Informed: Who Are Adult Learners?

Providing What They Need

In This Edition:

  • Who Adult Learners Are, What They Want, & What They Need

  • 3 Levels of Faith Development from 1 John 2:12-14

  • An Interview with Justin & Jennifer Gerhardt

  • Top Picks: This Week’s Recommended Resources


Adult Learners: Traits, Wants, & Needs

Who They Are

  1. The adult learner has lots of life experience.

You know that story or illustration you’ve loved to use for years? They’ve got one too—and they also have experiences that shape how they hear that story. Adults bring their own stories, background knowledge, and connections with them. But this opens up possibilities rather than closing them. Think of the adult learner’s background experience as an asset, not a liability.

  1. The adult learner is self-directed.

In a class setting, with attractive evangelism in mind, or gentle nurturing and growth in mind, remember that lots of people are saying to themselves, “just let me come in and check and you out.”

  1. The adult learner is interested in discovery & instinctively learns on a need-to-know basis.

Learn to ask questions and draw out life lessons just as much as you seek to instill some. People are much more likely to retain information they discover for themselves or in which they participate. They are more likely to leave class with excitement and a desire to learn more if we help them discover for themselves.

  1. The adult learner thinks in terms of their job, their role, and their identity.

Moms think of themselves as moms; Grandparents as grandparents; a business women or a business man will think of this as part of who they are. If you can link classes, topics, and groups to how people see themselves and their roles, you will find greater interest in what you have to offer. This means we should think about how we title, how we explain, and how we go about relating biblical and theological foundation stones in ways that relate to where people are. Choose a title that relates to what people deeply want and will find in Scripture and in this class.

What They Want

  1. The adult learner wants knowledge that is relatable and that can be immediately applied.

In a room of 10 people, how many do you think are genuinely interested in learning for learning’s sake? One. One! Most people learn for the sake of doing, or they learn for the sake of living. Remember what we said earlier: the adult learner thinks in terms of their job, their role, and their identity. So a new dad or mom, a new role at work, a new relationship, a move to a new city—these transition points create an opportunity; and its important for you and I to realize that most adults who come to our classes are looking for knowledge that is relevant to where they are in life. They want tools to help in this new role in which they find themselves. As Rick Warren once said, “Give me something to say on Sunday that is going to help people on Monday morning.”

  1. Adults want to be treated as adults.

Most churches are blessed with elementary school teachers who use their passion and skills to teach other elementary kids. But are we treating adults the same way? Does the adult bible class teacher talk down to the class, or only seek obvious, one-word answers to their questions? Do we put people on the spot? Keep this in mind: if a person feels uncomfortable in a new public setting, they will not come back. Most adult classroom settings should allow people to feel welcomed, not managed or targeted.

  1. Adult learners want to be wanted.

No matter what our age, every human being wants to feel loved, needed, respected, and wanted. Showing a genuine, active interest in people is very important. The adult wants to feel respected and valued.

What They Need

According to Charles Lee, adult learners need 9 things from a church adult education program:

  1. Universal identity. “I am a part of the body of Christ, and I am a part of this church.”

  2. Anonymity: “I am able to visit without being pressured as I decide for myself.”

  3. Close relationships. “I found a class or group that allows me to form real relationships.”

  4. Casual relationships. “I found a class or group that lets me know members.”

  5. Dialogue. “I can share my thoughts and concerns and have questions answered.”

  6. Objective learning. “I know the story God gave, and what God expects of me.”

  7. Subjective learning. “I find my felt needs met and can choose among my interests.”

  8. Vulnerability. “I am able to be myself and see others are authentic and willing to share.”

  9. Accountability. “I see that something meaningful is expected of those who join.”

Charles Lee, “Toward a Philosophy of Christian Adult Education,” Leaven 7/2 (spring, 1999): 82. Available for download here.

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3 Levels of Faith Development (1 John 2:12-14)

I am writing to you, little children,
    because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake.
I am writing to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning…
I write to you, young men,
    because you are strong,
    and the word of God abides in you,
    and you have overcome the evil one.

-- John the Apostle (1 John 2:12-14 ESV)

In his book, A Sense of Belonging, Norman Bales uses 1 John 2:12-14 to show the importance of offering teaching appropriate to a person’s level of spiritual development.

Level 1 (what we call the START level) is teaching for those new to the Christian faith. “I am writing to you, little children,” writes John, “because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 Jn 2:12 ESV). These are young babes in Christ. They don’t know all the church problems that one discovers in deacon’s meetings. They aren’t ready for the harder passages of Scripture or the deeper Christian message. To them, John simply says “rejoice that your sins are forgiven!” This level also applies to the unchurched or the skeptical, and even those recently returning to the faith. Like a tender reed, or a smoldering wick, there ought to be a level of teaching for those tender in faith.

Level 2 (what we call the GROW level) is for those who are no longer spiritual children, but have not yet gone on to maturity. “I write to you, young men,” continues John, “because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 Jn 2:14 ESV). They have faced temptation and found victory. They are not like a tender plant, tossed by every wind in the storm. And because the Word has taken root within them, they are beginning to live out of the power of God’s Spirit. This level of learner needs solid food, real meat, and opportunities to connect real faith with real life. They need to grow in intimate knowledge of God through building a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Level 3 (what we call the LEAD level) is for the mature Christian. “I am writing to you, fathers,” writes John, “because you know him who is from the beginning” (1 Jn 2:13 ESV). This level refers to those whose walk with the Lord is seasoned and strong; they have formed an intimate bond with Christ and are known for walking in step with the Spirit. This level of maturity not only needs to teach others, but to be fed themselves, even if those classes are geared toward how to use their talents to enrich the kingdom of God.

People at different stages have different needs. Take advantage of every opportunity to help every person “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV).

Norman Bales, A Sense of Belonging (Nashville, TN: 20th Century Christian, 1989). Available here.

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A Conversation With Justin & Jennifer Gerhardt

Justin Gerhardt is the creator and host of the podcast Holy Ghost Stories. For 10 years he served as the lead minister for the Round Rock Church of Christ in Austin, Texas. Jennifer (JL) Gerhardt is an accomplished author and Bible class teacher. For 5 years, she served as a storytelling minister at Round Rock. They introduced “Live Love” as the mission statement for their church…and it stuck. I sat down with Justin and Jennifer for episode 3 of the Avenue for Faith podcast, where I got to ask them about adult learners and adult education. Here are some highlights.

Q: “Jennifer, Why do you say short attention spans are NOT the problem?”

If you watch trends in preaching, sermons are getting longer…[In] the largest churches, those big mega-churches, those preachers often preach for 45 minutes. So that is evidence of something. Those churches are full of young people who are showing up and listening to long sermons, singing for 45 minutes. So it doesn’t appear to be attention span. Also these are the same people who will watch every episode of The Queen’s Gambit in one sitting. They will watch ALL of it. This is not an attention span problem we are dealing with. It’s that they have better stuff to watch than they ever have before. The quality of what they are being fed outside is what they bring to your Bible class. They just did a Master class with Aaron Sorkin yesterday. And now YOU are their Bible class teacher! I think its mostly just that the quality has gotten so good that it really asks a lot of us to show up for these classes, and we just need to bring something better in terms of our preparation [and] the amount we think through things.”

Q: “Justin, how do you reach people who learn on a need-to-know basis?”

Very few adults get motivated about learning about something they don’t need to know, or don’t feel like they need to know. This is why it’s imperative in effective communication to develop tension on the front end of a message; it is just so that you demonstrate the need for the audience and thereby invite them in, interest-wise, to come along with you. “Let me meet you where you are. Let me bring you to where this problem matters to you. Now you want to know about what I’m going to tell you about.” This is the conversation I have with every one of my preaching interns every summer: “Stop. Don’t talk until you tell me why I should listen. Don’t give me some solution until I am frustrated along with you about the problem.” There are all kinds of solutions in Scripture. But if you don’t sell people on the problem for just a minute, or package it in a way that speaks to things inside them that are aware of the problem, they they are just not going to be interested. And you can’t blame them because that’s their humanity showing through. That’s how we roll. We are adult human beings, and adult human beings learn on a need-to-know basis.

Q: “Jennifer, what kind of questions should we ask in class?”

I like experience-based questions best, because people have experiences that are relevant that no one else has. So, when you say “what is a time you have experienced this in your life? When is a time you’ve been challenged in a similar way in your life? Who is a person you’ve known who acted like this in this moment?” Those kinds of things are information they have that only they have. And so what comes out of their mouth is precious, because they are the only ones who know it in the room.

Excerpts taken from my interview with Justin & Jennifer Gerhardt on Episode 3 of the Avenue for Faith podcast. You can find the podcast on all major podcasting platforms.

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Top Picks: This Week’s Recommended Resources

Teacher Manuals: Teach the Text Commentary Series

Josh Kingcade shared with me his favorite “teacher guide” to hand to any teacher covering a book of the Bible for an adult Bible class: the Teach the Text commentary series from Baker Publishing. Imagine a commentary series that is written by scholars, but with the volunteer teacher (not the university Bible professor) in mind! This series covers 4-5 pages per section of text, offering everything a teacher would need (important points, historical details, notes on the language, stories and application for today) and nothing they don’t need. Try it out and see if your teachers find these to be extremely helpful.

Book: Norman Bales, A Sense of Belonging

Some of the best teachers never publish. Some who do are not well known. Some of my favorite books are old, out-of-print, and published by little-known publishing houses. This fits all those categories. Norman Bales wrote A Sense of Belonging in 1989, and published with 20th Century Christian based in Nashville. With pastoral sensitivity and helpful insight, Bales sketches out a vision for church as family, a need for classes and groups that build relationships, and a call for a welcoming ethos for a church that seeks to be the nurturing, life-giving community of Jesus. Highly recommended.

Article: Charles Lee, “Toward a Philosophy of Christian Adult Education”

Charles Lee’s 1999 article in Leaven is challenging yet balanced, forward-thinking yet measured. He lays out the wants and needs of adult education in a church context. I found his article thoroughly helpful and thought-provoking.

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Avenue For Faith is a publication of the Adult Education Ministry of Sherrod Avenue Church of Christ in Florence, Alabama. My name is Nathan Guy, and I am the Minister of Adult Education. I am happily married to Katie and also serve as President of Mars Hill Bible School. You can find more resources on our website over at avenueforfaith.org. Follow us @avenueforfaith (fb/tw/ig).