The answer to this question begins with a little girl who attended church weekly with her family. It was a lovely church in a mainline denomination, with faithful members and a thriving Sunday School, Youth Group, and Ladies’ Fellowship. She was confirmed in, and regularly attended that church until she went to college. Everything regarding religion in her life was fine until she went away to college and quickly encountered questions no one had ever asked her before from new friends such as, “But why are you a Christian? Why do you believe what you believe?” Within a semester that young woman decided she needed a break from Jesus and maybe, even God. The Christians she saw on campus appeared to be judging her as she experimented with free-er thinking and living. Even though the college chaplain was a fairly young woman, she couldn’t possibly understand her faith struggles – after all, this chaplain was a Christian, and real Christians didn’t question their faith. The young woman’s break from Jesus and organized religion continued on for six years (minus a short and unfulfilling stint attending a Unitarian church – which while intellectually sound and quite interesting, was missing something like Jesus, even though Jesus himself was tiresome in his continual judgement of those who didn’t accept him as their personal Lord and Savior). Irrationally and irritatingly Jesus kept calling her through his love for all the world, his righteousness, and his incredibly compassionate sense of justice. It took a couple more churches, three years of seminary, some more flailing around, and five years of library school for her to hear that to which God called her.
If you haven’t yet figured it out, the previous paragraph summarizes my experience in living, losing, and once again finding my religion. I tell this story because while my experience obviously doesn’t encompass the whole of the Christian young adult experience, it has enough in common with recent patterns in the life of the church to possibly resonate with those who’ve had questions or problems with organized religion. I must also say, however, that as someone who left church and came back, I am a bit of an outlier, as many who leave organized religion become one of the rapidly-growing group of “nones.” Also, in the interest of fairness to my hometown church and pastor, my experiences are less about individual people’s and communities’ actions and far more about the surrounding culture that simply accepted the religious complacency in which I was raised as normal and good. My experiences in and out of religion have directly shaped the work to which I am called, including BiblioMinistry and Missional Faith Thinking. The following paragraphs provide greater detail on why I believe Missional Faith Thinking, BiblioMinistry’s approach to education, may be a helpful framework for faith communities to use in their process of Christian Religious Education (CRE) (including planning, implementation, assessment, and evaluation).
Observations About 21st Century Church Life As They Apply to CRE
People of Faith Need to Be Able to Bring Their Whole Selves, Including Their Questions and Doubt, to Church
My pastor never told anyone not to bring those things into church, but I never recall him actively saying to people, “Bring your questions and doubt to church and we’ll explore them right here, together, as a church community!” While my church didn’t offer easy answers to complex questions, it didn’t seem to provide space in which to fully explore those questions. I grew up believing that I needed to bring my “Sunday self” to church (which was not the real me), and that it was sinful to question God or anything the church did – that if the church and minister decided it, God must have agreed with it. I had so many questions about religion and life which I expertly pushed aside as I tried hard to be a good Christian girl. It is possible that in a family that discussed religion more, or had I been more forthcoming with my thoughts and questions, they would have been discussed. However, I have not been alone in believing or finding that serious questions without clear or immediate answers were unwelcome in church. It has been heartening to see churches more recently grasping the importance of allowing space for questions and doubt. If, as Maria Harris (1989) asserted, the curriculum of the church is “the entire course of the church’s life, found in the fundamental forms of that life” (p. 62), in order for people to become whole and integrated disciples of Jesus, they must bring their whole selves to church to be formed within this curriculum.
Churches Are Called to Be Places Where People of Faith Become Equipped to Follow Jesus in the Ministries to Which God Has Called Them, Not Social Clubs or Places to Get a Weekly “God Fix”
Again, growing up, I was supposed to put on my church-y face while we were at church. While I recall learning about biblical themes and stories in Sunday School, their meaning in my life as a follower of Jesus was less clear besides “be good and try to treat other people well.” As a child I didn’t catch that Jesus’ ministry was actually concerned with bringing about the Empire of God: reimagining life as God’s world in which human life and relationships reflected and embodied “an ultimate reality whose nature is love” (Patterson, 1998, p. 162). If the church is a place in which disciples of Jesus are empowered and equipped to bring about the Empire of God through their respective ministries, then CRE must be ready and able to adequately support them in that journey.
CRE As It Currently Exists in Most Churches Doesn’t Adequately Equip People for Their Ministries
If people aren’t vibrantly trained up in the richness of their faith, how can they expect to talk about it and truly live it? “Most [Christian religious educators] practice Christian education by maintaining existing education programs and structures, and ordering a series of convenient published curricular or program resources. The time comes when they realize that their un-systematic approach is ineffective. Programs wane, people lose interest and stop attending, teachers get discouraged, and the church’s education program gets stale and ‘stuck'” (Galindo & Canaday, 2010, p. 1). Churches realize their CRE isn’t working, but may not be aware of how they can re-envision CRE to help their attendees better fulfill their ministries.
Seymour (2014) makes an important point that no one program of Christian education will work for all congregations – each congregation has a responsibility to respond to the Gospel in their own context, which is different for every church. As a general, all-encompassing rule he notes “the mission of the church is specifically defined as a response to the in-breaking of the realm of God (chapter 6). Seeking the kingdom is the first question of exploring and assessing a congregation’s mission or a person’s vocation” (Chapter 8, para. 38). Churches that clearly define and articulate what their educational vision toward the realm of God can better equip and empower their members for the ministries to which God has called them.
When CRE Does Teach People the Richness of Their Faith, It Often Doesn’t Teach the Intellectual Processes That Have Led to That Theological Richness
CRE as conceived much of the time is very interested in the content – the “what” of faith, rather than helping people understand the tools, resources, and processes that make up the “how” and “why” of faith. Back to my experience in college, people of faith often have a hard time explaining why they believe what they believe (unless they have been fully trained in ready church doctrinal responses). Faith that isn’t as reliant on doctrine often requires a more nuanced response to “why do you believe what you believe?” Robust CRE can help people of faith to articulate and discuss their faith with people both in and out of organized religion with humility and confidence.
CRE Has Few Visible Frameworks and Processes With Which Congregations May Thoughtfully Plan, Implement, Assess, and Evaluate Faith Formation Experiences and Programs
There are a few excellent frameworks, books, and articles about CRE planning processes, including Galindo and Canaday’s Planning for Christian Education Formation, but most appear to focus on the evaluation of pastors and staff or curriculum (generally printed, overtly curricular materials), rather than the actual educational experiences and how people of faith are being equipped to live out their ministry and follow Jesus. Additionally, while existing frameworks provide their users with solid processes in which to plan CRE, I have yet to see one addressing the need that many churches have to educate their members for the type of faith-based activism in which they encourage their members to participate. Missional Faith Thinking represents an integrative approach to CRE that helps congregations faithfully plan, implement, assess, and evaluate faith formation experiences from the perspective of how those experiences form disciples of Jesus and equip people for ministry.
As the church is a voluntary organization with a broad variety of manifestations, it would be ridiculous to force educational standards upon congregations. However, it seems almost as ridiculous for those with extensive theological and pedagogical education to not at least suggest some basic principles on which faith communities may plan, build, and evaluate their educational endeavors. The church may believe that it is taking the high-minded road to Emmaus by not boxing itself into educational standards that could become unnecessarily restrictive. Churches could make better use of such educational freedom, though, were it framed within a few key goals and objectives that strongly supported congregations’ particular takes on empowering and equipping authentic disciples of Jesus.
Mssional Faith Thinking: An Integrative Model for CRE That Takes the Worlds of the Seminary, the Pews, and the Streets Seriously
MFT addresses the above concerns as a 21st century model of CRE. Its framework offers congregations and other users a great deal of flexibility as they plan, implement, assess, and evaluate their CRE experiences. As MFT is strongly informed by theological librarianship, it considers not only the content that people learn, but also the resources, tools, and processes by which they learn. Its reliance upon the information theory of metaliteracy helps the people of God envision and evaluate the ways in which they find, create, share, and otherwise use information as God’s people. If a congregation doesn’t assess their religious education, how do they know if that education is working? That has been and continues to be one of my core questions about CRE. Educational planning and assessment doesn’t have to be long, complicated, and drawn-out – it just needs to be done regularly, intentionally, and thoughtfully. MFT offers communities of faith one model for doing so. I offer it with humility that it may be one way to help faith leaders at many levels either use it as their model or as an inspiration to build one that better suits their particular faith community’s needs.
Are there any congregational religious education planning, implementation, assessment and/or evaluation tools I have missed, or are you happy with your current CRE process? If so, I am very interested in learning more about them. Please share them in the comments if you wish.