Everyone needs a way in. The church growth literature has emphasized that visitors to your church need to be greeted by someone who will make them feel welcome and will get them connected with others who can share in the work of introduction and connection. The best greeters do this in a way that is personal, picking up on signals that suggest a particular kind of follow-up introduction. “Who might this person enjoy meeting?” they ask themselves.
As faith formation leaders, we need to go through similar processes to give people a way into the learning opportunities we help create. The temptation to help them learn what we want them to know is overwhelming, but the science of motivation is teaching us that some autonomy is a key part of what will help them grow. “What might this person want to learn?” is a very powerful question, especially at a time where church membership is no longer normative.
And yet we can and must do even better than that. Greeters don’t have much time to make the choice of first introduction, and they may decide that a barrage of fact-gathering questions would be more off-putting than helpful. But by the time a newcomer or oldtimer indicates an interest in faith formation offerings, that person is likely open to more in-depth personal conversation. That’s our opportunity to look for a spark.
Formal and informal interviews with our would-be learners have the power to move us from “What might this person want to learn” to “What does this person want to learn?” Educators might call this process formative assessment. The folks at Stanford’s Institute of Design call it empathizing, and it’s the first step in the design process they teach.
Whatever you call it, seeking and trusting that spark of interest, that source of curiosity that many of our traditions identify as God-given, helps take the guesswork out of creating learning opportunities and environments. It’s also a way of loving and valuing the people we work with.
One of the first friends I made in seminary had just come from running the most successful youth group in her large, urban judicatory. I asked her what her secret was, and she answered immediately that it was no secret at all: “I asked them what they wanted to do.”
This approach doesn’t mean our efforts to (re)construct curriculum don’t involve our pedagogical judgment, or the faith of our traditions, or the desire to lead learners to the knowledge and love of God. But if we don’t work to find that spark, that way in, that source of connection between the learner and the learning, then none of the rest will matter much. Before someone can enter, we have to show them the way in—or preferably help them find it themselves.
Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, a writer for Faith Formation Learning Exchange (where this post originated), and a panelist on the new Easter People podcast.