This is the second part of a series of reflections inspired by Charles R. Foster’s book From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith (2012, Cascade Books).
I have long had an interest in how culture shapes and reshapes who we are as people and the ways we interact with others. Growing up in Papua New Guinea as a child of a “white” Australian missionary couple, I was exposed to two quite different cultures and shaped by both. And upon returning to Australia just before my tenth birthday I was exposed to another. There are many subtleties embedded in particular cultures that are hardly recognised by those who inhabit them, but which can be quite startling, confronting and disconcerting to those who enter them from outside. I can attest to the reality of “culture shock” through my own lived experience.
In a recent presentation I defined a culture as “the sum of the beliefs, values, attitudes and practices that constitute and reproduce a way of being for a particular community of people.” Much of what makes up a particular culture is informal, unwritten and perhaps even intuitive. Enculturation takes place not through structured lessons but through the “rub” of daily life – through interaction, observation, conversation and participation in a common and distinctive way of being that makes for a given culture. I did not make the somewhat vexed transition from being a “hybrid” PNG kid to an Aussie teenager by going to a weekly class. I “caught” what it was to be a 1980s Australian teenager (to the extent that it possible to generalise about a single national youth culture) by a process of immersion over time into that culture.
Over time, I have come to see many parallels between my own experience of crossing over between cultures and the challenge of faith formation. In my experience, the task of forming faith from generation to generation is best understood as a sacred and Spirit-infused “cultural enterprise”. While the Christian faith is built upon the Biblical witness and the teachings of the apostles, the making of Christians is not so much a matter of “indoctrination” as “enculturation”. As the people of God join together to hear the Word, celebrate the Word, enact the Word and live the Word, Christians are made. The “culture” of thought and practice which flows from the Gospel (with all of its nuances across different denominations, races and nations) is reproduced as faithful Christians live, share and give together under the cross. Through the daily intersections between everyday life and the distinctive way of the cross in Christian communities, faith is shaped and reshaped, seeded and strengthened.
Turning then to Charles Foster’s book, I was very interested in his description of congregations as “catechetical cultures”:
“Teachers, classrooms, and prepared curriculum resources typically associated with schooling contribute significantly to the formation of faith. They are not sufficient, however, to the contemporary task of forming faith. Something more is needed. That something more, I contend, exists in relational practices of the congregation that influence the agency of its formal educational efforts. These patterns of relationality constitute what I am calling the congregational’s catechetical culture in and through which faith is both formed and transformed.”
For Foster, a programmatic understanding of faith formation (which has historically involved a strong emphasis on a schooling or instructional approach to Christian education of youth and children) falls short. For faith to flourish, the content of faith must be cultivated, reinforced and expressed mutually in relationships between Christians of different ages and stages, journeying in faith together. I was reminded of following “Principles for Passing on Faith” championed by Vibrant Faith Ministries.
- “Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal trusted relationships – often in our own homes.”
- “Faith is caught more than it is taught.”
- “If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults.”
Embracing a “cultural” understanding of faith means accepting and appreciating a number of important implications for congregational life and practice. A first implication is that all aspects and elements of a congregation’s culture (including, by extension, that of its homes) contribute to (or detract from) the faith formation enterprise. No age grouping, activity or expression of congregational life is uninvolved with the inevitable “cultural transmission” which can and does take place across generations. Along these lines, Foster writes that “forming faith … requires an alliance of agencies devoted to cultivating the interdependence of developmental, practice and discovery learning. [see my previous post for discussion of these learning elements]… Educating for faith in the villages of our congregations requires the whole range of a religious tradition’s cultural resources, including its music, literature, architecture, rituals, commitments and practices to give it form and focus.”
A second implication I see is that congregational cultural health is vital! While congregational cultures can be healthy and vibrant, they can also be listless and in some cases toxic. Where the “lived” values and practices of a congregation are in sharp contrast to the way of Christ, ministry to children and young people is unlikely to be effective in cultivating disciples of Christ. Whole-congregational health – the totality of a congregation’s culture – matters in the faith formation enterprise.
A third implication I see is that pastors and those involved in leadership in child and youth ministry should understand themselves as cultural custodians and architects. Their role is not simply to communicate Biblical content but to nurture and shape a “way of being” (to use my words) in congregational and household life that reflects the heart and Spirit of Christ, and to ensure that children and young people are enculturated into this “way” through immersion into a “healthy” spiritual culture. Such a culture will include “teachings, relationships, ritual events, and moral guidance.” It will draw children and young people out of the confines of instructional settings into the relational web of congregational life, promoting what Foster calls the “interplay of a congregation’s formal educational structures and informal educational patterns.“