Forming Faith Blog

Christian Education Is Not Faith Formation

A male, preschool Christian education teacher with students.

This post marks the third in a series I’m doing on What Is Faith Formation? Previously, I described what I mean by faith formation, and then last week I argued that our corporate worship services are the biggest, and therefore most important, faith formation events a congregation does. Today, I’m discussing the relationship between faith formation and Christian education. [Spoiler: I’m going to argue that Christian education is NOT faith formation, and then I will get to how the two are connected.]

Not Christian Education

The term “faith formation” is common these days in church circles, and I clearly love the phrase. What I disagree with is that, in many congregations, the term is used as an updated version of “Christian education” (which is itself updated from “Sunday school”). This, I believe, is a misuse of the term. Equating faith formation and Christian education is dangerous.

Faith Is Not Facts

It isn’t a unique perspective for me to say that faith is not about learning facts, even facts about God, Jesus, and the Bible. As I discussed in my first post in this series, faith is primarily a trusting relationship with God (the triune God in most Christian settings). This trusting relationship is based on love, God’s love for us, and it is transformative, for us personally, as a community, and the world we encounter. We cannot learn our way into faith.

Actions, Experiences, Relationships

The definition for faith formation I use is: Every action, experience, or relationship that nurtures a transformative relationship of trust with the triune God and shapes the way we see and interact with God’s world. You will notice that education is not specifically named here, a funny thing considering I run a company that produces Christian ed resources. What really forms faith are the things we do, the things we experience, and the relationships we have.

What Is the Use, Then?

It may seem that I’m down on Christian education, and I’m not. Not at all. In fact, I like to think of faith formation in terms of a plant. The plant here is our faith, and its growth is our faith’s formation. However, our faith-plant is more like snow peas than lettuce. Our faith doesn’t just grow, but it travels and climbs. To flourish, our faith-plant needs a trellis, a structure to climb upon and through. This trellis is Christian education, teaching the content and process of our theology (what we believe and how we get there). Christian education is NOT faith formation, but we can’t have effective faith formation without high-quality Christian education.

Who, What, and How

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we cannot have a good relationship with God if we don’t know anything about God or what God has done for us. Specifically, education should teach us the story of God and humanity, who God has revealed God’s self to be (in Scripture in general and specifically in the person of Jesus), what God has done for us, and how God views us and builds a relationship with us.

Classroom & Small Groups

To this end, we need teachers and small group leaders! Someone needs to impart this knowledge to us and our younger generations. We need to support and train these leaders so that they are themselves educated. And, they need to know that they are not responsible for creating faith in their participants, but instead, they are there to help participants understand the foundations upon which our trusting and love-filled relationship with God is based. Finally, it is quite helpful for teachers to have high-quality tools (resources, curricula) to guide their teaching (like our products 😉).

A good teacher (and effective resources) guides their participants to practice those actions (spiritual disciplines) which are important to faith, to experience the wonder and love of God, and to form trusting relationships between students, teachers, and others. Actions, experiences, relationships. Faith formation happens in the classroom, but it is not specifically in the facts or skills learned. Education is essential to faith formation, but they are not the same. Teachers are indeed critical faith formation leaders but not just because they are teaching, but in all that they do.

Why It’s Dangerous

Again, there is a close and essential relationship between Christian education and faith formation. However, when they become synonymous, we risk diminishing the life-spanning scope of faith formation. If faith formation is limited to education, then it becomes only one of the many things we do in our congregations. The mission of the church becomes scattered and therefore diluted.

You might argue that I’m overreacting. And, you would be correct. I am exaggerating a bit for effect, to drive home my point. Forming a transformative faith in our triune God is the inside aspect of God’s mission for the Church, essentially forming and training us to spread God’s kingdom in the world (the outside aspect). We need to focus our efforts on this single mission if we are going to fulfill our part in it.

God’s blessings on your faith-forming work!

Gregory Rawn, Publisher

If you would like to learn more about Spirit & Truth Publishing’s thoughts on faith formation, you can read our  Faith Formation FAQ and the blog post on The 7 Facets of Faith Formation.

High-quality tools make faith formation easier! Check out our resources for all ages on the Narrative Lectionary, as well as elementary-age worship education, cross+generational confirmation, and even special orders.