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Alex Tang



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The State of Contemporary Education in Christian Faith Communities:

 A Paradigm Reconsidered

Dr Alex Tang


In this essay, I will look at contemporary education in Christian faith communities[1]. I will begin by examining the numerous definitions of Christian education and introduce a short overview on the different approaches to Christian education. Next, I will look at the goals of Christian education. The basic questions I will be asking in this essay is “what is education in Christian faith communities educating for?


Contemporary Education in Christian Faith Communities

The challenge in studying contemporary education in Christian faith communities begins with defining Christian education. In October 1971, British social scientist Paul Hirst in an article titled Christian education: A Contradiction in Terms? puts forth what he believes to be a categorical error. He comes to this conclusion when he examines the relationship between theological and Christian educational thinking and finds no co-relationship between the two (1971).  In a similar vein, American theologian Rodney McKean challenged the usage of the words, “Christian education” when he quotes the graffiti, “Christian education is neither.” What the graffiti implies is that Christian education is neither Christian nor is it education. When used as an adjective, the word “Christian” mean many things to many people. Describing something as “Christian” does not mean it has to be associated to a church; nor because it is focused on the Bible or theological content. It does not equate with the United States of America; nor is associated with puritan social values or with western culture. In fact, McKean writes, “In turn, much of what passes for Christian education is merely a condensation of classical western thought and institutional structures with Bible content or orthodox theology (which was also developed and written with a Western world view)” (1988, 26-27).

What then is the appropriate definition of Christian education? According to McKean, in the Middle Eastern culture, a person’s name is related to his ancestry and character. “Christ-ian” will mean “son of Christ” and so will have the character of Christ. Education implies a learning process is taking place. Learning lead to growth and liberation as learners takes ownership of what they are learning, develop co-explorer relationships with each other, and develop problem solving skills in their daily life. Therefore Christian education means a learning process towards growth and liberation done in the character of Christ (1988, 29-32). Roman Catholic theologian Marianne Sawicki in explaining Tradition and Sacramental Education has this to say,

On the other hand, one may object to using the basic term education at all. More than educere, (to lead out), Christian teaching intends inducere, (to lead into or persuade); or even inire, (to move into, enter, or begin). From inire comes initiation, which names both the goal of Christian teaching and that larger process of which teaching forms a part. From this perspective, Christian traditioning is a process unique to Christianity; it is as distinctive as the gospel itself. The nature of the ecclesial process of initiation – initiation into Christ, into the church, into a particular future – distinguishes it from other philosophical or religious ways of life (1990, 48).

Sawicki defines Christian “traditioning” as “receiving, handing on, thanksgiving, nourishing, remembering, and intimate contact with the broken body of Jesus the Lord.” She further notes that “Christianity is a tradition” that is, “it is a process of receiving and handling on what has been received.” In this aspect Sawicki seems to narrow Christian teaching into a process of initiation, or the process of passing on the Christian message. She hints at but does not elaborate what the “larger process” of which Christian teaching is a part of[2].

All this serves to highlight how confused the study of Christian education has become. Different scholars and educators approach it from different perspectives bringing along their nuances in educational methodologies, theologies, history, philosophies, social sciences, and Christian traditions. This is further complicated by whether the Christian education is held in churches, in non-church Christian faith communities, Christian schools, or as a subject in secular schools. To add to the confusion are the terms used to describe it: Christian education, Christian nurture, religious education, catechesis, and evangelism[3].


Defining Christian Education

American Catholic educator, Mary C. Boys, in her seminal study, Educating in Faith, tries to map it out into four categories: (1) evangelism, (2) religious education, (3) Christian education, and (4) Catholic education (catechetics). She approaches the subject from a historical and conceptual framework (Boys 1989). Evangelism is education in that it plays the role of transmission of truth, faith shared in a counter cultural community, and as mission. In her review of religious education, she discerns from a historical perspective, four different pathways: (1) Unitarian universalism with its emphasis on social ethics and evolutionary theory, (2) religious experience which was based on Edward Robinson and Bushnell’s work on nurture of human beings, (3) social transformation based on the work of Paulo Freire, and (4) as educating communities for intelligent decision making in daily life as based on the work of Gabriel Moran. With regards to Christian education, she finds so much diversity that she is only able to categorise them into (1) continuity as in prominence given to biblical studies, and (2) discontinuity as in emphasis on the educational process. Concerning Catholic education (catechetics), she are able to identify four manifestations in the post-Vatican II era: (1) catholic schools as counter cultural, (2) Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) catechumenate process, (3) base communities, and (4) peace and justice centres (1989, 111-145). It must be noted that she is looking at this complex subject from a North American perspective. Though outdated now, Boys does help us to find our way through educating-in-faith territory by providing a map. In this study, I will focus on Christian education[4] though I will draw additional insight from Boys’ other three categories.

American ecumenical evangelical educator, Robert Pazmiño, did a survey of the numerous definitions of Christian education and finds that these definitions form a continuum. At one end is formal education which is schooling, “characterised by classroom sessions, learning agendas, teacher directed methodologies, and required courses of study” (Black 2001, 298). Informal education is at the other end where learning focus is “on acquiring skills, knowledge, attitudes, and values growing out of student interactions with experiences or environment”(Black 2001,362). Informal education occurs spontaneously in daily living. Somewhere in between is nonformal education which includes intentional educating where there is some structured teaching by teachers and also socialisation where the community becomes the teacher. Gary Newton notes that “nonformal education relates to deliberate educational strategies based on meeting people’s needs outside of the formal schooling model. Since it tends to be highly functional, changed orientated, and learner-driven, nonformal education is a versatile educational approach.” (Newton 2001, 506). This figure is useful because it gives an idea of the range of definitions of Christian education. Its limitation is that it focuses on the settings of the various definitions which is only a part of the whole picture.

Pazmiño offers the following definition:

Christian education is the deliberate, systematic, and sustained divine and human efforts to share or appropriate the knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, sensibilities, and behaviours that comprise or are consistent with the Christian faith. It fosters the change, renewal, and reformation of persons, groups, and structures by the power of the Holy Spirit to conform to the revealed will of God as expressed in the Scriptures and pre-eminently in the person of Jesus Christ, as well as any outcomes of that effort. (1997, 87)

Pazmiño’s definition falls intentionally in the centre of his figure. To him, Christian education is more than schooling but less than socialisation. It emphasis the intentionality of a cooperative activity between persons and God. This activity includes the efforts to share the context of the Christians faith through the power of the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ as a goal. There is no emphasis on spiritual growth of the inner person, role of the church, and building relationships with other persons though those may be implied.

American Episcopal educator John Westerhoff, III defines religious education as “deliberate systematic, and sustained efforts within a community of faith which aim at enabling persons and groups to evolve particular ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.” (2000, 579). This is based on his theory of enculturation where a community nurtures and helps its members to develop a particular pattern of being. He calls it “catechesis” or Christian formation. Westerhoff  builds on C. Ellis Nelson’s ideas about socialisation. His approach is based on the community of faith. He subsequently influences Craig Dykstra in his works on Christian practices in congregations (1987).

American Catholic educator, Thomas Groome defines Christian religious education “as a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with them to the activity of God in our present, to the Story of the Christian faith community, and to the Vision of God’s Kingdom, the seeds of which are already among us” (Groome 1980), 25 italics author’s). His definition highlights the intentionality of religious education, being sensitive to God, the Christian story, and the goal of the kingdom of God. The methodology of his religious education is shared praxis. Again, there is the emphasis on community, shared practices, and working towards a common goal.

In summary, this section highlights the difficulty of developing a consensus on what Christian education is. The reasons are that Christian education is a multidisciplinary, multi-faceted approach to teaching and learning in Christian faith communities. The disciplines involved are sociology, anthropology, theology, philosophy, learning theories, history, cultural, biblical studies, linguistics, and general education. There are also the interactions with the various Christian traditions, and the local geographical manifestation of these traditions. And into the final mix are the different personalities and thought processes of the many people involved in the education of Christian faith communities.


Exploring Christian Education

Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller in their 1982 book, Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education, describe five different approaches or key metaphors in understanding Christian education (Seymour, Miller et al. 1982). These approaches are listed below:

  1. Religious instruction
  2. Faith Community
  3. Spiritual development
  4. Liberation
  5. Interpretation

This was followed in 1990 by Theological Approaches to Christian Education edited by Seymour and Miller (Seymour and Miller 1990). Five themes were identified and explored. These five themes correspond to the five approaches of their earlier book.

  1. Tradition
  2. Church
  3. Person
  4. Mission (the church in the world)
  5. Method

Seymour re-examines Christian education fifteen years later in 1997 in Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning (Seymour 1997). Here he maps Christian education into four themes:

  1. Transformation
  2. Faith community
  3. Spiritual growth
  4. Religious instruction

Compared to the 1982 survey, the approaches liberation and interpretation appears to be integrated into transformation. Transformation which has the goal of “assisting people and communities to promote faithful citizenship and social transformation”  (Seymour 1997, 21) is a better category that includes liberation and interpretation.

These three books highlight certain aspects of Christian education. First, it is an area subject to changes. A study of the history of Christian education will show that it is continuing undergoing changes (Reed and Prevost 1993; Burgess 2001; Anthony and Benson 2003). Pazmiño emphases that “Christian education must be rethought by each generation to avoid a cultural captivity” (1997, 255). As new education theorists come on the scene, new changes are made. However, care must be taken that these changes are consistent to the core of Christian belief.

Second, theology seems to follow educational theory. It may not be a coincident that a book of theology on the five approaches appeared after the 1982 book became a best seller. While many Christian educators acknowledge the role of Scripture in their theories, the form of their theories are often based on advances in social sciences. This is one of the issues of Christian education. Publisher and educator James Michael Lee in Theologies of Religious Education argues that if the teaching of religion is a branch of theology, then theology should be able to explains the process of the instructional act, explains why certain curriculum succeeds, predicts which specific instructional practice will work, verify specific learning outcomes, and able to generate instructional practices without borrowing from the social sciences (Miller 1995, 1). This is an impressive book with many well known educators and theologians as contributors. Yet, it fails to confirm the thesis that theology can explain, predict, verify, and generate instructional practices for Christian education. One reason may be that Christian education is not a branch of theology but a parallel disciplines that draws from and partner it.

Third, the subheading of the latest book mentions congregational learning. This was not mentioned in the earlier two books and may suggest that Christian education has rebounded from secular individualism to a focus on the community as the people of God. This will also suggest that Christian education is constantly evolving, interacting with culture, social theories, public education policies and the needs of the local congregations.

Finally, these three books over a period of 15 years may mark a convergence of Mary Boys’ continuity (emphasis on biblical studies) and discontinuity (emphasis on education process) in Christian education. Seymour summarises,

Contemporary studies look to congregational life and public mission for Christian education theory. Therefore, in the last decade, even more attention has been given to the relationship of biblical methodologies, the study of religions, and to the theology to Christian education. In addition, the patterns of learning embedded in ethnic experiences have received increased attention. The relationship of human development psychology and Christian education is evaluated through gender and ethnic lenses. Furthermore, Christian education has focussed on empowering the laity to embody discipleship in the world (Seymour 1997, 15)

Mapping Christian Education is helpful in revealing to us the four themes of Christian education. These are not the only themes. Other themes may include religious education models (Burgess 2001), philosophy (Astley 1994), and theologies of Christian education (Miller 1995).



Educating for social transformation consists of “sponsoring human emergence in the light of the reign of God”(Schipani 1997), 26). Social transformation focuses on the cultural and redemptive mandate of the church, aims to confront the power structure in the world and in the church, and to allow people to become who they are meant to be. Human emergence is described as growth in (1) “vision of God”; (2) “virtue of God;” and (3) “vocation of God”(Schipani 1997, 29-32). The goal is to develop growth in “responsible discipleship” where a Christian is fully engaged with the world. Robert Pazmiño in studying the teaching methods of the incarnate Jesus suggests the “Galilean principle.” He writes “(t)he Galilean principle calls for huddling that recognizes and honours differences and for mixing that affirms a greater unity along the various dimensions of educational practice…The Galilean principle honours the perspective of those who are marginalized and those who identified with the marginalized.” (Pazmiño 2001, 62). This Galilean principle is similar to the approach of Paolo Freire who postulates that traditional education is a closed system controlled by those in power. He suggests that adults have the ability to teach themselves in an alternative problem-solving education open system (Freire 1993).

The strength of this approach is that Christians are fully involved with the world in confronting injustice and socioeconomic reformation. The weaknesses is that the Christian faith communities may have problem dealing with power or may themselves be allied with political systems.

In the process of social transformation, the teacher helps the learner to seek the meaning of God in his or her daily experiences. He or she is encouraged to discover his or her story and then connect it to the greater Christian story of God’s redemptive work in the world today. The teacher acts as a guide. Galindo notes,

Both developmental psychology and formation theory demand that a Christian education be life-centred and need-oriented. Christian education must be presented as a personal search for meaning and as part of the learner’s total religious experience. Christian education must help clarify for the believers their religious and spiritual needs and dimensions.  (Galindo 2001, 412)

The strength of this approach is that Christians find meaning in their own experiences. The shared praxis is Thomas Groome’s contribution to Christian education pedagogy. He suggests that the Shared Praxis approach is the most reasonable way to do Christian religious education. There are five components or movements in shared praxis. They are (1) present action, (2) critical reflection, (3) dialogue, (4) the Christian Story, and (5) the Vision that arises from that Story. It is in the present time that action takes place. Action is a reflection of our self. Hence critical reflection of such action needs to be done in terms of past Christian tradition, present situation and the future of what is hoped for in the Kingdom. This is to be done within the context of the Christian Story. The hope is the Vision of the educational outcome. Groome summarises, “Christian religious education by shared praxis can be described as a group of Christians sharing in dialogue their critical reflection on present action in light of the Christian Story and its Vision toward the end of lived Christian faith.”(Groome 1980, 184 italics author’s).

The weakness is that experience becomes the objective of Christian education, and of the spiritual life. Furthermore not many Christians are able to, or have the inclination to do critical and theological reflection.


Faith community

The faith community is the matrix in which people come to have personal experience of God, model, encourage, teach, and build up one another. Here the members teach each other though the leaders may have a curriculum. Its setting is in life situations. This process is also known as socialisation or enculturation. John Westerhoff describes “intentional religious socialisation or enculturation” as “a process consisting of lifelong, intentional and unintentional, formal and informal mechanisms through which persons and communities sustain and transmit their faith (worldview and value system) and lifestyles.” However he thinks that socialisation is broader than education because it includes the hidden curriculum of the community[5] and the overt curriculum of the educator. Therefore he suggests a community of faith-socialisation paradigm as the better alternative to the schooling-instructional paradigm which is being commonly used (Westerhoff 2000, 45).

Westerhoff later begins to use the term catechesis which have three components: formation, education, and instruction. He writes,

Formation implies ‘shaping’ and refers to intentional, relational, experiential activities within the life of a story-formed faith community. Education implies ‘reshaping’ and refers to critical reflective activities related to these communal experiences. And instruction implies ‘building’ and refers to the means by which knowledge and skills useful to communal life are transmitted, acquired and understood. Formation forms the body of Christ, education reforms it, and instruction builds it up.” Italics his (Westerhoff 1987, 581).

Brueggemann studied ancient Hebrew society and identifies that their main mode of education was by story telling and participation in community rituals (Brueggemann 1982). Other educators who espouse the importance of community in Christian education includes C. Ellis Nelson (Nelson 1989), Charles Foster (Foster 1994), Richard Osmer (Osmer 2005),and Craig Dyskra (Dykstra 1987).

The strength of this approach is that the priesthood of all believers is affirmed and the Christian faith community is upheld. Pazmiño highlights the weakness of this approach. One is that it is often difficult to intentionally enculturate. Another weakness is that it is assumes that the Christian faith community will remain faithful in obedience to Christ. A further danger is that as a community may shape and influence an individual, an individual may also shape and influence the community  (Pazmiño 1997, 85).

Another way of looking at a faith community is that the faith community itself can grow, not just as a matrix for members to grow. In 1990, Peter Senge introduces the idea of a learning organisation (Senge 1990). His thesis is that an organisation can learn if its human components develop the core disciplines of building a learning organisation. These core disciplines are personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Implicit in this model is that there are committed and knowledgeable people to teach the core disciplines and the members of the organisation will actively develop the disciplines. Building upon Senge’s concept of the learning organisation and applying it to Christian faith communities, American church growth consultants Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem, and James Furr develops the “congregational transformation model”  (Herrington, Bonem et al. 2000, 12-15). The core of the model is spiritual and relational vitality. Using Senge’s core disciplines to train a small “vision community’ within the congregation which will in turn lead the change process to transformation of the whole congregation. It is basically a designed curriculum for change. To explain the difference between the way a human being and an organisation learn, Peter Kline and Bernard Saunders explain,

Individual store their learning primarily in their memories, augmented by libraries, notes and other aids to memory. Organisation store it primarily in their cultures, with a secondary backup in documentation that is useful only if the culture is committed to making use of it…

In simple terms, individuals learn through the activation and updating of their memories while organisations learn through change in culture (Kline and Saunders 1993, 23).

The faith community as a learning organisation is often not appreciate by Christian educators. That may be the reason why many attempts to reform the church fail because most reforms are implemented by changing human behaviour without a parallel change in church culture.


Spiritual growth

The educating persons theme draws on psychosocial development theories. In the beginning of the twentieth century it was discovered that children learn differently from adults. Jean Piaget observation that children learns at age related states, the older the child, the more complex the learning and thinking lead to his cognitive development theory (Piaget and Inhelder 1969; Wadsworth 1971). Building on this, Erikson discovers that a person’s identity developed in stages, often involved in conflict and its resolution. This leads his identity-crisis driven psychosocial development  theory (Erikson 1997)[6]. Moral development were examined by Kohlberg and later Fowler using the term  “faith development”  (Fowler 1995; Fowler 2000). Others were studying the effects of the seasons of life on human psycho-social development. Levinson offers greater insight into people as they age (Levinson 1978).

There has also been development in learning theories. It was found that adult learn differently from children. Adult learning[7] has been studied by Malcolm Knowles (Knowles, F. Holton III et al. 2005) and refined by others (Vella 1995; Vella, Berardinelli et al. 1998; Wlodkowski 1999). Remarkable work has been done on children (Coles 1990; Murphy 2000; Cupit 2001) and adolescent learning (Jones 1987; Jordan 2004). Marlene D. Lefever identifies four types of learning styles: imaginative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic (LeFever 2004).  Curriculum designs are adequately investigated by Brian Hill and others (Hill 1985; Harris 1989).

The strength of the spiritual development approach is that it has many theories to draw upon. However, it still remains to be seen how accurate these theories are and whether the approach can be applied outside the United States. So far, Kohlberg’s studies of universal faith seem to bear out the fact that it can be applied outside the American culture. However it needs to be assessed whether it can be applied directly to an Asian culture. The weakness of the spiritual development approach is the lack of qualified people who are able to adequately design the age and stage graded, learning style appropriate type of curriculum, and also the shortage of good teachers, mentors, and spiritual directors.


Religious instruction

Religious instruction is the most commonly used approach in Christian education. This is because of its historical link with catechism classes, the Sunday schools, and the schooling education system. The main purpose is to transmit religious content. Elizabeth Caldwell explains,

Religious education focuses its attention on the content of the Christian faith, the environment of teaching and learning, and methods and group processes. Religious instruction seeks primarily to educate Christians for faithful living, for finding a balance between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary, between the sacraments in liturgy and the ways we live in response to our baptism as we move out from the table where Jesus Chris is host (Caldwell 1997, 80).

This is often done in a formal education setting. The strength is that a comprehensive curriculum can be designed and carried out and the teachers have control over the learning experience. One of weakness of this is that many qualified, committed teachers are needed. Another is that though teaching may have been conducted, learning may not have occurred. The commonest form of the religious instruction approach is the schooling-instructional model or paradigm.

There are however other ways of understanding Christian education. New Zealand Christian educator Allan Harkness sees education in Christian faith communities as a three strand cord of knowledge, personhood, and community (Harkness 1996), 16-36). In this, he draws on Pazmiño’s educational trinity of content, persons, and context (Pazmiño 2001, 141-145). Australian researcher Philip Hughes utilising data from the National Survey on Christian Education[8] (NSCE) conducted in Australia in 2000 distinguishes five ways people approaches Christian education:

  1. Christian education as learning the Christian heritage. The interest in the Christian heritage may be the felt needs among Australians to pass on the heritage of their parents’ faith rather than in deepening their own faith. The other reason given by Hughes is that some acquire this knowledge as faith resources for them to drawn upon one day, a sort of spiritual investment.
  2. Christian education as strengthening the organisation. Those who are interested in this approach do it more to enhance their services in their church. They are interested in training, and learning to enhance their leadership roles.
  3. Christian education as sharing community life. Building relationships in the church is important. Community life is for support and sharing of life experiences. Formal education is not considered important.
  4. Christian education as social transformation. Some members see Christian education as the means to equip them to fight social injustice and be a voice of advocacy.
  5. Christian education as nurture of the spirit. Those members who like this approach see it as a way to nurture their spiritual life to “reinforce their sense of meaning and the values which give purpose and structure to their lives” through experiential and relational means (2002, 40).

This survey is focused on “adult perspectives on CE (Christian education) programmes and activities in congregational life” in Australia. Of the five approaches, four were developed from what the people surveyed would like in the content of their congregational formal Christian education. These looking for the fifth approach were not interested in content. This survey offers the perspectives of adults only. It will helpful to know the perspective of youth and children. The results of this survey are drawn from what the people surveyed wants in their Christian education. Aside from the five approaches it gives a lot of information about how some Australian regards their churches: resource provider, community centre (country club), low commitment, and a place to equip for social action. Their spirituality is very individualistic and pragmatic. Though similar terms were used by Seymour’s themes in Mapping Christian Education (Seymour 1997) – transformation, faith community, spiritual growth, and religious instruction – there is little in common with Hughes’ five ways people approach Christian education in Australia (Hughes 2002).

In summary, there are numerous ways to explore Christian education. One way is to use the approaches of Seymour and Miller in categorising it into  (1) religious instruction, (2) faith community, (3) spiritual development, (4) liberation, and (5) interpretation (Seymour, Miller et al. 1982). However, as we have seen, fifteen years later, Seymour re-categorises his approaches into four: (1) transformation, (2) faith community, (3) spiritual growth, and (4) religious instruction. This shows the rapid development of the field of Christian education. Australian Hughes suggests other approaches to Christian education based on his research.

The Bible and Education in Christian faith communities

Brian Hill points out that “(t)he phrase ‘Christian education’ does not appear in the Bible” (Hill 1985,15). He does this to warn us that much of Christian education as practiced may “be more culturally conditioned than biblically commanded.”  It is important to note this as many scholars derive their biblical and theological basis of Christian or religious education from the ancient Hebrew communities, New Testament churches, and Jesus’ teaching methodology. This is surprising as there is a paucity of information from these sources on pedagogy, curriculum design, assessment, and teaching syllabus. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the “Old Testament itself seldom addressed education frontally…” (Brueggemann 1982, 1). What the Hebrew communities, New Testament churches, Jesus and Paul did was closer to socialisation[9] and enculturation[10], than Christian education as described by many educators in the preceding discussion. What they did to transmit their faith and values may with equal validity be called being God’s chosen people, the Way, apprenticeship, or Christian spiritual formation. It may be argued that socialisation is a form of education. Westerhoff  indicates that education “when correctly understood is not identical to schooling. It is an aspect of socialisation…” thereby placing education as a subset of socialisation (2000, 14).  Socialisation is the preview of sociology rather than education. Spiritual, emotional, mental, and social formation in and by communities were more in keeping with worldviews of that time.

Aside from appeal to historical practices, some scholars appeal to the Bible as the basis of their theories of Christian education. David Smith and John Shortt suggest that a better way of understanding the relationship of the Bible to education is to consider an image of a rope connecting the Bible to education. This rope has many strands which are

  • the educator’s personal qualities as they are shaped by the Bible
  • what the Bible teaches about the world and its relationship to education
  • the narratives which can be found in both scripture and education
  • the role of metaphor in the Bible and in education
  • the educational models presents in both the content and shape of the Bible  (Smith and Shortt 2002, 22-23)

This metaphor allows an examination of the relationship between the Bible and education. The first strand concerns the educator. The fact that one teaches the Bible does not make it an educational act in Christian faith communities. This is because the Bible may be studied in many ways; as literature, religious works, history, or a book of morals. Smith and Shortt argue that it is the effect of the Bible on the character of the educator that makes it relevant to this discussion. They refer to the educator’s personal qualities as they are shaped by the Bible in that “the bridge between the Bible and the present day classroom is not so much as set of deductions leading to general principles as the teacher herself or himself, shaped by interactions with the biblical text. Put simply, the Bible shapes people, and it is people who educate” (Smith and Shortt 2002, 37). They refer to this as “incarnational” because God himself became man or God incarnate in history. However they also point out the issues with this argument in that to limit “incarnational education” to personal character change is to limit the scope of the gospel, and a charge of complicity in that an educator may exhibit good personal qualities without reference to the context of what has been taught. In another article published earlier, Smith notes that “in relation to the idea of incarnation, is that it cannot reflect the role of the Holy Spirit. Christians do not merely work with the text but are worked in and through by the author” (Smith 1995, 15). Wihoit and Rozema highlights “anointed teaching” as a distinctive mark of teaching which is dependent on the maturity of the educator with respect to his or her sensitivity to the Holy Spirit (Wilhoit and Rozema 2005). Anointed teaching is different from the teaching gift of the Holy Spirit but is the empowerment of the Holy Spirit during the act of teaching.

Second, the Bible teaches a set of Christian beliefs which may be called a Christian worldview[11]. Education is the process of translating this into practices. This is not as straight forward as it seem because the Bible does not give a strict set of codes in which one has an option to follow it or not. Smart and Shortt notes that “Christian belief drawn from the Bible, can and do influence our thinking about an activity such as education, but they will do so by providing direction rather than showing us exactly what to do” (Smith and Shortt 2002, 60). Thus they are saying that education in Christian faith communities is a process of interpretation of Christian belief into practices.

Third, the Bible is full of stories or narratives. According to Fackre, the Christian story found in the Bible is the story of God’s salvation history (Fackre 1996). The Christian story itself is made of numerous narratives. Writing in The Story of Our Life, H. Richard Niebuhr makes an important observation that preaching of the early church is not about doctrines but the narratives of the Jesus story and the experiences of the Christian communities (Niehbuhr 1997). He writes, “(w)hatever it was the church meant to say, whatever was revealed or manifested to it, could be indicated only in connection with a historical person and events in the life of his community” (1997, 21). Michael Root concurs and argues that within Christian theology, soteriology derives its “structure and explanatory power” as a function of its narrative form (Root 1997, 263).  However this does not mean that the Bible does not contain propositions and other non-narrative components.

Alasdair MacIntyre discovers that in any attempt to document a human life is met by two obstacles; one social and one philosophical. The social arises because modernity has compartmentalised human lives into many compartments: work, leisure, private, corporate, individual, or family. The philosophical obstacles arise when human actions were viewed as a sequence of basic actions[12], and of  separation of the individual from the varied roles he or she plays[13]. He concludes that the only way to describe human history is through narratives which is “the basic and essential genre for the characterisation of human actions” (MacIntyre 2007, 208). The narratives is the common ground is where the Bible connects with education. Biblical narratives may be used in the education curriculum. These narratives may be used to show the character of God, God’s revelation, and God’s plan of redemption. In arguing for the use of narrative teaching of Bible stories, Henry Corcoran, show that it is transformative, not only for children but for people of all ages (Corcoran 2007).

Four, another way the Bible may connect with education is the use of metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them[14]. John Shortt, David Smith, and Trevor Cooling found in Brian Hill’s paper, an excellent example of the use of a metaphor: Teaching as reconciliation (Shortt, Smith et al. 2000). Hill understands the biblical teaching of reconciliation to mean the repairing a fundamental flaw in the world caused by men and God and can only be done by God taking the initiative to reconcile with human persons with the full knowledge and consent of both parties. Hill then goes on to suggest that reconciliation in education means reconciling the child to society, education of thing with the education of feeling, and with the various agents of education. Here, Hill shows how a metaphor of reconciliation in theology may be used in education (Shortt, Smith et al. 2000). By his masterful use of prose, Hill has shown how a metaphor can be used to enhance understanding and widen our horizons. The parables as told by Jesus are a form of metaphors. A root metaphor is one which is so embedded within a language or culture that it is often not realized as being a metaphor. There is also a type of metaphor named root metaphor. A root metaphor is one from which other metaphors arise from. It may be so embedded in the culture and language that nobody is aware of them. Examples of root metaphors are “Time is money” or “Life as journey”. Michael Amaladoss writing in The Asian Jesus suggests some contextualised metaphors of Jesus such as Jesus as the Way, Jesus as Avatar, Jesus as Satyagrahi, Jesus the Advaitin, and Jesus the Bodhisattva, while it may sound strange to western ears have a deep pool of meanings for the local people (Amaladoss 2006). Metaphors when used properly are an invitation to engage in a new way of seeing. The danger is that it may also cause misunderstanding and abuse.

Finally, certain educational models may be found in both the content and shape of the Bible. The work of  Brueggemann in The Creative Word (Brueggemann 1982) has as its central thesis the “canon as a model for biblical education”. Concerning ancient Israel, Brueggeman identifies the three parts of the canon as the Torah, the prophets, and the Writings which he associates with the three tasks of education. He writes,

Regarding the Torah, I shall argue that it is a statement of community ethos, a definitional statement of the character of the community which is a given and is not negotiable among the new generation. In this first part of the canon, it is clear that the community precedes the individual person, that the community begins by stating its parameters and the perceptual field in which the new person must live and grow. In the Prophets, we deal with the pathos of God and of Israel, with the sense of fracture and abrasion between what is in hand and what is promised. This part of the canon expresses the conviction that such abrasion is not overcome by power or force, but by hurt. Therefore this part of the canon reflects on indignation and also on the anguish which belongs to this community and its perception. Third, in the Writings, we cannot in fact generalise for the whole. In the Proverbs at least, that is, in the “counsel of the wise,” we may speak of logos, of the conviction that there is sense and order and meaning to life. That logos is hidden and revealed. Education is the cat and mouse game of discovering and finding it hidden (Prov. 25:2-3)[15]  (Brueggemann 1982, 12-13).

Here Brueggemann associates the Torah with a mode of teaching that is a narrative of disclosure of accepted truth and traditions. There is stability in this type of teaching but a danger that it become fixed and inflexible. The Prophets is another mode of teaching which challenges by disruption of the established order or status quo to reveal deeper truth. The questioning and reflection is formative but lacks stability in the learner. The Writings provide the wisdom for discernment in daily living. Brueggemann concludes “(f)or a good education, like Israel’s faith, must be a tense holding together of ethos, pathos, and logos.” or disclosure, disruption, and discernment (in education) (Brueggemann 1982, 13).

According to Brueggemann, one of the common errors of Christians is to focus on a single principle or presupposition and neglect the larger picture. This will result in confusion when an attempt is made to apply this principle or presupposition today. The reason is that this principle or presupposition was created in a different time and culture. Using the idea of the process of canon formation, Brueggemann suggests that it is better to look at a body of principles or presuppositions as a canon. This will cancel out errors and give a closer approximation to the correct interpretation.

This imagery of the strands of a rope allows an examination on the how the Bible relates to education. However, the authors hesitate to identify the core of the rope around which these strands were entwined  (Smith and Shortt 2002, 167-168). I will suggest that the core of the rope is the Holy Spirit. It is surprising that how little attention is paid to the work of the Holy Spirit in any consideration of the Bible and education. Without the Holy Spirit, the Bible is just great literature.

Different denominations within the Protestant tradition may have different understanding of education in Christian faith communities because of differences in theology. Wesleyan educator Dean Blevins believes there are differences in understanding of education in Christian faith communities between the Wesleyan and Evangelical traditions (Blevins 2005), 9-10). The difference arises from the theological basis of their soteriology. Blevins suggests a common ground to understanding Christian education, using Christian practices specifically, and John Wesley’s means of grace[16]. By using these common denominators which are actually the same thing but known by different names, he anticipates building an understanding of Christian education that is accepted by both the Wesleyan tradition and the evangelicals. An authentic Wesleyan education will consist of formation as Christian education (instituted means of grace), discernment as Christian education (prudential means of grace), and transformation as Christian education (works of mercy). “The goal of Wesley’s educational efforts, holiness of heart and life, may actually hold a clue for a Wesleyan understanding of transformative Christian education. Holiness of heart and life may be part of the process of education as well as the goal of education.”  (Blevins 2005, 15-24).  This illustrates the difficulty of defining Christian education even among the same Protestant tradition.

In summary, David Smart and John Shortt suggest a way of understanding the relationship between the Bible and Christian education is to have an image of a rope connecting the two. This rope has many strands which are (1) the educator’s personal qualities as they are shaped by the Bible, (2) what the Bible teaches about the world and its relationship to education, (3) the narratives which can be found in both scripture and education, (4) the role of metaphor in the Bible and in education, and (5) the educational models presents in both the content and shape of the Bible. While not exhaustive, this approach using imagery of a rope does give a fair understanding of the Bible and Christian education. Blevins highlights the variation even among the Protestant tradition by differentiating Wesleyan Christian education with others. 


Goals of Education in Christian faith communities

In any consideration of any activity or paradigm, goals are an important. This is important especially in a complex field such as education in Christian faith community. Much of Christian faith community resources are invested into this activity. The goals must be clear so that the desired outcomes may be achieved or at least to guide the faith community in the right direction. The goals of education in Christian faith communities should be the determining factor in the choice of pedagogy instead of the other way round. One of the problems with English-Speaking Presbyterian churches in Malaysia which will be discussed later is their uncritical use of pre-packaged educational materials from North America and the United Kingdom. The question asked is “how can I use it?” rather than “what is it for?”

First, education in Christian faith communities is the transmission to members of the community of the core body of Christian belief. Transmission of the content of the faith is essential for the continuing existence of the faith community. There is  realisation that “watered down” version of the faith is being transmitted, resulting in biblical illiteracy, and in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace” (Bonhoeffer 1959). This has led some English-Speaking Presbyterian churches to refocus their efforts on the content of their faith.

The mode of transmission of content is important. The common mode is the schooling-instructional paradigm. This mode is useful in transmitting large amount of content. The question is whether learning has actually taken place. Instead of being content-centred, some educators argue for personal relevance approach. James Plueddemann, for examples argue for a “pilgrim educational methodology”, using the metaphors of pilgrims as fellow travellers and learners. According to Plueddemann, “(t)he Bible is taught clearly but the content of content is not the end – it is a means” (Plueddemann 1989, 78). Though he is writing mostly about theological education, as pointed out by Eillen Starr (Starr 1989), what he said is also relevant to the local Christian faith communities.

Some English-Speaking Presbyterian churches in their effort to refocus on the content of their faith narrow their focus solely on the study of the Bible. Traditions, Christian history, and other sources of religious inspiration are neglected. Recognising this danger Plueddemann points out,

Teaching the Bible for its own sake is idolatry…The Bible is practical because it helps us to know God, and knowing God is infinitely practical. But knowing the Bible is not the same as knowing God. We progressively grow in our relationship to God as we explore the tension between our experience and the Bible and our response in obedience” (Plueddemann 1989, 75-76).

The goals of transmission of the core body of Christian belief or the content of the faith is not just knowledge alone but also implies the application of this knowledge. Education in Christian faith communities is not just an intellectual exercise but a life transforming one.

Second, education in Christian faith communities is to help members of the community to develop a relationship with God. Pazmiño proposes that the

general purpose of the church’s educational ministry is that all persons know of and develop a dynamic and growing personal relationship with God (John 17:3) and his creation…The goal of educational ministry is that persons become obedient disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18-20), prepared for works of serve and conformed increasingly to the image of Christ (Eph.4:11-16) (Pazmiño 1997, 105).

Christianity, as based on the concept of the Trinity is relational. It starts with the relationship of reconciliation between God and persons, and extends to relationships with self, other persons, communities, and the whole of creation. In the process, a person becomes a disciple of Christ, receiving shalom, restore the imago dei and takes part in the missio dei. I will expand on this in more details in the next chapter.

Mark Lamport and Darrell Yoder note that “most approaches to education (including Christian ones) begin with human rather than divine desires”  (Lamport and Yoder 2006),65). Taking a different trek, they try to approach the goal of Christian education from the perspective of what God wants. They examine the Scripture and conclude

the ultimate goal of Christian education (is) as (a) people fulfilling God’s desire by loving him, loving others, and fulfilling the cultural and redemptive mandates. By these things they will be able to image and glorify him in a way unseen after sin entered the world.(Lamport and Yoder 2006, 65-67).

This they believe can be achieved by focusing on worship, community, revelation (theological reflection), and engagement with the world (Lamport and Yoder 2006),76).

Third, education in Christian faith communities is to help members to mature in their faith. Australian educator, Brian Hill expands on this, suggesting that Christian education is to teach for commitment. He defines commitment as “a disposition to act in accordance with one’s belief ” (Hill 1985),86). Being what we believe, and acting out of that belief is a sign of mature faith. The Search Institute[17] conducted an Effective Christian Education Study: A National Study of Protestant Congregations survey in 1989. Its purpose was to examine the effectiveness of congregation based Christian education. The study group stated that “the primary aim of congregational life is to nurture-among children, youth, and adults-a vibrant, life-changing faith, the kind of faith that shapes one’s way of being, thinking and acting.” (Benson and Eklin 1990, 9). To do that, they first have to define mature faith, which will be the desired outcome of effective education in the congregation[18]. From the survey, they compiled a list of characteristics of  a person of with mature faith:

(1)   “Trusts in God’s saving grace and believes firmly in the humanity and divinity of Jesus

(2)   Experiences a sense of personal well-being, security, and peace

(3)   Integrates faith and life, seeing work, family, social relationships, and political choices as part of one’s religious life

(4)   Seeks spiritual growth through study, reflection, prayer, and discussion with others

(5)   Seeks to be part of a community of believers in which people gives witness to their faith and support and nourish one another

(6)   Holds life affirming values, including commitment to racial and gender equality, affirmation of cultural and religious diversity, and a personal sense of responsibility for the welfare of others

(7)   Advocates social and global changes to bring about greater social justice

(8)   Serves humanity, consistently and passionately, through acts of love and justice” (Benson and Eklin 1990,10)

These eight core characteristics are useful markers to measure spiritual maturity. These are descriptive markers drawn from a variety of sources. Though the survey was done on North American congregations, these characteristics of mature faith may be equally applicable to Malaysian Christians. What has been articulated as the goal of Christian education may be summarised as producing disciples of Jesus Christ who matures in their faith into the likeness of Christ.

Finally, education in Christian faith communities is to help the communities to grow. Charles Foster identifies the three tasks to help Christian faith communities to grow as (1) building communities, (2) making meaning, and (3) nurturing hope (Foster 1994). Expanding on this Foster writes,

            a) building communities of faith in and through which discipleship to Jesus

 Christ is nurture;

b) building communities of faith capable of helping people make religious

sense of their encounters between their traditions of faith and the explosion of

new knowledge that surrounds them, the changing circumstances of their lives,

 and the decisions they must make for living into a changing world;

c) building communities of faith capable of nurturing hope vital enough to

 invite people into the human vocation of praising God and serving neighbour

 for the sake of the transformation of the world  (Foster 1994, 137).

The concept of learning organisations is important in understanding growing Christian faith communities. A growing community is a place where one can learn the content of their faith, acceptance, room to experiment and fail, mentored and mentoring, and build relationships with others of the same convictions. The community grows as it s members grows into the shalom of Christ. The growing communities make meaning together as they interact with their surrounding worldviews, culture and society.  Most important of all, a growing communities nurture hope both for themselves and for the world outside their communities.

Community practices are important considerations in building Christian communities of faith. One approach is that is that a community will have a number of common individual practices that its members often utilise. These practices have inherent formative elements and in practicing them, the community grows as the member grows. Craig Dysktra, Dorothy Bass and Diana Butler Bass are foremost proponents of this approach (Bass 1997; Butler-Bass 2004; Dykstra 2005). These Christian practices are regarded as formative for the Christian faith communities. Another approach based on sociology and learning theories is to understand that communities have their own practices and they learn through these practices. These communities of practice[19] learns, develop meaning, and identity through its practices (Wenger 1999). This has special relevance in understanding the dynamics of church, small groups, para-church organisations and special interest ministries growth.


This section started with highlighting the difficulties of developing a consensus on defining Christian education. The reasons are that Christian education is a multidisciplinary, multi-faceted approach to teaching and learning in Christian faith communities. In exploring Christian education, Seymour, Miller, and Hughes suggests that there are many approaches, themes or metaphors in understanding Christian education. The goals of education in Christian faith communities are to impart knowledge of God, develop relationship with God, develop relationship with God’s creation, become disciples of Jesus, mature in their faith, to serve, and grow together as a community. In the next section, education in English-Speaking Presbyterian churches will be examined in the light of contemporary thinking about education in general and education in Christian faith communities in particular. This essay gives a brief overview of the state of contemporary education in Christian faith communities.



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[1] The term “education in Christian faith communities” will be used in preference to “Christian education” or “religious education” It means the intentional process of teaching, learning, reflection, spiritual growth and equipping a person in a Christian faith community through the power of the Holy Spirit to the image of Jesus Christ, and to the fulfilling of the perfect will of the Father. To avoid confusion, I will continue to use the term “Christian education” and “Religious education” in sections when dealing with the work of others. The term “Christian faith communities” will be used in preference to “local church” or “congregation” because it reflects the dynamic nature of a community of the people of God.

[2] The focus of Marianne Sawicki is on the sacraments as one of the means of Christian traditioning. She mentions the sacraments of initiation - Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist; sacraments of reconciliation – Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist; and the sacraments of commitment – Marriage, Orders, Eucharist. According to her, the sacraments are like open windows to the Paschal Mystery.  see Sawicki, M. (1990). Tradition and Sacramental Education. Theological Approaches to Christian Education. J. L. Seymour and D. E. Miller. Nashville, TN, Abington Press: 43-62. p.46-47. She also hints of a “larger process.” 

[4] Many Protestant Christian educators still uses “religious education” rather than “Christian education.” Examples are George Albert Coe, Ellis Nelson, Westerhorf, and Thomas Groome. Brian Hill prefers to refer to it as Christian nurture.

[5] Westerhoff  has noted that influence of Christian community as an education approach. To achieve Christian formation through intentional assimilation into the Christian worldview, he suggested eight aspects of communal life:

(1)           communal rites (repetitive, symbolic and social actions which express and manifest the community’s sacred narrative along with its implied faith and life.)

(2)           church environment (including architectural spaces and artefacts)

(3)           time (Christian calendar)

(4)           communal life (polity, programs and economic life as well as support behaviour)

(5)           discipline (structured practices within the community)

(6)           social interaction (interpersonal relations and motivations)

(7)           role models (exemplars and mentors)

(8)           language ( which names and describe behaviour; see Hauerwas, S. and J. H. Westerhorff (1992). Schooling Christians: "Holy Experiments" in American Education. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans. p. 262-281.

[6] As the insight of these authors is well known, these developmental theories will not be examined in detail in this dissertation. For their relevance to Christian education, see Seymour, J. L., D. E. Miller, et al. (1982). Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education. Nashville, TN., Abingdon Press.; Astley, J. and L. Francis, Eds. (1992). Christian Perspectives on Faith Development. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Publishing.; and Dykstra, C. and S. Parks, Eds. (1986). Faith Development and Fowler. Birmingham, Religious Education Press.

[7] Building on the work of Knowles that adults have enough experience to organise their own learning by dialogue, American educationist Jane Vella suggests 12 principles of adult learning: (1) needs assessment: students decided what they want to learn, (2) a safe environment, (3) sound relationship between teachers and students, (4), careful attention to learning content sequence and reinforcement, (5) learning by doing, (6) respect for students as  subjects of their own learning, (7) involvement of ideas, feelings, actions, (8) immediacy of learning, (9) clear roles and roles development, (10) teamwork in small groups, (11) engagement the students in what they are learning, and (12) evaluation. See Vella, J. (1994). Learning to Listen, Learning to Touch: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers.p.3-22. Aside from dialogue, collaborative learning has also been found effective in adults. See Lee, M. (2000). "Experiencing Shared Inquiry Through the Process of Collaborative Learning." Teaching Theology and Religion 3(2): 108-116.

[8] National Survey on Christian Education (NSCE) was undertaken by Uniting Education (Uniting Church in Australia) and Christian Research Association. It involves group discussions and survey questionnaires.Hughes, P. (2002). "Five Ways People Approach Christian Education in Churches." Journal of Christian Education 45(1): 35-43.

[9] John Westerhorff defines socialisation as “all those formal and informal influences through which persons acquired their understanding and ways of living.”  Westerhoff, J. (2000). Will Our Children Have Faith? rev.ed. Harrisburg, PA, Morehouse Publishing. p.14; Laverne Tolbert describes it as the “process of teaching and enforcing group norms and values to new group members Tolbert, L. A. (2001). Socialisation of the Child. Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education. M. J. Anthony. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic: 648-649. p.647.

[10] “Enculturation is the method by which children, during their formative years, unconsciously learn cultural patterns and cultural competence from other members of society” Bustrum, P. (2001). Enculturation. Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education. M. J. Anthony. Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic: 247-248. p.247

[11] Walsh and Middleton define a worldview as “a model of the world which guides its adherent n the world. Its stipulates how the world ought to be, and it thus advises how its adherents ought to conduct themselves in the world” Walsh, B. J. and J. R. Middleton (1984). The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press. p. 32.

[12] Analytical philosophy which analyses and break down complex actions and transaction into its simpler components. The school of analytic philosophy has dominated academic philosophy in various regions, most notably Great Britain and the United States, since the early twentieth century. It originated around the turn of the twentieth century as G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell broke away from what was then the dominant school in the British universities, Absolute Idealism. See Analytic Philosophy. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy at accessed 26 April 2008.

[13] Sociological theory and existentialism. The sociological theory refers to that of Ralf Dahrendorf while existentialism, Sarte.

[14] Merriam-Webster online Dictionary  at accessed 26 April 2008.

[15] Prov. 25:2-3 states “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.”

[16] Means of grace is a term commonly associated with John Wesley. By it, he meant the various way God uses to bring people to a state of grace. Initially he categorises them into works of piety (public prayer, family prayer and personal prayer, the Lord’s supper, reading and meditating on Scriptures and fasting) and works of mercy (feeding the hungry, helping the poor, hospitable to strangers, visiting prisoners and saving souls). Later Wesley revised it to instituted means of grace (similar to works of piety but also include attending conferences) and prudential means of grace (which include works of piety but with more emphasis on Christian living such as watching, denying ourselves, taking up the cross).

[17] The Search Institute is an independent organisation in the United States whose aim is to provide leadership, knowledge, and resources to promote healthy children, youth, and communities. To do so, they conduct researches relevant to the communities at state and national level.

[18] They did an open ended survey with several hundred theology scholars, denominational and local congregation leaders and complied “eight core dimensions of faith” which defines a person with mature faith. Benson, P. L. and C. H. Eklin (1990). Effective Christian Education: A National Survey of Protestant Congregations, A Summary report on Faith, Loyalty, and Congregational Life. Minneapolis, Search Institute., p.10

[19] The term “community of practice” are coined by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave. It means that a collection of people with a shared enterprise, over time their collective learning and social interactions will result in having common shared practices resulting in a community of practice. See Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. New York, Cambridge University Press. p.45



Soli Deo Gloria

|posted 4 May 2008|




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