Presbyterian educator sees everything that churches do as part of their teaching ministry

Sarah Dianne Jones is the most recent guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Sarah Dianne Jones

LOUISVILLE — From Sarah Dianne Jones’ perspective, Christian education “is everything the church does.”

“The church teaches from the pulpit, at the table, at the font, through our actions and in our words,” Jones, program associate for the Center for Excellence in Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary, told hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong during the most recent episode of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” “When the church is behaving as the church should, everything is teaching.”

Listen to the half-hour conversation among Jones, Doong and Catoe here. Jones is introduced at the 13:15 mark.

Early in the pandemic, Jones was directing a church’s children’s ministry. Once during an online Sunday school class, she asked children what they wanted to pray for that week. “I have a prayer request, but I don’t think we’re allowed to talk about it at church,” one girl said. Jones asked the girl if she could guess what her request was. “I knew this child. She said, ‘You can try,’” Jones said. “I said, ‘Do you want to pray for the people who are protesting? For the country?’ She said, ‘Yes, but we can’t talk about that at church.’”

“I think that’s an encapsulation of what we’re seeing missing in Christian education,” Jones said. “We are leaving out the fact that justice is a faith issue.” Many people of faith can quote Micah 6:8, “but we’re terrified of being political, of being polarizing, of finding ourselves at the other end of a hate group or a protest outside our doors, and so we leave out the pieces that root us …”

The Center for Excellence in Christian Education is working with two other centers at the seminary, the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, to build curriculum that congregations can use based on webinars put on by the two latter centers. “It’s been hard to watch matters of simple justice be polarized completely,” Jones said. Here’s one of the messages she hears from churches when she’s asked to preach there: As long as you bring it back to the scriptural text, I’m OK with you talking about Black Lives Matter, gun violence and other matters. “I just need to know why it’s coming from the pulpit,” they tell Jones.

“I think people are more willing to hear opposing viewpoints, to recognize the church is not a place for us to be polarized,” Jones told Catoe and Doong. “It’s a place to come together and recognize we are all children of God who were created as perfectly imperfect, beloved people … We all have different starting points, but that doesn’t mean we all don’t have room to grow.”

To Jones, one gift of the PC(USA) “is that education is part of our baptismal vows. It’s a part of everything we stand on, and so when we devalue Christian educators … we are absolutely as a church forgetting our baptismal vows to one another.”

For congregations, values matter immensely, Jones said. “Do we value being known as a church with a phenomenal music program? Do we want to be a church that’s super theologically grounded? Or do we want to be a church that’s constantly seeking out ways to learn and grow, and to recognize what’s happening in the world and think about how we can engage the world in different ways, learn together and go into every aspect of our lives knowing that we are not in control and the best thing about us is God is God and we are not.”

“I don’t know that we do that well all the time,” Jones said, “but when we do it well, it’s a beautiful thing.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Learning intergenerationally is a favorite go-to. “If you say it’s intergenerational, you can have [modeling compound] on the tables and people don’t get upset. Grownups understand how much fun it is to work with their hands as they’re learning,” Jones said. “For so many people, the church is the place where generations mix.” Presbyterians also learn when they sing hymns together “because we’re learning the theology we proclaim through our music.” We learn when “we’re out in the world doing mission because you can’t know someone’s story until you’ve walked alongside them on their journey.”

Just like the church did during the civil rights movement, “the world needs us to decide to do hard things, to say, ‘Absolutely not! The children of God deserve better than this,’” Jones said. “We may not be able to fix everything, but this is a gap we can step into … I think we’re called to do better, and I hope we will continue to find ways to show up, so we aren’t letting history repeat itself.”

It’s important for churches to be honest with children, who are “excellent BS detectors. They know if they’re welcome,” Jones said. “They want to know if they still belong here, and that is the biggest thing the church can teach … There is a lot of potential in the Presbyterian Church, and it’s a fun time to be part of developing and getting … started. We are desperate for new and cool and innovative things, and I think [the Center for Excellence in Christian Education] is going to be a place where that can happen.”

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop each Thursday. Listen to previous editions here.

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