Something is happening in Christian education and formation.
Ministry models are changing. Curricula and other resources are adapting. Teachers and learners are discovering the joys and challenges of using new media to enrich their faith journeys.
And as it has done since its founding in the 1980s, the Center for the Ministry of Teaching (CMT) is helping church leaders understand the big picture and plan accordingly.
The faith formation resource center at Virginia Theological Seminary hosted its second annual e-Formation Conference June 2-4 in Alexandria. About 150 participants (including almost 20 on a live webinar) from at least nine denominations took part, coming together to form a dynamic learning community.
“We didn’t we want a ‘sage on the stage’ telling us how smart they are,” said Lisa Kimball, director of the CMT and professor of Christian formation and congregational leadership. “We wanted a highly participatory, emergent event. We wanted a learning lab.”
This “laboratory” design included training-oriented workshops, hands-on clinics with experienced practitioners, big-picture plenary sessions with pioneers in the field, and guided planning time for making strategic steps forward when returning home.
For many in attendance, the highlight of the conference was Monday evening’s presentation by Sarah Lefton, creator of the popular religious education website G-dcast. Lefton describes the site as “Schoolhouse Rock for Jews.”
She told the story of launching the site with help from a grant that originally paid for about a year’s worth of videos animating the portions of Torah read in synagogues each week.
Lefton wrote the scripts herself—deepening her knowledge of the Bible as she went—and worked with a couple different animators over the course of the year. Her original intended audience was young adults like her.
“How could someone who had been so active in Judaism have so little to say about a character like Joseph [from the Book of Genesis]?” Lefton said. “I had so much Jewish identity and no foundational literacy.”
Lefton’s presentation captured the constant course corrections in the organization’s mission to reach as many learners as possible. When they discovered their audiences were generally much younger than they expected (Jewish educators and parents were using the videos with their kids), G-dcast adjusted their approach.
Knowing this younger audience also helped shape the direction of G-dcast’s next new media experiment in religious education: apps. During her talk, Lefton showed off her skills at the game G-dcast created to teach the book of Leviticus.
“Leviticus … lays it all out pretty simply,” Lefton said before the conference. “Rules. Holiness. Punishments. Blessings. To me, it was obvious that we needed to make a game about it, because that’s what games are, great rule sets … Making a game about the book makes it fun to learn and easy to almost accidentally learn all of the rules, and it takes away the distance between modern life and the priesthood.”
Lefton described the process of launching G-dcast as, in a sense, “writing her own Torah.” That journey has clearly made a difference in her own life of faith.
“We learn very differently when we’re making something ourselves,” she said.
Tuesday morning plenary speaker Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel and a sociologist by training, helped participants understand the cultural shifts that have taken place during the digital revolution.
“When I go into churches and do consultations about digital strategy and someone very proudly tells me, ‘We’re working on our five year plan,’ I laugh at them,” she said. “You need to be thinking three months, six months, nine months, twelve months … Digital has changed how we understand responsiveness.”
Gould also gave a workshop on using visual social media like Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, and Tumblr.
Other workshop presenters included Lifelong Faith’s John Roberto, Church Publishing’s Sharon Pearson, “The Holy Geek” Randall Curtis, Lent Madness founder Tim Schenck, General Seminary’s Colin Chapman, digital evangelist Julie Lytle, the Center for Spiritual Resources’ Robbin Whittington, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry’s Bruce Baumgarten, and Virginia Seminary’s Kimball, Kyle Oliver, and Dorothy Linthicum.
Representing Latino/Hispanic ministry in the U.S. and Latin America were worship leader Sam Dessordi-Leite and workshop leaders Nancy Frausto of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Edgar Giraldo of the Episcopal Church’s Province IX.
Worship during e-Formation was intentionally multilingual to nudge everyone out of their comfort zones, a living metaphor for the challenges of ministry in a digital age.
Other conference highlights included a presentation on race, parenting, and technology by author and Presbyterian teaching elder Bruce Reyes-Chow; a live broadcast of the Easter People faith and culture podcast (an ongoing collaboration of Kimball, Oliver, Curtis, and Jason Evans of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and the networking and fellowship that naturally occur at any continuing education event.
“I don’t think I have ever participated in a conference that had such a pioneering attitude or such tolerance for ignorance and risk,” wrote Episcopal priest and popular blogger Nurya Love Parish after the event. “e-Formation is very much still in a formative stage (excuse the pun). There isn’t a model that has been settled on and widely adopted. Rather, there’s a group of people actively seeking and creating ways to develop disciples using twenty-first-century technologies.”
Plans for next year’s conference, tentatively scheduled for the first week of June 2015, are already underway. More regional e-Formation “bootcamps”—the first of which was held in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona in April—are also likely to be announced. Subscribe to the conference website at www.eformationvts.org or the CMT blog at www.keyhallonline.org for updates.
Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, content developer for the e-Formation Conference, a contributor at Faith Formation Learning Exchange, and a panelist on the Easter People podcast.