Fostering Faith – Part 5

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).

View other parts of this blog series:   Part One   Part Two   Part Three   Part Four


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.

Fostering Faith – Part 2

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).

View other parts of this blog series:   Part One   Part Three   Part Four   Part Five

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.