Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Even though understanding Gen Z is a hot topic in the youth ministry world, most churches and youth leaders have failed to think critically and creatively about one important characteristic of our youth: how they learn. Either learning is not a primary concern (out of a preference for just connecting with students and/or making youth ministry attractional) or, if learning is a concern, the focus is on crafting teaching that’s theologically correct and/or “relevant.” But as churches become more and more aware of the problem of pervasive biblical illiteracy, we can’t afford to treat student learning so casually. Learning has to become a greater concern for our ministry to Gen Z – and not just what our students learn but how they learn. Because, while the concern for correct and relevant teaching is admirable, when churches and youth leaders focus on the what of learning to the exclusion of the how, it drives them to rely too heavily on teacher-centered and content-centered models of education.
Teacher & Content: The Traditional Structure of Education
Teacher-centered education takes place when the teacher is main person acting, thinking, and directing the learning. Student creativity, inquiry, and reasoning centers around and responds to the predetermined plan of the teacher. During the primary learning time, students either passively receive instruction, follow directions, or ask and respond to questions based on the content presented by the teachers. The focus lies on ideas and facts that can be transferred from the teacher to the students rather than on higher-order thinking and skills. As a result, what each learning time focuses on depends on the structure and divisions of the content (i.e. if you’re studying Reformation Theology, each class will likely focus on a sola).
In content-centered education, the teacher takes a less direct and imposing role in the educational process. The learning times focus more on how students interact with the assigned content through questions and activities given by the teacher. Although there are more opportunities for students to utilize creativity and critical thinking, just like teacher-centered education, content is king. The learning is still structured around subject divisions and controlled by the teacher’s agenda; students are still not driving their learning through their own curiosity and agency.
Traditional Models of Education in Youth Ministry
Churches and youth leaders aren’t always aware of what kind of educational model they are using and take for granted what it means to teach. Because schools (and seminaries) traditionally relied on either teacher-centered or content-centered education, the church leaders that come out of those settings are socialized into a particular form of education without even realizing it. As a result, the methods with which they were taught become the primary tools they use to teach others.
Regardless of how relevant, illustration-filled, or applicable they may be, these methods all put the primary activity and thinking in the hands of the preacher/teacher and not the learners.
In my own experience, teacher-centered lectures remain a predominant method of education in seminary. It doesn’t surprise me then to see how heavily churches rely so heavily on their own versions of teacher-centered education, the sermon/talk and the teacher-led class or Bible-study. Regardless of how relevant, illustration-filled, or applicable they may be, these methods all put the primary activity and thinking in the hands of the preacher/teacher and not the learners. We’re really concerned that youth get X, Y, and Z points from the text, and so we dress those points up with clever references and examples and try to funnel it out of our mouths and into their brains.
Small groups are the other main educational method used by churches and youth ministries. Although they vary greatly, most small groups follow a content-centered model. Leaders are facilitators and not lecturers. Their goal isn’t just information transfer; it’s to use questions to get students to actively engage with a particular topic. And yet predetermined content remains the focus that learning is structured around, and students have only limited power to shape the direction that their learning takes. Their questions and action aren’t driving the ship.
The Benefits of Traditional Models
Now I want to be clear: both teacher-centered and content-centered methods have an important place in youth ministry. I’m not advocating for the abolition of preaching or curriculum-driven small groups. Sometimes a topic or idea is important and pressing enough that we need to either directly convey that content or we need to structure small group discussions to address it. Furthermore, since youth ministries can’t incentivize learning in the same way schools can (i.e. grades, compulsory attendance) and we want to take into account the presence of non-Christians and a generally inconsistent set of learners, sometimes the easiest and most full proof method to make sure that everyone present gets something.
Because of our spiritual blindness, the biblical theology of spiritual education is thoroughly centered on the Divine Teacher and treats us all as passive.
Educational concerns aside, the receptive posture that preaching puts us in is theologically significant. Although the Spirit certainly can and does teach us through active forms of learning from and engaging Scripture, in an ultimate sense, humans are passive when it comes to knowing God. The Bible pictures humans as dead followers of the powers of this world who need to be made alive by God (Eph. 2:1-5). We are all depicted as naturally incapable of understanding spiritual truths apart from the Spirit imparting them to us (1. Cor. 2:10-14). Because of our spiritual blindness, the biblical theology of spiritual education is thoroughly centered on the Divine Teacher and treats us all as passive.
In light of our spiritual passivity in knowing God, preaching has an important sacramental dimension. Passively receiving instruction from a preacher/teacher visualizes our underlying spiritual condition: we are all passive recipients of God’s Word from the Spirit. Moreover, just like with the sacraments, our choice to participate in the concrete act of hearing a sermon comes with a spiritual promise. Paul tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), and so churches have rightly trusted God to bring about faith through hearing the preached Word.
The Limitations of Traditional Models
Having recognized that there are good reasons for churches to continue to utilize teacher-centered and content-centered methods, solely relying on these models has serious drawbacks as well. Some of those limitations relate specifically to Gen Z, while others are more general. I’ll briefly list several limitations below and follow up next week with a more elaborate description of how project-based learning addresses these concerns.
1) Diverse Levels of Understanding
It’s hard enough for schoolteachers to instruct a whole class given how diverse their students’ competencies, learning preferences, and cultural identities can be. Churches and youth ministries have it worse. Large group teaching is often done for students from a variety of ages and totally different levels of faith, understanding, maturity, and interest. Inevitably, teaching is aimed at the average student, leaving students on the lower end confused and students on the higher end bored. As the biblical literacy gap between Christians and the average non-Christian grows, it will make this range of differences even more extreme.
There’s been a lot of discussion of how churches should engage with culture, the arts, and creativity. The reality, though, is that preaching a sermon on creativity doesn’t do much to make students creative.
2) Creativity is Being Sidelined
There’s been a lot of discussion of how churches should engage with culture, the arts, and creativity. The reality, though, is that preaching a sermon on creativity doesn’t do much to make students creative. We become creative by creating. While some churches have add-on programing for people with the time, most people who are interested in culture are busy enough as it is. If churches really want to promote culture-making, we need to rely less on educational models that center around the expert teacher and more on models that approach learning through the creative agency of students.
3) Many Gifts are Invisible
Again, as with creativity, spiritual gifts are a topic we like to talk about, but churches rarely infuse the use of gifts throughout our educational model. If we want our kids to become aware of their gifting, the best approach isn’t to assign them a one off model to fill out while they have hardly any experience, but to give them learning opportunities that allow them to test and see if they have a particular gifting. Apart from such opportunities students gifts often remain invisible and unknown.
4) Not Hearers Only
James warns readers that they need to be not only hearers of the word but doers also. And yet most of our time with youth is spent with them hearing words; very rarely do we provide them with time to do what those words teach. Again, we may have add-on programing for those with time – bonus service or missions opportunities – but, as Gen Z continues to feel the crushing pressure of too much involvement, why not infuse action into our primary learning experiences? The problem is that our current learning models are not biased toward action.
5) Shallow Learning
I recently heard a pastor lament how Gen Z seems unable to think in a Christian way. His response was that they needed to be instructed about the Christian worldview. But there’s a gap between being told about the Christian worldview and learning how to actually put that framework into practice. When we focus too much on teacher-centered education, we only engage students on a superficial level (transferring facts about a “Christian” view of X or Y) instead of prompting them to learn the underlying skills they need (how to approach new issues and generate or find a “Christian” view on their own).
6) The Suppression of Questions
If we want to Gen Z to feel like the church is a place they can bring their questions and their doubts, we need to consider what our educational models communicate. Teacher-centered approaches leave those with questions and doubts in a dependent position. Although most preaches try to be skeptic-conscious, foreseeing objections and questions and responding to them, no one could foresee or respond to every question. Even in more active content-centered approaches, the control that content has over the learning agenda often prevents certain questions or doubts from coming to the fore. Moreover, in both approaches, rarely do we provide students with skills to approach questions on their own or treat these questions as a motivator for further engagement and learning.
7) The Absence of Google
When we discuss technology in church or youth ministry, it’s usually to warn of dangers and pitfalls (maybe with a reassuring caveat that not all technology is bad as long as it doesn’t become an idol). We forget that the internet is one of the primary educational resources that our students utilize on a daily basis – and that it can easily be utilized for the purpose of learning more about Scripture and God. We may fear the presence of spiritual fake news and misinformation, but the reality is that our kids will be exposed to such things regardless. For most of our kids, if they want to find out about a topic, they don’t wait to passively receive teaching from us spiritual experts – they’ll look for it on their own. And so if we want such searches to be fruitful and not destructive, we should find ways to incorporate and model the proper way to use technology to learn and grow spiritually.
How do we address these limitations and better meet the learning needs of Gen Z? Next post I'll begin to answer that question by exploring what exactly Project-Based Learning is and how we could implement it in youth ministry.