Edie, Fred P., and Mark A Lamport. Nurturing Faith: A Practical Theology for Educating Christians. Eerdmans, 2021. ISBN 978080287556-3. 512 pp.
A recurring question occurs anytime an introductory textbook appears within the varying (but interdependent) fields of Christian Education, spiritual formation, discipleship, or educational ministry. How will the new text reflect the “tradition” while offering something “new”? In short, will the new textbook cover time-honored, or well-worn, ground (at least for the professor or pastor), and will the writing prove enticing enough to draw students to a new era of ministry? For a field long dominated by social science paradigms, Fred Edie and Mark Lamport’s effort appears as a fresh breath, anchored in its subtitle as a practical theology of educating Christians. The challenge may be whether the breath, or breadth, proves too extensive, and to some readers (and their teachers) too foreign from previous pathways, for the authors to maintain their argument.
Edie and Lamport designed Nurturing Faith around an important introduction, five parts, eighteen chapters, and a series of thirty-eight intriguing sidebars, many drawn directly from Lamport’s effort with the three-volume Encyclopedia of Christian Education. The introduction provides the authors’ purpose: “to imagine faithful educational practice, and to reflect upon the ingredients and dynamics that make it so” (9). This prolegomenon reflects the authors’ passion for discipleship established in the grace of God, shaped by the transforming purposes of Jesus Christ, and reflected in a response of love and obedience that appears early and late in the text. The introduction includes key educational terminology, a dialog between theology and social science, as well as a discussion on the interplay between social context and the mission of God. The chapter also sets a specific relationship between a vital faith and the necessity of nurture as a cooperant process between the grace of God and responsive, human, participation. Following a personal introduction, the authors then explain the organization of the text that they hope to be broadly ecumenical and transcultural for a global church.
The five parts of the book delineate the primary strategy for the text. The authors begin with an assessment of contemporary challenges to the Christian faith, followed by a comprehensive practical theological response, expressed in and through both age-level ministry and diverse educational contexts, that culminate in a global vision of transformative teaching worthy of ecumenical dialog. However, the recurring element that undergirds the work begins in Part One with the projected decline of Christianity due to six specific challenges, shaped by postmodern external pressures and an internal tendency toward religious nominalism:
- disorienting amnesia or a lack of meaningful history,
- autonomous determinism or the priority of the individual over community,
- interpretive pluriformity that places experience over truth,
- cultural constructionism that relativizes values,
- fragmented faith reflected in mere words rather than practiced discipleship, and
- conceptual bricolage emerging from a deficient theological reflection of God’s story and God’s redemptive purposes for the world.
These six challenges form a baseline that calls for a robust theological response that serves as the central six chapters in Part Two of the book.
Part Two really begins with a concise overview in ch. 4 at the end of Part One (probably the best chapter to read first to capture the primary contribution of the text’s new work in Christian education). However, Part Two, with the collective work in chs. 5–10, provide a comprehensive, somewhat systematic, practical theological response that the authors contend represents the heart of the book. Each chapter offers a careful response to one of the previous challenges:
- offering commemorative events, framed in worship and centered in both Scripture’s revelation and transformative hope,
- accepting mutual disclosure, located in communal relationality and undergirded by our common humanity and trust,
- expressing generous humility, following divine guidance, established in Jesus and his cruciform grace,
- embracing kingdom values and cultural awareness anchored in the Christian church and our interdependent, yet missional, faith,
- engaging faithful gestures/practices so that faith becomes alive and expressed in virtue and love, and
- exercising probing theological reflection framed by Scripture and secured in both discerning community and principled freedom.
Parts Three and Four reflect more traditional concerns in Christian education, including the authors’ engagement with lifespan issues that emerge when educating and ministering to children of wonder, passionate youth, and vocationally minded adults. Part Four addresses curricular concerns, including designing contexts for intergenerational congregations, integrative Christian schools, and intentional theological education. These sections may feel more traditional to Christian education practitioners, yet the content challenges several cherished (and misguided) approaches to age-level ministry of the past while expanding the commitment of Christian education beyond traditional schooling paradigms alone (even in graduate education).
Part Six begins with a robust conversation on what constitutes good teaching and learning (including transformational teaching and curriculum design). The section closes with a fascinating roundtable discussion by an ecumenical group of diverse, well-known, practical theologians/Christian religious educators, addressing the original six responses outlined in chs. 5–10. This dialog helps the reader recapitulate the primary themes of the book through the dialog and access a final rejoinder by the authors.
Both Edie and Lamport bring extensive experience to the writing of the text and remain transparent in their personal journeys early in the work. Edie serves as associate professor of Christian Education at Duke Divinity School. Known in the field of youth ministry, his contribution reflects the long tradition of Duke’s theological response to the practice of education first established by H. Shelton Smith’s Faith and Nurture (1941). Lamport serves as a professor at graduate theological schools in Colorado, Arizona, Virginia, Indiana, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Lamport may be best known (with George Thomas Kurian) as editor of the extensive Encyclopedia of Christian Education, as well as the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South, and the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Both authors represent a range of work in age-level ministry, practical theology, and Christian education as best represented in the field.
Nurturing Faith provides a sound exercise in practical theology as the authors judiciously use social science when appropriate, from a philosophical analysis of postmodern culture to social science survey research by the Pew Research Center on the future of world religions to 2050, and a strong smattering of various educational theories (Parts 4–5). The book also includes what game theorists might call “easter eggs” of tantalizing information for seasoned educators, including introducing James Smart’s 1954 classic The Teaching Ministry of the Church, whose critiques appear all-too-contemporary, to Lamport’s overview of powerful formative practices in other faith traditions, which might surprise evangelically minded students, and a shoutout to John Dewey’s educational theory. In addition, sidebars cover a large array of theological and educational themes by leaders within the field.
Still, the heart of the book rests with the authors’ deliberative theological engagement. The authors seem somewhat flexible about the title Nurturing Faith, recognizing the current diversity of approaches to Christian education, formation, catechesis, discipleship, etc. Still, the writers appear resolute in defining faith as a theological category and naming faith as a robust, active, response to the grace of God that remains “embodied and embedded deep into our marrow” (11). At times the authors expand their vision of faith as witness, such as their challenge to contemporary readers that the Christian life requires “resilient trust, childlike innocence and audacious faith” (123), elevating faith to a comprehensive life with Christ. The six practical theological responses also read much like a primer in theology, addressing key categories of revelation, theological anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, sacramental practice, and prophetic engagement. The same chapters also raise up theological tenets that describe our experience in, and response to, God’s work: hope, trust, faith, grace, love, and even a Christian vision of freedom. Undoubtedly, the authors situate Christian nurture within a deep reservoir of Christian knowledge and reflection. While fairly uniform in voice, one can discern Edie’s passion for worship and Lamport’s incisive educational reasoning in the intersections of different themes within the writing.
Ultimately, as a designed textbook, the challenge of using the writing may reside in its sheer volume. The book version of the work includes 430 pages in text (and another set of gloss statements in the endnotes that take up an additional 58 pages). The formatting remains somewhat dense in nature, often with variable font types, though helped by seventeen tables that, unfortunately, do not always correlate neatly. So, navigating the reading may take considerable time for readers new to the field of Christian education and many students may find an electronic version more readable. The book may prove challenging for undergraduate students (recognizing that more evangelically minded colleges often require an educational ministry course early in a student’s academic journey). The authors appear to concede the challenge and respond by creating a “road map” throughout the text to assist the reader in charting the direction of a section and often connecting previous and future writing to a given chapter. While the road map, and heavy mnemonic rhyming of terminology, may seem redundant at the graduate level, the writing strategies provide an orientation throughout the book. Also, the discussion questions at the end of each chapter reflect an intentionality that requires true understanding of the reading yet extends the knowledge into reflective conversation. The final suggested “For Further Reading” selections may prove helpful for a while, but the books may seem dated as years progress.
Still, as Charles Foster writes in his introduction to the volume, the book goes beyond “describing a field to envisioning its future shape and responsibilities” (xxvii). Rarely does a textbook in Christian education offer the depth of practical theological vision in this work. While some elements may challenge more novice practitioners, said challenge proves warranted for an approach to educational ministry that remains more theology than pragmatic strategy. A reading worth attempting at the undergraduate level, professors could easily mandate the book for graduate engagement and recommend for grounded pastors who seek to answer the author’s final scriptural admonition “When the Son of God returns will he find faith? Without faith, it is impossible to please God. Increase our faith” (430).