How can Christian educators maximize the potential for learning in both hybrid and virtual classrooms? Doug Powe of the Lewis Center staff speaks with author and pastor Tanya Campen about the holy work of Christian education.
Doug Powe: Joining me is Rev. Dr. Tanya Campen, Director of Intergenerational Discipleship for the Rio Texas Conference. She is the author of Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together. Our focus for this podcast is virtual Christian education. Tanya, I am so excited that you are joining us today.
Tanya Campen: Thank you, I am excited to be here.
Doug Powe: I am really interested in this conversation. Before we jump into the hybrid/virtual part our conversation, how is Christian education in congregations changing?
Tanya Campen: That’s a great and an important question. What people understand as Christian education is always changing. My understanding of Christian education is shaped and formed by the work of Dr. Jack Seymour, who stated in Mapping Christian Education that “education in faith is rooted in knowing a tradition, interacting with a community of meaning and memory and responding out of an individual personality, and moving into the world.” These are four important parts of what I would call Christian education or growing in the faith or faith formation. Dr. Seymour argues that “Christian education is a conversation for living, a seeking to use the resources of the faith and cultural traditions to move into an open future of justice and hope.” What is important for me in that wisdom, as we talk about “Is Christian education changing?”, are the action verbs that Dr. Seymour uses — that we’re not stagnant. While we are rooted in very specific things like scripture and tradition, we continue to interact with a changing culture, a changing community. We continue to respond out of our own individual personalities and needs as we continue to move in and throughout the world. So, for those reasons, Christian education is always changing. In our culture and climate today, we are reimagining what we mean by Christian education.
For decades, we believed that Christian education was a space in the church where people came to receive knowledge and learn how to live out their faith in the world. It was more of a top-down approach that did not necessarily leave room for the individual or community wisdom and experience. If the pandemic has taught us anything, and I sure hope it has, we have learned that we are relational people, that we yearn for deep connections to God and neighbor as we discover ways to live out our faith in the world. Thankfully, the world continues to give us new tools and ways to do that important work.
Doug Powe: You have said a lot that I would like to unpack, but I am not able to do it all in the time we have. You started off with the four aspects of Christian education from Seymour. For someone who goes to Sunday school every week, how do those four aspects relate to the way they would engage Sunday school?
Tanya Campen: That’s a great question and space for clarification. Thank you.
First is the claim that we are rooted in knowing a tradition. Especially as a United Methodist, we ground ourselves in scripture and in the tradition and wisdom of the Church. Everybody’s experience is different, so I will speak out of what I know. Traditionally, Sunday school for me has been going to church on Sunday in a small group, hearing a scripture, reflecting on the scripture, and people around the table sharing their wisdom of how that scripture has impacted them so we get some tradition of how they have lived out that scripture. We get some experience of how that scripture has impacted them. That is how we root ourselves in the work of the tradition.
And then, I think one of the beautiful things of what one might understand as traditional Sunday school is the interaction of the community of meaning-making and sharing of memories and sharing of our stories. And that is really where the wisdom comes alive, and where the spirit moves when we sit around the table and say, “Well, this is how I have experienced the scripture. This is what I have learned about God, or this is what the scripture is saying to me today,” and in those conversations we are making meaning. We are also making memories as we claim those narratives for ourselves.
Then the hope is always that we respond to those conversations, that we do not leave the table and go “that was a great conversation. I enjoyed my donut and my coffee,” but instead we leave hearing God calling us to do something different. We leave with this desire to respond faithfully, to have faithful action, and to make a difference in the world. We do that out of our own personal gifts in our own communities, in our own cultures, in our own contexts, in our own ways. If you think about the United Methodist Church being a global people, if everybody has these conversations weekly or monthly and then they respond, the spirit is moving in and through so many different people around the world to do what we believe is our call — to make disciples for the transformation of the world. That is what it means to move into the world out of these conversations.
Doug Powe: That sets us up nicely to move into the hybrid/virtual conversation. We hear this terminology today and we all use it, but people mean different things by it. When it comes to Christian education how do you understand what it means to be virtual? And how do you understand what it means to be hybrid?
Tanya Campen: That is an important question. For all of us Christian educators out there, it is important that we get clear on what we mean by those things. If I learned anything during the pandemic, it was that my understanding of those things has shifted and changed, so I will speak out of where I am today, and I will share some resources that have shaped that opinion.
Virtual Christian education and virtual faith formation are offerings that are online, whether they are synchronous as an online gathered community via Zoom or Teams or they are asynchronous where you go online either to a website or another platform and see a playlist of possibilities where you can view videos or participate. There is a guided prayer practice or a guided journaling practice, or people gather in an online community on a platform like Slack or Teams where in their own time they can chat and share their reflections and hear what other people have said. For me, virtual is anything that utilizes an online community or online digital tool for doing the work of Christian education.
When we get to hybrid, we get a little bit less clear, so I want to be intentional in how I describe and understand hybrid ministry. Two people really shape and form my understanding of hybrid ministry: John Roberto in his book, Digital Ministry and Leadership in Today’s Church and Angela Gorrell’s Always On. In his book, John Roberto describes hybrid ministry as a blending of online and in-person opportunities. So, if I look at the pathway or the plan that I map out for Christian education in my church, a hybrid ministry approach would have some things offered online, some things offered gathered in person, and then would also offer some asynchronous options as well, using digital tools. Gorrell says that hybridity describes the coming together of online and offline. Interplay is important. So, it is not simply: I am going to hold a small group at my church, and I am going to put a computer in the middle of the table and invite people to participate in person and then I will bring people in via Zoom. While that is a way of doing hybrid ministry, that limits us. I want to think of it as how are we mapping out a plan for Christian education in our context that allows for this interplay of having online and offline, gathered in person, synchronous, asynchronous offerings.
Doug Powe: Let us build on that and separate them, because I think the way you described them is helpful as people think about what they may be doing or not doing in terms of your descriptions. Community is one of the things that everyone talks about. Can you build community virtually? People understand how you can build community in a hybrid option because of what you just described. Is it possible to build community in virtual spaces? This is the sticking point for many people who do not feel you can have authentic community when you are using a virtual option.
Tanya Campen: That’s a great question, and people do not often like it when I answer because it depends on a lot of things. Can relationships be built virtually? Absolutely, they can; and research shows that they can. Now, to do that, we must be very intentional. With that intentionality, we must pay attention to why we are bringing people together online. Who are we bringing together? Who is facilitating that conversation and nurturing those relationships? What is the purpose of bringing people together? One of the things that ministry in the pandemic taught me was the potential for relationships to be formed online. Some of my very closest friends I had never met in person until things lifted a little bit and I was able to get on an airplane. It was crazy to think that I had been meeting with these people almost weekly for two years and we had never met in person. So, research and my personal experience tell me it is possible.
When we consider how you build relationships virtually, I think we must be intentional in how we set the space and how we guide the conversation. We also must recognize that, just as Dr. Seymour suggests, we all show up in our own individual identities, with our own individual gifts and learning styles. So, there may be some people out there who say, “You know what? Online community is not for me.” We need to honor that. When online gatherings are facilitated well, and there is a consistency to how the group meets, when it meets, what is shared, and how that space is nurtured, then participants can build relationships and community. It is more about how we do it than whether it works.
Doug Powe: I agree with you that the correct answer is it depends. I often respond to people that you can have a bad in-person experience, just like you can have a bad virtual experience. So, it depends on who is setting up and facilitating the experience. And you are right. People do not like that answer even though it is true.
Let us talk about teaching and some of the things that we need to be aware of to help people have a valuable experience virtually or hybrid. The challenge is that this is so new that we are still learning how to teach in these different formats because we are so used to teaching in person that we take things for granted that you cannot take for granted when you are teaching virtually, be it synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid. Let us say you are teaching a Bible study class on your favorite book in the Bible. How would you set up a four-week course if you were teaching this class virtually?
Tanya Campen: There are so many possibilities! When I think about creating or planning any type of Christian education experience including virtual experiences, I think about it as though I have different Legos or tools to build with. I have different possibilities. As we are looking at all the different Legos, here is how I might shape a four-week Bible study.
If I was going only virtual, I might have folks do a few things asynchronously before they get there. I might send them the scripture to read, a video to watch, or questions to think about in advance. Those are going to be my building blocks because what we know about virtual ministry — and in person, too — is that people have specific expectations and specific time expectations. With virtual ministry, there is often less of an attention span because there are so many shiny things that can distract us. So, we pay attention to all of that in the virtual space.
I want to be clear about what I hope to establish in online and in-person gatherings. When people gather, I will share the flow for our time together and invite them into the space. One of the tools in my toolbox that has worked well with virtual ministry is Visio Divina, so I might share images for people to think on. They have read the scripture, but we will read it again just in case. Then I will show them some images, and then I will invite them to have conversation about what image captures their attention. Using images in virtual spaces helps people focus on something other than my talking head. With all the distractions, they can go “Oh, I’m supposed to be looking at these pictures.” Doing that in a shortened time frame, then inviting them into conversation, and then I might show them the pictures again or different pictures. Capture their attention and get them engaged, whether that is by looking at or reflecting on something and then listening to other people and sharing their own responses.
I work hard to facilitate virtual conversations well, which is hard to do, especially on Zoom. If you have somebody who likes to talk and they want to give a five-minute answer, try to facilitate shorter answers so that you can engage everybody who is participating in the community. That might be my first small group gathering. We might do Visio Divina, reflection on that, take time for prayer, and then I might send them back out.
Depending on the schedule, we might meet the next week, we might not. I may say, “Hey, here is the scripture for next week. Here is the link to online activities, possibilities, a playlist, and then here is a Slack channel. I hope you will jump on and chat with your friends.” We either gather the next week or in two weeks. But there is the flexibility, just like there is in person. You could do this in person, too. But online, there is flexibility in how I build that time together. Are we going to be in person every week? If so, what are we going to be doing and how are we going to do it?
Doug Powe: Let me ask a short follow-up and then a bigger follow-up question. Your response is helpful in thinking about the Lego building blocks. Is there an opportunity to engage several ways of helping people think about a particular text? Because you talk about pictures, conversation, and small groups. You have all these different things that you can piece together. It is not that you cannot do those things in person, but the tendency when we are in person is more conversation, whereas you could be more intentional in the virtual learning sphere. I mean, is that a fair statement?
Tanya Campen: I think so. When I think about teaching in general, I recognize the need to pay attention to different learning styles, different teaching methods, different attention spans, and finding a way to integrate those in a way that is inviting to your participants. A gifted and experienced teacher knows how to integrate those into a lesson or a small group experience and knows how to be flexible. So, if I show up and I get really excited about showing all my pictures and if I get no response, I am thinking as an instructor, “That was not the most useful tool. I need to get to know my people better, and I need to pay attention to how they learn and what teaching style or method they respond to.”
If I am training people to teach in person, I will help them be intentional in a virtual space and sometimes even more so because we get distracted. For some, this is one of the reasons why Christian educators did amazing work and jumped right in when the shutdown happened. Many of us had been playing with this in different areas for a while, so it was time to jump in and really try things that we have been dreaming about. I think a good educator, with time and experience, can jump into the virtual world and begin to find their way as they lean on what they know to be true about learning in general.
Doug Powe: Now let us go to the sort of the bigger question. Many people will assume that we are thinking of adult learning, so let us talk about children. I am thinking the attention span is going to be even shorter, so you need other ways of engaging. Are there ways to make virtual learning work for children?
Tanya Campen: With intentionality, care, and honor for different learning styles, we can find ways to engage young people, youth, and children virtually. One way that works well is going to be more asynchronous where we put together an online playlist of possibilities around a theme, for example, prayer.
Direct families to a website where they can find videos about prayer or videos modeling different ways to pray. There might be some music to listen to and various activities that parents might choose to engage, families might choose, like the hand prayer where they trace their child’s hand and they show them how each finger represents something to pray for. There are a couple of ways that we could then bring people together virtually. Of course, one of my favorite things to do is to bring families together and to say, “Hey, we talked about prayer this week. What did you learn? What prayers did you practice?” It might be a 10-to-20-minute conversation depending on the age of participants, maybe not even that long depending on who is at the table that day, but it’s an opportunity to share and celebrate. Children are good at sharing and celebrating in person and online.
I often find that small groups with young people and families really work well if it’s an opportunity for them to say a prayer, time for them to say “Hi, my name is Tanya, and I’m really excited about this thing that happened to me this week,” or “Let me show you my stuffed animal I’ve been carrying around all week.” Give them an opportunity to practice sharing in community in virtual spaces with a shortened time frame. We need to think about the adults who journey with children and create spaces for them to engage. I know people who have tried this and are still doing it — where the family comes together to learn about a spiritual practice and they practice it. Then there’s online small groups or Slack channels for the parents and caregivers to connect and say, “Okay, what’s working? What is not working? What did you learn? What would you learn about your kids?”
When we invite children into a virtual space, first we must make sure it is a safe space, so we must be intentional there to make sure either parents and caregivers are present or there’s adults present that are watching and safeguarding that space. We also just must be intentional to keep things short and focused. We are not going to be able to do 10 things, but we might be able to do one or two.
Doug Powe: I think that that’s helpful because many people struggle, particularly with the children, and I appreciate again highlighting the importance of having adults present, because we sometimes think if we are online then we don’t have to worry about it. But it’s important still for the safety factors in virtual spaces.
I have two things that I want to address before we run out of time. The first is something that you have said all along, but I am hoping you can share your insight. You have shared and talked about “asynchronous and synchronous,” and oftentimes we think we must do one or the other, but you have talked about how putting them together is more helpful than separating them. I want to give you a chance to say more about that.
Tanya Campen: When we talk about asynchronous and synchronous learning — learning that happens in real time or live time and then learning that happens in various times and places based on a person or family’s bandwidth. Both of those are important and formative for Christian education. If we can find a way to integrate or to weave those together, we create more of what John Roberto would describe as a holistic plan for faith formation.
Can you do only synchronous gathered offerings? Absolutely. Will you have people who visit your website and say, “That’s a really great playlist on prayer, and I want to do all those things with my family,” and you will never see them? Possibly. What we are seeing is that people are hungry for gathered opportunities, whether online or in person, where they can engage with one another and build relationships and community. We are also in a world where we stream whatever we want to watch when we want to watch it on TV. If I am sitting at the dinner table with my family and we need a new prayer, I will go online and grab one.
When we integrate those, we strengthen our presence as leaders in Christian education, especially when we know folks are not going to necessarily come to the church every Sunday, like they did in the past for Sunday school. There is a plethora of possibilities even if you only have three or four Legos, I am not a mathematician, but you can put them together in different configurations to enhance and strengthen your offerings. Therefore, magnifying the impact that you will have on members in your community as they grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
That is also more reflective of our current culture. We live in a hybrid world. The way we show up is a hybrid way of living. We are online, offline, and in community. We are doing things on our own or in our own families. It is a more faithful way of inviting folks into the work of growing in their faith, recognizing that we all show up in different spaces at different times for different reasons.
Doug Powe: Unfortunately, we must bring this to a close. I wish we did not because I am enjoying this immensely. But I want to close with this: many people are wondering, where do I get training? Besides calling Tanya up and inviting her to come teach me how to do this stuff, which Tanya might be fine with, but she cannot go every place all at once unfortunately. So where can people learn to be better virtual or hybrid teachers?
Tanya Campen: I am a book person, so the two books that I mentioned. Also, John Roberto at Lifelong Faith Formation does webinars and has offerings for folks who are trying to really understand this work and how to do this well. I would also say that all of us are learning. I laugh because the very first webinar I did 20 years ago was awful. People can Google that if they want to. So, one of the ways we learn is by trying and asking for feedback and being receptive to that feedback and, also, by following people online.
When you go to a webinar, take notes: What did you like? What was challenging for you? Are there styles you want to learn from? Those are the best ways to learn. And then, if there is somebody you know who does this well, say, “Will you teach me? Will you shadow me and observe me, and see what you, what you see?” I am always happy to do that. But I know there are people who are very capable of guiding people who want to grow in their skills as an online teacher or facilitator.
Doug Powe: Well, Tanya, this has been wonderful. I really appreciate you taking the time to do it, and I know our audience is really going to get a lot out of it, especially as we move more into this type of learning.
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