Faith Forward: The Future of Christian Education

Faith Forward: The Future of Christian Education April 21, 2014

Part 1:  Just what is emerging?

There’s a lot of talk about “emergent church” these days. But just what is emerging? Phyllis Tickle, popular author and founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, says we are entering the age of the Spirit, and I agree. But where is the Spirit leading us? Brian McLaren, a leading voice in the emergent church movement, calls it “A New Kind of Christianity.” But what is this new Christianity all about? Having any chance of living the “new Christianity” requires at the very least a tentative definition. Truthfully, tentative is the best we can ever do, because what we think we know will change as we attempt to live it.

The need for some tentative understanding of what is emerging is especially pressing in the field of Christian education. As Christianity changes, it only makes sense that Christian education would change as well. But before new curricula and teaching methods can be created, we need to understand what it is we are trying to share in our classrooms. In other words, we need to be able to explain something of what this “new kind of Christianity” is, how it differs from what has come before, and why that difference is relevant to today. Christian educator Dave Csinos observes that as content shifts, no doubt the form will shift as well, testing the limits of the big box, one size fits all, denominational model for church school curricula that dominates the market today. (You can watch my entire conversation with Dave about current trends in Christian education here.)

To explore the new possibilities emerging in Christian Education, Dave Csinos and Brian McLaren launched the Faith Forward Conference in 2012 (originally called Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity), the second of which will be held May 19-22, 2014, in Nashville, TN. Their goal is to bring “together children’s and youth ministry leaders for collaboration, resourcing, and inspiration toward innovative theology and practice.” Here’s how Dave and Brian see the problem facing Christian education today:

Something is happening in the church. A new kind of Christianity is taking root and growing across the globe. New forms of ministry, worship, and community are emerging. Questions are being asked. And change is happening.

But amidst these changes and shifts, children and youth are being left behind. Innovative approaches to ministry with adults are emerging around the world, but little critical reflection and attention has been given to how to nurture young people within a new kind of Christianity.

What struck me at the first Faith Forward conference in 2012 was how much difficulty Christian educators were having in articulating the tenets of new Christianity. We knew things were changing, that the Spirit was blowing through our communities almost at a gale force, but we lacked a language to name the shape of the new call and so were, needless to say, at a loss as to how to teach it. It’s exactly that difficulty that Dave and Brian hope to address at this gathering. I encourage you to watch this video in which they discuss their hopes for the upcoming conference. At one point Brian says that we need a better theology and Dave says we need to tell better stories – I agree! I believe that the Spirit moving through Christianity today is prompting a re-interpretation, in other words, a new story to be told about two central components of Christianity: why it took the cross to save us (atonement theology) and Biblical interpretation.

To put it simply, I believe the Spirit is moving us to question whether God is responsible for or approves of the violence at the Cross, in Scriptures and in our world. Because from the expulsion of Adam and Eve through to the Cross and on to Judgment Day, we in the West since the time of Anselm have woven a story of salvation history that has God all tangled up with violence. Sorting divine violence out from Jesus’ teaching that God is love, in whom there is no darkness at all, has eluded most of our theologies, and our politics as well.

The good news (pun intended!) is that there are good answers to these questions, ones that make sense of the violence at the Cross and in the Bible without blaming God for it. The answers are being worked out by a cadre of theologians using the insights of mimetic theory, which is a theory of human violence, to bring new understanding to orthodox Christian teachings. In the coming weeks, I’ll present the ABC’s of this old-yet-new theology ahead of the Faith Forward conference on May 20-22. If you’d like to get a jump start, you can listen to this podcast at Homebrewed Christianity of Brian McLaren and James Alison, two of those theologians working with mimetic theory today. It was recorded at the 2013 conference of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), an annual gathering of academic researchers using mimetic theory in their disciplines. Here are two excerpts from the video:

Brian McLaren: “… the work of mimetic theory, and the work of people like you all in this room, I think is profoundly important because there are not many ways out of the violence in the Bible. I’m not aware of any ways out of it that solves any of the problems that mimetic theory does.”

James Alison: “If, in the objective model, Jesus did something like an offstage, backroom deal with the Father of some sort in order to pay for our sins and then left us with morals, then we really are stuck… I think it’s probably better to be atheist than it is to be stuck with those gods. The real question is, ‘How might it be possible to imagine Jesus going up to his death as being quite simply an act of generosity from God who knows no violence toward us at all? What is the shape of that self-giving toward us in our violence?’”

I hope you will follow along with this series and engage on the Raven Foundation Facebook page with others like yourself who are working through these questions not only for the sake of their own faith, but in order to be better able to pass on the faith to the next generation.


Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation , where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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