Church Education for Tomorrow

by John H. Westerhoff III

Dr. Westerhoff is professor of religion and education at Duke University divinity school.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 31, 1975, pp, 1201-1204. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


No longer can we assume that the educational understandings that have informed us, or the theological foundations that have undergirded our programs are adequate for today. The author suggests some major modifications in educational assumptions.

This is the twelfth in a series on New Turns in Religious Thought.

It is a truism that Christian faith and education are inevitable companions. Wherever living faith exists, there is a community endeavoring to sustain and transmit that faith. Still, an accurate description of education in the church today is almost impossible. Generalizations are meaningless. Evangelical Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches appear to confront unique situations, though perhaps the greatest crisis is being experienced among the mainline bodies (my own tradition).

The Need for Radical Changes

Nevertheless, I would argue that while situations differ, the understandings, purposes and theological foundations upon which all Christian groups engage in education are shaking. While a host of builders attempt, with varying degrees of success, to shore them up, there is a dearth of architects engaged in designing new structures.

This conviction is not entirely new. Colloquy, a magazine on education in church in society, was born in 1968. For eight years, as its founder-editor, I advocated the need for radical changes in church education. In 1970, just before the walls of mainline Protestant church education began to show their cracks, I wrote a short tract, Values for Tomorrow’s Children (Pilgrim, 1970), which boldly suggested that a radical alternative for church education was needed for the future. In A Colloquy on Christian Education (Pilgrim, 1972) and Generation to Generation (United Church Press, 1974) I expanded that thesis. I have now concluded that it is not enough simply to conceive of alternatives for church education; fundamental issues once clearly resolved need to be explored afresh.

No longer can we assume that the educational understandings that have informed us, the purposes that have inspired our efforts, or the theological foundations that have undergirded our programs are adequate for today.

During the early decades of the 20th century the religious education movement was a major force in American Christianity. The future is uncertain. While many realize that we can’t go home again, few can agree on the direction we need to take. I suggest, as a way of beginning, that evangelicals and liberals, "high" and "low" churchpersons, Roman Catholics and Protestants, Christians and those of other faiths stop warring, ignoring or passing each other in the night and begin to share perspectives and convictions. Coalitions of local church laypersons, church education professionals, clergy, church bureaucrats and academics need to start working together more closely.

As one contribution to this end, divinity schools will need to reconstitute the theoretical study of religion and education. New centers for church education need to emerge where scholars in numerous fields can engage in research and development around foundational issues. Here and there this is already taking place: I think of our work at Duke University and that of my friends James Fowler at Harvard, David Stewart at Pacific School of Religion, and Berard Marthaler at the Catholic University of America, to name only three. The challenge, however, is before all of us. These reflections are offered to stimulate our common task. The stakes are high, for education is central to the Christian faith community’s life and mission.

The Public School as Model

In every age, in every endeavor, some agreed-upon frame of reference has informed the church’s efforts. Since the turn of the century, church education has operated according to a "schooling-instruction" paradigm. While admitting that learning takes place in many ways, church education has functionally equated the context of education with schooling and the means of education with formal instruction. The public school has been the model, and insights from secular pedagogy and psychology provided guides. For Protestants, a church school with teachers, subject matter, curriculum resources, age-graded classes, supplies, equipment, classrooms and, if possible, a professional church educator has been the norm; for Roman Catholics, parochial schools or some other form of catechetics. Within this understanding, creative responses have been made to the church’s educational ministry.

There are, however, numerous anomalies in that paradigm: Characteristically, only large, well-to-do churches with professional leadership have been able to meet adequately the full requirements of the church school, and even they have begun to question their results. Schools and formal instruction seem effective for teaching persons about Christianity, but not for enabling growth in faith. The crucial ecology of institutions -- community, public school, home and church -- which once unconsciously supported the church school and made it viable has eroded. The best church school cannot accomplish what it once took five interrelated institutions to do. And most serious, the processes of religious socialization have been systematically kept outside the purview of church educators. The result has been catastrophic, for we all know that faith and values are not primarily the result of formal instruction. Indeed, the hidden curriculum in our lives is often more influential than the formal curriculum of schools.

We have too easily linked the ways of secular education with religion. Dependence upon the practice, rhetoric and norms of secular education is risky business, for, I suggest, there is something unique about education in religious communities. Yet when we have faced new problems, our typical response has been to focus church education even more sharply on formal teaching and learning, naïvely believing that it is possible with new knowledge and techniques to build a workable school for the church, train an adequate number of capable teachers, and provide more useful curriculum resources for quality church education. In bondage to this inadequate understanding, we interpret any small success or reversal of existing negative trends in church schooling as a confirmation of the old paradigm’s validity.

The Natural Context of Education

In my opinion it is the paradigm itself which is bankrupt, not the attempts at educational reform which issue from it. An alternative paradigm, not merely an alternative program, is needed. Presently I am developing a "community of faith-enculturation" paradigm in which the total life of a faith community becomes the natural context of education, and intentional religious socialization the means. We need to stop thinking of "school" or "instruction" and center our educational concern on the church’s rites and rituals, the formal and informal experiences persons have in community, the interactions between the generations, the church’s environment, structure, organization and budget, the role models presented, the status assigned particular persons, and the actions witnessed and encouraged in a host of often unconscious ways.

While this new paradigm maintains a necessary particularity for education -- deliberate, systematic and sustained efforts -- and a place for schooling and instruction, it broadens church education to include, consciously and intentionally, as the primary context and means of education, every aspect of our individual and corporate lives within an intentional, covenanting, tradition-bearing faith community. Only as we rethink the radical nature of Christian community and reform our institutions so that they might faithfully strive to transmit their cumulative tradition through ritual and life, to nurture and convert persons to Christian faith through common experience and interaction, and to prepare and motivate persons for individual and corporate action in society can true Christian education emerge.

To accomplish this end, we need to ask what it means to be Christian together and how it is that persons develop mature faith. Our question cannot be "How can someone teach someone else about the Christian faith?" but "How can we be Christian, individually and corporately with others in the world?" To answer that question we need to address faith’s relationship to religion, our corporate selves, and society. Thus a new paradigm not only makes possible new forms and means for church education but also suggests new questions and answers as to our purposes.

Nurture or Conversion?

Historically, church education has vacillated between a concern for conversion and a concern for nurture. With the birth of the "schooling-instructional" paradigm, nurture became the dominant underlying purpose in the rhetoric of Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant church education. Characteristically, Christian faith was understood in terms of nurture, which functionally corresponded to a gradual process of schooling. Church educators proceeded to develop a program of education that moved from baptism through instruction to confirmation -- or, more accurately, to institutional initiation. At the same time evangelical Protestant churches, also enamored of the "schooling-instructional" paradigm, described personal conversion as their purpose and designed educational programs that used instruction to move persons to an early faith commitment. Neither side could affirm the other’s purpose though both depended upon the same paradigm. Both, I contend, have made a serious error.

Support for nurture as the sole purpose of church education is found in a single phrase in Horace Bushnell’s Christian Nurture: A child is to grow up a Christian and never know himself or herself as being otherwise. (Interestingly, little attention is given to the fact that, as the last of the Puritans, Bushnell referred in this dictum only to the children of the Saints.) I contend that the church can no longer surrender to the illusion that child nurture, in and of itself, can or will rekindle the fire of Christian faith either in persons or in the church.

We have expected too much of nurture. At its very best, nurture makes possible institutional incorporation. We can nurture persons into institutional religion, but not into mature Christian faith. The Christian faith by its very nature demands conversion. We do not gradually educate persons to be Christian. Of course, conversion can and indeed often has been misunderstood and overemphasized, but that does not justify our disregarding it as one necessary purpose of Christian education.

In one sense we all inherit faith. We are nurtured or socialized into certain ways of understanding the world and our lives, and into particular goals for life and guides for conduct. One style of faith typical of children but also frequently found among adults is founded upon a deep sense of belonging to a community in Which faith is expressed through the "heart" and belief is dependent upon external authority. Persons need to be nurtured into a community’s faith and life. There is a basic need for religious experience. But persons also need, if they are to grow in faith, to be aided and encouraged to judge, question and even doubt that faith, to be given the opportunity to experiment with and reflect upon alternative understandings and to learn what it means to commit their lives to causes and persons. We must never depreciate the important intellectual aspect of Christian faith. Only after a long adolescent struggle with doubt and an honest consideration of alternatives can a person truly say, "I believe." And only then is a person enabled to live the radical political, economic and social life of the Christian in the world.

From Faith Given to Faith Owned

Conversion is therefore best understood as a radical turning from faith given (through nurture) to faith owned. Conversion is radical because it implies ownership and the corresponding transformation of our lives. It implies a turning from one style of faith to another and as such is characterized by a total reorientation in our thinking, feeling and willing. That is why conversion historically is not singularly an emotional outburst, nor a once-and-for-all occasion to be dated and described. Rather it is more like a long series of significant changes in our total behavior and enlightenments -- changes that can be identified only in retrospect. Neither is conversion an isolated event devoid of an element of nurture. Nurture and conversion are a unified whole. Parenthetically, neither the liberal who has nurtured persons into church membership nor the evangelical who has nurtured persons into accepting the church’s beliefs has taken the relationship between nurture and conversion seriously, and both have finally ignored the nature of conversion.

Neither the pietist who has no commitment to the struggle for justice and righteousness in the world of institutional life nor the social activist who has no personal commitment to Christ is converted to mature Christian faith. True conversion -- authentic Christian life -- is personal and social life lived on behalf of God’s reign in the political, social, economic world. One cannot be nurtured into such life -- not in this world. Every culture strives to socialize persons to live in harmony with life as it is. The culture calls upon its religious institutions to bless the status quo and upon religion’s educational institutions to nurture persons into acceptance of it.

But God calls his/her people to be signs of Shalom, the vanguard of God’s kingdom, a community of cultural change. To reach the conviction that such countercultural life is our Christian vocation and to be enabled to live such a corporate existence, in but not of the world, necessitates conversion as well as nurture.

Once again we need to understand that both conversion and nurture have a place in church education, if such education is to be Christian. Our sole concern for nurture has contributed to our losing both an evangelical power and a social dynamic. While rejecting a sterile revivalism, we constructed a false evangelism through nurture. Church education for conversion means helping persons to see that they are called not only to believe the church’s affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, but to commit their lives to him and to live as apostles and disciples in the world. And considering that task brings us face to face with some basic theological issues.

A Theology for Today

Once again, those responsible for church education are confronted with a crucial decision: what theological orientation will inform their labors? Church education is a dependent discipline -- dependent upon theological underpinnings which both judge and inspire its work. On occasion we have forgotten that fact and, at our peril, relied upon insights from philosophy, the social sciences or general education. What theological system will inspire church education during the next decade is a central issue to be resolved.

The religious education movement, a mainline Protestant church endeavor, was the offspring of liberal theology. George Albert Coe’s Social Theory of Religious Education best translated the liberal understanding to the area of church education. When neo-orthodoxy emerged, it consumed the educational enterprise. My predecessor at Duke, H. Shelton Smith, asserted (in Faith and Nurture) the important unity of education and theology and sought to build a bridge between liberalism’s concern with the social order and neo-orthodoxy’s concern for the tradition. But there was no acceptable theology to hold these two together; hence they have remained essentially estranged up to the present.

Today proponents of a variety of theological positions are vying for attention. Conservative, liberal, new reformation, liberation, hermeneutical, process and eschatological theologies all speak to part of the tradition. From my perspective, "liberation theology" is the most promising because it makes possible a synthesis. It provides a base for new coalitions between Roman Catholics and Protestants (witness the ecumenical character of its adherents), liberals and conservatives (witness the continuing concerns of the World Council of Churches and the evangelicals’ Chicago Declaration), "majorities" and "minorities" (witness the numerous theological works written from black, feminist, Latin American and Anglo perspectives), and therefore can become an acceptable, sound theological foundation for church education.

In any case, a workable theology to undergird church education today should have certain characteristics. It should both affirm a concern for experience and the religious affection and be founded upon a historicist perspective. Further, it should unite the Christian tradition with a radical concern for social justice.

To restrict religion to the immediate relations between an individual and God or to an individual’s relationship with another individual -- that is, to a religion of personal salvation -- is heresy. To neglect the world and institutional life is to deny the sovereignty of God over the whole of life, and to practice an idolatry which confines God to our individual existence and limits the Christian life to individual behavior, thereby leaving the world to the principalities and powers.

A common motif for a relevant theology needs to be centered upon action and reflection arising out of a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and the desire both to understand and to act with God in the light of a corrupt and changing world. Needed is a foundation for uniting a radical understanding of God’s action in history with radical individual and corporate discipleship in the world -- namely, reflection which results from depth experience, the spiritual life, the interiorization of faith through meditation, prayer and corporate worship.

Holistic Education

An adequate theology for church education today will not only raise questions about schooling and instruction but will push us to ask what we uniquely have to bring to and receive from each other as followers of the crucified God. It will affirm the centrality of the will, which unites thought and passion in action. It will further elevate conversion to a position of new importance and affirm the possibility of our being grasped and radically turned around so that we might commit our lives to new goals for individual and social life.

A theology for our day must call our lives into question by reminding us that God’s message of mercy is also a message of judgment. It must question our understanding of mission and ask that we not only help our neighbor but also equip ourselves to change the social, economic and political structures that make help necessary. Such a theology will ask that we be more concerned for the transformation of persons and society than for the growth of church membership or the numbers of those who say they believe in Jesus. Thus it will place faith commitment above both institutional religion and pietism. As such, it will require of us new understandings of religious community and new holistic forms of Christian education.

A myopic concern for nurture, understood as schooling and instruction undergirded by increasingly vague pluralistic theologies, will not be adequate for framing the future of church education. A new paradigm encompassing the radical nature of Christian community, with conversion and nurture as its purpose and with an experiential, historicist, liberation theology undergirding it, can provide us with a framework for our educational mission and ministry in the next decade.

I offer these first thoughts in the hope that others will join the dialogue. The issues and their solution belong to all of us, and the stakes are high. A first word has been spoken, and the last should not be hurried.