Christian Formation in a Changing Church: Part 1

Over the next several days and posts, I will share a presentation given at the 3rd Annual “Spring Training for God’s Mission” Day 2015 for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, March 21, 2015. 

THe-broken-Church-X2Part One:
How Did We Get Here?

The world around us is changing – is our church changing for the context in which we now find ourselves? However, we must remember that the gospel message has not changed at all – but how we share it and the methods we use to engage others in following The Way needs to meet people where they are – children, youth, and adults.  In order to understand where we need to go, we need to understand why we do what we do today and where we have come from.

A little history . . . since the time of Christ there have been times of transition that influenced and were influenced by theology and educational praxis (how we learn and practice) of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: (1) Apostolic Age – first four centuries – disciples went forth into communities to share the gospel in a world that did not know Christ; (2) Christendom – 4th→10th/11th centuries – Christianity became part of the “state”; (3) Middle Ages in which the Church, as an institution, held a monopoly on the gospel that left lay people “in the dark” → leading to the Reformation, a transitional time of being drawn back to the roots of Christianity for the people; (4) Modernity [the Age of Reason when answers were sought to all questions] – 17th→20th century; and Post-Modernity = Today. And we are in yet another transitional time. Read more: Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence.

thSunday School began in the era of Modernity. Robert Raikes, an English philanthropist and Anglican layman, sought to education poor children (boys) who worked in factories during the week. Sunday was the day to teach them to read and write, using the Bible. The best available teachers were lay people. Read more: The Sunday School Movement.

As children began to attend public education (laws were implemented in the late 19th century) to learn the basics of the “3Rs,” Sundays were set aside for religious education. And churches began to take on that pedagogical model found in the schools: children were empty vessels to be filled with information and needed instruction. Teachers had the answers and (as time went on) the published curriculum from which to teach. As children were indoctrinated, complaints of “Sunday School is boring” increased (they were also rarely included in worship), and publishers created materials that were “fun” (Group, Gospel Light, for instance) to keep their attention. Discipleship was lost, as memorization and “having fun” took priority. However, alternatives in liberation theology was calling the Church back. Read more: Paulo Freire 

episcopal sunday school pinAnyone born before 1975 who was raised in the Church most likely experience a model of Christian formation (education, Sunday School, Church School, etc.) which followed the educational “banking” model of teacher and learner. In the United States, it was common for families and individuals to attend church on Sunday mornings – some states still had blue laws, businesses were closed, and sports were not held (especially for children). Children were rewarded for attendance, and following Confirmation, many “graduated.” Most never returned, except perhaps when it came time to baptize their children . . . and repeat the same pattern they experienced. Read more: The Pew Research Statistics on Religion 

The world is different today. Our churches cannot follow the same model of “educating” (i.e.: instructing) our children, youth, or adults as it did one hundred years ago. It is a pregnant time of new possibilities, but also a time of dying alongside a desire to return to the past when “things were good.” Today (in our culture and schools) we may be experiencing a tension of neglecting the arts (dance, drama, poetry, music, and the visual arts) with an emphasis on technology. The language of globalization, secularization, social and cultural contexts are changing. We live in a multicultural, religiously pluralistic society filled with social, moral, and spiritual challenges. How is the Church responding in all its aspects, including education? Read more: Globalization vs. Traditional Religion

We have entered a time in which we need to review what is working, determine what it is no longer accomplishing what it was originally mean to do (like Sunday School, perhaps), and throw out that which no longer has a purpose except that “we always did it that way.” How can we rediscover the model of catechesis that occurred during the Apostolic Age? How can we adapt those models of spreading the gospel out into our communities while embracing our cultural diversity alongside the tools of technology that are at our fingertips?

Lifelong, life-wide, instruction + education + formation, hybrid, and collaborative. God’s mission is for all of creation to be reconciled with one another in order to bring about the Kingdom of God. How can we do that in today’s world?

Tomorrow’s post: Part Two: Today’s Context

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