By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In 2013, the Rev. Chris Yaw twice raised eyebrows among his fellow Episcopalians. The first time came when he proposed making church-based adult education into a largely online enterprise. The second came when he launched ChurchNext, a limited liability company with a fee-based approach to fulfilling that vision.

“In the Episcopal Church, we don’t have a lot of ChurchNexts that are independent, entrepreneurial initiatives,” said Lisa Kimball, director of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. “When Chris first started ChurchNext, I think there was some suspicion among churchy people: Who’s benefiting from this? It’s a business, and we don’t do business in the church. Right?”

Four years later, ChurchNext has tallied more than 25,000 students and amassed a library of 331 courses (as of late August), including a few free ones, which are available on demand at churchnext.tv. The model has found this audience, Kimball said, in part because it fills a void in Christian adult education. It also takes a magnanimous approach; ChurchNext sponsors and participates in wider church events, including e-Formation conferences at Virginia Seminary.

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“We now have a model of really good stewardship that allows a business — that does have a bottom line — to be highly responsive, agile, adaptive,” Kimball said. “And it’s not beholden to a larger institution or bureaucracy that slows those kinds of responses down.”

Now this four-employee firm based in suburban Detroit has accrued enough experience to make a series of strategic adjustments. Videos are no longer shot in lecture halls, but tailored for more intimate online presentation. Nor are courses prepared solely for individuals to complete on their own time. Some are structured for groups because that’s how some parishes like to engage the content.

Such tweaks reflect a deeper well of accumulated insight into what works (and what does not) in the worlds of parish-based online learning and church-focused entrepreneurism. One clear lesson: under the right conditions, online education and entrepreneurism can fill gaps and equip the faithful. But best results happen when essential supports are in place, especially a community of students to share the online learning experience.

“People like to connect and learn together,” said Yaw, who spent 15 years working in television before seeking ordination. He now serves as rector of St. David’s Church in Southfield, Michigan. “When you watch a video lecture of the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about how to read the Bible better, it’s like marriage counseling: most of the learning goes on in the car ride home. You heard the lecture; now let’s learn.”

ChurchNext offers unlimited access to courses through subscriptions. Individuals pay $9 per month. Congregations may pay $29 per month for up to 10 users, or buy a full-year subscription for $300.

Here’s how it works. In January, all users might be vestry members learning how to read financial statements. Then in February, the church might authorize a different set of users, such as people preparing for baptism in the Episcopal Church. Churches may buy access for a large cohort in any given month with a temporary higher rate. Cash-strapped congregations are eligible for discounts.

Taking a course involves watching short videos that Yaw’s team has vetted for theological quality and suitability for mainline Protestants, especially Episcopalians. Presenters include theologians, clergy, writers, and experts in various subjects. Students working individually watch clips that run five to seven minutes, answer a few quiz questions, and post responses to group discussion questions. Others taking the course individually add their responses after watching the material. A course with three or four segments can often be completed in an hour.

Community matters to ChurchNext; without it, good intentions often lead to incomplete results. Yaw notes that while universities attract scores of students to their free online courses, most who enroll do not finish.

“Harvard will offer a free class with the best physics professor in the world; they’ll get 5,000 people to sign up and maybe 20 will finish the course,” Yaw said. “That’s the dirty little secret of online learning: everybody signs up and nobody finishes.”

Charging a fee gives students a greater stake, Yaw said, and in turn helps boost completion rates. Having popular topics helps, too. Students tend to complete courses involving Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, explorations of the Book of Common Prayer, and timely subjects related to current events, such as Bridging the Political Divide in America by Parker Palmer.

But what happens offline to foster success can be just as important as what occurs online.

Congregations find they cannot just sign up for ChurchNext and expect a culture of learning to appear. The online content works best when woven into an existing structure of parish-based adult education programming, or when it helps transform fellowship activities into purposeful learning.

“For the churches I’ve seen try to use online formation and online instruction, if they don’t have that face-to-face community, I don’t see that it’s worked,” said Randall Curtis, ministry developer for youth and young adults in the Diocese of Arkansas.

But Curtis has seen it work when students have a chance to gather and discuss what they have done online. He sees this dynamic in a certificate program he founded to train youth ministers at Forma, the Network for Christian Formation in the Episcopal Church. Participants take ChurchNext courses, then gather in person to discuss what they have learned.

“If you’re really going to engage with the material — both the videos and the texts — I think you really need to have some other people who are doing it at the same time,” Curtis said.

That’s what happened at St. Michael & All Angels Church in Corona del Mar, California. Sunday morning education hour got a boost in 2014 when everyone could gather around a projector and take Introduction to Episcopal Worship together; no prior reading was required. Later a women’s group took off when it started offering online courses such as Growing Old with Grace (Not Glamor) and Three Prayers, said Susan Caldwell, the parish’s director of Christian education.

Experimentation continues. The Diocese of Louisiana cosponsored ChurchNext subscriptions for congregations by helping underwrite the costs. At St. Augustine’s Church in Metairie, the Rev. A.J. Heine has started using ChurchNext to fill gaps in areas where he cannot do the teaching.

“For a long time, I’ve been the only priest at this parish, so to prepare a sermon and an hour-long Christian-ed program every week — it’s demanding,” Heine said. “So it has been really helpful, not just to have something, but to have good speakers” via ChurchNext.

Initially, Heine found he could save time and improve quality by using ChurchNext courses for groups. Over time, he has found more applications. The altar guild took a course as a primer on how to prepare a sacred space for worship. When godparents live too far away to attend pre-baptism sessions, Heine gives them ChurchNext access.

As pleased as St. Augustine’s has been with the content, the approach requires a lot of institutional support.

“It’s not taking off like wildfire” across the diocese, Heine said. “You have to have a culture of adult Christian education, people who are hungry for knowledge. I don’t know how many churches have that. And you need someone — whether it’s a rector, a director of religious education, or just a very active parishioner — to champion this.”

Observers see a hybrid model evolving in which online learning does not replace face-to-face interactions, but enhances them by giving the faithful a common experience to unpack together. People are already glued to their smartphones at soccer practices and everywhere else, said Bill Campbell, executive director of Forma. Why not meet them there for spiritual formation between Sundays?

“If you have people who are engaged in digital formation through the week, you don’t have to do nearly as much” introduction when they convene at church for adult education, Campbell said. “When people show up on Sunday morning, they’re already part of a larger conversation.”

Just as online education needs a supportive context to thrive, the entrepreneurial approach needs the right kind of environment. Though ChurchNext pays some of its presenters, many have offered their teaching without receiving any compensation. That has been crucial for the ChurchNext business model, Yaw said, because acquiring content for free helps with holding down overhead. In return, ChurchNext makes a point to sponsor church organizations’ events, such as meetings of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.

“Some of that is advertising, and no question it gets your name out there, but these are nonprofits as well that we’re supporting,” Yaw said. “That’s what we like to do with what we make.”

Contributing to church events has helped ChurchNext overcome leeriness about its mission and intentions, Kimball said. She believes ChurchNext might help pave the way for others who will bring an entrepreneurial, fee-based approach to underwriting ministries in the future. As long as ventures stress mission and collaboration, raising revenue from user fees might be a viable option.

“There is nothing inherently evil or wrong about what [Yaw] has done — it’s wonderful,” Kimball said. “But it is a fee-for-service model, which is very different from the often unexamined assumption that what the church does should be free with an occasional basket put out” for donations.

Yaw “is taking a risk,” Kimball added, “and in the risk is a really rich question for us all to consider. That is, how do we sustain quality Christian formation in the 21st century? How do we do it? is a question because it needs money.”

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