In this new world, this global village we inhabit, growing ever more complicated and accessible through science and technology, many of us think daily about the meaning and purpose of our lives. We are mindful of the decisions that need to be made to make sense of the world and our place in it. We can all tell stories of significant life experiences and the role we feel God is playing in them. A child is born, a child dies. A job is terminated; a new one is begun. We fall in love; we encounter something in nature that stirs us beyond anything we have known before. A parent dies and the loss lasts a very long time. We feel yearnings in our very soul for something yet unknown. We witness an incredible sunset or experience an amazing piece of art or poetry. We wonder about God’s role in the universe and our role with God in the ongoing creation and sustaining of the planet. Even as we live in a post-9/11 world, with wars and natural disasters, worldwide economic changes, and climate and environmental issues, the search for meaning continues and each generation shares the universal concerns for life and common good.
This is the world to which we in continuing theological education introduce the questions of why and how to provide theological education for laity living into the worthy questions of faith for this time.
Laity are those members of the church whom God has called to the church outside the walls of the church. In unison they might say, “We write the laws of our lands and invent new technologies to serve humanity. We know how to clone animals and humans and measure germs on Mars. We rear and educate children. We work in corporations, governments, and health care systems. We build roads and homes. We write and produce movies and TV shows. In those endeavors, we seek to practice our faith. We need the wisdom of faith through deeper theological reflection to help discern the how and why of it all.”
They might also say in unison that they are not theologians, while they in fact are doing theology. For the most part, that means they are not trained in theology for preaching, teaching, and Word and Sacrament ministry. That is a particular call. “Doing theology” does not merely mean studying tradition, doctrine, and Scripture so that one knows about those things. Rather, theology balances fact and theory with the lived experience of God each of us has. All experience has meaning and provides insight for the journey. To stay either in the academic mode or the experiential mode would deny the wholeness of each person, God, and the universe.
At a very early age, the people of God begin to speak to God, to recognize there is a God, even without fully understanding: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord…” Laypeople of all ages and cultures are searching for meaning and purpose. The church risks losing them if the only theological reflection available to them is the church school. A forty-three-year-old from the East Coast sums up some of the longing for meaning in life when she asks, “What is this deep longing I feel in spite of success and happiness? What is God’s purpose for me? How do I know when God is speaking to me?”
Even in their mature years, people wonder about meaning and purpose as they remain vital but begin, as one sixty-something puts it, “to deal with end-of-life decisions for parents and in-laws. How, as Christians, do we make choices for ourselves and our loved ones?” Some issues in later life are about new relationships with children and grandchildren, meaningful retirement, or new directions for the vital years yet to come. Other issues are connected to new technologies that are frightening and often not understood by clergy or laity who are not working in the fields of science and technology. How do we bring the science and faith perspectives together in ways that assist Christians in making decisions?
Unlike the more predictable and compact list of theological needs of church professionals, the possibilities for educational programming for laity are awesome. All of life and faith is out there to chew on. That makes developing educational opportunities tricky, but accepting the challenge means multiplying the number of people who are equipped for ministry in the world and in the church. People in church-related occupations may also be grateful for such offerings; many will appreciate a shift in emphasis for their own particular ministries. Continuing educators can enter the lay market in any number of places, slowly at first and then incrementally increasing or reframing offerings, testing, and checking with the audiences. I offer four strategies to help you get started:
- Involve laity in solid theological education (along with clergy, in many instances) where presenters and teachers pay special attention to applying their material to real-life situations. That will require a shift in teaching style for some presenters.
- Create reflection groups of people in similar occupations. Use a small group approach to provide information, support, accountability, and deep engagement in the issues of work and the marketplace. Often occupational groups are best done ecumenically; it strengthens relationships and better represents the day-to-day workplace connections of most Christians.
- Extend the groups mentioned in the first two strategies to include online conversations where possible. The Internet allows people to relate in real time and cyber time from anywhere participants find themselves working. Ethical and moral situations in which people find themselves on any given day can be discussed from a distance with trusted friends. A combination of face-to-face and online time probably appeals to many. The group can decide that for itself. Continuing educators need to be open to this type of format.
- Face squarely the challenges that this new group of participants will bring to traditional areas of your curriculum. For example, preaching events are popular for clergy. With laity, think about how pastors preach so that the Word can be heard. How do laity hear the preaching and then reword it for themselves? Who is responsible for the translating? Can laity and clergy do that together? How? Clergy and laity could participate in mealtime, evening, one-day, and weekend events.
There is no end to the corners of life that would benefit from theological reflection and education. In a post-Christian world, our faith should reach every aspect of work and family life, global economics, politics, and religion. Millions of laity are eager for the opportunity to expand their horizons, to think differently, to live differently. Learning happens in all of life and through all of life.
Why would laypeople want theological education, anyway? For life, of course.
Adapted from A Lifelong Call to Learn: Continuing Education for Religious Leaders, edited by Robert E. Reber and D. Bruce Roberts, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved