A Changing Understanding of Religious Education
“What is Christian Religious Education?” It has been almost 30 years since this question was first posed to me in one my first courses at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Dr. Charles Melchert, the professor teaching the course Theory of Education in Religion, posed the question to his students on the first day of class. We wrote an initial response at the beginning of the course.
Christian Education is educating people about Christianity. I view this type of education to be done within a church as it is the responsibility of the church to teach people about God, and Christ, and their relationship to us.”
For our final exam, we evaluated our initial response in light of what we learned after studying renowned religious education theorists. My assessment of my initial response, “Yuck!” By the end of the semester, I penned a revised definition:
Christian religious education is a joining together of people in a community of faith to share experiences of faith and life, and to help and challenge one another in ways that nurture our relationships with God and Christ.
I, and many of my classmates, wrestled with perceived dichotomy in religious education that engages the soul toward embracing faith in Jesus Christ, and religious education that indoctrinates the person in a proper understanding about God and an informed life of faith. This is the difference between “educating about Christianity… about God and Christ,” and “share experiences… that nurture our relationships with God and Christ.”
Each of us, in a Christian institution, understood religious education as a means to teach the Christian faith, rather than teaching another religious tradition. Yet we struggled to articulate a balance between teaching methods that served to open a person’s soul to the work of God in their lives, and tapping educational models that taught concrete knowledge of Scripture, doctrine, and Christian practices.
In reading the new insights coming from Dr. John Roberto’s work in Faith Formation 2020, I’m struck that the wrestling we did over Dr. Melchert’s question was so … 20th Century! The Sunday School movement of the 19th Century, with its Sunday morning classrooms of gathered children soaking up the wisdom of caring and respected teachers, expanded in the 20th Century to include the broader context of Christian education for the whole faith community. As we move into the second decade of the 21st Century, churches are bumping up against new realities and expanded resources, calling us to develop new models of faith formation.
21st Century Changes
The 21st Century presents Christian educators and pastors with new challenges and opportunities to support faith formation efforts in congregations. The mere mention of the digital revolution calls church leaders to broaden the scope and methods used for nurturing the faith of people in our churches. Increased use of 21st century technologies allows individuals to access a mind-boggling array of information, opinion, and connection — instantly.
In this digital era, researchers are finding a generational shift between people under 40 years of age, and those who are over 40 (roughly). Among the younger generations, there is a decline in levels of faith practice and less family socialization in church communities. Face-to-face communication is being supplanted by social networks and electronic mail. Groups form on the internet, gathering people from across the country around common interests and ideology. New patterns of daily life are forming and, often, the church is not part of these emerging patterns.
Alongside generational shifts, researchers are documenting a reality witnessed by many of us who know and love the church: there are varying levels of commitment to faith communities and faith practices, and the church is struggling to address these variances. Roberto lays out four broad scenarios which describe various ways people approach faith and faith commitment (Ecumenical Study, 2009).
- Scenario 1, Faith and Active Engagement: People of all ages and generations are actively engaged in a Christian church, are spiritually committed, and growing in their faith.
- Scenario 2, Spiritual but Not Religious: People are spiritually hungry and searching for God and the spiritual life, but most likely not affiliated with organized religion and an established Christian tradition.
- Scenario 3, Unaffiliated and Uninterested: People experience little need for God and the spiritual life, and are not affiliated with organized religion and established Christian churches.
- Scenario 4, Participating but Uncommitted: People attend worship and church activities occasionally, but are not actively engaged in their church community or spiritually committed.
For the most part, church leaders meet people from Scenarios 1 and 4 in our congregations, and our efforts to support faith formation are designed to address these two groups. As more and more people opt into Scenarios 2 and 3, the church struggles to make meaningful connections with them. The numbers of people who walk away from the church, or who have never darkened the doors of our churches, is increasing in the 21st century.
Faith Formation for Everyone
In his article “Faith Formation for Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere” (Lifelong Faith, Summer 2011) Roberto poses the question: “What would faith formation look like if we developed it using 21st century technologies?” (p.3) God places in front of us a great abundance in modern technology. Yet, the church is barely scratching the surface in tapping what can be mined from this resource to present new models for faith formation. Digital technologies are also ripe for enabling connections with people outside the church’s fold.
Roberto challenges church leaders to use technology to open up traditional models and resources for Christian religious education. He urges us to shift from the use of “one-size fits all curricula and programming to personalized and customized faith formation using digital applications” (“Envisioning the Future” Roberto). His vision of expanded models of faith formation in the 21st Century includes developing networks to engage the inner work of the soul, the mind’s encounter with religious doctrine, and the person’s experiential means of faith formation into a full package targeted to the needs of the individual learner. This includes the individual church member who seeks to deepen their faith (Scenario 1), as the individual seeking spiritual (but not religious) connections (Scenario 2).
A Network Approach to Faith Formation
As society is increasingly networked via social media and the ever-present access to technology, lifelong faith formation can be built upon inter-connected networks which address the spiritual needs, religious growth, and communal connections of individuals through a wide variety of religious content and experiences. Learners use well-chosen websites to interface with religious content. Leaders promote faith forming experiences in physical settings both at church and in homes, and through virtual connections such as social media sites, chat rooms, and video learning programs. Each of these settings represents a separate link in a network.
The faith formation network can best be described as a wheel with a number of spokes. At the center of the wheel is an individual’s faith formation endeavor. Each spoke connects the individual with a different piece of the network. One spoke may connect the person to corporate worship. Another may be a small group Bible study using Web-based curricula. Another spoke may be a daily prayer web site that sends prayer reminders to his or her email inbox. Still another may be a church-sponsored volunteer opportunity for tutoring ESL students in an after-school reading program. Each of these elements nurture the faith of one individual, tapping service and study opportunities, community gatherings, individual spiritual support, and using both virtual and in-person connections.
The faith forming activities described in the above example aren’t too different from the activities and programs currently available in many churches. The key difference with Roberto’s model is an intentional development of lifelong faith formation networks across generations, and across his Scenarios, using both in-person (physical) and virtual settings for learning, serving, and worshipping. Faith formation networks blend historic, traditional, and future elements of religious education for members of a faith community to develop and deepen a living relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, and with the Holy Spirit.
A Difficult, Yet Not So Difficult, Transition
As noted, some of the faith formation examples are not much different from what already is done in many congregations. Yet one of the biggest stumbling blocks in a transition toward a new model is that it seems like such a big change.
Transition begins with a mindset change. The transition toward lifelong faith formation encompasses the life-cycle of persons, it’s a comprehensive approach to a life of faith. Transition in the 21st century includes both digital and in-person connections and content; the Web is a resource. Christian education is no longer limited to purchasing curricula, recruiting and training teachers, and offering confirmation classes. Emerging congregations don’t have to replicate a 19th Century Sunday School model. Faith formation is recognized as a lifelong, life-enhancing process that happens at church, at home, on the internet, in worship, and beyond the walls of the church. This transition calls church leaders to orient their minds to broader ways to connect people with religious content, with Christian community, with personal spiritual growth.
“Imagine the life of your congregation in 2020 if faith formation addresses the spiritual and religious needs of all ages and generations in each scenario.” (Faith Formation 2020) Roberto’s model of Lifelong Faith Formation Networks does not negate what I learned about religious education in Dr. Melchert’s class. Rather, it builds upon and expands Christian religious education to thrive amidst emerging scenarios in our modern society.
Ecumenical Study of Lifelong Faith Formation, Final Report to the Louisville Institute.
Submitted by the Center for Ministry Development, March, 2009.
Roberto, John, “Faith Formation for Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere”—A Lifelong Faith Formation Network for the 21st Century, Lifelong Faith, Volume 5.2, Summer 2011. Pages 3 – 20. lifelongfaith.com/uploads/5/1/6/4/5164069/lifelong_faith_journal_5.2.pdf
Roberto, John, Faith Formation 2020. Naugatuck, CT: Lifelong Faith Associates. 2010. faithformation2020.net/ff-2020-book.html
For a complete description of Roberto’s thesis, and recommended approaches to developing Lifelong Faith Formation Networks, see lifelongfaith.com