I want to return to something I started talking about in the last piece, and that is the notion of ending a program, ministry, or class. When everything is open-ended it becomes structurally impossible to move people into the next thing, which is a critical component for a person’s spiritual, intellectual, communal, and moral formation.
I want liturgy volunteers who pray the Lectio Divina daily and can explain transubstantiation from Scripture and Thomas Aquinas. I want Bible study leaders who have memorized the Sermon on the Mount and live it every other Thursday at a soup kitchen. I want clergy who go to class. I want classrooms to become mini-chapels of prayer. I want homes to centers of evangelical outreach, neighborly love, and apostolic community.
But none of this can happen if we just stay put.
I remember hearing pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Church say that at his dad’s Baptist church, which is world famous, there were Sunday School groups that have the same 8 people meeting in the same classroom for the last 20+ years and it may be their third time studying Ephesians, but in no way, shape, or form are they going to give up that space.
This attitude is detrimental to the life of the parish.
I want people to know that when they enroll in a course it has a beginning and it most definitely has an end. When you arrive at the end, that’s it, it’s over. You need to move on.
The goal for the leadership would be to create positive and powerful Next Steps so students do not feel like they were being fed and then, poof, it’s over. You do not want the next step to be off a cliff.
Having a clearly defined pathway for discipleship and formation means that after they are equipped for reading and praying Scripture, they should go and serve. We have a lot of permanent students who are in the same class for almost a decade. To some, this looks like a good thing. “Don’t you want them learning their faith?” Yes, I do, but not like this.
What’s wrong with this model is that there is no termination and thus no movement. It’s a cycle. They are bellying up to the Bible study trough again and again, series after series. They need to be shepherded up and out into another area of formation, or at the very least they need to be mentored into leadership positions within the ministry.
There is a great retreat ministry we offer called ACTS that does exactly this. Each year about 40 men or women go through an ACTS retreat. After they go through it they are invited to “team” on the very next retreat. Being on the team means you have some service or leadership job and help execute the retreat the following year. This gives men and women who probably never led a single thing in their lives to get a taste of volunteering in the parish setting. If they had a positive ACTS experience, then they are far more likely to volunteer as a team member. This matriculation process keeps the ACTS team constantly flowing with new blood as well as more senior volunteers. At our parish, we often have to do a lottery because so many want to be on the team.
One leader expressed to me his great sadness that he cannot find enough facilitators for his programs. I attended a yearlong program and found the leadership positions very minimal and not time-consuming. But people did not want to move out of their seat. I asked him why he thought that was and he said he didn’t know. Looking closer, I believe it is just a symptom of the culture we’ve all created in the parish.
We have a culture where leadership remains the same and students are happily not challenged to change or grow. They remain students and the others remain leaders. One gets the power, the other enjoys no additional responsibilities. Either way, it is toxic.
Alpha has a similar method as ACTS. Once you attend the ten weeks you are invited back only as a table facilitator or food preparer. You’re never allowed to remain a student. You have received, now it is time to give. If the program meant a lot to you, that’s great, but that seat is now meant for someone else who needs it. Get out or get in front and lead.
So why would we end our Bible studies instead of letting them continue onward forever? For several reasons.
First, new things bring new people. New people tend to come to new programs and events because everyone will be new to it. Cliques and groups of friends don't have too much time to form beforehand, which means everyone is in the same boat. If you cleanse your Bible of old students every year or semester, that means you are making room for new people to attend. This is really true if you host a class or session that is explicitly for new or prospective members to your parish.
Second, because someone needs your seat. When classes, events, and programs have a termination point it helps clear out the old and bring in the new. We easily ignore the people who are not in the room and can forget to serve them. The temptation for every DRE is to give the adults who are already coming something new to consume instead of booting them to the curb (or soup kitchen!) and making room for new people.
An analogy in the business world might help explain this tendency of parishes. It is ten times more costly to win a new customer than it is to retain an old customer, so “customer retention” is a big deal. It is also ten times less stressful to keep the old class going than it is to try and fill a class with new people. But growth demands the effort! Treating people with dignity means making space for those at any stage of moral and spiritual development to encounter Christ.
Every new student needs to know the class, event, or program has an end point and a next step for them to take. This next step may not be more classes, but may instead be a ministry or mission for them to join. By doing this we are smashing silos, eliminating turf wars, and moving disciples into greater depths of maturity. This is the heart of lay formation.