I’m in the ninth year of my first call. It’s a dangerous time for me as a pastor. I’ve made and owned up to enough mistakes to feel seasoned, which makes me even more vulnerable to making bigger ones that hamper Christ’s ministry in this church.
Fortunately, St. John Lutheran in Dundee, Mich., is a very forgiving congregation. Oh, there are the prerequisite grumpy Lutherans who expect their pastor to have the energy of a teenager and the experience of a senior citizen. But, by and large, my time in this place continues to be a blessing to me and my family.
Except for Sunday school (or more specifically, adult education). I love to teach, but it doesn’t come naturally. About five people show up for whatever program or Bible study I put on the table. I love them because they know as much, if not more, about the Bible than I do, yet they continue to suffer patiently through my lessons, warped sense of humor and occasional misinterpretation of Lutheran theology or Scripture.
Over the years I can remember two Sundays when I had more than 15 people in attendance. The first was when I announced a Bible study on Revelation (when they realized I wasn’t interested in interpreting the text like the Left Behind guys, the numbers decreased dramatically). The second time was Sept. 16, 2001—40 people sat before me, wanting to know why God would allow something so horrible as Sept. 11 to happen. The standard evil/free will doctrine seemed like a cheap rationalization at the time.
So in December 2005, in the joyous melee we call Advent, I was casting about for something good to teach in the next semester of adult education. The Lutheran Course had resonated well with the dozen or so folks who attended that fall. But I felt the need to do something a little more edgy—a little less preachy and a little more down to earth. “Keep it real,” as my youth group kids like to remind me.
By pure coincidence (read: Spirit), I stumbled across a book called Penguins, Pain, and the Whole Shebang by John Shore (Seabury Books, 2005; available from www.amazon.com). This little book packs a walloping slice of real Christians dealing with real issues. I read it in an hour and decided then and there (before I lost my nerve) to develop a class around it.
I advertised it as a “not typical” adult education course and began corresponding with the author via e-mail. Our souls intersected at a place designated as “slightly off-the-beaten-path” humor. I developed Powerpoint presentations and away we went. I was amazed and anxiety-ridden to see 30 people show up that first Sunday. I warned them that this was an unusual book that didn’t mince words. Some folks might call it blasphemous. But then again, wasn’t Martin Luther a bit edgy too?
I quickly discovered that people love to learn when laughing is involved. They celebrate creation in new ways by contemplating the life and times of the dung beetle, for instance. They learn about human nature by sharing parenting and marital ups and downs (the husband who grudgingly volunteered to read a passage from Song of Solomon to his wife was especially touching). And they need to hear most of all that they aren’t alone and that God is alive and well.
Oh, and it helps to know that God created penguins too, which is more proof of the Almighty’s divine funny-bone. If we think that God doesn’t ruminate on these issues, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. As Lutherans, we have a proud heritage through our namesake in the arena of earthy theology. If this comes as a surprise to you, then perhaps you need to read Table Talk and then invite your pastor over for fried chicken and beer (two things that Martin especially enjoyed).
Since that time, my adult education class has never been the same—we keep it real and we keep it lively. Here are some things I’m learning along the way:
1. People enjoy technology. Teaching with Powerpoint and other forms of electronic media work well.
2. Look for current cultural phenomena to use as examples—movie clips, podcasts, transcripts from TV shows.
3. Don’t be afraid to ditch the agenda if the Spirit takes the conversation in a different direction.
4. Even the best-laid lesson plans sometimes sputter and stall. Likewise, sometimes something you scrawl on a Post-it note is enough to generate a transformative experience.
5. Don’t try to have all the answers. Instead, spend more time asking really great questions.
6. Try not to be the hero of every story (even if you think you are one).
7. Steal shamelessly from what works for other pastors and educators.
8. Never force yourself to think of more ideas so you can call something a “Top Ten List.”
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers