January 16, 2015

Hybrid Faith Formation: Two Final Lessons For Any Minister, Any Church

Our second seasonal experiment with combined in-person/online faith learning and growth has come to a close (read more about this year’s hybrid faith formation cohort in the earlier posts). Networked learning has taken off in several more congregations, and outside interest in this new ministry model continues to be high.

As I sit with the detailed and thoughtful feedback from our cohort participants, I am struck anew by the power of community to help us overcome our fear of change. One participant wrote what I think several others were thinking: “I would not have had the courage to try my online project without this group.” I know I would not have had the courage to advocate so widely for this new approach without the enthusiasm and support of this talented group of action researchers.

So as I try to put my finger on a couple lessons from this year’s much-improved experience, I’ll try to address them not just to individual leaders—although leaders are crucial for convening hybrid networks—but also to congregations as a whole. Without congregations’ willingness to nurture something new, connected small-group learning will never reach its full potential among their members.

Our learners aren’t students

For years now, churches have been noting that the classroom mentality of Sunday school has been both a blessing and a curse to congregational faith formation. I don’t want to belabor the usual points, but I do want to mention one not often raised: our learners are not students.

If we can help each other do that, we’re bound to find new models, new growth, new life.

By this I mean that members of our congregations aren’t students in the formal educational sense. Sure, they are growing disciples of Jesus Christ, but Jesus’ “students” weren’t enrolled in classes, weren’t paying tuition, weren’t receiving a grade or a diploma. We have to find meaningful ways of motivating the learners in our congregations, because we don’t have the carrots of the school system, and the traditional cultural pressures to practice the faith no longer apply. (That’s okay; they were probably poor motivators of deep transformation anyway.)

For our group of leaders learning this new model together, the principal motivator was community. When asked what kept them going through the busy fall, one participant wrote, “The others in the group. I wanted to know what they were up to and what they were thinking about.” It’s no different in our congregations: our biggest ally in faith formation is the mutual ties that bind together the Body of Christ. And those work just fine at a distance, as the Apostle Paul knew well.

Here’s a quick example: Last year’s cohort ran out of steam at the end of our time together. One result was that we received only a single evaluation from the group. This year we knew we needed 100% participation in order to consolidate reported learning and plan for the future. Our co-leader Day Smith Pritchartt wisely noted that a playful offer of some silly reward might do the trick. Thus was born a fun, if cringe-inducing, YouTube video of yours truly’s “Blue Christmas” Elvis impression. (You’ll have to find it yourself if you want to watch.)

Trust me, the video itself didn’t motivate anyone. It was the love that we shared that made the difference. The video was just a token of that love.

Life will happen; grace should abound

Heaven make us free of using shame and guilt to try to coerce robust participation in our churches. Especially in informal congregational learning, we have to be realistic about how everyday pressures are affecting participants in our programs. One of the advantages of having leaders participate in a network at the same time that they were trying to launch one was the perspective that this experience gave. One participant described it like this:

"How frustrating it can be to try and keep up with an online cohort when life is throwing curveballs at you and also, unfortunately, how easy it is to give up and drop out … Since I have had the experience of being “that kid” I can certainly more readily sympathize now, and that is still something learned from this experience."

Those who stuck with the experience and those who had to bow out agreed that the group’s whole-hearted support of their adult decisions about participation were important to the overall experience.

“Accountability” has become something of a buzzword in ministry, and surely that is a good thing. But let’s not send the message that anything less than full participation is failure or some sort of betrayal. Our members are on a journey with God, and the Spirit will get them where they need to be if we create communities where grace can abound.

You’ll notice that these two big lessons don’t have much to do with technology. I could share with you some detailed feedback about the usefulness of weekly check-in posts, about helping participants configure their notifications, about asking good questions or establishing a rhythm of interaction and follow-up. But those are lessons best learned through doing. Or, better yet, doing in community with a little bit of experienced mentoring.

Our more important piece of learning—a reminder, really—is that the core skills and practices of ministry, including the ministry of faith formation, are the same as ever in this digital age: love the people you serve, encourage them to love and support one another, trust that God is present in the lives of all who seek transformation in the Spirit.

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