Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education

Educating Congregations: The Future of Christian Education

by Charles R & Janet T Foster Family Trust

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A leading Christian educator offers a practical guide for revisioning a church's educational program. After identifying the weaknesses in current education programs, Charles Foster offers an alternative vision that is more cooperative, more attentive to the whole of the congregation's life, and that helps people critically correlate the Bible and Christian


A leading Christian educator offers a practical guide for revisioning a church's educational program. After identifying the weaknesses in current education programs, Charles Foster offers an alternative vision that is more cooperative, more attentive to the whole of the congregation's life, and that helps people critically correlate the Bible and Christian tradition to their own experience.

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Educating Congregations

The Future of Christian Education

By Charles R. Foster

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1994 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-1902-8


Flaws in the Church Education Vessel


Once upon a time a congregation took seriously its educational responsibilities. Its members knew the stories of the Bible and the saints in the church's history. Their imaginations were enlivened by the poetry of the psalms and the hymns of worship. They knew the prayers, creeds, and many of the hymns by memory. They engaged in acts of compassion and sought justice for the hungry, homeless, dispossessed, alienated, and marginalized.

This congregation taught its children from a very young age. Adults told them stories of God's faithfulness over and over again. They taught children hymns of praise and thanksgiving until they were so familiar the children often sang them in their play. They involved children in the practice of praying in the manner of Jesus. They visited sacred places together and engaged in acts of service among people hurting and hungering for the bounty of God's love and benefice. They explored the scriptures and traditions of faith together for clues to moral decision making and faithful living.

After these children had grown, a crisis fell on this congregation and its community. The form of the crisis makes little difference to the outcome of this story. It could have been caused by an act of nature: a tornado, flood, drought, or earthquake. It could have been caused by an economic depression or war that stretched loyalties and moral commitments. It could have been precipitated by an internal conflict among church members over church teachings, practices, or programs.

In the midst of the crisis, the members of this congregation remembered the sacred places and took their children to visit them. They probed the ancient stories for clues to the crisis. They sang and prayed through their anxieties, frustrations, and confusion. They listened and watched for signs to lead them out of the crisis. They shared their money, food, clothing, and shelter with victims of the crisis.

They survived. Although weary and filled with grief over those who had been hurt and lost during the experience, they continued to praise God, serve their neighbors, and teach their children by precept and example.

Years later another crisis hit the congregation. Again the nature of the crisis is not important, but this time its members were not as prepared for its severity. When they had been children, their teachers had read to them stories from scripture. They sang several hymns often enough to recognize them when they came upon them in the hymnal. They had been introduced to the primary doctrines of the church's heritage during confirmation. The pastor and one or two wise lay leaders answered their faith and moral questions when asked. The congregation's sacred places continued to provide comfort and an occasional moment of inspiration. Parents made sure their children participated in religious education classes whenever they were in town, took them to special Christmas and Easter worship events, and sent them to educational programs during summer vacations. But for many people in the congregation the connections between the experience in church and the issues, decisions, and circumstances of their lives did not seem very obvious.

When this second crisis enveloped the congregation, some people gathered to pray and to listen to the advice of the pastor. A core of congregational leaders explored biblical and church traditions with the pastor for clues to living faithfully through the crisis. Some adults remembered a few hymns and prayers from their childhood. A few children were reminded of the longtime relationship their families had had with the church. They eventually survived the crisis—a little weary and worn from the experience, but praising God for blessings they discovered in their time of trial.

And so the congregation continued to meet on that street corner for many more years. Changes in the church corresponded to changes in the community. Many people who had grown up in the congregation moved away. New people who did not know the congregation's history joined its fellowship. The church competed for people's time with work, leisure, and school schedules. Parents did not know the stories, hymns, and prayers well enough to teach them to their children. They no longer knew the location of the places that had been sacred to their ancestors, although a few of the older members knew they were listed in an ancient directory stored in the church library. The congregation had difficulty finding teachers, and few adults knew the names of the children who passed them in the halls or sat near them during worship. Only a few older members of the congregation had any real familiarity with the doctrines, traditions, and rituals that had enlivened the congregation's past. To most the words seemed archaic and strange—even offensive.

Although the congregation continued to sponsor religious education classes, many children did not know the words to the Lord's Prayer. Many stumbled over the strange language of the creed. Few had a sense of the sweep of the story of God's love for Israel. The stories of Jesus seemed quaint. The scriptures were rarely used by their parents to explore the ethical issues confronting them. The pastor and lay leaders spent most of their time planning programs, managing church finances, listening to people's problems, and maintaining the church building. Every once in awhile the pastor would lead some people to one of the sacred places to tell a story that had enlivened the imaginations of their great-grandparents and people would glimpse something of the power of the faith that had built that place.

A crisis again fell upon this congregation. Many were so busy they did not even notice. Some older members gathered to pray for the congregation. The administration committee appointed a task force to address the situation, but its members did not know what to do, so they hired a consultant to guide them. The choir director taught the congregation a few choruses to increase a sense of participation in worship. The pastor preached a series of sermons on the crisis. Children joined the pastor on the chancel steps for a special "sermon" each Sunday during the worship service. The education committee ordered a new curriculum.

Did the congregation survive? We do not know yet, because that is the situation in which most congregations now find themselves. In a recent study of Christian education in six major denominations, the Search Institute discovered a vast difference in the maturity of faith between those over sixty and those under. This study points to a strange situation. For at least the past fifty years, the identification of people in the church with the sources and meanings of Christian faith and tradition has decreased with each succeeding generation.

Several years ago in his popular book Will Our Children Have Faith? John Westerhoff warned the churches of this impending crisis. He wrote: "No longer can we assume that the educational understandings that have informed us, or the theological foundations that have undergirded our efforts, are adequate for the future." His words caught our attention. We flocked to workshops and conferences to hear him. Seminary professors assigned the book to future pastors and Christian educators. But I discerned little attention to his question. I wondered why. Two possibilities occur to me.

Perhaps Westerhoff asked the wrong question. James Fowler, through his study of faith development and moral development, has helped us recognize that all persons have faith. To have faith is simply part of being human. We know our children will have faith. Increasingly, however, we have no idea what faith they will have. The increase of options for the faith commitment of our children has been a common part of the religious landscape since the late 1960s. Congregations, however, continue to act as if their children will automatically take on the identity and mission of the church as adults.

We may now discern a second reason people in the church may not have taken Westerhoff's question seriously. Churches have not acknowledged the diminishing capacity—even the brokenness—of their education. These churches are no longer capable of building up communities of faith adequate to the contemporary challenge of praising God and serving neighbor for the sake of the emancipatory transformation of the world.


If we are to create a new vision for church education relevant to our present circumstances, we must be specific about the flaws in the structures and strategies of our current educational practice. As I have struggled over the years to understand changes taking place in church education, clues to five flaws in its goals and structures have become increasingly clear. They include: (1) the loss of communal memory in congregational life; (2) the irrelevance of our teaching about the Bible for contemporary life; (3) the subversion of educational goals; (4) the cultural captivity of church education; and (5) the collapse of the church's educational strategy. Let us take a brief look at these clues to deep and pervasive flaws in church education.

1. The Loss of Corporate Memory. Norma and Gene Johnson volunteered to teach a group of junior high youth using denominational curriculum resources. The unit introduced the life and work of Paul to the young people. They began the first session of the series with several questions to discover what the young people remembered from previous encounters with Paul in their church experience. Two members of the group thought Paul had something to do with the New Testament. The rest could not recall having heard his name, anything about him, his ministry, or his writings.

Norma and Gene knew the young people had studied Paul's writings at other times in their Christian religious education experience. They knew many had heard sermons based on texts written by Paul. "Why can't they remember?" Norma asked. "If they cannot recall the great stories of faith, how will they know who they are?" Gene wondered. Their complaint echoes an observation by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. An increasing proportion of the young people in the United States do not possess enough information to participate effectively in the "complex cooperative activities" of community life. He called this problem "cultural illiteracy"—a euphemism for the ignorance that enslaves people to the tyranny of their own experience. "Only by accumulating shared symbols, and the shared information that the symbols represent," Hirsch reminds us, "can we learn to communicate effectively with one another in our national community." My concern goes a little deeper. Only by repeated and increasingly conscious participation in the shared events evoking our community's identity and vocation do we begin to discover in that community's memory resources for envisioning and constructing a future filled with meaning and hope. For Christians that future encompasses visions of shalom with God, neighbor, and the earth originating in the responses of our faith ancestors to the creative and providential acts of God.

Robert Wuthnow, the Director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University, has explored the consequences of Norma and Gene's discovery in a comparison of two Gallup polls. In a poll taken in 1955, only 4 percent (or one person in twenty-five) left the faith traditions of their childhood. Some thirty years later, one out of every three persons had left the communal traditions of their childhood faith. This includes a significant proportion of youth and young adults who leave the church and will probably never return to any religious community.

These choices are now being made by children in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. The historic rite of passage in North America in which the young leave the church of their parents for a time to decide whether or not they will continue to belong to it as adults has taken on new implications. "Most of us," according to Robert Bellah and his colleagues, "imagine" for ourselves, "an autonomous self existing independently, entirely outside any tradition and community." That expectation of autonomy denies any value in identifying with the future possibilities of ancestral traditions and experience. It rejects the importance of nurturing a communal memory. The Search Institute describes this problem as a diminishing loyalty to our faith communities. It is deeper. It is the loss of our connectedness across the ages—a loss that diminishes the intensity of our sense of identification with the followers of Jesus in the past and for the future.

2. The Irrelevance of Our Teaching from the Bible. A second clue to the flaws in the church's education became clear to me during one of several conversations with Jack Forester. Jack is now in his early eighties. He has taught an adult Bible class in his small congregation for many of the past forty years. He prepares diligently for each session, working through the curriculum resources provided by his denomination and through a set of commentaries and other Bible study helps he has collected. Almost every time I meet Jack he expresses frustration with the curriculum resources. "They never answer my questions," he complains. "What would you like to know?" I ask. He typically answers my question with two requests. He would like more information about the influence of the historical situation surrounding specific scripture passages and narratives on their meaning for people at the time of their composition. And he would like more guidance on ways to discover the relevance of those ancient words for the very different circumstances in which he now lives. "The Bible is an ancient book. It makes little sense if we cannot interpret its message for our own situation," he concludes.

For Jack the problem in the church's education is the danger that without interpretation, biblical and theological resources written in the past have little relevance to the faith questions of people today. I would suggest another. When church education does not introduce lay leaders like Jack Forester to methods of theological reflection on biblical and theological texts, they are confined to their own opinions and interpretations. The effects are seen in laity who, like Jack, sense there must be more to biblical faith than they experience, and among others, who cannot see anything in the Bible relevant to their lives.

I experienced this latter problem directly in a youth ministry class I taught for seminary students. Each student in the class interviewed a teenager actively involved in a congregation. These interviews included a series of questions on how the youth understood the Golden Rule. Over the years a persistent theme emerged from these conversations. Many youth could not see its usefulness as a principle for their conduct. One eighteen-year-old high school senior summed up their feelings: "It is hard to do. People just don't understand a person" who tries to follow the Golden Rule. It could help people "learn to respect each other more" but "I don't see this happening." For many young and older people the Bible has become irrelevant to their quest for meaning and purpose.

The problem, however, is not the irrelevance of the Bible. It is the irrelevance of the ways we teach from the Bible. This irrelevance in our teaching is often ironic. The theological naïveté in the approach of many church folk to the Bible contrasts with their sophisticated and complex conversations about scientific, social, political, economic, agricultural, and interpersonal matters. Sources of that naïveté are deeply rooted in the educational practices of our churches. In a passionate essay, Edward Farley, a contemporary theologian concerned about the education of the whole church, traces the problem to the "almost uncrossable gulf between theological [clergy] and church [lay] education." Why, he wonders, has the church essentially settled for "the premodern pattern of educated clergy and uneducated laity?" An obvious answer may point to a relatively unconscious conspiracy. Theologically trained clergy, religious educators, and curriculum policy decision makers have withheld from laity the methods and skills to interpret the scriptures and to engage in theological reflection capable of opening up their deepest questions and illumining their most hidden doubts.


Excerpted from Educating Congregations by Charles R. Foster. Copyright © 1994 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles R. Foster is Professor of Religion and Education, emeritus, at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has authored The Ministry of the Volunteer Teacher and co-authored The Church in the Education of the Public, and Working With Black Youth.

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