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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 10–18 

Adult Christian Education Among Mennonite Brethren: An Analysis of the Kauffman-Driedger Study (1989)

Ron Penner

“New vitality must be injected into our Christian education programs,” was the first suggestion made by Professor Isaak Block of Winnipeg (now a pastor) upon examining the results of the 1982 Mennonite Brethren Membership Profile 1 data. The 1989 Kauffman-Driedger (K-D) study which updates the 1972 Kauffman-Harder study of five Anabaptist denominations 2 offers another unique opportunity to check on the health of Mennonite Brethren Adult Christian education.

Based on our study, some remedial teaching for adults is necessary.

The goal of this paper is to reflect on the K-D data 3 as published in The Mennonite Mosaic (1991) in order to identify strengths and work areas as we seek to foster Christian maturity in the adults of our churches. Several factors limit our study. The first is that there is no set of established criteria within our denomination by which to measure the effectiveness of our Christian education efforts. A second is that the K-D study has several limitations as it relates to the goal of this paper. It was not designed to answer our questions, and it offers only comparative data. We are able only to compare ourselves with what we believed and did in 1972 and also with the other Anabaptist denominations. Still, the study offers considerable valid information which relates to Christian education. {11}

The criteria for assessing the effectiveness of adult Christian education will be drawn from the grid I use in teaching the course “Christian Education of Adults” at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. The goal of adult Christian education is to educate in such a way that adults:

  • have a good knowledge of the Bible, theology, and church history;
  • possess a vital faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord;
  • are becoming increasingly Christlike in their character and values;
  • belong to and are active in a local church;
  • are skilled in and actively use spiritual self-care skills such as Bible study, prayer, and confession;
  • use their gifts in ministry and mission.

KNOWLEDGE OF BIBLE, THEOLOGY, AND HISTORY

How well do our adults know their Bible, theological perspectives on key issues, or the heritage of their church? The K-D study tested for Biblical literacy using eight factual questions. Respondents were asked to identify Zacchaeus, the Macedonian call, Pentecost, Samaritans, King Herod, Gethsemane, Bartholomew, and the exile. Table 1 tells how well Mennonite Brethren (MB) did when compared with the total of the groups surveyed.

Table 1—Percent Correctly Identifying Bible Facts 4

Items     MB     1989
Total
    1972
Total
Zacchaeus   95   91   92
Macedonian call 89 83 82
Pentecost 84 80 74
Samaritans 83 80 79
King Herod 81 77 79
Gethsemane 68 67 67
Bartholemew 56 57 61
The exile 51 45 47

If one accepts these as a reasonable slice of basic knowledge of Biblical names, places, and events, then we could say that about four out of five adults have a basic Bible knowledge. However, another way of putting it would be to say that 20 out of every 100 adults in our churches may not have an adequate knowledge base. The questionnaire included only one Old Testament item. One wonders about MB familiarity with the Old Testament. {12}

In terms of theological convictions, the survey questioned several areas. The first area was basic theology, the second was the particular theological perspective of the Anabaptist churches.

Table 2—Percent of Adults Agreeing with Theological Viewpoint 5

      1989
MB
    Overall     1972
MB
Jesus will return to earth some day   97   90   97
Miracles are supernatural acts of God 96 91 95
The physical resurrection of Jesus was a fact 96 92 96
Satan is an active personal devil 97 90 97
Definitely life beyond death 98 93 97

Jesus was born of a virgin

96

89

96
Bible is inerrant Word of God 89 78 93
Accept Christ as Savior or suffer eternal punishment 78 63 85

Overall, adults in our churches hold strongly to an orthodox theology. The two areas in which there appears to be some drift are our view of Scripture and the exclusiveness of Christ as the way to eternal life.

Table 3—Percent Agreeing with Anabaptist Theological Viewpoints 6

      MB     Total
Baptism is unnecessary for infants and children   89   84
Should follow the lordship of Christ even if persecuted 75 66
Church discipline is necessary for the unfaithful 78 60
Christians should take no part in war 56 66
Christians cannot perform in some government offices 49 59
It is against God’s will to swear civil oaths 54 57
Must follow Jesus in evangelism and deeds of mercy 47 45
Should not take a person to court even if justified 32 35

Mennonite Brethren show significant diversity in views related to a particular Anabaptist perspective. There is high agreement with the item on baptism as a sign of adult discipleship. However, about one out of four adults are unsure of or disagree with a Christian’s responsibility to follow Jesus under conditions of persecution. A similar proportion would disagree with the necessity of church discipline. The diversity on matters of participation in war, political office, swearing of oaths, and holding to both evangelism and compassion ministries is almost fifty-fifty. Convictions about legal process, when compared to our Anabaptist forebears, is acute. One factor which these results do not address is the respondents’ ability to articulate a Biblically-based rationale for their convictions. {13}

CONVERSION AND VITAL RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST

Judged by the K-D study, the majority of adults in our churches have a vital relationship with Christ. They see themselves as converted or saved, have no doubt that God is real, and practice the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer regularly. However, about one in five seem to struggle with doubt over their salvation and/or their experience of the Christian life.

Two areas to investigate are those of the Christian’s relationship to and experience of the Holy Spirit and how one can or should feel in relationship with God. One-third of our adults indicate that they have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The item does not clarify whether this is to have occurred at the time of conversion or in a subsequent special experience. One wonders how the remaining two-thirds conceptualize their relationship to the Spirit. Almost one-half of the adults indicate that they do not feel close to God. Given the place which feelings have in other relationships of our experience, we should pay conscious attention when one-half of our people indicate that there is a lack of felt closeness to God. Perhaps we need an opportunity to talk about our expectations concerning the “feeling” aspect of our relationship to God. Or, we may need help in deeper communication with God, so that the experience is sufficiently real to engage our feelings.

Table 4—Percent Agreeing on Spiritual Life Items 7

      MB     Overall
No doubt that God exists   94   88
Had a conversion experience 95 82
Sometimes have doubts about salvation 17 26
Feel close to God 55 53
Often feel discouraged in living a Christian life 18 16
Received baptism of Holy Spirit 33 47
Pray privately daily or more 83 78
Read Bible weekly or more 75 63
Often ask God for guidance in making decisions 70 63
Private or family devotions weekly or more often 69 56

CHRISTIAN CHARACTER AND VALUES

The goal of Christlikeness is an ongoing life task for every Christian. What produces Christlikeness? Clearly, the Holy Spirit works for character transformation within each believer. In addition, the deep learning of Scripture also has a significantly transforming role, and it is this aspect upon which Christian education typically focuses. {14}

How does one describe Christlikeness? How general or specific can one get? The particulars explored by the K-D study included the following personal and social ethical issues.

Table 5—Percent Viewing Actions as Always Wrong 8

      1989
MB
    Overall     1972
MB
Smoking tobacco   72   69   76
Smoking marijuana 92 91
Moderate drinking of alcohol 37 43 51
Homosexual acts 98 92 91
Masturbation 34 34 49
Social dancing 25 21 57
Adult movies 44 47 55
Gambling 56 61 74
Owning stocks in war-producing companies 36 44 29
Income tax evasion 95 90 94

In the use of mood-altering drugs, Mennonite Brethren adults have remained steady in their convictions about “things that smoke,” but have shifted to a significantly more open stance with respect to the use of alcohol. Sixty out of one hundred Mennonite Brethren adults would now agree that moderate consumption of alcohol is acceptable.

Attitudes toward homosexual behavior are almost unanimously ones of disapproval, while attitudes toward masturbation have become more accepting.

Participation in the three kinds of entertainment polled—social dancing, adult movies, and gambling—is less harshly judged. The shift in social dancing differs by 30 points from 1972, so that presently 75 percent would approve of participation.

In the areas such as financial investments, income tax evasion, and racist housing practices, Mennonite Brethren have become more socially conscious.

SPIRITUAL SELF-CARE

The writer of Hebrews holds out an ideal of each Christian capable of managing some basic spiritual self-care. Each one ought to be able to relate the principles of Scripture to the issues of life, be self-regulating in terms of maintaining communication with God, and know how to discern good {15} from evil.

Table 6—Percent Characterized by Devotional Activities 9

      MB     Overall
Pray privately daily or more   83   78
Say grace at all meals 80 70
Read Bible weekly or more 75 63
Often ask God for guidance in making decisions 70 63
Private or family devotions weekly or more often 69 56

The K-D study does not really provide sufficient information to judge the extent to which adults are able to relate Scripture and life. The areas explored focus on the disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. Generally, about three out of four adults practice an adequate level of spiritual disciplines.

ACTIVE CHURCH INVOLVEMENT

The Christian life is more than an individual relationship with God. Becoming Christ’s follower also involves membership in a new family, an involvement most concretely expressed in a local church. The New Testament letters have much to say about the kind of investment, care, and interdependence believers ought to give to the church.

The questions one would more concretely ask include: How frequently do people participate in the core meetings of the church? How much time is invested in the ministries of the church? How faithfully are personal financial resources contributed to the life and ministry of the church?

Weekly Sunday morning attendance is held as very important by virtually all adults, as evidenced by the more than 90 percent affirming both belief and action. Involvement in the traditional adult education slot, Sunday School, has slipped from 79 percent attending most Sundays in 1972 to 67 percent in 1989. If the trajectory continues, we may soon find one-half of our adults not engaging in study or learning related to their faith. That prospect raises questions for our churches as to ways in which we can facilitate significant study and learning with our adults.

What is fairly encouraging is the significant degree of interest shown in serving the church and in doing occasional volunteer work in the church or community. Also, while one would wish for 100 percent regular, planned giving of financial resources to the church, to see a 70 percent proportion is quite encouraging. {16}

Table 7—Percent Characterized by Church Participation 10

      MB     Overall
Attend church almost weekly   96   92
Church participation is “very” or “fairly important” 92 90
Regularly attend weekly meetings 42 36
Attend SS most Sundays 67 71
Interested in serving the congregation 74 68
Frequently or occasionally did volunteer work for church or community agencies 82 77
Have held leadership position in past three years 65 61
Gave a planned amount to church regularly 70 67

INVOLVEMENT IN MISSION/EVANGELISM

Ultimately, our Christian walk must also extend beyond the meeting of needs in the church. As followers of Christ, we identify with His vision for reconciliation with all people and, together with the first-century disciples, also own the challenge of the Great Commission. The question for our adults is, how involved are we in both evangelism and compassion ministries?

From the perspective of compassion ministries, a fairly significant proportion of our adults is involved in ministries to alleviate human need on a personal level. Seven out of ten adults frequently visit people who are sick or shut-ins. Eighty two percent are involved in volunteer work, some of which is with community agencies. The question on this item is determining how much is within the church and how much in the community. There is significant reluctance to be involved in more political ways. Only 12 percent feel it is more important to work for a more just world.

In terms of witness and evangelism, 70 percent of adults indicate that they sometimes give a verbal witness to others and that they have tried—at least a few times—to personally lead someone to Christ. However, only one-half do any significant inviting of non-Christians to their church functions. What is a positive surprise is the fact that almost one-half of our adults would be willing to help start a new church. Planting new churches is one of the very significant ways to reach out to the wider community. One wonders how many would be willing to translate this into action. But, even if only 25 percent of our approximately 40,000 adults in North America would get involved in church planting, we would have some 10,000 adults open to church planting! {17}

Table 8—Percent Engaging in Missional Activities 11

      MB     Overall
Sometimes witness orally   70   64
Tried to lead someone to Christ at least a few times 70 64
Regularly or occasional invite non-Christians to church or SS 51 41
Am willing to help start a new church 45 39
Members of my church feel it is important to work for a more just world 12 27
Frequently or occasionally did volunteer work for church or community agencies 82 77
Frequently or occasionally visited a nonrelative who was sick or shut-in 69 72

CONCLUSIONS

So, how are we doing?

First, these observations are based on global data and cannot be overlaid onto every local church. Each church and every adult must be given the dignity of being individually considered.

Second, our denomination lacks a curriculum plan for the Christian education of adults. If our goals and directions remain vague, our progress may also be incidental and any judgment regarding progress is likely to be subjective. A significant contribution to our educational ministries would be an outline of the kinds of knowledge, values, and skills we would desire each of our adults to develop.

Third, based on our study, it would be helpful for our churches to do some specific remedial teaching with our adults on the following subjects:

  • the Old Testament story
  • the fate of the unconverted and the necessity for evangelism
  • the place of suffering in the Christian’s life
  • a Christian’s role in the institutions of the world (political, military, and judicial)
  • a Biblical view of mission (relationship of compassion and evangelism)
  • the place and ministry of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life
  • feelings and our relationship with God
  • and case studies in ethical issues (alcohol, entertainment, investing).

Fourth, we will need to look for new ways to prompt our adults to study. If the Sunday morning study block is no longer functional, we must devise alternate ways. The preservation of Sunday school is not the ultimate goal; the ultimate goal is the development of knowledgeable {18} Christians. We will need to take a good look at the time, setting, methodology, and media of adult education in the church and look for new ways of engaging people in study.

Fifth, we have many people who are already involved in ministries both within and beyond the church, and we could strengthen their ministries by doing something as simple as recognizing and affirming what they are doing. We have a tendency to see what others are not doing; it would be helpful to look for what is being done.

And finally, probably my biggest surprise of the study was the proportion of people who indicated they would be interested in helping to start another church. If this be true, our boards of church extension could do some significant mobilization and we could see dozens of new churches planted.

ENDNOTES

  1. John B. Toews, Abram G. Konrad, and Alvin Dueck, “Mennonite Brethren Church Membership Profile: 1972—1982,” Direction, 14.2 (Fall, 1985).
  2. J. H. Kauffman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1975).
  3. J. H. Kauffman and Leo Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1991).
  4. Ibid., 75.
  5. 1989 data from Kauffman and Driedger, 69-70; 1972 data from Kauffman and Harder, 106, 112.
  6. Kauffman and Driedger, 71.
  7. Ibid., 72-73.
  8. 1989 data from Kauffman and Driedger, 192, 203; 1972 data from Kauffman and Harder, 123, 133, 139.
  9. Kauffman and Driedger, 72.
  10. Ibid., 74, 173, 179.
  11. Ibid., 173, 179.
Ron Penner is Assistant Professor of Church and Family Ministries at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, CA.

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