Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.

The phrase "Passing on the Faith" evokes different images. For some, passing the treasure of faith is like runners in a relay passing the baton to their successor; for others, it evokes a teacher standing before a group of learners and explaining Christian faith to them.

I started my working life as a schoolteacher, and the image of a teacher and a class has been dominant for my ministry. I was never happier than in front of a class of children or teaching ministry students.

But all the teaching activity in the world doesn't add up to "passing on the faith." In the contemporary church, teaching is not up to the exciting task of the church making our Lord known and loved by succeeding generations.

The National Church Life Survey of twenty-seven denominations found in Australia in 2001 that average congregations had between sixty and seventy people, and in the U.S., one-fifth of adults who attend worship services told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that they attend a "small congregation with a membership of less than 100."

This means that the vast majority of congregations are "small congregations." Fewer members mean fewer resources for teaching. In Australia, more so than in the United States, "younger generations are missing" from attendance at these small churches.

The limitations of overall numbers and the absence of children indicate the stark reality that passing the faith by teaching is failing. And yet, God is not about to desert God's church. The task of passing on the faith will continue. What this vital activity needs is a better image with the power to change the way congregations do things.

Internationally-respected scholar of social learning theory Etienne Wenger originated the term "community of practice." Wenger asserts that a community can be defined by the things that it does and by passing on its practice through a combination of talking about it and allowing new members of the community to gradually take up the practices under some form of mentorship.

Apprentice butchers learn their trade this way. They watch the journeymen butchers, get caught up in their talk about butchering, and, moving upward from passing the boss a knife to cutting up a carcass, they gradually gain in competence. In traditional villages, midwives select young girls to succeed them. The girls run messages for the midwife, watch her bring the village babies into the world, hear them talk with other midwives about their tasks, and slowly begin to take on more complex tasks until they are ready to deliver babies themselves. (See Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder, Cultivating Communities of Practice [Cambridge: Harvard Business Review, 2002].)

Communities of butchers and midwives have a shared way of doing their defining tasks, and they pass on their common practices by inviting new members to learn by doing and talking about what they are doing.

Christians accustomed to see faith primarily in terms of right belief may need to re-shape their theology of church. The church as a community of practice has a theological focus on vocation, that is, the call of Holy Spirit on our lives to love God and neighbor spotlighting what we do in the name of Christ. God calls us to pass on this active faith, so we talk about what we are called to do and invite new members—new adults or children of current members—to gradually take up small tasks of ministry.

Two things become vital:

  1. the quality of the congregation's conversation, and
  2. the understanding that discipleship is expressed in service to the poor, in loving the unloved.

Congregational leaders invite people into formal and informal conversations about living the faith, from sermons to coffee hour. They are intentional in mentoring new members. They put into words their enthusiasm for the tasks of ministry and invite these "new Christians" to undertake small acts of service, and gradually allow them to develop their own practice.

For example, the manager of the church's charity shop or food ministry first invites a new member to undertake a few hours' serving the needy, all the time talking about how it is an expression of faith. As the months pass, this new member may be called to give more time or shoulder more responsibility in the ministry. She will become an enmeshed part of the "community of practice," and be filled with the desire to pass on the faith in the way she received it.