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Summary Article: Christian Education from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Christian education is the Church's attempt to inculcate faith in its adherents. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan (1971-1989: 1) suggests: “The church is always more than a school, but the church cannot be less than a school.” So, the church orchestrates its efforts to teach knowledge, habits, attitudes, and beliefs; and it does so though three intermingling means: an informal or socialization process; a formal or schooling endeavor; and nonformal or self-directed learning. But John Westerhoff (2000: 18) warns: “Teaching religion is not very important”; at best, it only produces “educated atheists.”

Christian education is the Church's attempt to inculcate faith in its adherents. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan (1971-1989: 1) suggests: “The church is always more than a school, but the church cannot be less than a school.” So, the church orchestrates its efforts to teach knowledge, habits, attitudes, and beliefs; and it does so though three intermingling means: an informal or socialization process; a formal or schooling endeavor; and nonformal or self-directed learning. But John Westerhoff (2000: 18) warns: “Teaching religion is not very important”; at best, it only produces “educated atheists.”

The Goal of Christian Education

Thomas Groome (1980) defines Christian education as a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with them to the activity of God in our present day, to the story of the Christian faith community, and to the vision of God's kingdom, the seeds of which are already among us. Christians are a people who affirm they have come to find true destiny only by locating their lives within the story of God. Hauerwas (1985: 186) says:

The Church is but God's gesture on behalf of the world to create a space and time in which we might have a foretaste of the Kingdom. It is through gestures that we learn the nature of the story that is the very content and constitution of that Kingdom. The way we learn a story, after all, is not just by hearing it. It must be acted out.

Christian education then is the training in those gestures through which the story of God is and his will for our lives is learned.

What does Christian education seek to accomplish? Simply put, transformation. Individual believers and communities of faith are to be changed in thinking, doing, and feeling. First, those who grow in faith will increasingly love and obey God rather than substituting their worship and devotion for other things. Second, maturing disciples will love their neighbors as themselves. Compassion, forgiveness, and submission will be the rule rather than selfishness, bitterness, and pride. Third, they will seek to honor God in all they do, including their jobs and the way they spend their time. Last, they will feel the need and possess the ability to share their faith with those around them in an honorable way.

Challenges to Educating Christians in the 21st Century

Despite the Reformation, which called for the text of Scripture in the common language of the laypeople, the Christian laity remains theologically uneducated. Farley (1985) wonders why the vast majority of Christian believers remain largely unexposed to Christian learning — to historical-critical studies of the Bible, to the content and structure of the great doctrines, to 2,000 years of classic works on the Christian life, to basic disciplines of theology, biblical languages, and Christian ethics. How is it possible for someone to attend or even teach Sunday school for decades and at the end of that time lack the interpretative skills of someone who has taken three or four weeks in an introductory course in Bible at a university or seminary?

Debra Murphy (2004: 22) calls Christian education

a discipline struggling for legitimacy and respectability, a discipline whose intellectual complacency and lack of critical awareness have not only led to its marginalization in the academy but also left it bankrupt of the necessary resources to carry out the urgent task of forming and transforming the lives of Christians.

Theologians accuse Christian educators of not being theologically informed; educators criticize theologians for neglecting the task of being educators. Theologians wrongly assume that if theology is known, it can be taught. Some churches are hindered by ministers who have little facility in or appreciation for the educational enterprise. Yet, theology is as useless without good education as Christian education is dangerous without informed theology (Groome 1980).

Four obstacles may thwart efforts in fulfilling this mission of Christian education:

  1. If there is disconnectedness between biblical truth and the lives of believers. Education in faith must be at the same time an investigative process that guides people in the exploration of mankind's experience with God; a critical process that enables liberation from the patterns of thinking, feeling, valuing, and behaving that make participation in this experience dificult; and a caring process through which fellow human beings graciously invite one another to enter freely and ever more deeply into this experience. Without meaning, Christian education is mere history.

  2. If there is a lack of theological reflection and honest searching for God's ways in the world. When church education does not introduce laypeople to methods of theological reflection on biblical and theological texts, they are confined to their own opinions and interpretations. Theological naïveté is due to a lack of critical thinking rooted in and modeled by the educational practices of the church. Without reflection, Christian education is mere activism.

  3. If there is a tenet that the Christian life is a solitary journey filled with personal decisions to be individually negotiated with a corresponding diminution of the community of faith. In the context of religious community, education is human-kind's attempt at mutual help in understanding the mystery (of God) in its breadth and depth and its implications for the individual and for the world. Without community, Christian education is mere speculation.

  4. If there is a flawed presumption that those who hear biblical truth will ipso facto make the leap of application and revise their thoughts, attitudes, and actions toward virtuous ends. Creativity and innovation will mark effective teaching in the Christian realm, which engages the student in learning and stretches faith by interacting with lived reality. Where passivity embodies Christian education, wordsare the primary motif. Without action, Christian education is mere verbalism.

The Practice of Christian Education

The content of Christian education is the story of God that the church is called to live by, and the task of Christian education is to create conditions in which this story can perform its transformative work. Four practices are vital to effective Christian education and nurturing faith:

  1. Worship incubates faith. In corporate worship the lives of Christians are formed and transformed, Christian identity is conferred and nurtured. Through worship, Christians grasp their place in the cosmos.

  2. Community makes faith operational. Involvement in a faith community describes believers' position as colearners in a mutual quest. Community endemically binds individuals to others. Through community, Christians grasp their position in the cosmos.

  3. Reflection makes faith meaningful. It is this exercise that gives Christians perspective on the meaning of Scripture and the world's issues. Through theological reflection, Christians grasp God's perspective in the cosmos.

  4. Engagement makes faith come alive. Interaction outside the church has the potential to test, strengthen, correct, and even substantiate faith. Through this interface with other cultures, philosophies, and faith traditions, Christians find opportunities to explain the faith and often identify weaknesses in thinking, such as the perennial human tendencies toward triumphalism and self-deception. Through outside interaction, Christians grasp passion for mission in the cosmos.

SEE ALSO: Education and Training; Laity; Schools and Schooling

References and Suggested Readings
  • Burgess, H. (1996). Models of religious education: Theory and practice in historical and contemporary perspective. Bridgepoint Wheaton, IL.
  • Carroll, J.; Roof, W. C. (2002). Bridging divided worlds. Jossey-Bass San Francisco.
  • Dykstra, C. (1999). Growing in the life of faith: Education and Christian practices. Geneva Press Louisville, KY.
  • Farley, E. (1985). Can church education be theological education? Theology Today, 42, 158-171.
  • Foster, C. (1994). Educating congregations. Abingdon Nashville, TN.
  • Groome, T. (1980). Christian religious education: Sharing our story and vision. Harper & Row San Francisco.
  • Hauerwas, S. (1985). The gesture of a truthful story. Theology Today, 42, 181-189.
  • Lamport, M. A.; Yoder, D. (2006). Faithful gestures: Rebooting the educational mission of the church. Christian Education Journal, Spring, 58-78.
  • Murphy, D. (2004). Teaching that transforms: Worship as the heart of Christian education. Brazos Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Nelson, C. E. (1967). Where faith begins. John Knox Louisville, KY, 1967.
  • Pelikan, J. (1971-1989). The Christian tradition: A history of the development of doctrine, 5 vols. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Westerhoff, J. (2000). Will our children have faith? rev. edn. Morehouse Harrisburg, PA.
  • Wolfe, A. (2005). The transformation of American religion: How we actually live our faith. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Mark A. Lamport
    Wiley ©2012

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