This is the fifth 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).
Some of my teenage and young adult memories are of hiking in Australian National Parks with groups of friends. With people walking at different speeds we would become separated from one another on the walking tracks. A way of connecting with each other would be to yell out “Cooooeeee”. The sound of our voices would echo across the countryside, bouncing off nearby mountains and other terrain. Shortly afterwards a responding “Cooooeeee” could be heard, once again in a series of echos.
Charles Foster relates the passing on of faith from generation to generation to reverberations of an echo. The Gospel is proclaimed from one generation to the next with family and congregational practices of faith functioning as an “echo chamber” to repeat and reinforce what it means to know and follow Christ as Lord. These practices are like walls or mountain faces which repeatedly “bounce back” to children and young people the “sounds and shapes, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours” that are part of life in Christ. Foster highlights hospitality, celebration and conversation as being of particular significance for the “echoing” of faith. He writes that the “lively interdependence” of these three congregational practices establishes “important contextual conditions in the catechetical culture of congregations in forming the knowledge and conduct of faith of their members across the generations.”
- Through the practice of hospitality, children and young people are included into a congregation’s life and mission and blessed with relationships and encounters across generational boundaries.
- Through the practice of celebration, children and young people become part of the shared and common life of the congregation patterned around the life and mission of Christ. Foster proposes that a congregation’s “celebrative events” can serve as the essential “curricular structure” for the formation of faith across ages.
- Through the practice of conversation the “relationships that constitute our communities … are nurtured and sustained.”
Foster gives particular focus to discussing the practice of conversation in congregational life. Conversation, he writes, “involves more than the exchange of words. … Conversation draws us into the company of others. … It establishes patterns of reciprocity that draws us into the possibilities of intimacy.” Through conversational exchanges “we participate in the mutuality of influencing and being influenced, of shaping and being shaped, of forming and being formed.” Through the “relational interactivity of conversation we may become something other than what we once were.” Conversation is, of course, relational and largely informal. It is not the “bread and butter” of traditional, didactic approaches to Christian education. And yet Foster contends that a “congregation’s conversation is a basic feature in its curricular “infrastructure”.” It is the “interactive communication patterns in families, groups, and organizations that form and sustain its deepest values, perspectives, and practices. … We are who we are because we communicate.”
I find Foster’s emphasis on conversation to be very insightful and challenging. My experience is that in many faith communities the voices of the “professional few” – pastors and other ministry staff – still dominate the “airwaves”. Relatively few adults, let alone children and young people, are encouraged and enabled to converse around matters of faith, and to voice to and with one another the questions, doubts and learnings associated with their spiritual journeys. If Foster is correct – and I suspect he is – perhaps one of the most significant steps we can take to reinvigorate our congregations and promote the transmission of faith across generations is to get Christians of different ages talking to one another about matters of faith in their homes, small groups and gathered congregational settings. In my own congregation we have promoted the FAITH5 as a model for bringing faith conversation to life in our households, small groups and ministry gatherings. It has been a blessing to see congregational attenders of all ages growing together through conversing, listening and sharing. The locus of theology – “talk about God’ – has begun to shift from the pulpit and the classroom podium to the mealtable, the fellowship hall and the living room.
To “open up the airwaves” for faith conversation it is necessary for pastors and ministry staff to say less and trust the Holy Spirit to come alive in the hearts, minds and voices of our people. It is also important to shift the emphasis from “sage on the stage” approaches to Christian education towards contexts which invite and promote sharing of thoughts, questions and experiences. As Foster expresses, “there is little or no conversation when the words we speak are simply directed at another person or group.” Moreover, it is vital that we work proactively to ensure that the younger ones in our midst are given spaces and places at the heart of congregational life to speak and to be heard. They are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in whom God’s Spirit is as much present as in older folks! The practice of conversation calls for persons of all ages and generations to give voice and ear to one another, so that Christ the Word who indwells each of us may become the Word between us and beyond us, echoing from generation to generation.