Discussion on Christian education kicks off Dallas-based series

March 8 saw the “soft launch” of The Living Church Institute in Dallas, in the form of its public conversation series, Faith Talks. “Lay Christian Education: How, Why, and What?” served as the first installment in the series and took place at Canterbury House, just off the campus of Southern Methodist University. An ecumenical group of clergy, lay educators, and parishioners from the area gathered for conversation about how to approach Christian education today.

TLCI’s program coordinator, Abigail Woolley, hosted a panel discussion that featured theologian Dr. Bruce Marshall (Roman Catholic), classical school administrator and teacher Brett Tohlen (evangelical Protestant), and parish priest and author the Rev. Ryan Waller (Episcopalian). The speakers’ diverse professional contexts and ecclesial backgrounds lent breadth of perspective, and the intimate chapel setting fostered a rich dialogue between the audience and panel.

Evie Burdette, Dr. Matt Burdette, and Etta Anderson

When introducing the topic, Woolley shared what is at stake for her by recalling her teenage years. “When I asked in church how what I was learning at school connected to the Christian faith, I got blank stares,” she said to nods and murmurs of assent. “A lot of people were very thoughtful in their professional fields, but they didn’t seem to bring that same level of engagement to their faith.” Partly as a result, she said, she has seen young Christians conclude that the faith is too simplistic for thinking people.

Marshall, expressing where he most sees the importance of lay Christian education, spoke of his experience encountering students who come into seminary unprepared. They struggle to benefit from advanced theology and biblical studies because they lack basic knowledge about the content of the faith. “Two generations ago, this wasn’t the case,” he said.

Waller, by contrast, did not have trouble learning biblical content in his Baptist upbringing. He summed up his catechesis this way: “Bible, Bible, Bible…. It was great. I learned my Bible. But this knowledge was divorced from the canon of Church history.”

Now an Episcopal priest, he encounters a lower level of biblical literacy than among Baptists, “but Episcopalians do seem to have a sense of how this all fits together.” The Baptist way of teaching Scripture and the Anglican way of contextualizing through historical worship and tradition are “like yin and yang…. I see a need to meet in the middle and to merge these things.”

Tohlen recalled his own Sunday School upbringing, in which he was asked, as a fourth grader, “What do you think this story means?” far more than he was instructed. Feelings seemed more important than wisdom, and he was desperately hungry for wisdom — a problem he tries to rectify now as a teacher in a classical Christian school, The Covenant School of Dallas. “The history and great intellectual tradition of Christianity are not given to young people,” he said. “Just like we need to eat good food, we need great ideas” to push us beyond our personal feelings and experiences into the truth.

When describing what effective teaching can look like, Waller offered encouragement. When his parish, Dallas’s Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, hosted a late-night Bible class on the premise that all questions were welcome, no matter how remedial, “We packed that place out.” It was not because of any gimmick, but “because people are desperate for their Bible.” When a priest in the audience brought up the risk of alienating people with the gospel, Waller said, “People are profoundly drawn to those who actually believe what they’re saying.”

The panel also considered whether Christian education can be “too brainy.” Waller stated that the most profound formation is in the sacraments, through the love of God. Tohlen pushed back: embracing that love with our whole being includes cognitive engagement. Marshall, agreeing that God’s love is central, pointed out that, nevertheless, “Not everything we encounter is God. Discernment is fundamental” to the goal of Christian education. “It’s not possible to be ‘too brainy,’ but it is possible to use your brain in an unhelpful way.”

At the conclusion of the conversation, the panelists and audience — about 30 in all — joined in praying Compline, led by TLC’s executive director, Dr. Christopher Wells. They then made their way into the foyer adjoining St. Alban’s Chapel for a reception, where discussion continued.

“We’re excited about the Faith Talks series especially as an opportunity for folks to learn again about the basics of the faith,” Wells said. “We urgently need new spaces and places for all sorts and conditions of people to meet each other, before God, led by the Holy Spirit. That’s why we begin and end with fellowship, and with prayer; and then we trust one another and start to inquire together. It’s a great adventure, really.”

Amber Noel

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