Making ‘digital’ disciples

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Oct 11, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] Now, there’s a way to do Sunday school the rest of the week.

In Poughkeepsie, New York, for example, Christ Church’s online “Soul School” offers parishioners a way to brush up on all things Episcopal without ever leaving their homes.

It’s a computer class on Episcopal tradition, made available via a ChurchNext subscription. The Rev. William Blake Rider said he subscribed to the online service because “it’s a brilliant tool to use to let the people who might otherwise not be able to, participate.”

“It’s the same reason that prompted me to duplicate our Wednesday night Christian education offerings at noon on Wednesday, because we realized that some of our frail or elderly … don’t drive at night but are still vital, they still want to learn, and to be engaged in parish life,” Rider said during a recent telephone interview.

Similarly, the Rev. Paul Briggs of St. Mary’s Church in Manchester, Connecticut, said he is using a ChurchNext “Bible Challenge” video course narrated by Marek Zabriskie to “reach out to business guys on the road a lot … and to young people right out of confirmation class. It might be a nice way to give us common ground to talk about. I also invited folks across the spectrum, 20- and 30-somethings, as well as newly retired folks.”

Online learning isn’t new; adapting it for church use is, and is extremely important for future church growth, according to Rider and others across the country.

ChurchNext is not a substitute for weekly Sunday school or traditional Christian education offerings, “but it is another arrow in your quiver for lifelong learning,” said its developer, the Rev. Chris Yaw, who launched ChurchNext several months ago.

“Churches that are vibrant are the ones that are helping people grow in their journey with Christ,” Yaw said during a recent telephone interview. “We recognize that healthy congregations help people learn about God, and grow closer to the Spirit but our 1950s Sunday school model of ‘come out on six Sunday nights in a row’ is not working.”

Yaw, rector of St. David’s Church in Southfield, Michigan, said he came up with the idea because of the realities of parish life and after noticing that acquaintances and church members went online for education and career advancement.

For example, getting prospective godparents to attend pre-baptism meetings is difficult and scheduling instructional time a few minutes before the start of the service is unrealistic.

“I baptized three kids on Pentecost and with three sets of godparents who barely had time to get the kids to church” there was little room for instruction, he said. Instead, he envisions signing them up for a free godparenting class to be viewed at their leisure.

Some 209 congregations—and not all of them Episcopalian—have enrolled for available courses on Scripture, liturgy, spirituality, prayer. self-care and relationships, he said.

It’s affordable, user-friendly and flexible, added Yaw, who is partnering with Forward Movement. Individuals can sign up for $10 per course or $15 per month for unlimited access. Congregations can build their own private schools for $59 per month. Subscribers get unlimited access to ChurchNext courses, which are taught by experts.

“Traditional adult formation doesn’t work for many people. If the only option is coming to classroom at a church building and sitting in a class, many parishioners will simply never engage in formation,” said the Rev. Scott Gunn, Forward Movement’s executive director.

The Cincinnati-based publisher is partnering with ChurchNext because “this is an ideal way to experiment in the complex and changing world of video, benefitting from Chris Yaw’s expertise,” he said. “When we were founded in 1935, pamphlets were cutting edge. While print still works for lots of people, we want to encourage digital disciples too.”

With more than 20 congregations enrolled, Audrey Scanlan, Connecticut’s diocesan canon for mission collaboration considers ChurchNext a way to “work across parish boundaries with each other to begin to strengthen those bonds of community between congregations and … to begin to build some standards for Christian formation.”

In the Diocese of Texas, both the Logos Project and the Discovery Series also offer Christian education and resources via video.

The Discovery Series, about the life of faith, has been used throughout the church as a resource and “will be broken into segments and made available online through Forward Movement so that the instructed Eucharist, or the segment on baptism may be used separately,” according to Carol Barnwell, diocesan communications director.

“The total series is $200 and both Forward Movement and the Diocese of Texas continue to sell this resource for confirmation, spiritual gift assessment and deepening our faith,” she said. “It was produced by the Diocese of Texas so that even the smallest congregation without lots of clergy could prepare a confirmation class with the same depth as a large church with lots of teachers.”

The Logos Project offers free online videos, featuring global faith leaders discussing theological, practical and spiritual topics. It has included presentations by Sister Joan Chittister, discussing Benedictine spirituality and Taizé Brother Emmanuel about rediscovering God’s love, as well as many others.

The diocese is also “building a library of speakers to make available to churches and individuals at no cost,” Barnwell added. “These are kind of ‘ted talks’ for the church. The library is here.

Kerry Allman, Internet Strategist in the Diocese of Olympia said the diocese has used its videoconferencing system to offer some workshops and is exploring other ways to use technology for Christian formation and to build community.

Adapting technology to Christian formation is particularly helpful for dioceses like Olympia, where both geography and weather can hamper participation in more traditional classes, Allman said.

He believes that “people are just going to have to come to terms with technology because it is so prevalent.”

Although checking iPads or phones, blackberries and tablets was once considered rude, now “it’s just a part of reality,” he added. “I go to a lot of meetings where people under 40 are on their smartphones. It’s not that they’re not engaged or paying attention, it’s the way of the culture. We really need to figure out a way to embrace that and to make that a normal part of our everyday experience for worship and for communication.”

Rider agreed. He just began offering the school coursework so has not yet had any feedback about them, he said.

But, he added that: “The largest part of our growing faith community is families with one, two or three children. These are folks who do not come on Wednesdays and don’t hang around after church on Sunday,” he said. This (ChurchNext) is going to be a great tool to keep them connected to the church.”

“We have a chance to deepen their life of faith which, frankly, doesn’t say Morehouse or Cokesbury or Lutheran … it says Christ Episcopal Church Online Soul School, and it has the potential to build a very robust suite of resources that any parish can have and that few of us could provide on our own.”

Yaw envisions adding an unlimited supply of such courses as: Altar Guild 101; Vestry 101; how to meet and greet newcomers … how to help my friend with cancer; how to age with dignity and grace, how to handle my aging parent, and many more.

“Church used to be the place for life questions and people would come to the priest for answers,” he said. “Our content delivery vehicle is broken, so people go to Oprah and Dr. Oz and the question is, how do we reclaim our place in the culture where we actually have these answers.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.