I wrote Christian Nurture in the 21st Century back in 2003, in response to lots of social changes I saw that the Church had not adjusted to – working women who no longer had time to volunteer for church work, ever-increasing demands on children’s time, and parents who had never learned the basics of the Christian faith themselves.
In my book, I advocated for high quality, professional efforts in the ministry of Christian formation. I suggested that we pay teachers, train them, and take this ministry seriously if the Church intends to survive. I also strongly advocated that the Church focus on the basics and use modern teaching methods and knowledge to provide quality adult formation, meeting adults where they were in their lives with timely, relevant resources.
What’s Happened in Children’s Christian Formation
At the time the book was written, I headed up a formation ministry that served 185 children between the ages of 3-12, almost all of whom attended regularly. Within a couple of years of writing the book, most of the conservative church members had left my parish, and this number dropped to one child at one point. That number has gradually crept back up, but it will almost certainly never be the robust program it once was. The aging population of Episcopal parishes has taken its toll as well. With the average age of parishioners going up and up, the number of children attending parishes will, of course, decrease. I think efforts to restore the old Sunday School model of formation are pretty much in vain.
On the brighter side, Episcopal schools and camps seem to have picked up steam. In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen the local Episcopal school grow from a tiny start-up into a large elementary school, along with a middle school and pre-school – all with daily chapel services and a weekly religion class led by a seminary-trained chaplain. Clearly, there is a demand for quality educational programs led by paid professionals.
Episcopal camps also seem to be popular and well attended. I think their success addresses several social trend I discussed in my book – the lack of time during the week, increased homework, weekends filled with extracurricular activities, but too much free time during the summer. Parish VBS programs also seem to retain their popularity, likely for the same reasons. I’m glad to see these summer programs flourish.
As far as resources go, we’ve seen some new initiatives to provide high quality curriculum resources to Episcopal parishes for little or no cost. I’ll give a lot of credit to Episcopal Relief & Development for providing the Abundant Life Garden Project and Act Out resources digitally and for free. I think the success of these programs and others like them showed that if quality, flexible content is provided, teachers and formation leaders will enthusiastically use them.
I’d love to see more new initiatives to provide resources to address issues people actually face on a daily basis. It’s now possible to provide resources quickly and at very little production cost. (You can now publish an e-book or a paperback book for free. Believe me, I’ve done it.) I’m aghast that development of resources by the mainstream Episcopal publishers continues at glacial speed.
Adult Christian Formation is Now DIY
One of the reasons I went into Christian formation was the huge transformative change the church’s adult programs had made in my own life. The vehicles of this transformation were small group Bible studies I attended in my late twenties and early thirties. I had an opportunity to ask questions, share my story and my journey with others, and get wise advice and guidance from others.
But sadly, these groups at the end of the 1990’s were apparently the tail end of the small group adult Bible study movement in the Episcopal Church. By the time I graduated from VTS in 2003, these groups had ended. With the exception of an Alpha group here and there for newbies, there were no study groups for adults. Did I offer to start or lead one (or several) myself? Oh yes. My offers have yet to be accepted. The few adult study groups that exist are attended almost exclusively by seniors and retirees
So here in 2017, I really wish I had friends my own age in the Church (locally, not just on Facebook), but I don’t. I truly wish I had some sort of support group or study group I could attend. But there isn’t one. No, I’m not going to hang out with women my mother’s age to attend the only programs that meet during the few times my schedule is free. And I’m no longer willing to give up my family time in the evenings, either. That leaves Sunday mornings, but I look at the few groups meeting on Sunday morning, and they look like either self-serving info-sessions (e.g. “stewardship”/ how to give more money to the Church) or topics that simply don’t interest me.
Yet my own formation continues. All of us continue to change and grow through the years. These days, my formation has taken on a much more quiet, meditative character. I take walks in nature with my dog, do yoga, write in my journal, or knit as my daily spiritual time. I’ve found myself using these old-fashioned things called “books” to help guide me through my continuing spiritual journey. They cost very little and arrive on my doorstep with a couple of clicks on my laptop. Formation has become do-it-yourself for me – and likely for many people.
In this time of vast change, I look forward to what happens to the Church in the future. In the meantime, I’m mostly content with DIY formation. It is what it is. What happens next will certainly be shaped by social changes which started decades ago – changes the Church simply hasn’t adjusted to yet.
Christian Nurture in the 21st Century is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at this link. The book is also available through many online book sellers and distributors, including Amazon’s worldwide affiliates. This book is included in Kindle Unlimited.
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