Chris Yaw: Every congregation can have an online school

Bible resting on computer keyboard

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The Internet gives even small congregations the ability to offer vibrant adult education and formation programs, an Episcopal priest and founder of the online learning website says in this interview.

As he watched his own congregation’s worship attendance flatten despite record giving, the Rev. Chris Yaw began to wonder: How do you reach people when they’re not in church yet are in front of smartphones or computer screens?

“I had this idea that the church ought to reclaim its place in the community as a teacher, a place where the religiously curious can come and ask questions,” Yaw said.

So two years ago, Yaw launched, a Christian learning website that now offers subscribers, both individuals and congregations, more than 100 courses.

Such programs enable churches of all sizes to offer vibrant adult formation programs, which are essential for church renewal, Yaw said.

“In an age when people are walking around with computers in our pockets, why not listen to a course on an introduction to a Gospel or something like that versus some of the other stuff that’s out there?”

Chris YawYaw serves as the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield, Michigan, and served previously as associate rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was ordained in the diocese of Los Angeles, where he worked for 15 years as a television journalist. He has an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Fuller Theological Seminary.

He spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about and adult formation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about What is it?

It’s a website that provides online Christian learning. It started as a video blog featuring long interviews with people who are making a difference in the mainline. You can still see a number of those on our YouTube site.

Out of that, this idea struck me. I’m a priest and a rector at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield, Michigan, and I know that people come to church less frequently. At my church, for the second year in a row, we had our best pledge drive ever, we have more money coming in, we get 20 to 40 people joining the church every year, but Sunday attendance is flat and even declining.

People are coming, but they come less frequently. So how do we reach them when they are not here, but they are likely in front of a screen? I had this idea that the church ought to reclaim its place in the community as a teacher, a place where the religiously curious can come and ask questions.

So we launched ChurchNext in August 2013 with 28 courses. These are 45-minute courses that you can take at any time.

They are taught by experts in various fields, what we mainliners would describe as middle-of-the-road. We are very clear that we are going after the mainline. We do have Catholic teachers and subscribers, and evangelical teachers and subscribers, but our sweet spot is Episcopalian, Methodist, American Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, etc.

We launch a new course every week and are now up to a hundred courses, and we’re launching all of them in a “for groups” format. We originally designed our courses for individuals to take on their own but found that many people were taking the courses together, with a group.

So we went back and reformatted the content to use on a big screen, on a TV, for group learning. You can actually stream it now and download the facilitator’s guide and the participant’s guide at a fraction of what a DVD would cost.

We design online learning experiences. It is not passive; the pedagogy behind it is very interactive, with quizzes and discussions.

Q: What’s your assessment of the current state of adult education and formation in churches today? How well are people formed?

A friend of mine who runs a company called Forward Movement, an Episcopal publishing imprint, estimates that 80 percent of Episcopal parishes do not have ongoing vibrant adult formation at all.

For the priests who look after those parishes -- myself included -- that’s not something we are proud of. We are not called to make converts; we are called to make disciples, and that’s a process and a journey.

What ChurchNext does is to make it possible for any church, for $300 a year, to subscribe and have access to hundreds of classes and be able to suggest to us classes that they want.

We are trying to make it really easy. The vast majority of churches in America have under a hundred people on a Sunday. Getting a preacher is hard enough, but getting a vibrant formation program is another thing. So this falls right into the category of, “Oh my gosh, for $15 you can buy a class and have everybody in the church watching.”

Q: Your biography on your website says that you are “passionate about renewing congregations.” What role does formation play in congregational renewal?

I think that’s the key to the renewal of congregations. The more deeply formed and committed people are in their personal faith, the stronger the church.

For example, the case for stewardship is not, “Guys, we need money.” The case is, “Look what God has done for you.” We give out of mature faith.

In my own experience, I find that those who are most charitable are those who are most deeply formed. Tom Bergler has written a couple of books, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity” and his follow-up book, “From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity.” We have worked with him to create a course called “How to Bring Maturity into Your Congregation.”

Our courses generally go along three lines.

The first is information for adults and young adults. That’s going to be Bible and theology and church history.

The second is courses that will help in terms of crossing thresholds: baptismal preparation, confirmation, weddings, divorce, death.

And the third line is leadership training. Those are courses in church marketing, this new course on how to bring maturity into the life of your church, how to run a Vacation Bible School, how to sit on the vestry, how to read a lesson on Sunday morning -- all these kinds of leadership courses.

Q: What about just the very basics of church? So many people today didn’t come up in church and so almost need a basic primer on church and faith.

Stephen Prothero says that 1 in 10 Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. And that’s probably not far from true. We have an incredible amount of religious illiteracy.

And as clergy, we are constantly overestimating the theological and biblical literacy of our people.

ChurchNext is at that place between the seminary and the pew. I know as a pastor of 550 people that maybe three would take an online course from a seminary. I can double or triple that number with my online school.

Not everyone is going to sign up, but many would. We’ve used it to prepare people for the sacraments. We did a sermon series in the fall about the Book of Common Prayer, and then as a follow-up, we had an eight-part course called “Opening the Prayer Book.” We showed it on a big screen, and people came up afterward and said, “I’m 70 and have been going to church since I was a kid, and I never knew about the prayer book.”

Q: The ChurchNext website lists the company’s guiding principles, one of which is “Go deep.” What’s that about?

I am convinced that people do want to go deep.

Some studies indicate that American Christians prefer an emotionally comforting, self-focused, actually shallow faith. But we don’t go there. We are not here to win a popularity contest but to change lives. And that only happens when you push and promote what’s challenging and genuine. I really think that’s what people deeply want.

We are not our best selves when we are self-focused, when we are comforted. The reason Christianity is the biggest religion is because, to do it right, it is challenging, it hurts, it is uncomfortable. When we look back in our lives, the things that were most difficult are the things that we are most proud of -- raising children, making sacrifices, serving our country in the military.

So, as much as we are tempted, we don’t dumb down our courses. We try to take advantage of the best teachers we can and present that in a way that’s accessible to people.

Q: What have been the most popular categories and courses so far?

I think that people have enjoyed those with names that they recognize. David Lose’s courses have done well. A number of Episcopalians have enjoyed Frank Wade’s course on the Episcopal tradition. We occasionally do a free course that we offer to the world, and recently launched one by Becca Stevens called “A Simple Path to a Deeper Spiritual Life.” Last December we had a wonderful course by Cornel West that must have drawn 2,000 comments.

Learning is one thing, but engaging people is another. ChurchNext is not just a technology platform; it is an ecosystem. It is where people are making comments and learning and being transformed. We do questionnaires after our classes, and it is surprising how many people will say the class had a major impact on their spiritual life.

So there is transformation that happens. We are convinced this is the work of the Spirit. We pray regularly for the folks taking classes, and we ask them to pray as they take classes and open their hearts up to what the Spirit is going to do.

Some people say you can’t have any relationship online, but look at Facebook. We can actually have relationships online, just very different from face to face. And we are not all about staying online, either. All of our classes have downloadable discussion questions, and we urge people to take classes and then come together.

Q: Do you know who the participants are -- what percentage are taking the classes within a group setting, what percentage are doing it at home on their own?

We can tell the number of subscribers that we have in churches versus individuals. But even when a congregation has a subscription, they allow their members to take the classes by themselves. When the congregation subscribes, we don’t really have access to who is in their school, what they are learning, what their email addresses are.

So no, we really don’t know. Probably in our third year, we are going to pay somebody to do that kind of research and find out who these people are and what they need and want.

They say there are four stages to a startup. The first is, will it work? The second is getting traction. The third is, how do you scale? And fourth is, how big can you get? So a year and a half into this, we are pretty sure it is working, and we are pretty sure we are getting some traction.

Once we move into the third stage, which is scaling -- which we have already had to do to a degree, because we have had some modest growth -- we will be able to answer those.

Q: How many congregations have subscribed?

Probably 250 or so. They are across the mainline, but mostly Episcopalian.

Q: And they can customize their own online learning programs. Tell me about that.

It is actually pretty exciting. A congregation can subscribe, and we set up an account that allows the pastor and church to have their own school that they brand, an online academy, and the pastor goes to our catalog and chooses the courses that he or she thinks would be germane to the congregation and then launches the school and invites people to take the courses within the context of their own congregation.

There are three basic aspects of online learning that make it attractive: cost, expert teaching and convenience. The vast majority of Americans have never taken an online class, but once people take a class, more than 90 percent tell us in our surveys that they are going to take another. So it really is an effective way to learn.

We really want every congregation to have an online school. In an age when people are walking around with computers in our pockets, why not listen to a course on an introduction to a Gospel or something like that versus some of the other stuff that’s out there?