On Learning and Teaching the Faith

Tammie Grimm

“Now, do it again. This time, choose a cheerful color.” Her voice was gentle but firm. Mrs. Reeves had particular standards to be met. I clearly had not met hers. Still, even as my five-year-old self obediently hunted through the communal box of crayons for a brighter color, another part of me rankled with indignation and embarrassment. Not only had my choice of color been invalidated, but starting over again meant I would finish the task after the rest of the class and be late for the next activity. If what I learned in my kindergarten Sunday School class was all I needed to know about the teaching ministry of the church, I would never be writing this essay today.

Today, the memory persists, but not because of Mrs. Reeves nor any lingering, associated childhood trauma. I now know just how faithful she was to the schooling-instructional practices and philosophy prevalent on the landscape of twentieth-century Protestant Christian religious education. One reason the memory persists is that I think it is emblematic of the continuing struggle of practical theologians to articulate who we are and how we name our investment in the transmission and nurture of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and their communities. Choose any one of the terms often used to describe this ministry: discipleship, Christian education, spiritual formation, catechesis, small groups, Bible study, faith formation. Regardless of the word chosen, the picture is incomplete. Each only offers a glimpse of what it means to help folks grow in faith and how to pass it from one generation to the next.

A Google search for images of the terms used by faith communities illustrates the struggle. “Discipleship” populates professional stock photos of green seedlings sprouting in rich, fertile soil, or several people gathered together in congenial community. “Christian education” produces a collection of items, Bibles, crosses, apples, books, etc.—all drawn in bright primary colors appropriate for elementary-aged school children. “Catechesis” yields either artwork of Jesus with the disciples (icons, tapestries, frescos, and mid-twentieth-century artwork included) or unscripted photos of kids intently engaged in activity with nearby adult supervision. You get the picture. Even a composite of all these images doesn’t truly depict the multivalent ways in which we learn about growing in Christian faith.

A difficulty is that much of what must be learned about participating in the Christian life is not content explicitly taught through formal catechism (or curriculum). A great deal of what we learn is transmitted and reinforced through everyday, ordinary encounters that are not necessarily associated with schooling. Educators refer to this as the implicit curriculum. Implicit curriculum might be intentional, but it is learned as a result of observation, reinforcement, and participation with others in the life of a faithful community. A familiar, oft-repeated refrain among those who are committed to the teaching ministry of the church is that what is learned about faith is not overtly taught as much as it is caught. Through demonstrative ways explicit and implicit—and even in those ways we do not demonstrate (the null curriculum)—we learn from one another in the presence of the Holy Spirit what it means to be a faithful Christian disciple.

In her classic text Fashion Me a People (Westminster John Knox, 1989), religious educator and prolific author Maria Harris asserts there are five ministries of the church that have classically and, throughout the centuries, consistently formed folks into people who belong to the family of God. She names them as koinonia, the ministry of community; leiturgia, the ministry of prayer and worship; Didache, the ministry of teaching; kerygma, the ministry of proclamation and preaching; and diakonia, the ministry of service. As one well versed with the advances and developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to make education a discipline and profession of its own, Harris’s choice to lead with Greek terms is significant. In using New Testament terminology, she signals that teaching the Christian faith requires knowledge and understanding that is both ancient and new. Learning what it means to be Christian is not only about acquiring information, but participating in the multivalent ministries, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the transformation of lives. That education and formation in faith can’t be reduced to just one ministry but is a shared responsibility across five areas should remind us all of the complexity of the teaching task.

I’ve no idea what Mrs. Reeves would think to know that the little girl once admonished for incorrect color choice would one day earn a terminal degree in theological studies. Doubtless, it would make her smile. Her investment in children didn’t end at the door of her classroom. Like so many other tireless saints, she prayed after her charges through each week and over the years. She sought to steward the faith that gave her hope, entrusting that we would in turn, find it of value and seek to share it with others.

Posted May 10, 2021

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