By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
Once, over lunch during a conference, I asked a church historian and cultural critic if he would ever identify a point at which a congregation would cease to be “Christian.” His answer was no. Given the perpetual struggle of the Church, over the centuries, to avoid cultural captivity with its resulting loss of an authentic voice of hope, I found his response surprising. Cassandra Williams’ book, Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities offers a counter-argument to the idea that a congregation is Church merely because of what it may look like, or call itself. Williams unapologetically identifies what is required to be an authentic Christian church: the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ at the center of community (p. 54). The book offers a reminder of the Church’s cultural and historical roots, and thereby, provides congregational leaders an important perspective for how the shape of its life and mission needs to be. Conversational in style, but appropriately critical, Learning the Way is grounded in historical perspective which provides a responsible corrective to faddish notions about Christian education and discipleship.
Williams reminds her readers of one of the most important truths for understanding the nature of Christian discipleship: discipleship requires life in community. By that she does not mean a “feeling of community,” or a “sense of family” or other notions that reduce community to a feeling or predilection. She correctly identifies the nature of what constitutes community, including, the presence and inclusion of children, for true communities are generative. By providing an overview of the first three generations of the Christian faith Williams provides a clue as to how the Way was formatted both by its cultural and historical context, but also by its nature: Christianity was a movement and corporate way of life before it was an organized religion. Re-claiming the appropriate context of discipleship formation in the life of the community of faith provides a critical corrective to one of the most damaging elements of contemporary Christianity, the overfocus on individualistic understandings of faith and discipleship.
The field of Christian education is experiencing major shifts in its understanding of the nature of educating in faith, and the ways and means for achieving it. On some fronts congregational educators are changing the ways they practice teaching and learning through their continuing openness to what the social sciences show about learning organizations, group dynamics, and individual domains like multiple intelligences and brain research applied to pedagogy. At the same time congregational educators are reclaiming their roots and are favoring terms like formation over education. In my own denomination it is rarer today to find educational program staff with the title Minister of Christian Education. More and more common are titles that are expressions of themes: Pastor of Spiritual Formation, Minister of Spirituality, Associate Pastor of Christian Formation, Minister of Congregational Development, etc.
While it is evident that most congregations don’t know what those terms may mean, exactly, or what that educational staff person will do aside from keeping traditional church education programs running, there are fresh voices calling for approaches to educating in faith that allow for a move toward formation in community rather than a school for learning, narrowly understood. Williams’ thoughtful treatment of Christian education as discipleship formation offers an important element to the dialogue. Her historical review of the significance of the dynamics of formative culture and context, over against concerns about doctrinal content, of the early faith makes for a compelling re-framing of what is most important in the life of discipleship: fostering a life of obedience.
Williams reminds us that the only essential confession of the community of faith was that Jesus was the Son of God. All else was secondary. The goal of Christian discipleship was to live a life worthy of the calling to be Christian and to live in the community of faith. Against today’s anxious measures of congregational success, the prophetic call of the Church’s measure of effectiveness in teaching and preaching is measured by the common life in community (p. 39).
Williams states that she believes the hope for the church, and for its witness to the world, lies in its ability to nurture authentic discipleship (p. 145). I agree, for that has always been true. But Christian educators will do well to appreciate that the Christian faith is acquired (“learned”) in certain ways, and not in others. Clarity about the nature of faith, the nature of discipleship, the nature of the Christian teacher, and the uniqueness of the context in which faith and discipleship are nurtured are necessary for effective practices of educating in faith. Reclaiming the community of faith as the crucible for the formation of disciples is vital, for relationships in community mediate spiritual formation.
Important for congregational educators are these reminders, first, Christian discipleship is a way of life, not a program. There never has been, nor will be, an educational program that fosters spiritual growth apart from relationships in family and community. Second, Christian discipleship must be guided by Tradition (p. 87). To neglect or abandon Tradition in favor of predilections, movements, fads, or marketing strategies is to risk crossing the line where a church ceases to be Christian. These essential points will challenge every pastor and educational program staff to stay grounded in authentic ways of teaching and learning the Way. It is so much easier to plan and pull off a program of study, but true Christian education for discipleship is the shaping of a person into being Christian, not merely doing Christian things.