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Overcoming Barriers to Adult Christian Education

By David Goodbourn.

Every so often someone asks me to put them in touch with a church with a really good programme of adult education. They want an example of how things should be done. I still find it difficult to know where to send them. Here in Scotland, at least, good examples are sadly few.

This is strange, given the amount of thinking and research which has been going into adult Christian education in recent years. In Britain, Anton Baumohll1 , Yvonne Craig 2 and Elizabeth Varley 3 have all produced excellent and practical books on how to plan and execute adult education in the Church. From North America, there is a veritable stream of publications - those from Canada, such as William Adamson 4 , perhaps relating most easily to our context. Nevertheless, the growth in church-run adult education has mostly been beyond the level of the local church -in the courses run by the Methodist Study Centre, the Baptist Christian Training Programme, the Open Theological College, the various diocesan courses, or here in Scotland. the Scottish Churches Open College. Between them, they work with some thousands of people. But seldom are there more than a handful from anyone church. Their work is not matched by any comparable work in most local churches themselves.

We need to ask ourselves why this should be. And why in a few churches there seems to be a hunger for Christian adult education which is not found more generally. It is all the more strange when we recognise that educational provision for children is made in almost every church in the land.

I want to suggest that there are significant barriers in the minds of both church leaders and church members which make adult education provision difficult, and that the key to effective adult Christian learning lies in adopting strategies to overcome these.

The concept of barriers to learning is not a new one. Every form of adult education faces its own set. Research in the field usually categorises them under three heads: situational, institutional and dispositional barriers.5 Situational barriers are those which arise from the context in which the adult education is being offered ( eg travel problems, lack of appropriate facilities, time of day); institutional barriers arise from within the body providing the learning opportunities; and dispositional barriers arise from within the minds of the potential learners themselves. Several pieces of work have sought to relate these barriers to Christian learning, most notably John Hull's exploration of dispositional barriers. Recently one of my own students, Jacqueline Erskine, has been doing field work on the theme in Glasgow 6 . Such research, however, tends to focus on the learner. It assumes that education is available, and asks what it is that might prevent someone taking part in it. It seems to me, however, that in Christian adult education we have also to explore the barriers to provision. What stops Christian churches offering adult Christian education? I would like to start by exploring that question, and only then go on to the barriers confronted by the potential learner him- or herself. I shall be listing a number of points for each.

Factors Leading Churches not to Provide Adult Education

1. The confusion between preaching and teaching. Many churches imagine that they do provide for Christian adult education, because it is given via the sermon each Sunday. The widespread practice of removing the children from the service for education at the point when the adults settle down to hear the preaching only reinforces the confusion. Some preachers respond by trying to turn their preaching into teaching, but it is manifestly obvious that if we were setting out to teach we would never do it this way. A multitude of studies in adult learning show the importance of interaction, discussion, discovery and hands-on learning. Preaching typically involves none of these. What it does do well is its proper task of proclamation, of refreshment and of challenge. It is best to leave it to do what it does well, and to provide the education in some other way.

2. A confusion between fellowship and education. Some churches feel that by providing, say, house groups, they have done enough. Indeed the close fellowship generated in house groups provides an excellent environment for adult education to take place, but it becomes 'education' only when it moves beyond fellowship and engages both mind and emotion. To know whether education is taking place, we have to know what the house groups actually do.

3. An uncertainty as to the purpose of adult Christian education. Our culture is one in which learning is increasingly justified only by the ends it serves. It is not worth doing for its own sake. The secular educational system has moved far in that direction. Accordingly, local churches find themselves unsure about the use of adult education. The attitude is echoed in the puzzled incomprehension often faced by students on lay theological courses, when they try to explain about their course: ' So if you are not training to be a Minister or Reader, what on earth is it all for?' If adult education led to some measurable output or skill, increased the numbers in the pew or improved the efficiency of the management, they could see the point. Since it doesn't guarantee any of these things, they are not so sure. In fact, I would see it as one of the keys to the future effectiveness of the Church, not because it creates a measurable output, but because it strengthens confidence and faith and unlocks people's ministry to one another.

4. Fear of its effects on fragile faith. Education asks questions. In that sense, it is often distinct from training, which may equip you for a task without questioning any of the presuppositions on which the task is based. Churches are often afraid of the questions it asks, in case they undermine people's faith. In some ways they are right to be so, because the continuing work on faith development 8 suggests that at each point of growth there is a concomitant risk -people .will either grow from one stage of faith to another, or in the transition process will fall away from faith. If education is the process of helping people grow in faith, it will also create pain and uncertainty along the way. I want to argue, however, that we cannot afford not to help people explore the difficult questions, because the world in which they live will throw up the challenges anyway. Only those who isolate themselves in a Christian ghetto can avoid having to deal with some of the intellectual challenges to faith, the alternative systems of meaning, the confusion of the post-modern supermarket of ideas, which are all around us. Any who wish to engage with the world in order to witness within it need to understand its culture, to discover how, say, rave culture provides an almost mystical experience for its participants, and to evaluate all that in terms of their Christian faith. The times require those who can give an adequate account of their faith, as well as those who can share its joy and excitement.

5. A belief that adults don't want to learn. Adults often say they are too old to learn, and this is particularly true as they grow older9 . Learning is associated with school and adolescence. The impression is confirmed by the poor numbers who often turn up for 'adult education' events. The research evidence suggests, however, that adults do a great deal of learning. Tough 's Canadian research 10 , for instance, showed adults undertaking on average several serious learning projects per year (though usually without defining them as 'education', and thus not seeing themselves as engaging in real learning). Wickett's 11 related research amongst church people showed the same. Adults do learn, but as we shall see later, their choice of subject and method very seldom fits neatly into the kind of programme churches typically provide. Hence the widespread feeling that they have no interest in learning.

6. Uncertainty as to how it is to be done. Even amongst those who believe in the importance of adult education, there is often a lack of vision as to how it might be undertaken. A frequent experience for people like me is being called in to a local church education committee where the responsibility to promote adult learning is felt as a fearsome burden. They think it is their job to bully people into taking part in activities in which they don't wish to engage, and for which they have little stomach. Their relief when we explain that it needn't be like that, and that there are other ways of helping adults to learn (as I shall try to outline later), is palpable.

Factors Leading Christians not to Opt in to Adult Education

1. Antipathy to' education'. There is a number of dispositional barriers to learning which apply to adult learners in general, not only those in the Church. One which has become almost a truism is the antipathy towards education often felt by those who failed in, or were failed by, the formal education system. It is often commented that adult education courses are full of teachers and lecturers -because they have a vested interest in believing in the value of education! Interestingly, some doubt has recently been cast on the idea that those successful at school will be the readiest to enter adult learning: careful analysis of the figures shows that it is in the countries of the UK with the best school results (Northern Ireland, followed by Scotland) that adult education enrolments are lowest 12 . Nevertheless, it is clear there are many who will shy away from anything described as education.

2. Not taking account of why and how adults choose to learn. More important for our work is the growing evidence about why and how adults choose to learn. A barrier to learning is set up when the provider fails to take account of motivation and preferred method. Some small scale research of our own 13 , taking up themes from research elsewhere, shows that if an average adult is asked to recall at random a piece of leaming of some significance to them done within the previous fortnight, two thirds will choose something they learned because of a felt need. In other words, it seems that adults mostly learn when they need to. That means they are relatively unlikely to respond to an adult learning programme arranged by a church if it is not clearly responding to their felt needs. Similarly, when asked how they undertook this piece of significant learning, two thirds will say that it was self-organised. Adults, it seems, prefer to be in charge of their learning, finding things out for themselves from friends, books, trial and error, rather than in courses and groups organised by others. Significantly, many of the learning needs they had handled in this way are predictable consequences of moving through the life cycle: caring for children, coping with teenagers, making sense of sex, sorting out your morality, learning to cope with colleagues at work, facing middle age, living with redundancy etc. A church which knows its congregation could guess which would be the key issues for whom and when.

3. The wrong 'Learning Style'. A third general barrier arises when a course or event fails to take account of the learning styles of the potential learners. By 'learning style' is meant the: preferred way of getting in to learning. The issue is well discussed in the books by Craig and Varley already mentioned 14 . Although the original research on learning style is mainly North American, British writers have mostly used the development of it by the British educators Honey and Mumford 15 . They suggest there are four basic styles, activists (who learn by doing), pragmatists (who learn only what they can see to be useful), reflectors (who learn by observing and studying alone) and theorists (who learn through abstract ideas and arguments).Most of us are a combination of all four, but one or two styles are likely to be dominant. That means we will often choose not to take part in learning which fails to use our dominant style or styles. Since what evidence there is seems to suggest church members are most likely to be pragmatist or reflective, while ministers tend not to be high on pragmatism, ministers often set up learning programmes which fail to appeal to their members. The problem is accentuated by the academic nature of ministerial training, which rewards best those who can learn using a theorist learning style. The unaware minister will often instinctively try to recreate the same style in church adult education, thus discouraging all those with different preferences from taking part.

4. lnfantilising faith. There are also some dispositional barriers which apply only to people of faith. John Hull 16 picks up a number. One, he argues, is the tendency of Christian culture today to infantilise faith, so it is seen to relate more clearly to the home, neighbourhood and family than to the adult world. Hence intelligent adults, thinking critically in other sectors of their life, prefer to keep their Christian faith at a child-like level.

5. The cost of growth. Another factor noted by Hull is people's instinctive awareness of the cost of Christian growth, involving loss and turbulence on the way to greater discovery. Such pain is often avoided. In fact, adults often put considerable energy into avoiding situations which will disturb their thinking or involve a change in fundamental view points and attitudes. Such risks are taken only when the cost of not taking the risk is higher than the risk itself. That means we need to help people recognise the cost of not engaging in adult learning. That cost will be a failure to meet some of the most significant needs of Christian discipleship today, such as:

the need to be able to give an account of the hope which is in us, and become used to sharing faith in a challenging environment;

the need to be able to make the most of the Christian resources, such as scripture, spirituality, the theological tradition, and one another;

the need to unlock our ability to minister effectively to one another, so that ministry becomes a function of the whole church; the need to discover our gifts, and use them in the most effective way possible.

6. Anti-rationalism. In a world influenced by post-modernism, there has also been a move away from stressing the rationality which education often values. For many, education is an inappropriate response to faith, because it is the experience, rather than the reflecting on it, which matters .The difficulty is that a faith maintained by experience, without the concomitant development of an intellectual framework sufficient for the needs of the one doing the experiencing, is hard to sustain if the experience is questioned or begins to go wrong. Certainly we have a great need to work with heart as well as the head, but we cannot afford to work with the heart instead of the head.

7. Situational barriers. Situational barriers are those which arise not because of the activity of learning itself, but through the context in which it is offered. Some are fairly obvious. Parents with young children can't come unless there is a creche. People without cars can't come if there is no transport. People who work the back shift can't come if it takes place in the evening. People who work in shops can't come if it is a Saturday day conference. People who are poor can't come if it costs too much. These are all obvious, but often not taken into account.

8. Antipathy to groups. One less obvious factor arises from our tendency to organise adult learning in small groups. Those who have a disinclination to share in groups will be put off, not by the possibility of learning, but by the group they will have to join to take part in it. The research 17 suggests that the disposition to join in groups is related to geographical and social mobility. The more mobile the person, the more likely they are to welcome group membership, The more static the community, the harder it will be to get any form of group work going. The explanation is probably to do with belonging - those who are mobile need to create instant communities in order to feel they belong, those who are not already belong. Often the latter's priority is to protect their privacy, not to get closer to people! This means we should be very cautious about using a group-based strategy for adult education in a low mobility church.

Ten Propositions on Providing Christian Adult Education

It is clear then, that adult education in the local church is not an easy undertaking. With so many reasons why churches might not offer adult education, and why their members may not take part if they do, the picture can look rather bleak. It is also clear that it is a vital one. So how do we respond? As I see it, the very factors which militate against participation in adult learning are also those which indicate how it might be done. The barriers to learning, if turned on their heads, produce a good list of the ways to enable learning. Let me summarise how, in the form of ten propositions:

1. Adult education programmes should usually take as their starting point the felt needs of the congregation. These will be the things in their lives or church work with which they as Christians find it hard to cope. Many of them can be predicted by an aware church.

2. The church's adult education strategy should include making the resources available and readily accessible for people to organise and carry out their own leaming individually. What this means will depend on the kind of community which uses the church, but it could include libraries, video collections, tapes, leaflets, posters, exhibitions ...What becomes important is presenting these in away which makes them genuinely accessible, so that people can quickly fmd the resources which they need. Leaflets are better as a first point of content than books. Materials should be arranged according to common learning needs, not alphabetically or by Dewey Decimal catalogues. Finding them shouldn't mean burrowing in a cupboard - they need to be openly available in a regular mingling area.

3. The church should look seriously at the lifestyles of its members, to see when they are most likely to be genuinely free to take part in learning activities, and respond accordingly. It should be ready to take steps (like providing a creche or transport) to make it easier for people to take part.

4. The church should look at whether theirs is a mobile or static congregation, and judge accordingly how much emphasis to put on group learning. In any case, it will be important to analyse what brings people together for social activity, and seek to use that as the context for learning.

5. Accordingly, the church should be flexible and creative in the vehicles it uses to carry its adult education activities. Whether it is party plan learning, sewing circle learning, evening-in-the-pub learning, or whatever, people are most likely to respond to learning when it is happening in an environment and context in which they naturally feel comfortable, and is using the learning styles which they prefer. It is important to make the most of the learning potential of the events and activities the church already arranges, rather than always thinking learning must take place in special educational activities.

6. Learning activities should usually have limited terms. If people are coming to meet a felt need, it shouldn't be necessary for them to sign up to a group which will go on for years. The group should stop once its job is done.

7. The related but distinct activities of preaching and teaching should be twin pillars in the building up of the church, but should not be confused. Education needs to be consciously planned for in its own right. The difficulties, of course, are plain. Only on Sunday morning is everyone there, so if you fail to teach people then, when can you do it? For some churches, the answer has been a split morning, where education and worship both take place, but each is kept distinct from the other.

8. A church which brings its members up against the sharp challenges posed by confrontation with the world - whether through evangelism or social action -is the most likely to generate the learning needs which drive adult learning. In this sense, adult education is often at its best when it follows action, rather than as a preparation before action begins. It is when our work of mission confronts us with the challenges to our faith presented by the modern world, and forces us to handle the questions people are really asking, that the strongest motivation for adult education arises.

9. There will be many things a church wants to teach its people, but unless it approaches them either through something of which they feel a need, or through something which fascinates them, it won't get them there to listen. Or if it does, they won't be in a mood to hear. I continue to be impressed by the church in Edinburgh which, deciding its members ought to know something of church history, but fully aware that if they ran a church history group hardly anyone would come, decided instead to run a flower festival on the story of the Christian church. Every exhibitor had to research some aspect of church history in order to prepare their exhibit. An immense amount of learning went on, without anyone creating a single study group.

10. Take seriously people's daily lives as a context for the issues raised in adult education. You will help Christian faith break out of the 'family-neighbourhood-church' ghetto into the areas of life where people often find it hardest to be Christian. Those are likely to include both their work and their leisure. These are just a few indicators. Readers will be able to add others of their own (and may well wish to do so). The important thing is not to let the barriers to learning daunt us, but instead to take them all as signs of how things must change if they ar to be overcome.


1 Anton Baumohl, Making Adult Disciples, Scripture Union, London 1984  Return

2 Yvonne Craig, Learning for Life: A Handbook of Adult Religious Education, Mowbray,London 1994.  Return

3 Elizabeth Varley, Catching Fire, Bible Society, London 1993  Return

4 William Adamson, Empowering Disciples: Adult Education in the Church, Novalis,Outremont 1990.   Return

5 Patricia Cross, Adults as Learners, Salt Fralncisco, Jossey Bass, 1981.   Return

6 John Hull, What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning, SCM, London 1985  Return

7 Jacqueline Erskine, An Investigation into Barriers to Participation in Christian Adult Education, MSc Dissertation for Glasgow University, 1995.   Return

8 For instance, Fowler and Westerhoff, whose ideas are discussed with those of others in a very helpful short guide to the theory, How Faith Grows, National Society/Church House Publishing,London 1991.  Return

9 Jacqueline Erskine, op. cit., demonstrates the reluctance of older adults to envisage themselves engaging in adult education.  Return

10 Allen Tough, The Adult's Learning Projects, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,1979.  Return

11 R.E. Y Wickett and Gregory Dunwoody, 'The Religious Learning Projects of Catholic Adults in Early and Middle Adulthood', Insight: A Journal of Adult Religious Education,No 3, 1990   Return

12 J Field and T Schuller, 'Is there less adult learning in Scotland and Northern Ireland, 'Scottish Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, Vol. 2 No.2 1995  Return

13 Written up in an unpublished paper for the Church of Scotland Research Group.  Return

14 op. cit.  Return

15 Peter Honey and Dennis Mumford, Using Your Learning Styles, published by the authors.  Return

16 John Hull, What Prevents Christian Adults From Learning, SCM, London 1985  Return

17 See my article, Vol. 2, No 1, 1988  Return

Dr David Goodbourn, a Baptist layman, is Dean of the Scottish Churches' Open College, and Assistant Director (College Education) for the Church of Scotland Board of Parish Education. He also teaches at the Scottish Baptist College.


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You are reading Overcoming Barriers to Adult Christian Education by David Goodbourn, part of Issue 7 of Ministry Today, published in June 1996.

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