The boom in book clubs, podcasts, blogs and service-learning events, plus classes for children, youth and adults, demonstrates that people have a passion for learning.
We all know that Sunday school, confirmation class and adult education are central to the life of most congregations.
We place a high value on continuing education opportunities for pastors and other congregational staff. We increasingly believe that vital congregations also provide learning opportunities for their own teachers and elected leaders.
While some may not call it education, there is now a growing awareness that informal learning makes a huge contribution to the well-being of a congregation and individual members of the congregation.
A wide variety of activities
Informal learning encompasses a wide variety of activities. These could include dance classes, book groups or guided visits to a nature preserve.
They might also cover Internet research on archaeological sites of the Bible or interviewing members to record the living history of the congregation.
These activities contribute to the health and well-being of congregations by building on the strengths and confidence of those who are involved. The relationships — the concrete, visible expression of the body of Christ — that develop as a result of this kind of informal learning help shape the individuals and the whole community.
Informal learning often can be an important stepping stone to further learning and leadership development. The informal learning, and the relationships that are formed through it, can easily lead to opportunities for new, emerging ministries.
Informal learning’s definitions are broad and its boundaries sometimes are not clear. This breadth is part of the strength of informal learning, since it invites everyone to develop a love of learning.
Four principles of informal learning are clear. One of the key reasons people engage in learning is a desire to know. Learning is inspiring.
Many find delight in the discovery of new information and the exploration of unfamiliar landscapes. The passion for learning and the desire to know ourselves and our world enrich both the learners and their communities.
Learning to do
Learning to do is often even more important. Many quickly tire of learning experiences if there is nothing they can do with what they’re learning.
Learning to do provides not only more effective individual learning but also gives those who are naturally action-oriented an opportunity to make a difference with what they have learned. For them, action itself is part of learning. And in the process, they have gained skills, confidence, competence and practical abilities.
Learning to live together may be one of the most crucial reasons to encourage informal learning. Conflicts, intolerance, fear and an inclination to surround ourselves by like-minded people tear away at the fabric of congregations and the communities of which they are a part.
Learning tolerance, mutual understanding and interdependence, and sharing the experience of learning with others, is a part of the glue that binds a congregation together.
Exploring the desire to live well together will often create the opportunity for fresh, innovative ministry in your community.
Finally, informal learning is often learning to be. While development of our mental and physical capacities as well as the ability to take control of our lives and to influence the world around us are vital, there are times when these capacities fail us.
Times of transition (retirement, for example) or trauma (serious illness, loss of a job, divorce or death) often teach more about being than about doing. These times of transition and trauma often serve as the school in which prayer is learned and faith-filled trust in God is taught.
So, how can yours be a rich community of lifelong learning, formal and informal?
- Build a culture of teaching and learning into the fabric of the congregation.
- Create access to both formal and informal learning opportunities.
- Value both the informal teachers and the formal teachers in your congregation and community.
- Provide opportunity for face-to-face learning and learning through technology.
- Think of learners as people of all ages.
That is the essence of lifelong learning — formal and informal.