Nurturing Faith: A Practical Theology for Educating Christians
This book is an admirable attempt to chart a “road map” for the discipleship and educational mission of the global, twenty-first century church. The authors identify their work as a “practical” theology because it seeks to inform the church’s practice through “self-conscious examination” of current practices (9). By “faith” the authors mean “a knowledge-based, conviction-established, action-oriented trust.” Thus, faith is composed of a person’s cognition (head), affection (heart), and behaviors (hands) (11–12). An important theme of the work is that the Christian faith is not simply intellectual assent to facts, but the embodiment of that assent in the life of individual believers. Additionally, they emphasize the importance of context for nurturing faith. When (in time) and where (in geography) Christians find themselves influences the means by which their faith is best grown and learned.
The authors devote the first part of their work to defining the current cultural context in which the church finds itself. Data from the Pew Research Study on “The Future of World Religions”1 suggests that between 2010 and 2050 the overall number of Christians will increase, but over 100 million adherents will leave the Christian faith. Most of these will decide to leave faith entirely—they will not join another religion (29). Edie and Lamport are concerned by the sheer number of Christians who are “quitting” the faith and ask: “What is defective in the experience of some who taste Christianity but decide not to partake?” (30). Surveying educational practices from other religions, specifically Mormonism, Judaism, and Islam, the authors encourage Christian educational leaders to adopt more “embodied” educational methods. From the missional service for which Mormons are known, Christians can learn to better live their faith. Jews remind Christians of the power of ritual. Finally, from Islam, Christians can re-learn the educational power of “enacted” prayer, prayer that involves the entire body (45).
Closing out their first chapter on why Christian education has failed to retain adherents, Edie and Lamport outline “six fundamental obstacles to nurturing faith” (98). These “encroaching challenges” are described in more detail in the fourth chapter of the text. First, the “‘chain of memory’ has been broken. . . .” (98). By this phrase the authors mean the immediacy of the present and the denial of the importance of the past. To correct this loss of tradition and historical consciousness, Christians “must make conspicuous campaigns that rejoice in ‘remembering’ the heritage and truth given it” (99).2 The authors provide no specific examples of what this might look like. Generally, they encourage Christians to consider worship as a form of “meaningful commemoration,” especially through the use of a catechism. Additionally, they suggest the church should be more “missional” and create communities that may commemorate the heritage and truth given to Christians (141–146).
A “stubborn and rugged individualist mentality” is the second challenge facing Christian educational practices in the West (101). Active participation in a faith community is the most ideal corrective to this individualism. Third, Christian education is threatened by “interpretive pluriformity,” meaning the plurality of scriptural interpretations with no clear grasp of which interpretation is true. Greater interpretive skills and reliance on divine illumination and direction from the Holy Spirit will help correct Protestantism’s proclivity to multiple, even conflicting, scriptural interpretations.
Fourth, Christianity’s entrenchment with Western culture threatens its educational mission. The corrective, Edie and Lamport argue, is a counter-cultural community that lives “kingdom values” and that provides Christians with a “proper perception of the cosmos and clarity of vision and purpose” (110). Another common critique of modernity is the fragmented nature of life, which has hindered the church’s educational practices but which can be corrected through a renewal of faithfulness: “The primary task of being educated Christianly is not the achievement of better understanding, but faithfulness” (112). This faithfulness will move Christian practice “into the open,” so to speak. As Christians engage with larger societal issues, they “grasp passion in the cosmos and can become partners in the mission of God” (113; italics in the original). The language of cosmos is a little lofty and potentially off-putting. The lofty wording of this phrase captures their summary of how Christians can partner in God’s mission through Christian “practices” (see chapter 9 and discussion below).
Finally, agreeing with a host of evangelical scholars who lament the dearth of careful Christian thinking among evangelicals, the authors affirm that Christian education is threatened by a lack of intellectual engagement. They believe that “one’s ability to think, to analyze, to critique, and then adapt to contextual Christian practice is critical and ultimately a great deal more important than merely knowing faith facts and trivial minutiae, even of the Bible” (113).
The second and third chapters outline the cultural context that gave rise to these challenges. Chapter 2 is a critique of postmodernism that, the authors claim, has created chaos of meaning and value (68). At the same time, post-modernism raises some important correctives to modernism by recovering the importance of embodied or lived faith. They claim that nurturing faith must have new teaching priorities, and these priorities should be “less cognitive and more affective” (71). While this reviewer heartily agrees with the need for cognitive faith that is lived or acted out, Edie and Lamport may too strongly emphasize action over and against cognition and knowledge. The transformation of the mind appears to be the first component of spiritual and faith formation in scripture (see Romans 12:2, Colossians 3:10, and 2 Corinthians 10:5). At times, Nurturing Faith too heavily emphasizes embodiment/behavior/action without emphasizing the preceding mental transformation that is necessary for the action and behavior to be meaningful and persistent. In this regard, the book would have benefited from engagement with Jonathan Edwards and Dallas Willard who both, in their respective ways, highlight the importance of right thinking in service of right affections and right action.3
Part 2 (chapters 5–10) devotes an entire chapter to the six challenges introduced in chapter 1 and described in chapter 4. Over the course of these chapters, the authors display their incredible depth and breadth of research and knowledge as they admirably unpack how these challenges may be met and countered. In these chapters, there are a multitude of insightful and moving expositions of essential Christian doctrines and their effects on Christian education and faith formation. Described below are three insights that especially resonated with this reviewer.
To overcome our disorienting amnesia, they suggest that Christians recover an understanding of revelation. In a beautiful exposition on the nature of revelation, the authors write, “Through revelation, we discover God to be an agent, an actor, one who is working toward the culmination of God’s good intent and whose work we humans may join” (130). By its nature, revelation is built on relationship: “[I]nstead of ‘I EXIST,’ revelation intends relationship, ‘I AM WITH YOU!’” (130; italics in the original). God is never forgetful, but we are. Therefore, we must institute commemorative exercises to remember God’s revelation. According to the authors, Jesus is the essential and supreme revelation of God. Scripture is “a primary source of revelation” (though not the primary source). Other “mediating sources of revelation” include tradition, reason, and experience (133–138). Nature is not discussed as a type of revelation.
In chapter 8, the authors defend the church as essential to Christian faith. They envision the church as a community in contrast to the wider culture but “into which even those considered beyond the pale of membership would be welcomed” (192). Edie and Lamport recover a powerful vision of the church as a countercultural community of faithful witnesses: “Unlike interior faith, this faith is expressed in a politics of face-to-face relational inclusion marked by repeated reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, and a social witness whose peaceableness often places it in conflict with principalities and powers” (195). While there is certainly a need for the Western church to better understand itself as a “contrast-society” and a countercultural entity, the authors may have pushed their point too far in some places. They argue that the mission of the church “is less about saving souls and more about inviting neighbors to help us discover the beloved community Christ envisions” (200). However, this may be a false dichotomy. A church that is more faithful to Christ’s teaching will certainly have a powerful social witness that will attract some outsiders, but the church can also proclaim what has always been its message: “Repent and be saved!” The salvation of souls should be a primary and foundational work of the church. Only through salvation and surrender to Christ can there be a willingness to create a community that our neighbors will envy.
Nurturing Faith’s ninth chapter is a defense of Christian “practices,” which are “things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world in Christ Jesus” (206). No specific practices are described, however. L’Arche communities are adduced as “exemplary” communities of Christian practice (215–216). A discussion of how Christian educators can use the traditional spiritual disciplines in their efforts to educate Christians would have been of great benefit to readers. They claim that “God’s ‘kingdom’ or ‘realm’” is “the primary theme of Jesus’s teaching ministry” (209). Dallas Willard makes similar claims, but more powerfully helps readers understand how they can live into that Kingdom through disciplines like prayer, fasting, silence, solitude, simplicity, and study.4
In Nurturing Faith’s third part, the authors examine three life stages and how faith can be nurtured in those stages. In children, “atmosphere” is essential to growing faith. At an early age, Christianity is less taught to children than absorbed by them through experiences (249). During the adolescent years, many adults bemoan the passion of young people. The authors make an important point that passion is not the enemy, but it must be intentionally channeled (267). Finally, adults can be educated through vocation, which is more than employment, and involves Christian service to others and growth in humility. The authors recognize that their category of adulthood is broad, and the reader is left to think about how their observations may apply to adults in various life stages and circumstances.
Part IV, “Contexts for Nurturing Faith,” concerns where Christian education takes place and how it is best practiced in those contexts/locations. In congregations, Christians learn faith through immersion into an (ideally) intergenerational community. Christian schooling (chapter 15)—whether formal or homeschool settings—is envisioned by Edie and Lamport as a place where knowledge and action can be integrated for the learner. Chapter 16 examines “Theological Education,” and offers direction for faculty and administrators, primarily in higher education settings.
Nurturing Faith closes with an innovative conversation. Edie and Lamport, welcoming diverse dialogue, invited some responses to their work that are included in the closing chapter. These responses offer some correctives and differing opinions regarding the material presented throughout the text. This is a welcome addition to the book, and it fosters further thinking and reflection by the reader. However, a wider selection of responders would have been appreciated. Respondents do not appear to significantly disagree with the authors, and it could have been helpful to have more voices that may have respectfully offered some challenges to their conclusions. Additionally, given the first encroaching challenge of “disorienting amnesia,” this reviewer wonders whether a historical conversation would have been helpful. A collection of excerpts from past Christians on the topic of Christian education or discipleship would have enhanced the conversation and it would have contributed to a dialogue that would have transcended the past fifty years.
Edie and Lamport should be commended for their efforts. Any Christian leader—within the church or the academy—should read this work and take seriously their contentions and recommendations. Despite some of my misgivings regarding their emphases, I heartily agree with most of their diagnoses and a majority of their proposed solutions. In closing, I want to mention some key criticisms and highlight some helpful features of the book. First, scripture could—and should—have been used more frequently and emphasized with more importance. For example, in their discussion of “Nurturing Passionate Faith in Adolescents,” 1 Timothy 4:12 was never referenced in the chapter even though the verse seems to directly support the faith development of youth. Nurturing Faith helpfully synthesizes much recent research regarding education and spiritual formation, and this is given prominent place within the text. However, it is tempting to view some of their theology as simply dressing up the best of recent research in Christian language and imagery. Key scriptures seemed to be missing, and some portions of the text—especially the section dealing with learning from Mormons, Jews, and Muslims—did not marshal scripture to support the author’s contentions. Much of what they argued seemed valid to this reviewer. But scriptural support would have more powerfully driven home the importance of embodied prayer over and above the success Muslims have with this practice. Second, Nurturing Faith contained several innovative and helpful features. The book’s tables were excellent! The frequent sidebars provided variety and expanded the range of topics. Finally, since the book is designed as a textbook, it contains technical language that may be a challenge for some readers. Overall, Nurturing Faith is a multifaceted and important work that is sure to influence many who seek to train up Christians. Any criticisms found here should not discourage the serious reader from taking up the work and benefitting from much of its insight.
- Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” April 5, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/ religious-projections-2010-2050/#projected-growth-map.
- Though the authors don’t mention it, Passover and the Lord’s Supper were meant to be just such a “meaningful commemoration.”
- For Jonathan Edwards see George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003). For Dallas Willard, especially see his Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Carol Stream, IL: NavPress, 2002) and The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998).
- See Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne, 1999) and Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000).