Reaching & Teaching the Post-Modern Student

   By Jeff Pratt

Several months ago I was introduced to the latest retail phenomenon sweeping the country. The bright students of commerce that provided the introduction were my four-year-old and nine-year-old. As we journeyed through our local mall my children kept screaming about a new store called "Build a Bear". My thoughts were that we would go into a store that specialized in teddy bears, choose a few accessories, and get out of there without much damage done.  Little did I know that I was in for one of the greatest educational experiences of my life.

As we approached "Build a Bear" I noticed that there was a crowd waiting just to get into this store. As we waited in line, I began to get a glimpse of what "Build a Bear" is all about. My children ran to the bins were the un-stuffed animal shells are displayed. They ran back our place in line and waited with anticipation for the next station. We moved forward, and I watched my children participate in the stuffing of their bears. They chose a heart, placed it inside the animal, and moved to the stitching section. After the bears were stitched, my children chose clothes, shoes, and other accessories. From there, they went to a computer terminal and printed out a birth certificate.

Finally, we proceeded to the check-out counter. By the time we got there, we had been in the store for over an hour. I foolishly thought that with all the work we had put into these bears, surely they would be close to free. The cashier rang us up, and my total was more than I have ever paid for four bears that were already put together!

Needless to say, we are now the proud owners of four "Build a Bears," and I am sure we are not finished. I walked out of there in disbelief thinking to myself, how in the world did they get me to pay more for a bear that I had to assemble than I would pay at any toy store? The key was that they did not sell me a bear, they sold me an experience.

To minister to the post-modern student we must understand what drives them.  We can all agree that post-moderns are experience driven. We no longer buy a cup of coffee, we buy a Starbucks experience. We no longer buy a stuffed animal, we assemble it. We no longer run down to Shoneys for a quick burger, we travel to the Rain Forest Café to experience the atmosphere of a tropical jungle. Economists say that we are no longer living in an industrial-based economy but rather an experiential economy. It is obvious that the retail world has figured out how to best sell their product, but what about us? Are we still packaging our product in the wrappings of modernity and wondering why we are not being effective?

For us to be effective in reaching and ministering to the post-modern student we must provide for them opportunities to experience the love and the power of God. They will no longer tolerate the dissemination of information as the basis of making a life-changing experience. If you want a perfect example of this, look at your Wednesday night crowd versus your Sunday School crowd. For years student ministers have asked me how to get Wednesday night students to come to Sunday school. The answer is found when we quit teaching lessons in Sunday School and start creating experiences. Most Sunday School lessons ask for a post-modern student to step back into modernity to learn about God. They are not willing to do that. So how do we begin to create crucial experiences? Next months newsletter will set the stage as we discover how to create experiences for the post-modern student.

A common concern in phone calls I have been receiving lately from student ministers sounds something like this, "My Wednesday night crowd is great, but my Sunday School attendance is decreasing. How can I get my Wednesday night students to become Sunday morning students?" If you are one of the many student ministers who has this problem don't become discouraged--you are not alone. Across the country and regardless of denominational affiliation we are seeing numbers drop in Sunday School attendance while our Wednesday night and/or Sunday night crowds are growing. I believe that a part of the solution to this dilemma can be found in learning to teach the Post-modern student.

Several characteristics that make up this creature called the Post-modern student will drastically affect the way they learn, consequently affecting the way we must teach. One of the biggest problems that plagues Sunday School programs today is that we are still teaching lessons. The Sunday School format that we follow today was developed in an age of modernity that supported the dissemination of information. The hour is based around spitting out as much information as possible. The problem with this approach today is that students aren't looking for information...they are looking for experiences. Don't misunderstand the point here, I am not saying that we hould not teach truth--we must teach truth--but we must engage a student's heart before we will ever engage his or her mind. Bottom line: We must quit teaching lessons and start creating experiences.

Look at your Wednesday night program--why is it attended better than your Sunday School program? Perhaps the reason behind this is found that on Wednesday night you key on the experience--you engage the heart before you invade the mind.

A second thing we must do is to create an environment where the student needs the teacher. Post-moderns are known for their varied learning styles and lack of respect for the institution. We live in a day where students can sit at a computer and find more information on a given topic than a teacher may have learned in their college years. The teacher is no longer looked at as the sole source of information, and consequently the students feel they have no need for the teacher. I have talked to several student ministers who tell me they are no longer buying student books for Sunday School. They say that the students aren't using them, and therefore it is a waste of the church's money. I see their point, but I think we are moving in the wrong direction. A student book can be the key to connecting the teacher to the student. If a student book is participatory in nature and developed with relevant stories and graphics then the student is drawn to the experience that has been created in the classroom. The teacher is engaging students by not lecturing, and the student is involved in the experience of creating as they discover truth together.

What needs to be created is a situation where the student needs the teacher and the teacher needs the student. Hearts are touched, minds are opened, and souls are changed. Is the Sunday School hour still a relevant means of teaching the Word of God? You better believe it is, but we must learn to teach and engage the students of today, not continue to lose students to those arenas that are committed to creating the experience. Remember, we are not the only ones out there competing for the minds of teenagers.
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