First Third Conversations

Experiential Learning: Let's not reinvent the wheel

Sarah BaneA blog post by Sarah Bane

A wise educator once told me, “Learning is the residue that’s left over after the experience is over.” If this is true, then how has our Christian witness invited us to experience and think about the world around us? In the case of Abraham and Sarah, God said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). For his disciples, Jesus said, “‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’” (Matthew 28:19-20).

What these and countless other Scripture passages help us understand about the way God calls us to experience the world is that we are to “go and do, think and feel, and share.” God did not provide a curriculum for God’s people to study, master, and then go out and live. Instead, God’s people first lived by sharing in one another’s experiences, and then they told stories and God’s story as a result of those experiences.

This past January as a Master of Arts in Children, Youth, and Family student, I was given the opportunity to explore experiential learning in order to gain a broader understanding of it with a focus on how this secular educational model can serve as a resource for faith formation. Through readings and interviews with people using experiential learning theory in their fields, I developed my own rationale for how experiential learning could be a critical resource in faith formation, particularly in the Lutheran vein of confirmation. The core objective of my rationale was to point to the helpful fruits experiential learning yields as it pertains to faith formation.

As a novice youth director, one of my biggest frustrations with traditional models of Christian education has been the pedagogical implications of delivering content through a “top-down” approach. Even though we know it’s counterintuitive to how God has called us to live, the church still highly values curriculum over and above the experiences of young adults. What a model of experiential education can offer faith formation is an organic, yet organized way of honoring the individual experience.

So how does one face a deeply conventional system of learning in the church that for many years has modeled the traditional schoolroom without feeling like their efforts to change the tides are futile? I’m not sure I have the “silver bullet” to solve this quandary, but I certainly have a few ideas. The first is to get confirmation out of the classroom. If our faith is truly lived out in the world, then we should think about transferring opportunities for liminality to occur in real situations young people might encounter. The key, however, is to have caring adults prepared to walk alongside the young person in those situations of discipleship and to help them process what they have experienced.

The second idea I have to offer is to not use the Bible as the curriculum but rather as a resource to connect our experience to God’s story. The Bible is significant because it depicts how God has moved and is moving; so the goal isn’t as centered around having young people “know” the Bible as it is centered around having them know how to use the Bible as a witness to God’s agency.

The third idea I have is for teachers to stop worrying so much about finding “the right answer.” The point should not be to determine a right or wrong answer but rather to stimulate conversation about things that actually happen in daily life. The role of the adult in these conversations then is to help create space for all to participate, validate and affirm the group, and connect conversation to our Christian witness.

I don’t think God is done using confirmation as a medium to reach young people. As Christian leaders, we’re called to work within the mysteries of God’s ways with a commission to find creative opportunities to give young people liminal, transformative moments for the Holy Spirit to work in and among them.

Author Bio:
I’m Sarah, and it’s good to know you! A little bit about me: I love singing, being outside, and thinking about how the first third of life integrates into the whole life of the church. I recently graduated from Luther Seminary and will join Shepherd of the Valley’s (Apple Valley, Minn.) Youth Ministry team at the end of July.

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