Raise your hand if you’ve ever listened to a TED Talk.
I suspect most of you have.
In the past 10 years, TED has become a viral video phenomenon. The number of views of these powerful, 18-minute or less talks has exploded to three billion a year – yes, that’s billion with a b. TED Talks have been translated into over 100 languages and the TED family has grown to include things like TEDx, TedGlobal, TedEd, and the TED Radio Hour. Through TED, one can explore a range of topics, from business and bio tech to psychology and fashion. The talks are so good that the TED brand is now synonymous with probing, exquisitely produced online learning.
At the same time TED Talks have been flourishing, participation in traditional outlets for Christian education have been in freefall. Church leaders from across denominations report that fewer congregants are attending Sunday School, weekday Bible studies, and youth groups. This trend is at least partly a function of the overall decline in membership that many churches are facing. But this only tells part of the story. Even devoted church members are participating in Christian education programs with less frequency.
The juxtaposition of these trends is jarring. How can we make sense of the TED boom and the Sunday School bust? Why are people turning to TED and not to church in order to learn and explore new ideas? What would it look like if we took the TED model to church?
This is exactly what I set out to do back in 2017. At that time, I served as a Scholar in Residence at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. This congregation was seeking ways of engaging a greater portion of their membership in rich theological formation. Propelled by that goal, I worked with a group of lay leaders to reimagine what was then an annual lecture series in which a top scholar in the field of religious studies would come to the church to deliver a 90-minute keynote lecture. The content of those lectures was extraordinary, but the format was limited in its effectiveness. Not only was the lecture too long, but it was also only accessible to those who could stay for lunch that Sunday. We needed a fresh approach.
The result was TheoEd Talks. Launched as a congregational initiative in 2017, this ecumenical speaker series aims to bring together leading thinkers in the church and the academy to give the talk of their lives in 20 minutes or less. By packaging powerful ideas in bite-size talks, TheoEd seeks to spark conversations that change the way people think about God, religion, and the power of faith to shape lives and communities. In essence, TheoEd strives to do for the Bible, theology, and spirituality what the TED series originally sought to do for Technology, Entertainment, and Design: make the best learning available in a format that is compelling and accessible.
Over 2000 people have attended the initial TheoEd events we’ve hosted in Atlanta, and many more are watching through our website, TheoEd.com. We have had some amazing speakers: Austin Channing Brown, Mike McHargue, Pete Enns, Diana Butler Bass, Wil Gafney, Shane Claiborne, Greg Ellison, Jonathan Merritt, and Hillary McBride, to name just a few. Now conducted through a partnership between First Presbyterian and Emory’s Candler School of Theology, TheoEd is expanding, going on the road to other cities beyond Atlanta.
The TheoEd initiative has a lot of promise, but it does not offer a one-size-fits-all template for how to do Christian education. What is relevant to the church more broadly are the lessons we’ve learned from TED about how to effectively engage lay audiences in transformative learning. Here are three main discoveries and how they might shape the way we do Christian education in the church.
The sage on the stage is alive and well
In seminary, I remember reading Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. It was transformative for how I thought about teaching. Among other things, Palmer describes an educational model called a “Community of Truth” in which the expert is displaced from the center of attention and learning happens through a non-hierarchical web of relations between students, subject, and teacher. In recent years, similar ideas have been echoed by others. While the details differ, the common refrain is that the “sage on the stage” model of learning is dead.
There’s much to applaud about Palmer’s approach. But at the same time, the extraordinary popularity of TED suggests that the reports of the death of the sage on the stage have been greatly exaggerated.
After all, TED is all about the sage. Whether it’s Brene Brown or Bryan Stevenson, we’re drawn to these talks in part because of the experts giving them. And then there’s the TED stage. The iconic red TED letters, the focused spotlight, the absence of a lectern – all of this has the effect of creating a direct flow of information from the speaker to the audience.
Why is TED so effective at engaging audiences when so many other types of lectures fail to do so? For one, these talks are really good. Each TED speaker goes through extensive coaching and multiple dry runs before they actually deliver their talk. The result is a highly refined, meticulously curated presentation. The effectiveness of TED’s sage on the stage model is also a function of the talks being really short. Research shows that our attention spans max out at about 18 minutes when it comes to processing talks like these. This makes the presentations easily digestible and, perhaps more importantly, readily sharable.
What this shows us is that the antidote to a long, boring lecture – whether in Sunday School or in a seminary classroom – can be a dynamic, student-centered discussion like Palmer describes or it can be a dynamic, short-format talk like we find at TED. In the context of Christian education, this could entail leaning into the Palmer model by creating Sunday School offerings that are more focused on open-ended, theological exploration through dialogue and discussion. Or it could entail leaning into the TED model by partnering with seminaries to give their congregants greater access to faculty teaching or making use of TheoEd Talks (or other short-format talks) to jump start conversations in Bible studies or youth groups. Christian educators will need to decide which approach is best in a given circumstance, being sure not to get caught in between.
It’s all about the second audience
A little-known fact about the TED series is that it began as in-person conference back in 1984. It was not until 22 years later that the first six TED Talks were placed online. The rest, as they say, is history.
The secret to TED’s online success is the way in which it has shifted attention to what I call the “second audience.” The second audience consists of those who access content from live events at some point after the event is over and through a digital platform. With TED, that’s most of us.
TED speakers are coached to deliver their talks with the second audience squarely in view. Speakers are asked to begin immediately with their talk rather than thanking the organizers or acknowledging the live audience. They also are asked not to make reference to the other speakers that come before them. Beyond this, TED understands the importance of capturing each talk in a high-quality format that helps make those in the second audience feel like they are the primary audience.
We are trying to follow a similar approach in TheoEd. A case in point: During our February 2020 event, the microphone we were using malfunctioned during the first few minutes of one of the talks. The audience could still hear the speaker, but we knew that this would render the digital recording unusable. Having prepared for this scenario, we paused the talk, fixed the microphone, and asked the speaker to start over. It was a bit awkward for the live audience, but we were convinced this was worth it because we knew that far more people would eventually listen to this talk online than were actually in the room with us that day.
The realities of COVID-19 have led to more and more services and classes going online, and as a result many of us are having to quickly learn how to step up our digital game. These developments are promising, but taking TED to church would prompt us to go a few steps further. Rather than just recording services and lectures for the purposes of archiving content, churches (and seminaries) would do well to design their offerings from the ground up with the second audience in mind. This would involve paying more attention to things like lighting, sound quality, camera angles, stage design, and so forth. It would also require creatively reimagining our go-to modes of delivery and what types of content best translates to audiences we might never meet in person.
Creating Third Spaces
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third places” (or third spaces) as a way to refer to those places where people spend time between home (“first” space) and work (“second” space). Third spaces can be coffee shops, pubs, parks, gyms, hairdressers, and even online chat rooms. They play an important role in community building by breaking down social siloes and drawing people together from across age groups.
The church historically has functioned as a third space for many people. However, for an increasing number of Millennials and Gen Zers, the church is no longer a viable third space. For them, the church – and especially the sanctuary – is not a place where authentic community building and spiritual exploration best happen.
TED conferences – and, in a virtual sense, the TED website – creates a compelling third space. It matters that these talks are accessed outside of university lecture halls and academic books. The look and feel of TED is inviting and inquisitive. The talks prompt us to ask questions and to consider new ideas or revisit old ones from a fresh angle. TED gets people who might share little in common politically or theologically talking about common topics. The point, as TED’s website puts it, is to create “a community of curious souls.”
A community of curious souls – isn’t that what a church should strive to be? Becoming such a community might require us to rethink the actual spaces in which we gather. That’s why we have chosen not to hold TheoEd in church sanctuaries. We’ve instead opted for places like the Carter Center and other auditoriums in part because we think these spaces are more inviting to those who don’t typically go to traditional Christian education programs. Over 50% of the people who have attended TheoEd thus far were under the age of 40 and over 15% self-identified as being “just curious about faith.” TheoEd is succeeding in attracting these audiences at least in part because our look and feel is much more TED-like than church-like.
Creating third spaces also entails a change in mindset. In order to foster inquisitiveness and community building through Christian education, we need to begin valuing questions over creeds, we need to encourage congregants to wrestle with texts instead of repeating religious platitudes, and we need to find ways of getting individuals from different generations learning with and from one another. If Christian education programs were reimagined as third spaces for theological exploration, we might well see an increase in participation not only by regular church goers but also by those who have left the church or who are spiritual but not affiliated with any religious institution.
These ideas reflect some of the valuable lessons Christian education programs might learn from the TED model. However, taking TED to church shouldn’t be done uncritically. While I believe that ideas have the power to change lives and communities, there are limits to the benefits of passively viewing a short talk, however compelling it may be. At their best, TED talks – and TheoEd Talks by extension – are conversation starters. They need to be accompanied by dialogue, reflection, and further discovery.
We have taken a step in this direction by creating TheoEd discussion guides that are designed to help small groups and Sunday School classes reflect on and respond to what they’ve heard (youth discussion guides are on the way). We’re also beginning to develop short courses for congregations that create a sustained arc of learning around a core topic addressed in a given TheoEd Talk (such as our Bible and Poverty course linked to Shawn Duncan’s TheoEd Talk, “Changing Mission for Good”). Through these efforts, we’re trying to connect the best sage on a stage content with the sort of non-hierarchical, “Community of Truth” pedagogy that Palmer describes. In this sense, TheoEd and TED can offer the spark that brings together communities of learning and practice. And we think that’s where the real change happens.
The TED model is no panacea for all that ails traditional outlets for Christian education. But learning from TED is, as their tagline puts it, an idea worth spreading.
Ryan Bonfiglio, PhD
Assistant Professor in the Practice of Old Testament
Director of The Candler Foundry and TheoEd Talks
Candler School of Theology, Emory University