Fostering Faith – Part 1

I have recently finished reading Charles R. Foster’s book From Generation to Generation: The Adaptive Challenge of Mainline Protestant Education in Forming Faith (2012, Cascade Books).  Foster is the Professor of Religion and Education emeritus at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University.  His book sets out to address the question of why the USA “mainline” Protestant denominations have been increasingly unable to retain children and young people as active participants over the past decades.  While the focus of the book is primarily upon the North American context (including historical discussion of the Christian education endeavours of various USA denominations), I found much of what he said generally applicable to my own church experiences in Australia.  In this and some future posts I want to share and discuss some of his thoughts and observations, and their implications for contemporary endeavours to form faith in children and young people. A central aspect of Foster’s book is a call for “education in forming faith” to be reconceived and understood in terms of three modes of learning:  “developmental learning”, “practice learning” and “discovery learning”.  Foster regards these three modes to be “necessarily interdependent in the mutuality of forming and transforming personal and community faith.”
  1. Developmental learning:  Such learning concerns the transmission of Bible stories and Christian teachings in ways that are developmentally appropriate for children and young people. As Foster explains, attention to developmental learning has “been a major theme in the the preparation of curriculum resources” for church use. Developmental learning is commonly associated with division of children and young people into various learning groups for Christian education, with age-appropriate learning goals and activities.
  2. Practice learning:  Practice learning is “directed to the competency of our participation in the community or communities with which we identify.”  The goal of practice learning is “effective and competent participation”.  Foster emphasises the importance of repetition in practice learning – competency and confidence come from practicing practices, over and over again together with others.  In the endeavour of Christian faith formation this can be applied to “reading the Bible, conversing about beliefs and doctrines, giving leadership to committees, offering prayers of intercession, caring for the sick, feeding the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, and strategizing ways to address some social, economic or political issue. … It takes practice to participate in any of them effectively.”
  3. Discovery learning:   Discovery learning invites, enables and promotes exploration and discovery around a line of inquiry, relevant to the situation and setting of the learner. Foster writes that discovery learning “is a critical source for the maintenance and renewal of congregational life, because it explicitly engages us in the “creative” appropriation of our faith traditions to address the disruption of our changing social and historical contexts.”  He posits that discovery learning is “the mode of learning that draws us most closely into the mystery of God.”
Surprisingly, I found the concept of “discovery learning” somewhat underdeveloped in the book.  The example of the “discovery learning” which Foster provides is within an age-specific learning setting, and is perhaps more reflective of inquiry-based learning in a developmental learning setting.  I wonder if a broader conception of “discovery learning” could be more helpful and fruitful.  Drawing upon Foster’s words about “creative” appropriation of our faith traditions, I wonder if efforts of Christian faith communities to practically “discover” and enact God’s will for them in their particular contexts in the creative power of the Holy Spirit could be understood as “discovery learning”.  From my own ministry context I recall the efforts of my congregation to faithfully respond to a major flood disaster in our city.  Over a period of time various initiatives were made to respond to the changing needs of our wider community, and children and young people were drawn into these activities alongside and with adults.  The annual participation of children, youth and adults of my congregation in a community Christmas pageant is another example of such “discovery learning”.  In coming together for a common outreach effort, we are discovering more of what it means to give authentic and unapologetic witness to our faith in largely secular context.  A more recent example arises from a “40 Days of Community” Lenten spiritual campaign in my congregation.  Various cross-generational small groups were invited to discover what it meant for them to be people of service and mission in the name of Christ.  Children, youth and adults came together to creatively imagine how they would be of help and service to others, and then worked to put their ideas into effect. My experience is that, to the extent that congregations take seriously the task and promise of child and youth faith formation, a great deal of focus and attention is devoted to “developmental learning”.  Less attention is given to “practice learning” – to helping children and youth develop the tools to “do” faith in daily life in community with other believers.  “Discovery learning” – in the broader sense of cross-age discernment and response to the call to discipleship in a changing world – is similarly underdeveloped in many congregational settings.  If, as Foster suggests, these three learning modes are “necessarily interdependent”, it follows that the impact of any particular one will be diminished by the absence of another.