What research says about teaching adults in the RCIA

Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Confucius, Cicero, and Jesus all have two things in common. They were all great teachers. And they didn’t teach children. Even so, as ancient as society’s emphasis on adult education has been, there is surprising little research on how to effectively educate adults. The first academic studies began to emerge in the 1920s. The research tells us some interesting things about the way adults learn.

Life is an education

You may have heard the phrase, “Experience is the best teacher.” For adults, that turns out to be true. Adults learn through experience. Experience alone won’t always provide expertise, however. The key is to reflect on new experience in a disciplined way, perhaps with the guidance of a mentor, to develop mastery.

Teachers are secondary

This is a bit counter intuitive. When we think of the great teachers of history, we wonder how they could be secondary. But consider the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. When Jesus started to walk with them, they did not immediately turn to him and say, “Lord, teach us.” They first reflected on their recent experience. And even then, they kept on walking, sort of half-listening to what the “stranger” had to say. Even the Risen Christ had to shape his message to fit the experience of his listeners so they would learn effectively.

It’s all about me

When it comes to adults, they are selfish about their learning needs. They do not want to learn what you want them to learn. They certainly don’t want to learn what a textbook or an adult faith formation program wants them to learn. They want to learn what they want to learn. That means our “curriculum”—our topic list or our RCIA sessions—must be built around the needs of the catechumen or candidate.

Where to find resources

One of the most frequently asked questions we get at TeamRCIA is where to find RCIA resources for teaching adults. Researchers tell us the number-one resource for educating adults is their own experience. Our job as RCIA catechists is not, first of all, to teach doctrine. Our first job is to help catechumens and candidates recognize the Risen Christ that is walking along side of them. Once they are aware of having had a significant experience of Christ, we help them reflect on and evaluate that experience. This is where the doctrine comes in. Newbies are prone to misinterpreting their experience. Our task—our vocation—is to guide them to an understanding of their experience that is aligned with the gospel.

The 1970s called, and they want their teaching method back

Some people worry that this style of teaching is a regression to an “I’m okay, you’re okay” model of faith formation that was popular right after Vatican II. Let’s clear up a few things first. Some of our worries about such things are overblown.  The “lost generation,” if there is such a thing, is my generation—the baby boomers. Percentage-wise, there are more boomers in church than there are younger generations who were raised with “Catechism-conformed” resources.

And more significantly, all the conversation about the faults of our early catechetical efforts has to do with teaching Catholic children. We have very little experience with teaching unbaptized and uncatechized adults.

The Alpha and Omega teaching method

Finally, to say we are using adult experience as a starting point is not to say that is our ending point. If an adult has had a significant experience of the Risen Christ—as the disciples on the road to Emmaus did—his or her heart will be burning with questions about what that experience means. And when a catechumen or candidate has those questions, RCIA catechists can help them find the answers. An effective RCIA formation process both begins and ends with the Risen Christ.

See also these related articles:

  1. How do priests learn about the principles of the catechumenate?
  2. What does Lent have to offer the baptized candidates?
  3. Why is it important that the baptized candidates participate in the liturgy?
  4. The journey toward becoming an RCIA catechist
  5. What RCIA teams need to know about how catechists are formed
  6. What is ongoing (year-round) RCIA, really?
  7. Why the RCIA period of mystagogy is crucial for your neophytes
  8. Is the pandemic making RCIA too convenient?
  9. Q&A: Does the RCIA have a category for unbaptized, catechized seekers?
  10. Five small RCIA upgrades that will have huge impact

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  1. I agree that if an adult had an experience of the Risen Christ, they will hunger for more. Many of our adults have not had this experience. What do we need to do then?

  2. Thank you. This article confirms what we have been doing for several years – Christ first and then doctrine. Some sponsors have questioned this approach but I believe very strongly that, if the candidate or catechumen does not have a relationship with Christ, teaching the doctrine will make no sense. The Church is the bride of Christ so we need to lead others to Christ as the head of the Church and of our faith.

  3. “Once they are aware of having had a significant experience of Christ, we help them reflect on and evaluate that experience.”

    I am in agreement with and use this methodology with my own RCIA and Confirmation Preparation ministry. However, I was wondering if you had more concrete examples of this awareness in Inquiries/Catechumens?

    For me, it may be something as simple as dealing with our catholic approach to the Bible (i.e. we’re not literalists/fundamentalists/creationist) and having that “Wow” lead into a deeper appreciation for Scripture and Tradition–revelation, and God’s Living Word amongst us. Or it may dealing with the story of Original Sin and coming to terms with Salvation History in which we are human and imperfect yet completely loved by God and redeemable (i.e. our lives are not about carrying guilt or carrying bitterness toward our Creator for the lives we have, but rather Good News that is optimistic).

    But honestly, often inquirers/catechumens do come with an expectation that they need to learn rules or doctrine. And for the most part, it’s my attitude of approach that says “Let’s look at what catholics actually DO in this parish and then ask WHY” rather than saying, well let’s read about X in Chapter Y, etc.

    Having said that, I do use Joe Paprocki’s A WELL BUILT FAITH for RCIA because I do think his approach and content (at least for the first half of the book) is consistent with this methodology and helps form the Inquirers/Catechumens into this form of experience to learned faith.

    But I would appreciate some more concrete examples from your own ministry so that when a catechumen/Inquirer has similar experience I may recognize them better as an experience of Christ and help draw them into deeper relationship with Christ’s Body, the church.

  4. Great article. I’m realizing more and more that the “it’s all about me” paragraph is crucially true. I just finished making a new feedback box (designed like the question box from the classic mario world games) for seekers to put their feedback in. The plan is to take 5 minutes near the end of each session to have each seeker fill out a comment card with their impression of the session, so that the following sessions can be built off their feedback. Of course, following up in person or on the phone to the seekers responses to their cards will be essential.

    I did disagree with the second last paragraph. I agree that the boomer generation is not a “lost generation” in the sense that they stopped coming to church. (Quebec is an exception.) But the “boomers” are the generation that lost the catechetical tradition and catastrophically failed to form their children (my own generation). If anything, my own generation is the “lost generation” for this very reason. I went to a Catholic high school, and only two people in my graduating class are still practicing their faith!

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