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Will our children have faith? John Westerhoff’s question after 40 years

Editor’s note: Jordan Hylden’s second post on this topic is “Rebuilding a culture of teaching and learning.” 

In any list of the most influential contemporary texts in Christian formation, John H. Westerhoff III’s Will Our Children Have Faith? (Seabury, 1976) must have a prominent place. Since its publication 40 years ago, Westerhoff’s book has been translated into six languages. Thousands of seminarians have read it, and it has guided countless parishes and denominational offices in their Christian education programs.

Westerhoff became an Episcopal priest in midlife, and was deeply involved in churchwide educational work, serving as the primary drafter for Called to Teach and Learn: A Catechetical Vision and Guide for the Episcopal Church (1994).

The third edition of Westerhoff’s seminal book, which came out in 2012, includes a study guide by Sharon Ely Pearson, the Christian formation editor for Church Publishing, saluting Westerhoff’s book as a “prophetic voice and call to the Christian community to take back religious education” from its relegation to “Sunday morning classes.”

“Westerhoff,” she writes, “called the church to move beyond teaching children the facts about religion, to learning and experiencing what it means to be a faithful Christian.”

Pearson’s study guide also highlights some difficult shifts in the religious landscape that have taken place since 1976. Church attendance has declined dramatically, and “regular” attendance now means only once a month. Many congregations report a “steep drop in financial health, continuing high levels of conflict, and aging memberships.”

Many Covenant readers probably know the discouraging statistics, or have lived through them. Parishes today often wonder what to do with their vast educational wings from the heyday of the 1950s, with far too few children to fill them and a dearth of trained teachers to staff them. It is enough, as Person writes, for the church historian Diana Butler Bass to describe the modern Western world as “a post-Christian society,” in which “many adults no longer speak a Christian language or engage in faith practices that shape their personal or family life.”

Pearson does not suggest any connection between the decline of the last 40 years and the educational program of Westerhoff’s book, and surely it would not be fair to Westerhoff to pin the vast upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s on him. Nevertheless, I believe connections may be made, insofar as Westerhoff was caught up in a passion for “radical” change that, in its fervor, at times took the communal task of passing along the wisdom of the past for granted.

Charles Foster, in his important book From Generation to Generation (Wipf and Stock, 2012), diagnoses our current state of decline: in large part it relates to the dismantling of the vast “church school” denominational apparatus of the early to middle 20th century, along with a loss of common theological convictions, which made it difficult for denominations and parishes to agree on what they were supposed to pass along to their children.

Westerhoff was not solely responsible for those trends, but he played an outsized role in encouraging them. Like Foster, Westerhoff spent his early years in ordained ministry building up the church school programs that once filled the Christian education wings we no longer know what to do with, first at the parish and then at the denominational level. As he tells it, he initially came to an engaged faith in the Dutch Reformed Church, an “evangelical, intellectual tradition” he encountered as a teenager in the person of his church’s pastor, a learned man with a doctorate in Calvinist theology.

His first parish after seminary was a traditional Congregationalist church in Maine, where “no one ever called me, even for a death, before noon because they believed I should be studying.” Yet by 1976, Westerhoff had become convinced that it was time for a “revolution” in Christian education, one in which the long-dominant “schooling-instructional paradigm” would be thrown overboard for what he called a “faith-enculturation paradigm.”

What did this mean, and why was Westerhoff convinced that the time had come for a radical, paradigm-shifting revolution? He recognized, quite reasonably, that American churchgoers of his time put far too much faith in the ability of school-based instruction to do a much wider formational ecology than had been done previously.

Small communities peopled by intact families, public schools with a heavily Protestant moral and religious ethos, churches that served as active community centers, and a media and entertainment culture that was still largely tethered to church, family, and community (rather than saturated by corporate mass media) ensured that what was called “Sunday school” was only one among many educational institutions. For a host of reasons, much of that ecology had by 1976 disappeared. Simply doubling down on school instruction without attending to the decayed communal aspects of education was doomed to failure.

Since American churches could not go back to the Mayberry of their past, they would have to think creatively about replacing what was lost in a new form.

Westerhoff also recognized the importance of what he called the “hidden curriculum” in education. For example, no matter what a school teaches about the status of women, if nearly all the teachers in the school are women and the administrators are all men, it communicates something more powerful than instruction alone.

So too, Westerhoff saw that education is not simply a cognitive affair, but should as Pearson said be conceived of “holistically” by attending to the intuitive and emotional aspects of learning. For Westerhoff, art, music, and narrative storytelling were not simply an optional dessert course to be had after the meat and potatoes of cognitive, rational instruction, but in fact were essential aspects of the educational enterprise. Beyond simply teaching biblical and doctrinal content, the Church must also attend to the development of biblical and Christian imagination.

In articulating these points, Westerhoff was prescient and wise. In his 20 years of teaching at Duke, he collaborated with Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon on books that sought to reweave the frayed threads that once tied together Christian schooling and the worshiping practices of the Church. Yet in 1976 (and indeed almost 40 years later in his 2012 revised edition), Westerhoff too often lapsed into portraying his “school-instructional” and “faith-enculturation” paradigms as opposites, in which the former was to be dismantled along with the dead hand of dogma and merely “propositional” faith, and the latter was to be grounded in the precognitive, intuitive experience of the Christian community.

“The old Sunday school,” Westerhoff wrote in 1976, was guilty of being “more concerned with the goals of knowing about the Bible, theology, and church history than with communities sharing, experiencing, and acting together in faith.”

Verbal language, both spoken and written, has dominated Christian education for too long. Perhaps as far as Christian faith is concerned, we have attached too literal an interpretation to the primacy of the word. By sanctifying the oral and verbal traditions, we have lost something of the richness of the early church where the great truths of the community were enshrined in shared experience.

It is difficult today, 40 years later, to find very many mainline Protestant churches more concerned with knowing about the Bible, theology, and church history than with enshrining the shared experiences of their community! Westerhoff admits candidly that he has always been “more interested in hermeneutics, the interpretations of Scripture, than the content of the Scriptures.” The important thing, he asserts, is that

storytelling needs to become a natural and central part of church life, and we must learn to tell God’s story as our story. No longer can we explain how some Israelites were once in bondage in Egypt and how God saved them. (Who cares?) Instead we need to explain how we were once oppressed in Egypt and how God liberated us.

I cannot help but wonder: What role did these ideas have in bringing about a “post-Christian society” in which “many adults no longer speak a Christian language”? For if it is not the content of the “faith once delivered” (Jude 1:3) that matters most but our interpretative experience of it, then why go to the trouble of passing the content along? And if the intuitive experience of the community is what matters most, why spend much time on imparting a rational understanding of the Triune God and what has been done for us and for our salvation in Jesus Christ? For mere doctrinal, intellectual “symbols” must be a poor substitute for the intuitive experience of the Transcendent One in the community.

Clearly, there are problems here. In his 2012 revised edition, Westerhoff admitted that

in affirming the intuitive way of thinking and knowing, the pre-rational, I neglected the importance of the intellectual way of thinking and knowing. Christians do need to know the content of Scripture and how to interpret it; …  they need to know historic Christian doctrine and how to think theologically.

I can only agree. But I wonder how much damage was done between 1976 and today, while we have been forgetting our memory verses.

In my next post, I intend to dig deeper into the theological and conceptual problems in Westerhoff’s work, and to recommend instead some practices drawn from the catechesis of the Early Church that are in fact more “holistic” than the “radical” paradigm shifts of the 1970s in Christian education. The old church school education wings of the 1950s may not hold all of the answers for us today, but neither does discarding them for something entirely different.

Fr. Westerhoff learned something from the learned Dutch Reformed pastor of his youth and the studious Congregational church of his early ministry. We can too.


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