How can Christian education maximize the potential for learning in both hybrid and virtual classrooms? We speak with author and pastor Tanya Campen about the holy work of Christian education.
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How can Christian education maximize the potential for learning in both hybrid and virtual classrooms? In this episode we speak with author and pastor Tanya Campen about the holy work of Christian education.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Rev. Dr. Tanya Campen, Director of Intergenerational Discipleship for the Rio Texas Conference. She’s the author of Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together. Our focus for this podcast is virtual Christian education. Tanya, I’m so excited that you’re joining us today.
Tanya Campen: Thank you, I’m excited to be here.
Doug Powe: I’m really interested in this conversation. I want to begin, before we jump into the hybrid/virtual part by asking you how is Christian education in congregations changing?
Tanya Campen: Yeah, that’s a great and an important question as we enter into this conversation today. I believe what people understand as Christian education is always changing. Personally, my understanding of Christian education is shaped and formed by the work of Dr. Jack Seymour, who stated in his book, 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.” And there are those four really 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.” And I think what’s 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’re 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. And we continue to move in and throughout the world. So, for those reasons, yes, I think Christian education is always changing. And specifically 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 to be instructed as to how to live out their faith in the world. It was more of a top-down approach that didn’t necessarily leave a lot of room for the individual or community wisdom and experience. If the pandemic has taught us anything, and I sure hope it has, we’ve 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. And, thankfully, the world continues to give us new tools and ways to do that important work.
Doug Powe: You’ve said a lot, and there’s a lot I would like to unpack. And I’m not going to be able to do it all in the time we have, but I do want you to maybe share a little bit before we jump into the virtual/hybrid conversation. You started off with sort of the four aspects of Christian education from Seymour. Can you help our audience: 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: Yeah, that’s a really great question and space for clarification. Thank you.
First, I think, is the claim that we’re rooted in knowing a tradition. You know, especially as a United Methodist, we ground ourselves in scripture and in the tradition and wisdom of the Church. So, you know, Sunday school for me — and I know everybody’s experience is different, so I’ll speak out of what I know — traditionally, for me, has been going to church on Sunday in that 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’ve lived out that scripture. We get some experience of how that scripture’s impacted them. That’s kind of how we root ourselves in the work of the tradition.
And then, in just what I described to you, 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’s really where the wisdom, in my opinion, comes alive, and where the spirit moves. We sit around the table and say, “Well, this is how I’ve experienced the scripture. This is what I’ve learned about God, or this is what the scripture is saying to me today.” And in those conversations we’re making meaning, and we are making memories as we claim those narratives for ourselves.
Then the hope, I think, is always that we respond to those conversations, that we don’t just 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. And we do that out of our own personal gifts at in our own communities, in our own cultures, in our own contexts, in our own ways. So that if you can think about, you know, the United Methodist Church being a global people, if everybody has these conversations weekly or monthly and then they go and 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. I think that’s what it means to move into the world out of these conversations.
Doug Powe: That’s very helpful. I appreciate it, and it really sets us up nicely now to move into the hybrid/virtual conversation. I want to begin this conversation again by asking you — we hear this terminology today and we all use it, but people mean different things by it. When it comes to Christian education — you could talk about how you use it or how you hear other people using it — how do you understand what it means to be virtual? And how do you understand what it means to be hybrid?
Tanya Campen: Yeah, I think that’s a great and important question. And I think for all of us Christian educators out there, it’s important that we get clear on what we mean by those things. And if I learned anything in the midst of the pandemic, it was that my understanding of those things has shifted and changed, so I’ll kind of speak out of where I am today, and I’ll share some resources that have shaped that opinion, if that’s okay.
For me, virtual Christian education and virtual faith formation are offerings that are online, whether they’re synchronous as an online gathered community via Zoom or Teams, or maybe they’re asynchronous where you can go online either to a website or another platform and see a playlist of possibilities where you can view videos or you can participate. There’s a guided practice, maybe a guided prayer practice or a guided journaling practice or maybe people are gathering in an online community, on a platform like Slack or again Teams where in my own time I can go on and chat and share my reflections and hear what other people have said. For me, that is virtual — anything that utilizes an online community or online digital tool for doing the work of Christian education.
I think when we get to hybrid, we get a little bit less clear, so I want to be really intentional in how I describe, how I understand hybrid ministry. Two people really shape and form my understanding of hybrid ministry. That’s John Roberto in his book, Digital Ministry and Leadership in Today’s Church, and then Angela Gorrell’s Always On. In his book, John Roberto describes hybrid ministry as a blending of online and in-person opportunities. So, if we look at Christian education as a whole like, as a ministry leader in my church, if I look at kind of the pathway or the plan that I map out for Christian education, 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 kind of speaks into this, too. She says that hybridity describes the coming together of online and offline. I think that interplay is really important. So, it’s not simply: I’m going to hold a small group at my church, and I’m going to put a computer in the middle of the table and invite people to participate in person and then I’ll bring people in via Zoom. While that is a way of doing hybrid ministry, I think that limits us if we understand that as our view. I want to think of it as bigger, of 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’s build on that for a second. We can sort of separate them, because I think the way you described them is very helpful as people think about what they may be doing or not doing in terms of your descriptions. But community is one of the things that everyone talks about. Can you actually build community virtually? And I think people can understand how you can build in a hybrid option because of what you just described. But I still would like to hear your comments there. Let’s start with virtual. Is it possible really to build community? Because this is, I would say, the sticking point for many people. They don’t feel you can have authentic community when you’re using a virtual option.
Tanya Campen: That’s a great question, and people don’t often like it when I answer. I say it depends. It depends on a lot of things. I mean, can relationships be built virtually? Absolutely. Absolutely, they can; and research shows that they can. Now, in order to do that, we have to be very intentional, and I think that with that intentionality we have to pay attention to, you know, why are we bringing people together online? Who are we bringing together? Who’s facilitating that conversation and nurturing those relationships? And what is the purpose of bringing people together?
One of the things I’ve learned in doing this, and one of the things that ministry in the pandemic has taught me is … some of my very closest friends I 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 these were people I’ve been meeting with almost weekly for two years and we’d never met in person. So, research tells me, and my personal experience tells me, it’s possible.
When we consider how do you build relationships virtually, I think we have to be really intentional in how we set the space, how we guide the conversation. And with that we also have to recognize that, just as Dr. Seymour suggests, we all show up in our own individual identities and with our own individual gifts and learning styles. So, there may be some people out there that are like, you know what? Online community is not for me. And we need to honor that. But there are other people who are like, you know what? If it is facilitated well, and there’s a consistency to how the group meets and when it meets and what is shared and how that space is nurtured, then absolutely, there’s people out there who really do feel they can build relationships and community. I think it’s more about how we do it than whether or not if it works. I don’t know if I answered your question.
Doug Powe: You did, and I agree with you 100 percent. I think the correct answer is it depends, because what I often respond to people is you can have a bad in-person experience, just like you can have a bad virtual experience. So, it depends on who’s setting up and facilitating the experience. So, I think you’re absolutely 100 percent correct. And you’re right; people don’t like that answer.
Tanya Campen: Yeah.
Doug Powe: Even though it is true. Trying to help people to have a good experience virtually or in hybrid, let’s talk about teaching and some of the things that we need to be aware of. In reality I do think the challenge is that this is so new that we’re still really learning how we teach in these different formats because we are so used to being able to teach in person that you just take some things for granted that you can’t take for granted when you’re teaching virtually, be it synchronous or asynchronous or hybrid, depending on what you’re doing. In thinking about teaching — and to just try to help, we’ll say you are teaching a Bible study class. I don’t know what your favorite book in the Bible is, but let’s say we’re picking your favorite book in the Bible. So how would you set up a four-week course for someone if you were teaching this class virtually?
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Tanya Campen: Oh, goodness! There are so many possibilities! Let me start with this, and then we’ll see where it takes us.
Doug Powe: Okay.
Tanya Campen: When I think about creating or planning any type of Christian education experience and specifically now virtually, I like to think about it as if I have different Legos to build with, right? I have different tools. I have different possibilities. As we’re kind of taking a look at all the different Legos, we can talk about how I might shape a four-week Bible study.
If I was going only virtual, what I might do is pick up some tools: have some folks do some things asynchronously before they get there. I might send them a video to watch. I might send them some questions in advance to be thinking about, and obviously — I didn’t say — I’m going to send them the scripture to read. Those are going to be kind of my building blocks so that when we get online, because what we know about virtual ministry — and I would say this is true in person, too — is that people have very specific expectations, very specific time expectations.
We know, too, with virtual ministry, that there’s often less of an attention span because there’s so many shiny things like I can wash my dishes, I can play solitaire, right? So, we pay attention to all of that in the virtual space.
What I would want to do is be really clear on what am I hoping to establish in that in-person gathering that’s offered online. I’d be really clear with the people who have gathered: this is the flow for our time together, and I’m going to really invite you into this space. One of the things I love to do, one of the tools in my toolbox that I’ve found has worked really well with virtual ministry, is Visio Divina, and so I might take some time to put up some images for people to think on. They’ve read the scripture hopefully. We’ll probably read it again just in case. So, I’ll probably read the scripture. Then I’m going to show them some images, and then I’m going to invite them to have some conversations about what image captures their attention. I have found that using images that way virtually helps them focus on something other than my talking head. With all the shiny things — their dogs barking, their doors ringing — they can go “Oh, I’m supposed to be looking at these pictures.” Doing that in a shortened time frame, then inviting them into some conversation, and then, going back, I might show them the pictures again or I might show different pictures. So, that’s one of my favorite ways.
I think what I’ve learned in that is you really want to capture their attention and get them engaged whether that’s by looking at something, reflecting on something, and then listening to other people, and then sharing their own responses. Virtually, I’m going to make sure that I really facilitate that conversation well, which is really hard to do, especially on Zoom. If you have somebody who, like me, likes to talk and they want to give a five-minute answer, you really want to try to facilitate shorter answers so that you can engage everybody that’s participating in the community.
That might be my first small group gathering. We might do some Visio Divina, some reflection on that, take some time for prayer, and then I might send them back out. And depending on the schedule, we might meet the next week, we might not. I may say, “Hey, here’s the scripture for next week. Here’s the link to some online activities, possibilities, a playlist, and then here’s a Slack channel I hope you’ll jump on and chat with your friends,” Then maybe we gather the next week. Maybe we gather in two weeks. But there’s the flexibility, just like there is in person. You could do this in person, too. But online, there’s some flexibility of, again, how am I building that time together? Are we going to be in person every week? And if so, what are we going to be doing and how are we going to be doing it?
Doug Powe: Now let me ask a short follow-up and then a longer follow-up that is a bigger question. In the way that you responded, I think it’s helpful in thinking about the Lego building blocks. I mean, do you see — and I think this is where people often struggle — that really there’s an opportunity to actually engage various ways of helping people to think about a particular text? Because you talk about pictures, you talk about conversation. I mean, you use small groups. You have all these different things that you can piece together. It’s not that you can’t do those things in person, but the tendency for most of us, when we’re in person is more just conversation in doing it, whereas you could be more intentional in the virtual learning sphere. I mean, is that a fair statement?
Tanya Campen: I think so. I mean one of the things, when I think about teaching in general, is 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. What I would say is that a gifted and experienced teacher knows how to integrate those into a lesson or a small group experience, if you will, and also knows how to be flexible. So, if I show up and I get really excited about showing all of my pictures and I get nothing, I’m thinking as an instructor, “You know what? That probably wasn’t 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, teaching method they respond to.”
Just as if I was training people to teach in person, I’m going to help them be intentional in a virtual space and sometimes even more so because, again, shiny objects: we get distracted. I think, for some, this is one of the reasons why Christian educators did amazing work and jumped right in when the shutdown happened. Because many of us had kind of been playing with this in different areas for a while, so it was like, okay, now we get to jump in and really try some things that we’ve 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’s go to the sort of the bigger question. Many people will assume that we’re thinking of adult learning. Now let’s talk about children, which I know is an area that you have focused on. If we’re thinking about children and thinking about virtual learning, what advice do you have? Because I’m thinking of course the attention span is going to be even shorter, and there’s going to have to be other ways of engaging. Are there ways to actually make virtual learning work for children?
Tanya Campen: Absolutely. I think, again with intentionality and care and honoring different learning styles, we can find ways to engage young people and youth and children virtually. One way that I know works really well is going to be more asynchronous where we put together online a playlist of possibilities around a theme, so the example I like to use is prayer.
Maybe families can go to a website and find videos talking about prayer or modeling different ways to pray, right? There might be some music to listen to. There might be activities — families might choose to do 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 all these different possibilities that parents might choose to engage in. There are a couple 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 an opportunity just to kind of share and celebrate. Children are really good at sharing and celebrating in person and online.
I often find also that small groups with young people and families really work well if it’s just 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.” To give them an opportunity to practice sharing in community I think can be done virtually, especially with a shortened timeframe. I also think we think about the adults that journey with children, to create spaces to come back. I know a lot of people who have tried this and are still doing it over the last several years where the family is coming together to learn about a spiritual practice, they’re practicing it, and then there’s online small groups or Slack channels for the parents and caregivers to connect and go, “Okay, what’s working? What’s not working? What did you learn? What’d you learn about your kids?”
Specifically, when we invite children into a virtual space, first we have to make sure it’s a safe space, so we have to be intentional there to make sure either parents and caregivers are present or there’s adults present that are watching and safeguarding that space. And we also just have to be really intentional to keep things short and focused. We’re not going to be able to do like 10 things, but we might be able to do one or two.
Doug Powe: I think that that’s really helpful because I know many people struggle, particularly with the children, and I appreciate again highlighting the importance of having adults present, because even in virtual, 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.
We’re running short on time, but I have two things that I want to get to here before we completely run out of time. The first is something that you’ve said all along, but I’m hoping you can share your insight. You’ve shared and talked always about “asynchronous and synchronous,” and oftentimes we think we have to do one or the other, but you really have talked about how putting them together is more helpful, it sounds like, than separating them. I just want to give you a chance to say more about that.
Tanya Campen: Sure! When we talk about asynchronous and synchronous learning — learning that happens in real time or live time and then learning that happens in different times and places based on a person or family’s bandwidth, if you will — I think that both of those are very important and formative for Christian education. And 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 just synchronous gathered offerings? Absolutely. Will you maybe just have people who just go to your website and go, “That’s a really great playlist on prayer and I want to do all those things with my family” and maybe you’ll never see them? Possibly. But what we’re seeing is that when we integrate those, when there’s gathered opportunities, whether online or in person for people to engage and build those relationships and build that community, people are really hungry for that. And we’re also in a world where, you know, we’re used to streaming whatever we want to watch when we want to watch it on TV. If I’m sitting at the dinner table with my family and I’m like we need a new prayer, I’m going to go online and grab one.
When we integrate those, I think we strengthen our presence as leaders in Christian education, especially when we know folks aren’t going to necessarily come to the church every Sunday, like once upon a time they might have for a Sunday school conversation. When we think about that, when we do that, there is a plethora of possibilities. I mean, even if you have, you know, three or four Legos out there, I’m not a mathematician, but you can put them together in different configurations. I think you enhance and strengthen your offerings and therefore the impact that you will have on members in your community as they grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
I also want to say that that’s more reflective of our current culture — that we live in a hybrid world. The way we show up is a hybrid way of living. We’re online. We’re offline. We’re in community. We’re doing things on our own or in our own families. I think it’s just 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: I appreciate that response. I think it’s right on time and very timely. Speaking of time, unfortunately, we have to bring this to a close. I wish we didn’t, because I’m enjoying this immensely, but I want to close with this: many people, of course, are wondering, well, where do I get training? Besides calling Tanya up and inviting her to come teach me how to do this stuff, which, you know, Tanya might be fine with, but she can’t go every place all at once, you know, unfortunately. So where can people learn to be better virtual or hybrid teachers?
Tanya Campen: That’s a great question. I’m a book person, so the two books that I mentioned. Also John Roberto at Lifelong Faith Formation does webinars and has lots of offerings for folks who are trying to really understand this work and how to do this well. I would also say, you know, all of us are learning. I laugh, because the very first webinar I did probably 20 years ago now 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.
Then also, you know, following people — you talk about online playlists — following people online. When you go to a webinar, making notes: What did you like? What was challenging for you? Are there styles you want to learn from? I think those are the best ways. And then, if there is somebody you know who does this really well, saying, “Will you teach me? Will you shadow me and observe me, and see what you, what you see?” I’m always happy to do that. But I know there’s lots of 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 and more into this type of learning.
Tanya Campen: Absolutely. Thank you again for inviting me into the conversation. It’s an important one, and I’m excited to see where this takes the church next.
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Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together (Pickwick Publications, 2021) by Tanya Marie Eustace Campen is available at Pickwick Publications, Cokesbury, and Amazon.
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