What Adults Are Looking For

What Adults Are Looking For

Roberta Hestenes



1 Corinthians 13:11


Four characteristics of adult education that will change the way you deliver a lesson.


Often our Sunday schools, confirmation classes, and youth programs parallel the public education experience so that we send this subliminal message: Education is for children. The sooner you’re through with it the better.

Without slighting the importance of children and young people, I’ve always felt that the heartbeat of the church is adults. Jesus loved children, but he did not call children as his disciples. He called adults. We have no example in the Gospels of Jesus teaching children. But we have many, many stories of Jesus teaching adults.

Furthermore, it is adults who shape the world, for good or ill, and it is adult Christians who are called to be salt and light in a dying world. It is adults who vote. It is adults who work and who control the governments, schools, corporations, unions, social groups, charities, and other institutions of our society. It is adults who are called to actively disciple their own families. It is adults who decide the church’s priorities and budgets. To teach adults is to be on the firing line of Christian ministry and social change.

Consequently, when we address adults, we can address some significant issues. For example, I find that as they reach mid-life many Christian men are troubled by issues of boredom in marriage, disillusionment with the church, and suffering that seems to have no purpose.

But often they ponder these questions alone, in silence, with no one to empathize or even listen to them. In adult education, we have the important privilege of helping people understand their fears and work through tough issues with a mature biblical perspective. We can touch the throbbing pulse of human pain, anxiety, hope, and joy.

The Bible was written primarily for adults, to answer adult questions, to deal with adult problems. Adult education is vital to the church because it is our opportunity to open the Word of God, the textbook of the church, for people to whom it is ultimately addressed.

Teaching to Adult Tastes

Adults learn differently than do children, and I’ve found it helpful to keep in mind the unique characteristics of adult learners whenever I’ve taught adults. Malcolm Knowles, in his The Practice of Modern Adult Education, has given me a lot of insight here.

Recognize that adult learners are self-directed. Adults like to see themselves as self-directed and in charge of their own lives. But sometimes we inadvertently make them feel dependent, almost like children.

For example, when you put people in rows in a classroom, many adults feel (even if only subconsciously) that they are in a childlike setting. Furthermore, few adults will volunteer to be placed in situations where they will feel they are being talked down to or treated with condescension. When the teacher is the “expert” and the learner is “talked at,” the adult hardly feels in charge of the learning environment.

Draw on adults’ large reservoir of experiences. As adults grow, they learn to trust their own judgment and experience more and more, and they test what they hear from others against their own sampling of reality. If what the teacher says is not validated by and connected with their own experience, they will not take the teacher’s message seriously.

We are wise if we can put this experience to good use in the classroom. For example, once I wanted to develop a course for blended families. At first, I thought of inviting an “expert” (say, a psychologist) to teach the course. But I decided to draw on the experience of the people who might attend such a class.

So I invited some blended families to meet with me, and I asked them questions such as “What are five areas of concern for parents and children in blended families?” “What are your needs?” “Where does it hurt?” “What has been most helpful for your situation?” and “What is one thing about the blended family experience that no one ever talks about and that you need to talk about?” “How has Christian faith helped you?” We brainstormed and were able to craft a course that had the Bible as its foundation and human experience as its structure.

Acknowledge that adults are oriented to their tasks, roles, and identity. This means that the learner’s identity—as parent, spouse, worker, professional, or recreational hobbyist—profoundly affects what the learner is willing to learn about. Good adult education is intimately linked to people’s image of themselves and what they see as their role in the world. An effective adult education program will integrate such concerns about roles with biblical curriculum.

Connect the learning to life. Probably no more than 10 percent of adults are genuinely interested in learning for learning’s sake, to know the Bible simply in order to know the Bible, to know theology or church history or Christian philosophy simply because they enjoy learning. Unlike many children and youth, adults are unwilling to store up theoretical knowledge that may or may not someday be of use to them.

For most adults, the someday of their childhood has arrived, and they want to see the practical benefits of learning today. They want information they can use now. They want connections to everyday life. So it’s harder to “market” a course on the doctrinal themes in Hebrews than a course on parenting teenagers. This doesn’t mean you avoid Hebrews, but you must connect it to questions adults are asking.

That’s not to say that adult needs should rule the classroom. Although I recognize the need to touch adults at their points of needs, most of my teaching is essentially Bible-centered. But I always try to find those crucial links between the Bible and real-world living.

—Roberta Hestenes is an internationally known teacher who has served as a seminary professor and college president.



The above article, “What Adults Are Looking For” was written by Roberta Hestenes. The article was excerpted from Mastering Teaching, © 1991 Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit CTLibrary.com.


The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.


This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”