children. “If a family has a child with a disability, a megachurch is an option they should consider,” Lytch says.

As an example, she says, if five children at a megachurch have autism, “they may consult with a specialist and really design something that’s going to serve them best. But if you have one autistic child every once in a while, then they don’t know what to do.”

Parents in that situation also benefit from having a support network of other families at the megachurch who are dealing with the same issues, Lytch says.

This trend toward a consumer mentality is getting churches’ attention, and they all “would love to have really fine offerings in Christian education,” says Lytch. She noted, though, that financial stress sometimes causes congregations to compromise educational offerings.

In tough times, she says, it can be tempting “to hire someone with not a lot of training, and so they don’t get the benefit of an educated person in theology, with experience, giving a vision to Christian education.”

Lytch says congregations would do well to remember the importance of a strong educational program, both for children and adults. “That matters a lot and holds people in their church, when they’re learning and growing.”

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