Adults flock to Sunday school, but seldom at church

Back in 1992, the prospect of delving into the mysteries of God or Catholic tradition attracted precious few adult learners - just 500 all year - to a variety of short programs offered through a center at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J.

Fast-forward to today and the problem is finding space to accommodate the 5,000 to 7,000 who sign up annually. For one day-long program on spirituality in 2003, the Center for Theological and Spiritual Development had to erect a tent to shelter half of the 2,000 adults who descended on campus despite the $30 course fee. Dozens more were turned away.

Across the nation, adult learners are seeking out the teachers they believe will help them find God. From online forums with religious experts to short courses on Sabbath observance or on the fictional thriller "The DaVinci Code," high participation rates suggest basic religious education is not just for children anymore. Call it Sunday school for adults.

Spiritual appetites are longing for nourishment beyond the traditional parish-based Bible study. And those meeting today's demand for knowledge are often not the neighborhood pastor, rabbi, or imam. Instead, specialized centers and franchised programs are using big names and focused topics to educate grownups on one facet or another of the major religions.

As denominational leaders frequently watch from the sidelines, adults are learning what they want to know, which is sometimes orthodox and sometimes not. Either way, it's motivated adult students, who want results for their time and money and who are increasingly shaping agendas for religious education.

"Growing up, we thought, 'That's the priest's job' or 'that's the sister's job' " to understand the faith, says Rosemary Bleuher, associate director of Adult Faith/Community Formation for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet, Ill. "Some of us now believe it's the whole body of believers that has to learn."

Program planners are hearing the pleas from adults like Donna Smith, an at-home mother of four in Roselle, Ill. Growing up, she says, her family "went to church but never talked about faith."

Now, to help herself and children understand what Roman Catholics do and why, she has sought out four-week courses offered beyond her home parish on topics from Luke's Gospel to mission of the church.

"I'm hoping if I give them a solid foundation, my kids will someday live as Catholics," says Mrs. Smith. She tells them, for instance, what she learns in class about the mysteries of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. Now, she says, they like to sit up front during mass to watch the priest's every move.

What they are learning

From the pew to the shul, adults seem eager to learn. In Jewish learning centers, where adult students can choose among short courses on everything from Hebrew to Jewish politicians and Jewish comedy, the highest demand nationwide is for courses dealing with religious basics. Topics such as ritual observance, the Bible, the Talmud, spirituality, prayer, and Jewish ethics consistently attract the most active students, according to a study of Jewish education in the new millennium by scholars at Hebrew University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

At Islamic centers, training sessions to help ordinary Muslims explain their faith to outsiders in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have become a popular staple. And in Christian circles, the hottest seminar knows no denominational boundaries. The Alpha Course, billed as "an opportunity to explore the meaning of life," is adding about 1,000 new sessions per year in the US for a total of 7,286 as of Aug. 2.

Faith education in every generation has been an attraction for adults at times of major transition - childbirth, the death of a parent, or a crisis such as divorce or job loss. The task, says John Elias, professor of religion and education at Fordham University, is always to "reinterpret and explain a [religious] meaning system from childhood in adult language and adult context."

Yet today's adults are seeking extra knowledge in fresh ways, he says, for another reason: Many came of age in the 1960s and '70s when "doctrinal rigidity gave way to experience sharing" as a mode of faith education. "They feel shortchanged," Mr. Elias says. "They feel they never got their grounding in the basics."

Other adult learners, however, are creating demand for courses that challenge those very basics. One example: Hundreds of discussion groups have formed from coast to coast this year to tackle "The DaVinci Code," a bestselling novel that depicts church doctrine as a mere product of ancient politics.

The result is that, whether someone is drawn back to a religious tradition in adulthood or repelled further away from it, educators from varied backgrounds are standing ready to serve up whatever's hot.

In prior decades, "adult Christian education was taken extremely seriously," according to Louis Weeks, professor of historical theology at Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va.

Local churches and seminaries in the early 20th century took the lead, he says, developing adult curricula and teacher training resources so good that many parishes today choose them over the newer alternatives.

More recently, however, local parishes have generally failed to keep pace with demand. Priest shortages in Catholic churches, for instance, have made adult education an unfeasible luxury in many cases, according to the Rev. Anthony Ciorra, director of the College of St. Elizabeth center from 1992 until earlier this year. What's more, parishioners have raised the bar of expectation.

"In our society, people are used to quality in education," says Mr. Ciorra. "But parishes don't always have the desire or the funds to deliver.... People are not used to paying top dollar to go to a religious event.... But what we're seeing is once they start coming and seeing that you're offering good stuff, they start giving."

It's also about meeting people

For some adult learners, the social contacts are as important as course content. For that reason, the Alpha Course makes sure to always begin with a meal, followed by a video with plenty of humor, before engaging the serious claims of Christianity, according to Alpha New England director Willard Cook.

"The main reason people come to church is for relationships," Mr. Cook says. "It's not the content that's the important part of Alpha. It's the relationships. That's the glue."

In Judaism, Chabad Lubavitch aims to heighten the Orthodox observances of Jews, but invitation begins sometimes with nonreligious programming. Widely advertised events, such as a presentation by singer/poet Bob Dylan, aim to attract a broad cross section of Jews.

Once inside a Chabad center, which have grown in number from 300 in 1994 to about 600 in America today, some Jews begin to hunger for what they've been missing in Judaism, according to Los Angeles Rabbi Chaim Cunin.

And for those who prefer anonymity, Chabad has 100 rabbis across the globe who volunteer to answer personal questions through askmoses.com. The site hosts 1,200 conversations per day, averaging 28 minutes each.

"Some people would be very hesitant to walk into an Orthodox classroom or synagogue," says Mr. Cunin, director of askmoses.com. "Whereas in Chabad, everybody feels like the beautiful person they should feel like.... We're not just filling a need. We're creating a need. We see that as our responsibility."

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