The Bible should be read “as if God was actually talking to us,” the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE) was told here at its annual gathering this week.

The ecumenical group of educators met Feb. 1-4 under the theme  “God’s Surprising Wonders”.

Keynote speaker Rabbi Sandy Sasso focused on the Jewish tradition of midrash, which she defined as “approaching Scripture as if God was actually talking to us.”

Retelling the stories of Cain and Able, Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses, Sasso intertwined her own biblical interpretations with historical midrashim. She stressed the importance of exploring Scripture with open hearts and minds.

“No one person can hold the key to unlock what God intended,” she said. “What God intended was for each generation to read its story into the text. The Bible is not the final word, but the first word. We should not take it literally, but seriously.”

Almost echoing the Reformed tradition’s motto, (ecclesia semper reformanda) ―”Reformed and always being reformed by the word of God” ― Sasso dared APCE participants to expect God to engage the community in new ways each time they read Scripture.

Conversations in the halls and in workshops often turned toward the rapidly-changing church,  but this group of Presbyterians spoke about the future with curiosity, determination, and hope. Instead of wondering if classrooms would be empty, educators pursued ideas that will deepen faith and encourage attendance.

From the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Revs. Derek MacLeod and Ian McDonald, said they came to the annual conference seeking new curriculum developments and collegial support.

McDonald told the Presbyterian News Service that he worries that the average Presbyterian has tradition, but not faith. He has found that adults neither know basic Bible stories nor can articulate what they believe.

MacLeod agreed, saying, “Even children aren’t learning or becoming Christians. The church’s role is becoming more and more important.” 

He said his own daughter has felt pressure to disassociate from the Christian faith while at school. He said he relies on the church’s Christian education activities to assure her and help her claim her faith.

Event organizer Loretta Gratias-Bremer said she wants APCE to be an innovative leader of Christian education, enabling congregations to do ministry in new and different ways.  She wants congregations to use technology, connecting and supporting each other’s ministries.  “The educator role is changing,” she said.  “We need to be creative.”

One person to whom people turned for ideas and answers was the 2012 Educator of the Year, Rev. George Brown Jr.

Ordained in the Reformed Church in America, he has served as educator, pastor, writer, and professor. Brown was also president of Christian Educators in the Reformed Church in America.

Effective Christian education is a life-long process, he said, like any other spiritual discipline.  “Learning over time with others produces a change,” he said. “It requires a huge investment of time and energy, but that’s the kind of thing I think we’re going to see more of.”

Christian education as a spiritual discipline “sounds a bit like something ancient, like the catechumenate [baptismal] process when people were mentored into the Christian life,” he said.

Learning communities don’t require midweek meetings at church, Brown added, but can be achieved online.

He said he considers Facebook, blogs, and websites as venues for Christian education and community building.

Virtual community is not what I think of in distance (or online) learning,” Brown said. “I think of it as authentic community.”

Mary Margaret (Meg) Flannagan is marketing director for the new Presbyterian hymnal, which will be published in 2013 by the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She is an occasional contributor to Presbyterian News Service.