This is the fourth 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).
In her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean explores the implications of the findings of the USA National Study of Youth & Religion for church life and practice. I highly recommend the book to all involved in ministry to children, youth and their families. One of the many findings of the NSYR was that a large percentage of American teenagers were unable to verbalise what they believed. Creasy Dean writes,
The vast majority of US teenagers … are incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives … When asked to describe what they believed, many youth defaulted and just said they had no religious beliefs, or they unknowingly described beliefs that their own churches deem heretical. … These patterns were consistent even in teenagers who regularly attend church.
The last sentence is particularly startling. For those of us involved in communicating Christian beliefs and teachings to children and young people, there is a sober reminder here. We cannot assume that simply because we say it, they will hear it, understand it as we intended, integrate it into their own worldview and apply it to their lives over time. Provision of information is one thing. Reception, retention, remembrance and integration are also important elements in the overall communication process.
“Why don’t they remember?” is one of the key questions that Charles Foster seeks to address in his book, From Generation to Generation. Foster reflects on his own experiences in teaching children and young people in Sunday School and youth group settings, and on the reported experiences of other skilled educators. Even where creative teaching methods are utilised, Foster contends that “the not-remembering of students is a persistent challenge.” He suggests that a key reason why children and youth do not retain what is communicated to them in age-specific “schooling” settings is that such teachings are disconnected in meaning, application, relevance and experience from the practices and life of the wider body of body of Christ (see my earlier post about the necessary inter-relatedness of content, context and conduct in faith formation). “Intergenerational relationships, the collective mentoring, and the repetitions of participating in practices of Christian fellowship” have been absent from the “ongoing experience of most children or youth.”
In seeking to explain the “not-remembering” of children and youth, Foster distinguishes between “cognitive memories” and “habit memories”. Memories established only at the cognitive level do not require “any information about the context”. Random Bible facts told to children and young people are an example. For them they are stand-alone memories, and are less likely to be recalled. “Habit memories”, on the other hand, are “social, historical, embodied and contextual.” They are “embedded in our habits” and “exist, for the most part, beneath the surface of our consciousness.” Because they have been translated into habit, they are often recalled and enacted with little forethought or apparent effort. They are essential to the doing of what we do as the body of Christ.
Habit memories … give shape and form to practices that distinguish the common life of families, congregations, and communities. They make up the patterns of greeting, singing, listening to the reading of scripture and sermon, and praying in worship. … As we develop expertise in the exercise of these acts or practices of congregational life we are rarely aware of the continuing physical, emotional, or cognitive effort required to sustain the mental, spiritual, and physical habits embodied in them. We just do them. They seem to occur spontaneously, but in actuality they have been engrained in our minds and muscles through often disciplined repetition. They seem simple, but in reality, their complexity is absorbed into levels of expertise encouraged and reinforced by the deliberate coaching of mentors and the informal affirmation of others. They feel natural, but in truth, they have been tested and refined over time as we have engaged them in different situations and under varied circumstances.
Habit memories, because they are formed, refined and renewed through practice over time, are much more “sticky” (my words) than cognitive memories. Foster suggests that Christian teaching of children and youth has a greater likelihood of being remembered if connected with or translated into habits of Christian life. Christian educators should seek to “develop habits of faith practice conducive to the appropriation of the congregation’s teaching” with which children and youth can identify. Beyond teaching lessons, delivering messages and leading Bible studies, Christian educators should strive to cultivate “habits to hold and carry memories from one educational moment into the next.”
Because the key habit memories associated with the life of Christian faith have a strong communal orientation and dimension, moving beyond the level of cognitive memory requires that the spiritual learning of children and young people flows into, emerges from and connects with the wider faith habits of the congregation. This serves to both increase the “stickiness” of cognitive memories and to develop in children and young people the habit memories that permit familiar and active participation in the wider life of God’s people. Foster writes,
We participate in a practice as we imitate the habits of others. We refine them as we assess the extent to which they are valued or appreciated by people who are important to us. We celebrate them in the excellence of our performance with others. We are guided to ever greater competency in the practice by mentors and coached and the affirmation of those around us.
Foster gives an example of what he calls “habit practice learning” from his own congregational involvement with an educational ministry with children. For teaching content, the program leaders chose a lectionary-based curriculum resource so that what took place in the class setting could be linked to worship as the“central and unifying practice of the faith of the congregation”. They then took intentional steps to link the classroom learning situation with the wider arena of church and home life.
- Work done in the classroom setting was posted up the hallways of the church so that adults of the congregation could see the artwork and read the stories produced by the children.
- In worship, the children were involved in reciting or dramatizing the texts they had been studying.
- The “hymn-of-the-month” used by the congregation was practiced in the classroom, so that the children could sing confidently in worship.
- In each classroom session the children worked at memorising a portion of one of the Biblical texts for the month as well as prayers and the Creed used each Sunday in worship.
- Copies of the material being memorised was provided to parents so that they could reinforce the learning efforts at home.
Foster reports that these initiatives to bring the classroom to the wider congregation and the wider congregation to the classroom made a discernible and positive difference to the life of the faith community.
Adults in the congregation who had no other connection to the children began seeking them out to talk to them, to affirm something they had done in the leadership of worship, or to comment on something they had created and posted on the hallway wall. They began to address children by their names. Most children no longer expressed resistance to participating in the worship services of the congregation. Since elements of the liturgy were now increasingly familiar to them they were actively participating in the parts they knew. They began to urge the pastor to repeat in worship hymns they now knew. … What was learned in class could be used in the congregation’s worship. It had become contextually relevant. It intensified the bonds of children and adults in a shared set of liturgical practices. We had engaged the children in a nascent stage of embodied learning. They were were participating in the faith practices of the congregation.
In this experience of learning the children were provided with much more than cognitive information about the Christian narrative. Through purposeful “habit practice learning” the children were formed more deeply as people of Christian practice, and their congregation was awakened to the blessings of their presence.
So, what might be some practical implications of Foster’s work for the practice of ministry with children and youth?
– Review your current age-specific programming with children and young people. Think about how the learning experiences currently provided can be tweaked to connect with the wider faith habits of the congregation.
– Review the worship and events of your congregation. Consider ways in which these can be better integrated with the learning of children and young people, and how the learnings of children and youth can find expression in the faith habits of the congregation.
What might this mean for you? I welcome your thoughts and ideas …