Will Our Children Have Faith?

October 21st, 2012
Creative Commons | National Assembly for Wales - Cynulliad Cymru

Originally written in 1976, revised in 2000 and translated in six languages, this classic critique of Christian education has been newly revised and expanded and includes Westerhoff’s overview and perspective on the state of Christian education over the past forty years – plus his role in that history.

According to Westerhoff, instead of guiding faith formation within the family, the church, and the school, we relegate religious education to Sunday morning classes. There, children learn the facts about religion, but how will they learn or experience faith? How can we nourish and nurture the faith of children, instead of only teaching the facts?

An Excerpt from the New Edition

Two important learnings for me occurred at Duke. The first was the discipline of practical or pastoral theology that asks the question, “How are we who are believers in Jesus Christ and members of his church to live?” needed to be reestablished. Once, this discipline had six dimensions: liturgies (including homiletics), ethics, spirituality, pastoral care, catechetics (education), and ecumenics (mission and ministry, including stewardship and evangelism). Then ethics and ecumenics were consumed by systematic theology, and spirituality was forgotten. Pastoral care was modeled after secular psychology, and education after secular education. Church administration was added, which turned stewardship into church finance and evangelism into church growth. More serious, they were each turned into a separate field of study. Worse, each of these separated fields was expected to provide only “how to” courses in the service of Scripture, church history, and systematic theology. I soon became convinced that these separated fields of study needed to be reunited as a theological and theoretical/practical discipline. I ended my work at Duke as Professor of Theology and Christian Nurture, and there was an “and” in the title of every course I taught.

My second learning at Duke was that catechesis, or christening, the means by which persons and communities are shaped or formed to be Christian, was multidimensional, but liturgy or ritual was the key that held the pieces together. It was that conclusion, nurtured by friendship with Roman Catholic and Orthodox church educators, that first attracted me to the Episcopal Church, a part of the Anglican Communion that believes that orthodoxy is right worship and that the rule of prayer is the rule of believing. But there was more. I was always torn between being a Roman Catholic and a Protestant, and the Anglican Communion, committed to being a bridge, embracing both of their understandings of the Christian faith and life, made a happy home. And so, soon after I went to Duke, I became a priest in the Episcopal Church. I did not leave the United Church of Christ for any negative reasons, but I needed to embrace the Roman Catholic in me. Also convinced that no one can teach what he or she is not practicing, I became a priest associate at the Chapel of the Cross, an Episcopal parish on the campus of the University of North Carolina. In my last years at Duke I lived in and participated in the life of a monastic community at St. John’s House, founded by the Anglican men’s religious order, The Society of St. John the Evangelist.

Then, after twenty happy, productive years at Duke, I discerned that God wanted me to return to the parish, my first love, so I left the school. My identity had never been as an academic scholar or professional Christian educator. I was a priest, a pastor, and teacher. After a year as interim rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Atlanta, Georgia, I joined the staff of St. Luke’s in Atlanta as a theologian-in-residence and the founding director of the Institute for Pastoral Studies, a cover for me to teach and write while being fully involved in the parish as a priest. Just before I moved to Atlanta I married Caroline Hughes, a lay Canon to the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta for Congregational Life and Ministry. We had written On the Threshold of God’s Future together. Caroline continues to stretch and inspire me. Her books Calling: A Song for the Baptized and Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality have influenced me greatly. The person I am today I owe to our life together. I will always be extremely grateful.

I hope it is now obvious that my thoughts, convictions, and commitments are a consequence of my history and how I responded to various relationships, experiences, and influences along the way. They have not significantly changed since I wrote Will Our Children Have Faith? but they have been refined and expanded. I remain convinced that the schooling, instructional-training paradigm is inadequate. A catechetical, community of faith/body of Christ paradigm is more faithful. Catechesis includes instruction and training; however, formation, a concept that has become popular but has not yet been clearly defined, is the essential element. In the Afterword I will explain this. Nevertheless, education remains the key to faithful intentional formation. In the notes following each chapter and in the Afterword I have tried to reveal some of the ways my mind has grown over the years and how I now understand the process by which persons and communities are enabled to be Christ-like.


The revised edition includes a Study Guide, by faith formation specialist Sharon Pearson

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