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Forming Communities of Practice

By Paul Gutacker

How should the Church educate her young adults? This perennial question has become more urgent in recent years, partly in response to increasing patterns of disaffiliation from denominations and other formal church structures, but also through renewed discussion of the means and ends of genuine formation. Since the 2009 publication of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, many of us involved in Christian education have begun to reconsider our work as a matter of forming desire rather than simply changing minds. In his widely read book, Smith persuasively argued that our loves are shaped by our practices, and called us to attend to those practices — the liturgies and habits — that make up the fabric of our lives.

For me and others, Desiring the Kingdom also raised a new set of questions. Is the liturgy enough, or are there other practices or habits we must commit to? How does our practice extend beyond Sunday worship into the rest of the week? What might this pedagogy of desire actually look like on the ground?

Some of these Smith addresses in subsequent writing. For example, as he explains in a 2016 interview, You Are What You Love invites families to consider the home as “a space to extend and extrapolate from the worship practices of the church in daily rhythms.” One important task for local churches, then, is to help its families and households to develop formative habits in the home.

Smith’s pedagogy of desire also takes clearer shape when considered alongside the work of education theorist Etienne Wenger.[1] Wenger argues that genuine learning takes place in “communities of practice” — the phrase comes from a book by the same title — in which people learn through active participation rather than a passive reception of information. For Wenger, education looks less like finding an answer on Google and more like apprenticeship in a craft, less like memorizing a formula and more like learning to play a new instrument. Put in these terms, the church that aims at forming desire ought to consider how to create spaces for kinds of apprenticeship, participation, and practice.

Taken in dialogue, Wenger and Smith suggest several intriguing possibilities for the church’s approach to education.

First, we would do well to create more opportunities for young adults to participate fully in the life and worship of the local church. This might include work as mundane as serving as an acolyte or at the welcome table, or it might look more like an informal mentorship, in which individual young women and men are invited to work alongside clergy and lay leaders. In any case, the key to genuine learning, according to Wenger, is for this participation to be legitimate — for some element of the church’s life to depend on their involvement. What would this look like in the church? How might we develop various kinds of apprenticeship?

Second, the “communities of practice” model bears striking affinities with traditional Christian understandings of catechesis. As scholars of catechesis have shown, the early Church developed catechesis precisely because it understood conversion not solely as a matter of adopting particular doctrines but also of adopting a new way of life. It is a matter of significant urgency for the North American church to recover this robust vision of catechesis as much more than intellectual training. Here let me recommend the excellent work of the Institute for the Renewal of Christian Catechesis, which seeks to garner wisdom from the catechetical practices of the ancient, medieval, and reformational Church for today’s ministers and educators. How might churches today commit to a kind of catechesis that, in Wenger’s language, moves young adults from observation to practice?

Finally, local churches might consider creating formal communities centered on common interests and shared practices — or, put more simply, a rule of life. My church, Christ Church Waco, works closely with undergraduate and graduate students at Baylor University, and many of these students have articulated a deep desire to take part in the discipline, structure, and shared commitment that comes with a rule of life. In other words, these young women and men tell us that they don’t simply want to be reminded that they should pray; they want to be invited to participate in praying the Morning Office every day.

That’s why we are launching Brazos Fellows, a residential fellowship for college graduates who desire to be formed through theological training, spiritual disciplines, vocational discernment, and life together. Over the course of nine months, fellows will study theology; take on disciplines of prayer, spiritual direction, and service; and explore their vocation. Our hope is that Brazos Fellows will become a community of practice that not only helps graduates discern their next step, but also helps them develop habits they can take with them for life. If you know of a college graduate who might be interested in Brazos Fellows, we are accepting applications for the 2018-19 cohort.

Not all churches can or should commit to running a program as intensive and rigorous as a nine-month fellowship. Yet many could and should build other kinds of communities of practice: people who regularly gather to pray the Daily Office, or practice hospitality, or keep fasts and feasts. If we take Wenger and Smith seriously, it’s these kinds of rhythms, these sorts of shared practices, that make up genuine education. And, if we take seriously the articulated desires of our own young adults, they want to be invited into disciplines and given genuine participation. This model of education is much more difficult than crafting a thoughtful lesson or assigning a good book; it takes time, structure, and commitment. But these are small investments to make in those women and men who in five, 10, or 20 years will be leading our churches.

Paul Gutacker is a PhD Candidate in history at Baylor University and serves as director of Brazos Fellows (director@brazosfellows.com).






[1]I’m grateful to David Smith for introducing me to Wenger’s thought. For more on the connections between Jamie Smith’s project and Wenger, see the introduction to Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, ed. by David I. Smith and James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans, 2011).


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