Book Review: Christian Education in the Small Membership Church


Part 1:  Who Are We?

In her book Christian Education in the Small Membership Church, Karen Tye reviews the tendency of churches in America to want to “Super Size” their churches, much as we do our burger meals. She emphasizes however, that small churches are not just smaller, but also, different from their larger counterparts, and that we must realize this as we plan any programs in our churches, perhaps especially Christian Education programs. Smaller is not only different, but in some respects, better for the purposes of educating our children. While there are certainly differences between our Orthodox Churches and the Protestant ones she focuses on, most of the generalities she discusses run true for us also.

The first step in planning Christian Education programs in the smaller church, Tye says, is to evaluate what you have in your particular church.  There are certain characteristics of all small churches:

  1. There’s a strong sense of community
  2. It’s like a family
  3. It has deep traditions
  4. There is a high percentage of participation
  5. The organizational structure tends to be simple in nature
  6. Worship is the prime activity

While some of these characteristics may show up very strongly in one church, another may find different characteristics more true for them.  Deciding what your church “is,” involves evaluating the degree to which each is applicable in your case.

One of the beauties of the smaller church is that relationships tend to be more important than programs, and thus, the very method of teaching can and should be changed from the more structured, instructional style of a larger church with bigger class sizes, to a less formal, relaxed style, where there is greater ability for discussion, and for children to ask questions, much as happened when Jesus was teaching.

Another characteristic of a small church is that newcomers don’t just join, but what happens is more like being adopted into a family, where the new “child” learns all about the family stories, traditions, and ways of doing things.  Of course, with it come all of the problems of family life too.  Like a family, the small church is more intergenerational, with children and adults of all ages rubbing shoulders.  It also is easier and more natural therefore, to include all ages in the educational structure.

Small churches celebrate and guard their traditions more than larger churches in general, sometimes more than they do for the actual beliefs to which they hold.  While this can be a good thing to a degree, and certainly can make for some interesting activities in church school, it is a situation that needs to be watched, so that Orthodoxy does not take a back seat to our ethnic practices, for example.  Traditions do, however, tend to keep people in the church (and in the church school) to a greater extent, because it makes for a feeling of belonging, unlike what is possible in a larger, more impersonal setting.

Although the high participation level in small churches and church schools is a wonderful thing in that it does certainly build a feeling of community, its drawback is that it also means that because a limited number of people are doing all the work, there is a higher degree of burn out, especially among church school teachers.  In a large parish, there are often co-teachers and assistants in the church school.  Some parishes have teachers serve on a rotating basis, perhaps for only a three month period at a time, for example.  Not so in smaller church schools.  Not only are there seldom assistants or substitutes, but people may serve in the capacity of teacher for years on end, long after the spark of excitement has gone out.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t a large pool of volunteers from which to draw new teachers!   So, the Church School Coordinator has to work especially hard to try and alleviate this problem.

In the small parish itself, the organizational system will of necessity, be simplified, and so also with the church school.  There will be no Christian Education Committee or Department, since there are just not enough people for something like that.  Often, one of the teachers will be the coordinator, since there is generally no money to hire a Christian Education Director.  Hopefully, he or she will at least be a certified teacher, but there is no guarantee of this either.  On the up side, planning becomes much easier, as everyone involved can sit down over coffee and make their plans for the weeks or months to come, with things able to happen more quickly than when many people must be gathered together for formal meetings.  Tye speaks of times when planning can actually be done over the phone in some churches, because so few people have to be consulted!

The last quality of the small church Tye emphasizes, certainly resonates with all Orthodox Christians no matter what size their parish, as we all understand, if not always actualize, that worship is to be our chief activity.  We as Orthodox for the most part do not have a problem with this concept, unlike many Protestant churches.    In Orthodoxy, all of our activities, whether in small parish or large, revolve around the work of the church- the worship life.

In any size parish, Tye emphasizes that before doing Christian Education we must understand what Christian Education is:

  • It is bringing potential into reality
  • It is providing information and experiences about church
  • It is socialization and participation in the activities of the church
  • It is providing nurture for all adults and children to grow spiritually
  • It is helping people learn to be a better Christian and follower of Christ by being around other Christians.

Tye concludes this portion of her book by emphasizing that we should do nothing in Christian Education for the entertainment factor, although there is nothing wrong with learning in the church school being fun.  She encourages each of us to evaluate the six qualities of the small church/church school as to how each describes our own parish.  We are then to see how each of these factors helps or hinders the Christian Education process, and finally, take stock of which, if any, of these six qualities are missing or weak in our particular church.  Then we will be able to go ahead and plan our activities accordingly, placing emphasis on what needs to be strengthened, in order to have a good program for the coming year.

Review by Catherine Sullivan

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Click here to read Part 3