July 27, 2015—I find that clergy and educational staff continue to struggle to define the nature and scope (as well as the methods and techniques) of what constitutes Christian education. In some instances people choose one camp over the other, like “formation” over “education.” Some have dropped any reference to the term “education” believing that concept is antithetical to discipleship or to their idea of Christian formation or the development of disciples.
Yet, John Westerhoff, one of the most influential Christian educators of the 20th century, himself a strong advocate for a community of faith approach to Christian education who promoted formation long before it became the buzz word it is today, offers a more responsible and balanced view. He writes:
Baptism is the sacrament by which the church makes new Christians–that is, by which persons are raised to new life in Christ, incorporated into Christ’s body (the church), infused with Christ’s mind and character, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s continuing presence in the world. Through Christian initiation within a Christian community of faith, persons are formed and transformed into the persons that baptism establishes them to be. This process, historically known as catechesis–“to echo the Word” or “Christening”–is the means by which a community re-presents Christ (his life, teachings, death, and resurrection) in symbol, myth, rite, and common life and thereby fashions novices so that they might join the community in representing Christ to the world. Catechesis necessitates three deliberate or intentional, systemic or interrelated, sustained or lifelong processes essential to Christian faith and life: formation, education, and instruction.
Westerhoff defined the importance of each of these ways of teaching and learning:
Instruction aids persons to acquire that knowledge and those abilities useful for responsible personal and communal Christian life in church and society. For example, through instructional processes persons acquire a knowledge of the content of Scripture as well as the ability to comprehend its meaning and interpret its implications for daily life and work. Instruction alone, however, can produce a person who knows all about Christianity but who does not intend to be Christian. Nevertheless, without the benefit of instruction, persons may not know what faithfulness it, what it implies, or how to decide what is faithful.
Education aids persons to reflect critically on their behavior and experiences in the light of the gospel so that they might discern if they are being faithful and when they might need to change their behavior. For example, through critical reflection on the ways in which we live together as families, congregations, or schools, we can reform them to be more faithful. Christians, therefore, need to make education a natural way of life and not just a program, as they engage in critical reflection on every aspect of their lives.
Formation aids persons to acquire Christian faith (understood as a particular perception of life and our lives), Christian character (understood as identity and appropriate behavioral dispositions), and Christian consciousness (understood as that interior subjective awareness or temperament that predisposes persons to particular experiences). For example, Christian formation is the participation in and the practice of the Christian life of faith. We do that by identifying with a community, observing how persons in it live, and imitating them. Instruction informs us in terms of knowledge and skills believed by the community to be important for communal life.
Education “reforms” us by aiding us to discover dissonance between how we are living and how we are called to live. And formation both confirms (nurtures) and transforms (converts) us through a process best understood as apprenticeship.Formation is related to a natural process called enculturation; when enculturation becomes intentional it is called formation. Education is necessary for faithful formation, and instruction is important for faithful education, but formation is foundational because it is the primary means by which Christians are shaped in mind, affections, and behaviors.
All the buzz about formation has generally been a good thing, still, claims Westerhoff, “formation as a process has not been given the attention it deserves. The reasons for this are varied, but among the most significant is that in recent years catechists have been more concerned with teaching doctrine and rational convictions about truth than they have been with faith understood as a community’s perception of life and our lives, to which loyalty, trust, and devotion are to be given. Further, a primary concern of catechists has been the teaching of moral decision making and problem solving, which has led them to a neglect of the persons who make the decision and the character of those persons–that is, their identity and disposition to behave in particular ways.”
Additionally, claims Westerhoff, catechists have tended to “focus on individual subjective experience to the neglect of consciousness or temperament, the interior awareness that makes any particular experience possible or probable.” While instruction is an effective means for transmitting beliefs, and education is useful for making sense of and interpreting experience, only through formation do persons acquire Christian faith, character, and consciousness.*
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
*From John Westerhoff, “Fashioning Christians in our day,” in Stanley Hauerwas & John H. Westerhoff, III (Eds.) Schooling Christians: “Holy Experiments” in American Education (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992): pp. 262-281.