This essay was originally written for the Teaching the Faith class at Concordia Seminary in February 2019, with several major and minor revisions.
What is Christian Education?
Jean Piaget once said, “The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things.” This saying works well with secular education, which has its own purpose and role in society, but what about Christian education? We have Sunday school programmes, Bible colleges, and seminaries dedicated to Christian education, but what is the purpose of Christian education? What is our aim? What is our goal (telos)? Before we answer these questions, our first task is to formulate a definition of Christian education.
Definitions on Christian education tend to be too narrow. In order to formulate the best definition that works well with a biblical perspective, it is best to have a broad definition. In her book, Basics of Christian Education, Karen Tye helps provide a broad definition I believe works well with what its true aims and goals are.
There are four factours to Christian education. First, Christian education teaches God’s story—Old Testament, New Testament, as well as God’s present and active work today in the Church until we enter God’s kingdom at Christ’s glorious return. Second, Christian education teaches Christians how to live as the people of God in the world—as pilgrims in this world whilst being citizens of God’s kingdom. Third, Christian education helps Christians learn to see how they fit into God’s story for their own personal development. Lastly, Christian education is a system that teaches congregants how to actively live out God’s story in their daily vocations whilst living in a community of faith.
The Aim of Christian Education
Now that we have a broad definition of Christian education, we can begin to answer the question: Why do we educate? That is, what is the purpose—what is the aim and goal—of Christian education? Generally speaking, as I will be arguing, the aim is to teach congregants to actively live out God’s story in their daily vocations so that they might live in a community of faith. The specifics of this aim and goal will vary from congregation to congregation just as the mission and vision statement of a church will vary from congregation to congregation. Because of this variation, I will be speaking in general terms.
The aim of Christian education ought to teach congregants how to live as Christians in the world—that is, how to apply the Christian faith in their various, daily vocations. This requires both continuity and change in the church. The church must have a continuity of vision and values to teach its congregants in order to pass it down the generations.
This is where the church’s mission and vision statements become useful. If these are clearly defined and remain concrete rather than abstract, this will facilitate the Christian education process among all congregants regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and economic status. In other words, the congregants must know both the vision and values of the church they are attending. If this is uncertain among members and remains unaddressed, then Christian education will fail.
In addition to retaining continuity, the church also needs to possess the ability to foster change. Change is inevitable. The danger of being resistant to change is that the congregation becomes fossilised—it becomes irrelevant both to the people in the pews as well as the people outside the church doors. Change provides an opportunity for growth and maturity.
As conservative Lutherans, we are often resistant to change, often to our own demise as we dwindle into fossilised irrelevance. Yet we have experienced a lot of change in our church body. If things never changed in our church body, then we would still be doing the Divine Service in German rather than English, and we would see numbers drastically drop because hardly anyone in our church body even knows German! Not to mention the lack of other-ethnic outreach. Indeed, Lutheranism would probably be unique to Germany alone if change were inherently bad or dangerous.
Yet for some reason, our natural inclination as Lutherans is to indefatigably resist anything that remotely “threatens” traditional Lutheran mores. This is because our Lutheran body both misunderstands and misapplies change.
Change does not mean “out with the old, in with the new.” Properly guided, change means the assimilation of the old into the new. Old does not mean bad (neither does new). For example, abstinence before marriage—a unique Christian value—is today considered as archaic and outdated. Today’s culture frowns upon it. If you are abstinent, our culture says, then you must be a prude Puritan.
As we educate our congregants on sexual purity, the question is how to assimilate this “old” value into the new culture. That is, how do we teach our congregants to value and live biblical abstinence as they engage the culture outside these church doors? Especially considering that we face different challenges than the church faced 500 years ago in Saxon Germany. The issue is not making abstinence relevant; it is already relevant. The issue is teaching our congregants how to live in a such a way that their lives teach the relevance of abstinence to people in our culture who have been indoctrinated into thinking that premarital sex and promiscuity are the norm.
Another aspect of healthy change is bringing in some new things, which requires properly scrutinising the positive aspects of culture and deciding what can be used in the congregation, such as worship style. This is a hotly debated topic in Lutheran circles, and it is getting ridiculous. The question is: Should we use contemporary music or should we not?
On the one hand, some say we should be adamant in changing our traditional German liturgy, using only the red hymnal during the Divine Service. On the other hand, others say we should absolutely utilise contemporary worship, often without discerning the theology of the praise songs being used. Personally, I take a middle ground approach, which both sides of the debate will despise me for. But at least read what I have to say and give it five minutes before you immediately disregard it. Here is my personal belief: The Divine Service can still be traditional and liturgical when following the order of service whilst using contemporary music, which can appear in one of two ways.
First, the Divine Service can be contemporary yet traditionally liturgical by utilising contemporary instruments with the red hymnal. Essentially, it is a congregant’s responsibility—preferably one who is musically trained, experienced in music education, and theologically savvy—to arrange variations of the hymns in the red hymnal to be played on contemporary instruments, such as a woodwind quartet, or simply a guitarist who also leads the congregation in song. In fact, many anti-COWO (anti-contemporary worship) individuals I know are fine with this idea. It is contemporary, yet it remains traditional and liturgical.
(Side note: Some will say this is not traditional since contemporary music takes that away from it. However, “tradition” simply means customs that are passed down from generation to generation. Contemporary customs are merely new traditions, and can therefore still be traditional when properly guided with theological discernment.)
Second, the Divine Service can be contemporary yet traditionally liturgical by utilising contemporary songs with theological discernment. Those who are wholly against contemporary music have a concern with contemporary music’s capacity to teach mysticism, which is a right concern to have. I’m right there with them! However, if the pastor and/or music director utilises theological discernment in their selection of contemporary songs, these can still be used during the Divine Service in a traditionally liturgical format.
I would also highly advise against improvisation during contemporary music—which is done often—because it becomes confusing and distracting for congregants who are singing along. Additionally, if the music leader wants to sing a chorus a certain number of times, it would be extremely helpful to have that indicated in the bulletin/projector screen, otherwise it becomes confusing, distracting, and, quite frankly, annoying. Two or three times is sufficient for meditational purposes (which the early church often did with the Psalms, usually more than three times, so arguments against “annoying repetition” have no ground on a historical basis).
Many who are extremely anti-COWO argue to get rid of COWO music entirely, which is highly impractical. You cannot get rid of it. It is going to affect your church one way or another, whether you like it or not. You might as well be proactive about it by utilising theological discernment and incorporating the theologically sound songs into the Divine Service rather than being reactive and treating it like the plague. These types of people fall under Niebuhr’s “Christ against culture” category. They won’t like being slammed into this category (nobody does), but there’s not much they like anyway, so I’ll face the consequences of offending them.
Regardless of what a congregation decides to change, it needs to be approached carefully. A congregation should never change for the purpose of totally assimilating into the culture (yes, even with contemporary music), which is what churches like the ELCA have done to commune and ordain unrepentant LGBTQ+ members, as well as ordaining women. Again, the Church must never change for the sake of becoming relevant to culture because the Church is already relevant.
God’s Word is timeless truth. It is never God’s Word or doctrine that ought to change, but what we might call adiaphoric practices (i.e. manmade traditions), such as worship style, certain festivals, etc. Change in this regard, when properly guided, promotes growth and maturity in the faith. When a congregation is stingy and change is indefatigably resisted, however, the church becomes fossilised and fades away into the obscurity of history.
Who Teaches Our Children?
Who is allowed to teach, however? Who teaches our children how to live as Christians in the world? Ben Freudenberg identifies an apparent paradigm shift in our culture. The old paradigm in Christian education was “a church-centered, home-supported faith-development model,” which “dictated that the home do all it could to provide support and resources for the church to teach the faith” (Freudenberg, 98).
According to Freudenberg, the new paradigm in Christian education is now home-centered, which “dictates that the church do all it can to provide support and training for parents in the development of their kids’ faith in their homes” (Ibid.). This book was written in 1998—when I was 8-years-old—and from my experience during these formative years of my life in Christian education, I do not think this is a true paradigm (then again, I’m only speaking from my own experience). My entire experience with Christian education has been in church, not the home. Even today, at least to my observation, Christian education is done largely in the church. This is especially true in the Lutheran Church.
Whilst I do not think it is true that culture has shifted to this apparently new paradigm, I do believe proper Christian education belongs in this paradigm—that Christian education, first and foremost, begins in the home. This was Martin Luther’s intention with the Small Catechism, after all.
To be sure, Luther exhorted all pastors to teach all members of the congregation the Small Catechism and that pastors and families should encourage their children to attend a formal education (SC, Handbook, 7-20), but Luther also viewed the Small Catechism being the prime responsibility of the husband, who is the head of the household.
At the beginning of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism—which is the beginning of the catechism’s teaching—he writes, “In a simple way in which the head of a house is to present them to the household.” The current Lutheran tradition is to leave catechesis to the sole responsibility of the pastor and sometimes a handful of teachers, usually leaving the parents entirely out of the picture, or the parents believe it is the pastor’s job to catechise their children rather than the other way around.
However, true catechesis begins in the home. Parents, if you do not catechise your children about Jesus, then somebody else will, and that somebody else will be someone in the world who does not know Jesus. If anything, catechism class in the congregation is to be supplemental to Christian education already occurring in the home, not the primary source of a child’s Christian education.
Even Luther saw this as a necessity. His original intention was for Christian education for children to be solely in the home, but by the mid-1520s, “Luther realized that many parents were unskilled, unwilling, or unable to take the time to carry out their calling of teaching their children. He then turned to others who could provide instruction, especially pastors, teachers, and secular authorities who could lead the way in establishing schools” (Sengele, 192). In these cases, Christian education for the child taking primarily in the Church is perfectly permissible due to parental incompetence and/or unwillingness.
Freudenberg would agree with Luther, who uses the Shema to argue the same point as Luther (Deuteronomy 6:4-9):
“Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the road, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
As Freudenberg argues, the Church is the generation station, “filling [the homes] with God’s energy and love and equipping them to nurture faith in young people through resources, training, and programs” (100). In other words, it is the Church’s role to provide the homes of its congregants with the resources, training, and tools to educate their children in the home and in their daily lives together as a family taking part in the greater family community of faith. If the parents are not equipped to do so, it is the role of the pastor and the Church to equip the parents.
The Student’s Role
Put simply, the student’s role should be no less than the position of respect. Luther had a broad view of the Fourth Commandment, “Honour thy father and mother.” Luther viewed the Fourth Commandment as indicative of all authority coming from God. As Luther says, God “distinguishes father and mother above all other persons on earth, and places them next to Himself” (LC, Ten Commandments, 105). Children, he argued, are to “revere their parents as God’s representatives” (108).
Luther further argued that since God establishes parental authority, this means God establishes all other kinds of authority, which deserve the same honour and respect. This authority includes that which is exercised by the government, law enforcement, teachers, and others. Therefore, the student’s role as learner is to respect and honour the teacher. Since catechism begins in the home, the children learn to respect and honour their parents as their father and mother, which they learn to bring into more formal (and informal) contexts with other teachers, whether this be in their congregation or a secular school.
To summarise, the aim of Christian education teaches congregants how to live as Christians in the world—that is, how to apply the Christian faith in their various, daily vocations, which requires both continuity and openness to change with proper discernment granted by the Holy Spirit.
Christian education begins in the home, which the Church serves to supplement with its additional educational practices, such as catechism class, Sunday school, etc. In cases where parents are unskilled or unwilling to catechise their children, the Church serves as the primary source of Christian education, whilst also equipping unskilled yet willing parents with the skills and resources necessary to educate their children. The catechesis of our children in the home is commanded in Scripture.
Lastly, the student, regardless of age and educational setting, operates in a condition of honour and respect for the teacher, as commanded in the Fourth Commandment.
Freudenberg, Ben. The Family-Friendly Church. Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 1998.
Luther, Martin. “Letters I.” Page 282 in vol. 48 of Luther’s Works, American Edition. 55 vols. Edited by Gottfried G. Krodel and Helmut T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963.
Sengele, Mark S. Confirmation Basics. Quotes from essay by Marvin Bergman. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.
Tye, Karen. Basics of Christian Education. Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2000.