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In talking with a variety of adults and young adults (anecdotally, of course), I have found a few reasons for this lack of motivation. As Lutherans, we can take some odd comfort in the reality that the Old Adam will always resist the work of the Spirit in our lives; we don’t need to pretend that people are natural blank slates with pure natures always longing to be filled with God’s Word. Only when we remember our baptismal identities and, through daily contrition and repentance, drown the Old Adam and strive to grow before God in faith and good works, can we overcome that nature. That said, however, we do have a responsibility to use our God-given abilities to try to motivate our learners as best we can.
Beyond human nature’s resistance to true faith, there is a remarkably common excuse to our lack of motivation: everybody is just so busy with life and the pressures of the world to find much meaning in going to a class or Sunday School meeting. It is an excuse, I know, but there is truth to it. If our learners see a parish class or small group as just another activity added to their lives, then they will naturally be skeptical. In addition, if they don’t see a connection between going to such a program or event and it adding meaning or purpose to their everyday lives, then that’s two strikes against us. Thus, many adults will drop their kids or grandkids off at Sunday School or confirmation class but won’t attend themselves because they don’t see the connection.
Some Insights from the Science of Education
There is a science of adult education that backs this reality. Malcolm Knowles, an influential expert in this field, laid out some basic assumptions of andragogy, or the art and science of how adults learn. Here are six of theses basic principles (my summary):
- Adults need to know why they need to learn something before they’ll want to learn it.
- Adults feel responsible for making their own decisions in their lives. It’s about ownership.
- Adults come into educational activities with more diverse experiences than do youth.
- Adults will attend ready and eager to tackle real-life problems.
- Adults are motivated in direct proportion to how applicable they feel the learning experience is to their life challenges at that moment.
- Adults do care about external motivators, but they are much more motivated to learn by internal factors like self-esteem, a sense of community, and a feeling of progress in life.
So what’s the end of all this? It’s easy to think of parish programs as something “kids” do to get a little religion, but many youth and adults grow increasingly unmotivated to attend. If we teach adults the same way we teach kids, the adults will see little connection between what they perceive as religious education and real-life situations.
The sad reality is that, in my experience, this cyclical reasoning tends to feed itself:
1. Adults see religious education as not connected to their daily lives but as something for children.
2. Children attend religion classes without adult support, never having been modeled on how what they learn applies to their lives.
3. Children grow up seeing education as something for children.
4. Those children grow up and have their own children.
5. These now-adult children see religious education as not connected to their daily lives but as something for children—and the pattern continues from generation to generation.
Our Lutheran Response
As Lutherans, however, we don’t have to throw our hands up in the air or up in despair over this lack of motivation (especially among our older learners). A key component to overcoming this, I believe, is a revitalization of the doctrine of Vocation among our adults. In my own words, the doctrine of Vocation emphasizes that our fundamental purpose as God’s creatures is to love and serve our neighbor in our daily lives. This understanding takes what we consider as mundane life tasks and turns them on their head! We function as God’s hands and feet when we engage our callings in life within the household, the congregation, our work, and society. God has called us and chosen us to live faithfully within these vocations, and when we actively engage in them, according to God’s Word, we are serving our purpose in this world.
In light of the andragogical principles, understanding vocation goes a great way to motivation. Why would adults desire to attend a class or study of God’s Word? Well, God has called us to participate in our callings, and He teaches us how to do so through His Word. If we approach our youth and adults from the standpoint that God’s Word does impact their daily lives, where they live, work, and interact with others, then it’s not a stretch to find ways to make those connections.
Are adults responsible for their own learning? Yes, and in receiving God’s Word in the context of a class or group, they have the opportunity to apply their learning to their own places in life. Do adults come to a class with a wealth of experience? Absolutely, and in a class they have the opportunity to share these experiences with others as they strive to engage their vocations. Do adults come to church armed with a desire to tackle obstacles in their lives? Yes, and by attending classes, digging into the Word, and sharing with others, they have a platform for finding connections between God’s Word and the specific obstacles in their lives.
The list could go on, but by now I’m sure you get the point. Especially for youth and adults, an understanding of the four areas of vocation (household, congregation, work, and society) can serve as a major tool to increasing motivation to learn and to attend. The critical change in our thinking that parish educators have to balance is not how to teach more on vocation. It is how to teach vocation and give the learners opportunities to interact with one another and also explore the Word on their own. Because adults are motivated by finding their own connections between God’s Word and their lives, the trick then is to live within the tension of teaching content (which is essential if we’re people of the Word) and facilitating discussion (which is essential if we desire our learners to find those connections).
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