The confinement in our homes is forcing millions to stop abruptly, cancel all our plans, and take time to look in the mirror.
Edith Vilamajó reflects on the models of education and formation seen in today’s evangelical churches and theological institutions.
When we ask Edith Vilamajó about her personal experience at school as a child, she tells us that she often was labelled as a bad student, despite being able to get the work done.
Her passion has developed since then towards a reflection on how we educate both children and adults.
Graduated in Pedadogy at the University of Barcelona, Master in Arts and Religion at the Triniry International University (Illinois) and Dmin in Theology in the Ashland Seminary (Ohio), Vilamajó has just published in Spanish her book Formar para transformar (“Form to Transform”).
It is a reflection on the educative models of today which offers proposals for change. She hopes “that the people who read the book that it explains what they have always wanted to explain themselves and could not”.
The project is intentionally focused on the church. But her book also addresses the educational models in the whole of society, ways of working that are regularly imported by the Christian communities.
Question. What has been the process that led you to write a book about how we teach in church?
Answer. This book is, in part, the product of my doctoral dissertation. It began through the doctoral dissertation and then, the publishing house Editorial Andamio (Spain) suggested that I turn that dissertation into a book that would be readable for the general public. This is the quick answer.
But there are other elements that converge. First, at a personal level, my experience of education in general, from childhood until this day. I have thought a lot about the way that I learn. They always told me I was a bad student but that I was trying hard. Second, the side of my ministry. All I have been able to experience by training others. In the student ministry I have been involved in, almost everything I have done has been training students and workers. So, there is also much reflection in the book regarding my ministerial experience. My question was always how do I train students so that they do something about what they learn?
And finally, my academic background. The Lord has given me not only the gift of my studies in pedagogy, but I also had the opportunity to take a Master’s degree in theology and a Dmin. When I got to the point of writing my dissertation, which has later become the book, I felt very strongly that God was giving me the opportunity to stop and articulate everything that I had tried before without much success.
Q. What effect do you hope to see in local churches?
A. Let's start backwards. What I don't want is for this book to be bought just because people know me and then to be put on a shelf. The book is meant to be a tool, it has spaces to write, questions and exercises. So, it really is a workbook and I would very much like that people who buy it, work with it. Not only individually, but also with their ministry teams.
There is an author that I quote in my book, Parker Palmer, who has been one of my greatest influences, and speaks of the fact that to see a change there are to be four stages. The first is for a person to see the need for change and make an inward decision to live “divided no more”. The second is to share it with others who are akin and start talking and sharing. The third is that this person takes a public step declaring what she believes and what she wants to see. And the fourth is to wait for the results, which do not always come as results that the world gives, of prizes and glory, but simply that having been faithful and whole with what is believed is already a result and a reward.
I would like the book to begin, at least, with the first point. That the people who read it can say that this is what they were expecting, that the book explains what they have always wanted to explain themselves and could not. Take that first step of reflection and aim for change.
Q. On 28 October, you presented the book in Barcelona. What reactions have you seen so far in the church, bearing in mind that you address issues that demand a degree of self-criticism?
A. Everything God has given me I share and I am still learning. I'm still a student and I'm open to dialogue. One of the people who has read my work to be able to recommend it made me a very good criticism that has to do with contextualization. That is, how what I propose fits the models in Spain. I am Spanish and I write thinking about the Spanish, but I have been away for many years and there are things that I am missing and I have not connected with. But this is my goal, too. Encourage reflection and bring it to self-criticism.
I'm curious about this, because the Spanish culture often does not tolerate criticism very well. Without realizing it, we very easily adapt to our own ways, but what the book proposes is a change.
Q. Since you speak of contextualisation, what influence has your own personal experience had on the book?
A. My higher education is North American. My doctoral dissertation is based on a project I did in Northern Ireland, so I also had to work with a lot of British literature. I know the American scene better, so I'm sure I have influence from there. I will not deny it. I am Spanish and I love my country, but yes, I am sure that this work is tainted by the whole backpack that I bring full of things. But I think it is good to propose some principles, some ways of thinking, and then let the people apply it to their own context. I would like to encourage people to go to the pragmatic resolution.
Q. How are evangelical churches in Spain educating nowadays?
A. If education is only a Sunday School project then, when the child has reached a certain age, they go to the worship service and it seems that the formation stage is over. It works a bit like the university, which implies that when you finish you must already feel prepared for life. I think that is one of the fundamental mistakes we make, without the intention of being negative.
Education is confined to temporality. We go through an educational stage and when it is over, it is over. But clearly, in the Bible, when God speaks of sanctification, it refers to sanctification until glory, until He returns. So, formation is a life project and, as such, if God has not finished with me, the church should not say that it has finished its work when the child reaches a specific age. Sunday school is a tool that the church has to educate but should not be the only one. We should project a formation for the long-term.
Q. Speaking of the theological education on offer, there is always the question about to which extent we are failing in an excessive theorisation of the issues and a lack of practice. As an educator, and being yourself a teacher at a theological school, what are your perceptions?
A. As I understand it, much of the theological education that is being offered is based on quite traditional theological education plans. Which is important to lay a foundation. But sometimes a divorce happens, a disconnection, between reality and what the church needs or asks for. This is not simply a personal comment, but a very large debate that is taking place at the academic level.
Theologians and churches talk about how, sometimes, theological education does not bring answers. Why the seminarian leaves seminary and does not know how to take a funeral, a baptism or pastor a church in general.
On the other hand, there may be an inclination to form students very much on a day-to-day basis, in a very practical, didactic and ministerial manner. This is another extreme, since foundations are important. I think that it is, rather, a matter of how do we connect the subjects taught to the day to day.
The same issue appears in relation to preaching. If a good exegesis is done but there is no good praxis, it is of no use. And those who say that it is the listeners who must do the praxis in their homes are not always right. That is why I see a very strong dissonance between theory and practice. Perhaps it is not about what subjects are taught and which are not, but that when they are taught, see how the biblical passages that are being addressed are related to the student's ministerial and spiritual day-to-day life. I believe that there is a disconnection and contemporary theological education does not quite tune in.
Q. Does your book set out a way to resolve this disconnection?
A. I make a very specific proposal about an integrative pedagogy, which integrates horizontally and vertically. First of all, the vertical connection of the mind with the heart. Information cannot simply remain in knowledge, but must fall to the heart. It has to be something that changes the person, that transforms her, and something that also goes to the hands, that can be used in the ministry in a practical way. But it must also be horizontal in the sense of not being individualistic, but communal. We are all part of a people, the people of God, and we must connect and learn with the rest, feed each other.
Q. How can we develop this collective understanding of education in the church?
A. There are sections of the book that I had already researched during the dissertation, but there are others that are new because I thought they would connect well. And this is one of the ones that fascinated me the most. When we talk about learning in community the emphasis is usually on pedagogical strategies, but as I was reading the Bible and working on the subject, I had a lot more burden for the principles of learning in community than for the practice, because it is not limited only to doing an exercise in group, but involves creating the environment so that you can learn together.
The word I use in the book to reflect this idea is ‘hospitality’. If we understand this concept as the fact of creating an atmosphere that invites the foreign person to my home, translated into the educational context it means that the teacher invites the student to an adventure of learning and, therefore, as teachers must create a space in which people feel comfortable and safe. And this same security is what will generate the desire to share, and that good and not so good things come out. But we do not only learn in strength, but also in weakness. When we are able to open these spaces, we create a lot of opportunity to heal and grow.
These are very new concepts and maybe we are not daring. For example, if I am a teacher who is teaching only by speaking, perhaps the student, in his mind, is not necessarily listening, but thinking about any of the problems he may have. Behind every person there is a whole world and if as a Christian community we are not able to include all this in some way, learning will not happen. But when spaces are created in which people feel safe, free, loved, respected and accepted, this makes learning much easier. This is the proposal.
Q. How does that apply to evangelical schools or colleges?
A. I believe that the church has much to contribute to the world in which we live in. If good educational models that come out of the Word are proposed and can be transferred to the world in which we live, I believe that the church has a big contribution to make. The problem is that it has been the other way around and the church has adapted to the models of the world. If we go to an adult Sunday school of any church we will see that they follow a secular model, where there is a master class in which the teacher knows everything and the students nothing. That is where we must consider how we can be influential in the world in which we live.
Q. Finally, in relation to the title of the book, what happens when the church forms and transforms lives?
A. You may see a little piece of heaven on earth (laughs). We cannot forget that we are imperfect and the work continues. We have often stayed with a small god, a small church and small purposes. I am convinced that we have stopped believing that God transforms us and wants to give us more. We have forgotten that Jesus told us that He came into the world to give us life, and life in abundance, and we have been left with a little life and abundance we have left for eternity. I have always believed that education could do everything, but I have realized that it is not so. That's why I wrote this book. Education can do a lot, but the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, together with education, are a bomb of resources that we have to use. It truly has not been used with the potential it has.