Culture At Large

Christian education beyond Sunday School


Mark Galli in Christianity Today has an article on The Cost of Christian Education that questions the way we teach children about faith. Galli, drawing on an essay by Debra Dean Murphy, writes about how educational programs traditionally designed by the church are inadequate to fully teach children how to be Christians.

Murphy argues that in the industrialized West, education normally takes place within the structured environment of a classroom, where a teacher makes use of various tools and techniques to transfer content to pupils. Knowledge has been mostly considered a repository of neutral facts conveyed by an expert in teaching technique, and mastery of these facts is the goal of education.

[...] Historically, especially for American Protestants, Christian education has followed this model, with its priorities of classroom instruction, curriculum development, and dependence on an expert teacher (even if the expertise is based on merely doing the teacher prep in the curriculum). The objectivist model is also a favorite of traditions that place the pulpit at the center of worship, giving priority to teaching by a "dynamic, effective communicator." Do note: This approach is not without its merits! It is an efficient way to impart many Bible facts, a Christian worldview, and core doctrines. And who does not like to sit at the feet of a gifted teacher or preacher?

Still, we recognize that a purely objectivist approach can actually make it harder for people to be converted to God. It tends to make faith mostly a matter of the mind and divorces it from spiritual experience. If the supreme knowledge for Christians is, as outlined by Augustine and others, a personal, experiential knowledge of God, then we need something more.

The educational system of Jesus was rooted in an utterly different approach: living in and with a community, so that theology was not only taught but also lived in the context of community prayer. Jesus' educational system is not objective in the least—it is decidedly not interested in knowledge that helps us remain unbiased and neutral about life. Instead, it is profoundly subjective, that is, concerned with creating an irrational loyalty to Jesus and over-the-top concern for others. It is not the mind that is the center of attention but the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—and the whole person in community.

This approach depends not on teaching technique but on people like you and me who strive to live our lives in Jesus' name. While it's nice to have saints to emulate and great teachers to learn from, most of us on most days simply need fellow believers to help us walk the walk. [bold emphases mine]

Galli talks some about this communitarian style of education but the only specific example he mentions is sending his kids to summer camp. While this experience was undoubtedly valuable for his and many other kids, I am left wondering where that leaves us for the other ten months of the year. Other than a passing mention of small groups, we are given few clues as to how families and congregations can model this kind of community. How can parents and churches create an educational program rooted in the community that teaches this whole faith to our children? How can we not only teach our kids about Christianity but also help them to live as Christians?

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