I just re-read this old one delivered some 7 plus years ago at a Methodist Teachers Convention in Grenada, South Caribbean. It reminded me of something important. Hope it does the same for you.
Here goes…It used to be that all children and youth of primary and secondary school age were exposed to what is called Religious Education in school. It’s different today so that relatively few schools, mostly those run by churches, continue with religious Education.
There have been many suggestions as to the reasons for this change.
The most usual one is that educational authorities have given in to pressure from various sources that prefer a secular system of education.
It has also been pointed out that significantly fewer persons are involved in church life these days, and that declining church membership is reflected here.
We note too, that where compulsory assembly and religious instruction are still the norm, the schools are not working as recruitment agencies for churches. By this I mean that these schools are not attracting students towards church, not that religious education should be in the business of “selling church.” It’s just that one can’t miss the observation that church schools do not have the effect of “growing the church.”
In fact the opposite might be true. Church schools are sought out by parents and guardians, but the children and the youth who go there, like many of the parents who go to pains to secure their spaces in these schools, do not, for the most part, become regular church goers.
It would seem too, that even where religious education continues, after a student has been through primary school or has even completed secondary education that knowledge of the Bible and Christian beliefs leaves much to be desired.
And this is not a new thing; it’s at least 25 years since I heard this joke which was probably already an old one- ILLUSTRATION Who threw down the walls of Jericho?
One thing is true. It is not easy to determine the results of religious education in an empirical manner. Where moral maturity is developed, onlookers are probably more likely to give to credit church and home and forget the religious and moral instruction that takes place at school.
They are more likely to point out that teachers are lacking in the training and knowledge required for the delivery of religious education.
It is easier for them to point to the number of young offenders who graduate from schools than it is to identify the well-rounded and accomplished graduates in whose formation religious education in school did play a significant part.
Notwithstanding all this, I believe that a significant contributor to the decline in the general acceptance of the place of Religious Education has to do with the disappointment that it has not seemed to result in better morals.
This is the real challenge facing religious education be it in a Christian setting such as ours, or otherwise.
When we consider that Christian Religious Education, while having bases in the bible, is not the same thing as Bible Study; neither is it expected to take the place of preaching such as goes on in church, there is an associated lack of clarity as to what really is the purpose and what precisely are the tasks of Christian Religious Education.
Thomas Groome, renowned philosopher of Christian Education, asks the question, ‘When we intervene in people’s lives to educate them religiously in Christian faith, what are we doing?’
He proposes that religious education in general, and Christian Religious Education in particular, has three characteristics that make it what it is.
In the first place, he notes that education that is intentionally religious has a transcendent dimension to it. By this he means that it encourages people of all ages to interpret their lives, to relate to others, and to engage the world about them in such ways as reflect what they truly believe, their faith, that is.
In a nutshell, for people guided by Christian principles then, religious education should help children, youth and adults embrace and live out values that reflect our acceptance that there s a personal God who loves all humankind.
Secondly, by nurturing this awareness that persons have of the transcendent God, by feeding this dimension, religious education pays attention to and shapes their whole self, their whole way of being. Groome describes it as an ontological affair since it helps persons to become what they learn.
Thirdly, he sees it as a political activity.
Groome insists that education of any sort is more than straightforward passing on of information, didactic instruction. Political here means that religious education influences how the learner lives in relation to other people. That really is the root meaning of politics. Politics is, in the truest sense of the word, that which enables the shared life of citizens in any society.
Of course, for religious education, it is the power of persuasion rather than that of coercion which ought to come into play.
When we look at Groome’s three point outline of what Christian Religious Education is and what it does, it nearly presents a dilemma; for the truth is that while not the same as Bible Study or preaching, it is expected to lead in the same direction. It is activity loaded with value.
I dare say that religious education is expected to do a better job than many of our preachers and Bible Study leaders are doing; for while some may attempt to get through these without engaging the whole person, every good teacher knows that you don’t teach religious education or any other subject.
You teach children. You teach a child. You teach young people. It is the person who is centre-stage in teaching and learning. It is growing persons whom we encounter as we learn and teach.
So, the teaching of religious education seems as daunting as ever; for unlike other subjects where performance is marked solely by way of certification, it will still be that the fruit of religious education are not easily quantifiable; and teachers may well continue to ask, ‘are we getting this right?’
Yet this business of religious education is activity that we need schools to engage in now more than ever, for where church involvement has declined, children and young people are more present in school. The number of years spent in formal education has grown.
So what tips do I have to offer to make the practice of religious more effective?
It is certainly not that teachers need to teach more of the Bible, something which we hear a lot of these days. Note well, I’m not suggesting that we lessen the influence of biblical teaching on what we present to children and young people.
No, maybe I’m rather emphasising what the Bible says: Train up a child the way he or she should go.
Now I hear somebody whispering back- that has to do with home training.
I say it has to do with all training; but let us re-look training.
The word translated ‘training’ incidentally, does not suggest imposition. It is more about being guided by the potential inherent in the child, something like training a plant in your garden.
The wise gardener isn’t going to attempt training a water plant to grow in the crevices of a rock garden which is exposed to drought conditions; but marvellous beauty results when a creeper is guided to throw its supporting tendrils around a trellis built to show off that plant’s beauty.
So what I’m saying is that our efforts as religious educators must be grounded in biblical principles, yes, but if it turns out that students cannot recite the Bible by rote, we need not feel discouraged,
I’ll tell what could be a source of discouragement for me a preacher. It is hearing people finish every verse they think you start. You might be heading somewhere else but you make the mistake of starting off with a familiar text, they finish it off for you; they know it well, very well. But it stays in the head and doesn’t make its way into the heart.
Groome’s second criterion for Christian religious Education is never met.
It would seem to me that the content of teaching, how much Bible is included, is not really the problem. The cure has to do more with how we teach than what we teach.
Just as teachers pay careful attention to the contributions of developmental and educational psychology in the teaching of other subject, so too careful attention must be paid to the child’s the young person’s readiness for religion and particular religious concepts.
It is the values that our church schools hold that continue to make them attractive even for persons who don’t actively participate in the rest of the church’s life.
After all, religious education is part of what is distinctive about what church schools have to offer. Why do parents choose to send their children to church schools? Many will tell you that they want their children and young people to gain the exposure in an environment that is disciplined. Even when some point to academic performance based on examination results, they may refer to an underlying standard of discipline that facilitates this achievement.
In short, parents want some of the indoctrination that goes on in schools which emphasise religious education.
Indoctrination? Doesn’t that sound like a bad word? – while this word tends to be reserved for the transmission of teachings that we judge to be dangerous, there is a place for indoctrination in the true sense of the word. As parents, god-parents and in the wider church family we make impressive vows that we will nurture children in the faith, and train them in the doctrines, privileges and duties of the Christian religion.
This is a promise to do all that we reasonable can to ensure that they learn to accept Christian values. As part of keeping our vows, we try surround children during their most vulnerable years with an environment that supports the development of Christian character.
For many parents who otherwise default on their vows, sending their child to a school which offers religious education is one way of taking up the slack.
We want our children to develop healthy lives, healthy physically, emotionally, mentally (psychological health) healthy in a spiritual sense health of body, of mind, and of spirit. In this regard, choices have to be made.
It is either we prepare ourselves to make informed choices about how we will educate in the faith, or by default, choices will be made for us.
This is why, as the jail cells full up, as crime and violence increase, we dare not give up and say, ‘it’s not working.’
It’s now more than ever that we need to persist as far as religious education is concerned.
Persist, I say; but I don’t mean that we must assume blame when the children and young persons we have influence upon, decide to lead lives other than we influence them to.
Teachers, like parents, have great responsibility for the upbringing of children, and for this reason, where a youngster seems to devalue their leadership and guidance, persons often feel guilty and many assume that they have failed. It is important that even where we feel that the child or young person is actually depriving himself/ herself of life enriching experiences that the teacher maintains respect for that younger person.
The natural feelings of disappointment that issue must not be allowed to lessen our respect for his/ her decision since it is also our responsibility to help children to exercise their free will.
We need to continue with religious education, applying all we learn from the related disciplines. Our students today need that kind of support.
We know that already, a lot of unconscious learning happens in homes which are not equipped to offer the kind of guidance that many children and young people crave for. It is not only in the poorer domestic situations that lack presents a problem.
Many homes provide too much without still giving enough of what youngsters need.
No matter where a child grows up, she is intentionally or otherwise, nurtured within a system of values and beliefs. The emphases of that particular environment have much to do with the acquisition of values. Given the materialistic outlook in most of today’s societies where the emphasis is on acquiring wealth, unless the home, church and school work in tandem to highlight other values, a child can easily be led into adopting the wealth driven values that abound.
This is not to say that we must not also teach young people to identify, to value and to access opportunities for the creation of wealth, for training in stewardship must also have a place in Religious Education. But what we can and should do is to curtail the undue materialistic influences that h could lead to unhealthy competitive attitudes.
All that we earn from educational psychology about potential and motivation, identification and self- image, and integration of learning experiences comes into play.
I’ll mention motivation, just one so that we don’t spend the scheduled break in here.
Motivation, for example, is just as important in religious education as it is in general education. It applies to not just the development of physical abilities such as athletics, not just intellectual abilities but there is mental and spiritual potential to be encouraged. The young one can be helped to respond in love, to learn to appreciate what is beautiful, to learn to value truth, and so on.
We also know that an important source of motivation is to desire to achieve. This is what keeps the pianist practicing over and over again; it is what takes the athlete to the track when his or her peers are simply relaxing. Anything we want to achieve, if it is achievable, becomes a source of motivation.
Motivation is important in securing the child or young person’s interest in learning values of Christian faith. It is important that at school worship/ devotions be rewarding. Language and music play a critical part. If the child or young person sees participation in school worship as a success, he or she is more likely to continue sharing in devotions and may in turn approach religious education with a ne and more eager outlook.
Let’s face it. There are many adults who are not antagonistic, and who might even be thankful for it, but who will simply not participate in its worship or other events because they see no point in so doing. For them, such practice of Christian faith seems irrelevant. They know that it’s valuable and for this reason they send their children to schools that teach religious education; but maybe they have not been motivated to share; and maybe this goes back a few years.
One way to stem this tide from drifting further is to be intentional about the teaching of religion as something meaningful and relevant for our world.
And finally, we must know that to provide religious instruction and Christian nurture for younger lives, we must first be prepared to continue our own pilgrimage in Christian faith. Having responsibility for the training and guidance of children and youth is indeed, an awesome task but it is one that gives rise to many situations that facilitate our reflection on our lives and gives opportunities for our own growth in Christian faith and practice.
In closing, let me attack the oft repeated excuse “I can’t be bothered about people’s children.” I know where it comes from- the many disappointments we have experienced after trying our best, being misunderstood by some of the very parents who dared to ask us to even be god-parents. That in itself meant us taking vows to see to the religious education of their children. We’ve seen far too many children and young people go astray and that kind of “failure” rate is disheartening.
But the comment has no validity when we consider that as teacher/ school you have both the responsibility and the authority to take necessary actions to secure the well-being of the child.
I say you have to keep on teaching the child. Focus not so much on the content of the Bible and religious instruction but focus on the child, the young person. Teach the child, God’s child.
Once Jesus said, let all the children come to me
If you would heed his call like Jesus you must be,
Let al the children come to you-
The least, the last, vast numbers, few
Our Saviour bids you love them too,
Each child is God’s child, yours and mine.,
You are a gift of love divine.
From the hymn Whose Child Is This by ST Kinbrough Jr.