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Rebuilding a culture of teaching and learning

In yesterday’s post, I took another look at John Westerhoff’s seminal Christian education text Will Our Children Have Faith? (Seabury, 1976), and found that after 40 years of widespread influence there are reasons to wonder if the “radical” change he advocated in the 1970s was in some ways an overcorrection.

Westerhoff did well to see the way in which the “schooling-instructional” paradigm of education by itself could not do the work of the intricate communal web of formation that took place naturally in small, cohesive neighborhoods and towns. But he tended to devalue the important work of instructing the mind in the content of Christian teaching.

Underneath this devaluation lurked a construal of Christian faith as most fundamentally a matter of the intuitive, pre-rational experience of the community, as something so transcendent and ineffable that words and teachings were poorly suited to it. What mattered most was the intuitive experience of the community in its encounter with the “symbols” of Christian faith, and so it became less important to pass along an understanding of “the faith once delivered” (Jude 1:3) — what God has accomplished for us and for our salvation in Jesus Christ.

If the interpretation of the Scriptures is more interesting than understanding their content, then why bother with seeking to teach what they say?

This dynamic, I suggested, perhaps played no small role in bringing about what Diana Butler Bass calls a post-Christian society, in which “many adults no longer speak a Christian language.” In cultural histories of the past 40 years, especially concerning secularization, one rarely hears mention of the dismantling of Sunday school programs, but I suspect this trend played a meaningful role. The big-steepled buildings on every Main Street and town square in the country began to shift massive resources away from the project of passing along to their children an understanding of what they were for; it should be no surprise that before long those children began to abandon them.

Meanwhile, other, newer churches retained their members and grew — not on Main Street, but a few blocks away in the school gym. Most often these were fundamentalist, evangelical, or Mormon churches, which highly valued the Bible and doctrine, and placed great emphasis on explaining them in sermons and teaching them to the next generation. I doubt this is a concidence.

Toward the end of his book, Westerhoff lifts up a handful of churches as examples to learn from, in their shift away from the outmoded “schooling-instructional” paradigm to the newer “faith-enculturation” paradigm. One Methodist church in the Southwest, he writes, was facing down a decline in membership and taking a hard look at what to do. Though one member offered to donate the funds to build a new education wing, the church decided to go in a different direction.

In Lent, the congregation replaced traditional Sunday sermons with a dialogue between the pastor and the pastor emeritus on the issues raised by the UMC bishops’ “Call for Peace and Justice Among All Peoples,” and set within the context of a “love feast” with coffee and sweet rolls. It replaced Sunday school with weekly intergenerational home gatherings in neighborhood groups, in which a selection of liberation-themed Bible passages were explored and expressed “in music, dance, drama, or one of the plastic arts.” Once a month, these groups would combine for a large meal, where they would “share their creations” of music, dance, and the plastic arts with one another. These changes led to radical renovations to the church building. The church voted to “take the pews out of the church and turn the nave into an all-purpose room for education, worship, and fellowship, with rugs on the floor.”

In the process, Westerhoff writes, the church lost 52 members, many of them older. But they gained 28 new members, and “more important, the church had come to life.”

Perhaps this Methodist church is flourishing today, thanks to the changes it made in the ’70s. I would love to find out. But if it is, it would be an outlier in the trend of mainline churches for the past 40 years.

I would not be surprised if it was now either shuttered, struggling, or sold to another denomination — one that placed more emphasis on teaching the Scriptures to its children than in expressing them by way of dance and the plastic arts, and to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ than to sitting on rugs and dialoguing about denominational statements on peace and justice.

The ideal “reformed church school,” for Westerhoff, was one that “may or may not meet every week,” but it would “bring together children, youth, and adults for common activities” in which “music, dance, drama, the plastic arts, and filmmaking provide the dominant forms of expression.”

“The primary concern” of such gatherings, he writes, “is for opportunities to be Christian together.” I cannot but wonder, 40 years on, whether such gatherings did enough to teach what it means to be Christian: Why express one’s faith via the plastic arts in church, rather than in the comfort of one’s own home?

I am being hard on Westerhoff, I know. There are many things that he got right. Pastors and Christian educators today should learn from his advice to think outside the box of the classroom, and to intentionally foster intergenerational communities of faith formation. So too we would do well to heed his call to think holistically about education, and to take into account the shaping of the heart and the imagination, not only the mind.

If that is all that Westerhoff had said, then I would unreservedly hail his work and its influence. But his “radical” revolution went too far, and to the extent that he was followed, the mainline churches dismantled themselves by failing to teach the faith.

The great catechist of the Early Church, St. Augustine, knew better. L. Gregory Jones, in his valuable essay on baptism and catechesis in the patristic era[1], pointed out that for Augustine instruction of the mind and the conversion of the heart were not alternatives, but two sides of the same coin, as the human person is drawn by grace through an extended period of catechetical instruction to exchange error and sin for the knowledge and love of the true God.

This “instruction,” Jones writes, should be conceived of broadly; in the patristic era, it included “learning Scripture through study and hearing homilies … and the shaping of their affections … and being mentored in actual Christian living.” Augustine’s teaching immersed catechumens in the biblical narrative, not simply as “our story” to be expressed in this way or that, but in the intellectually rich mode of faith seeking understanding of the true God.

As a trained rhetor, Augustine was no dry pedant, but sought to “stir genuine delight in his listeners” so that they would come to love that which their minds were beginning to understand. Catechumens were assigned mentors to guide them relationally through the journey of conversion, for Augustine knew that “Christ is announced through Christian friends.” These sponsors were charged with keeping watch over the moral and spiritual formation of new believers, and in Lent would be asked whether their charges had kept from grievous sin and stuck to their Lenten disciplines.

Augustine knew that to adhere to the true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and to renounce sin, the world, and the devil, was a matter of the whole person in community: God is known with the mind, loved with the heart, and followed by the will, in community with other friends on the same path. Becoming Christian was a matter of great weight, involving a dramatic conversion and journey away from darkness into God’s dazzling light.

While the church today can still learn from Westerhoff, the answer to his question — Will our children have faith? — will depend in no small measure on whether we are able to view and practice catechesis as holistically as St. Augustine, and as no less important now than it was in his time. We cannot count on a reinforcing ecology of communal institutions to pass along the faith any more than Augustine could in the late Roman Empire.

Instead of dismantling in the 1960s and ’70s, we should have been rebuilding. There is much work ahead of us.

Pray for the church.


[1] L. Gregory Jones, “A Dramatic Journey into God’s Dazzling Light: Baptismal Catechesis and the Shaping of Christian Practical Wisdom,” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. by James Buckley and David Yeago (Eerdmans, 2001).


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