Passing the light: A renewed vision of Christian formation
Passing the light: A renewed vision of Christian formation

Candles

The light of Christ must be passed, flame to flame, candle to candle, to new Christians in this twenty-first century if it is to be kept alight. As we teach, we pass on the faith to new generations. We open opportunities for spiritual growth, for equipping ourselves and others for ministry, and for transforming ourselves, our communities, and maybe even the world.

But how do we do this in the twenty-first century? Do we try to reinvigorate Sunday schools? Do we shift more of the task of formation to Episcopal schools, camps, and summer programs? Do we give parents the tools and mandate to undergo the task of formation solely in the home?

Looking at scripture and early traditions of the Church, we find that parents were the primary Christian educators of their own children. Later, the job of formation shifted to institutions: schools and Sunday schools. Is one “better” than the other? Should we shift one way or the other?

Perhaps we can dip into church history, take a look at when Christianity thrived and how it reformed after slumps, and try to envision reforms that might just work for us in our own age.

Christian formation, the early years

Once upon a time in the Church—nearly two thousand years ago—parents underwent a process of Christian formation themselves through the catechumenate. Teaching was a high priority for the Church, and the faith grew strong and spread rapidly as a result.

Early Christian parents were expected to nurture their children by actively and personally teaching their children the faith in the course of ordinary, daily life … and by first loving them.

By the fourth century, as Christianity became mainstream, St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, assigned to parents a sacred responsibility for the religious and moral formation of children. He saw parents as the natural teachers of their own children, charged with revealing the image of God in their children. The household was to be a “little church,” as parents set for their children a pattern of living.

The medieval slump and Luther’s kick-start

Sadly, the catechumenal process died out by the early middle ages. From about the sixth century, the Church had no system or process of training adults or children.

Even as Christianity took hold in Western Europe, the majority of people in the pews in Europe could not comprehend the celebration of the Eucharist. The Church did little to assist parents in the religious education of their children, and Christianity, nominally lived, struggled to take deep root.

Then along came Martin Luther and a tide of reform. Frustrated with the ignorance of both parents and clergy, Luther wrote his Small Catechism in 1529, publishing parts of it on posters and distributing it to parishes, homes, and schools. The posters were an instant hit and used all over Europe. Luther wrote that there ought to be a “common formula” of instruction for both children and “ignorant people” and urged heads of households to spend time at least once a week teaching children and servants the basics of the faith.

But Luther was a realist. He acknowledged that even if parents had the ability and desire to undertake this teaching themselves, most had neither the time nor the opportunity to do so, given other responsibilities and duties—a situation many face today. His solution: inclusion of religious education as part of each school’s academic curriculum. Children could develop Christian character under the direction of professional teachers.

Luther was quick to point out that education in institutional settings was not to supplant the role of parents as religious teachers but to supplement this role. Alas, as Sunday schools developed in England in the late eighteenth century (mostly to educate poor children, teaching manners and proper hygiene as well), the role of the institution in Christian formation eventually did take over the reins from parents.

Using the gift of hindsight

As church and Sunday school attendance falls and Christian formation leaders struggle to find willing volunteers or funding to offer quality formation programs, we might look back, with the gift of hindsight, to see what “worked” in the past.

What worked in the early years of Christianity was an ethos of holding up parents as the primary Christian educators of their own children. What also worked in Luther’s time of reform and rebooting in the Church was a supplemental system of professionals teaching children as part of their daily school life.

This dual system of at-home formation, coupled with institutional support and programming, is a system that just might work for us today.

A renewed vision for Christian formation

What would a dual approach of home coupled with institutional support look like in practical terms? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Teach the adults: Much of this “teaching” might be done informally, by the very actions of the Church itself—what it engages in, what it does not engage in, and what it upholds and talks about. In this new digital age, the Church can certainly connect with adults through social media, free digital books, and other platforms that can reach adults wherever they are.
  2. Teach the basics: Many formation leaders seemingly see “fun” and “entertainment” as program goals, while neglecting the basics of the faith. This is akin to trying to serve dessert before the main course. We should stick to the meat and potatoes of formation: the Gospel, the basics of the Baptismal Covenant, spiritual disciplines, and ministry to others.
  3. Get serious: The role of teacher or catechist needs to be funded and taken seriously, just as it was in the early Christian era. If people aren’t growing in faith, they won’t be equipped to effectively minister and live the faith in their daily lives. With the Internet as a digital, cheap printing press, vast opportunities to effectively engage and form Christians have now opened up. We need to use our best ideas and most effective tools.
  4. Get creative: There is nothing in the Book of Common Prayer or the Bible that says formation must take place for one hour on Sunday morning. Formation can take place any time, any place. We need to meet people where they are. We need to empower our best and our brightest.

Change is at the very heart of Christian formation. The purpose of Christian formation is change for the better, led by the Gospel. If Christian formation is to remain true to itself and to the faith it serves, our leaders must themselves seek to ever improve the nature of the ministry of formation and of the Church itself.

Cindy Coe (@CynthiaCoe) was 2013 Guest Editor for Episcopal Teacher and the Christian formation specialist who wrote the Abudant Life Garden Project for Episcopal Relief & Development. She is a MACE graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and blogs at ET Christian Formation.

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