Where faith might be caught

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on November 1, 2017

Fall brings a new term of Sunday School to my parish. We use a lectionary-based curriculum and have a good cadre of dedicated men and women to teach the 44 children enrolled. But we aren’t reaching all the kids in our neighborhood. About 200 adults and children came joyfully to our fun-fair in July. We will see many at our Halloween open house and some on Christmas Eve – but they don’t buy into Sunday School. We try hard with teacher-training, meetings and better curricula. But there is always the underlying question: will our children have faith?

John Westerhoff’s Will Our Children Have Faith, written in the 1970s and updated in 2012, continues to ask provocative questions, as well as providing some tentative answers. He has firm theological and educational credentials, and has served in a variety of denominational ministries.

We often forget that in our Church’s long history, Sunday School is a relatively new thing, growing out of a need to provide basic literacy. As public education developed, the Church co-opted the model and soon we, too, had teachers, curricula, age-graded classes, dedicated classroom materials and supplies – and ultimately, paid professionals. We have rarely questioned this model. It’s not always a winner for the small parish or even a larger one with only six children. It has produced a fair amount of nostalgia, depression, guilt and sometimes burnt-out volunteers.

Mr. Westerhoff’s book takes us back to the basics. Any form of education is influenced by history, society, culture and denomination. There is a difference between schooling – primarily concerned with learning-about and how-to – and education, which involves not just knowledge but also attitudes, values, behaviors and sensibilities.

The parish Sunday School competes with the family, regular school, other recreational and learning programs, self-learning through books and an endless flow of media – not to mention peers. The parish church is no longer the neighborhood community centre. Schools abandoned daily prayers a long time ago. New social structures include divorced, living-together and blended families, in addition to single parents and interfaith parents – all who likely work outside the home. There is much less interchange among generations. Housing and geographic location of families change frequently. If television once competed with Evensong, we now have competition from an almost infinite offering of technology and entertainment.

To respond to these changes, Mr. Westerhoff suggests moving from schooling to a faith community model. A congregation has a rich memory of its past, the role of authority, changing ways of life and recognition of diversity and multiple gifts. It can be a place to know people and be known, where three generations meet regularly – the older with memories of the past, the middle immersed in the present, the youngest already dreaming of the future. Any true community of faith looks outward and is interested in more than its own survival, asking what God is up to and how it might get involved.

Such a community is rooted in worship rituals; helping people of all ages make sense of them is the primary task of religious education. Rituals help us develop a sense of continuity; they also address life crises when they happen. We need to understand their role in our culture here and now. We aren’t here to escape our problems, but to create a world of shalom where head and heart unite. We learn by telling and hearing our common stories, making things and taking action.

Community life means we can eliminate labels like teacher and pupil and do things like taking hikes, making things, having parties and playing games. The faith journey is both sequential and serendipitous, starting with an experience of being nurtured and affiliating with our denomination. Then as adolescents, we need to explore, experiment and question. Later we integrate the learnings of heart and mind and come to own our faith. We are all on a common journey where faith is a gift that can’t be taught – but in a community of faith, it might be caught.

In times of public worship, we might think of our congregation as a family. Some other good times are hanging out, going places and learning together. Congregational life is really about life – births, deaths, celebrations, seasons, eating and drinking, growing up and growing old. Mr. Westerhoff’s book provides much food for thought.


Norah Bolton is a member of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.


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