Christian Education as Spiritual Formation

The measure of excellent teaching is that students learn. No matter how deep the preparation, brilliant the presentation or clever the exams, if students do not learn, then the teaching has been ineffective. Only when students have mastered the objectives of the course taught can we say that the instructor is a good teacher.

Hence, at the heart of teaching is this relationship between the teacher and the student. This relationship is, at its best, a reciprocal relationship in which the teacher continues to be a student. Yet, that is not the end. There is the still the relationship of the teacher and the student to that which is to be known.

In theology, for example, this is supremely important, as the “topic” to be known is God and God, conversely, is the one who knows everything about the teacher and the student and any area that might be the focus of teaching. Thus, teaching is a very complex and serious matter as it has the power to shape not only the lives of the teacher and the students but also create future possibilities for both.

Given the consequences of this process we call teaching, I see Christian education, regardless of the topic, to be an exercise in spiritual formation. As such, Christian education seeks to facilitate “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” [M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 15.] This could easily be the goal of excellent Christian education, period.

However, what does it means to be shaped or conformed to the image of Christ? I would center this in Jesus’ own teaching as what was most important. When asked, Jesus said that we should love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind and that, in close relation, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Together, these capture what Mulholland summarizes in the phrase, “the image of Christ for the sake of the world.” To become like Jesus is to love God fully and to extend our lives to those around us, to those in the world.

Good teachers invite students to give God their hearts, soul, minds and strengths. Western education has myopically chosen the mind as the preeminent quality for what it means to be human; we are, after all, homo sapiens. However, the biblical tradition would caution us on making the mind the sole criteria of what makes us human.

Still, we should not neglect the mind in seeking to balance the score; there is no room for anti-intellectualism in our journey toward becoming more like God. Mark Noll correctly asserts that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of one. In contrast, good Christian education gives adequate attention to the life of the mind. What (and how) we think does matter!

God also calls us to love him with our hearts, which in the biblical tradition could include both intellect and emotion. To love God with our hearts includes a deeper commitment to God than just cavalier acceptance that there has to be a God. It involves a commitment on the part of the teacher and the student and moves us in the direction of loyalty and devotion.

Likewise, to love God with our souls suggest that there is a component of humans that is unseen or the inner person, as the apostle Paul calls it. This inner person is the location of the most serious work of God’s Spirit. It is here that Christian education finds its deepest target. To change a person from the inside out is the very work of God. When this God-change has occurred, the movement of a life reaches, to use her strength or might to help others find the way of inner transformation that will express itself in the love of neighbor.

Christian education, then, is a human activity that participates in God’s mission. Christian education ultimately invites students, and their teachers, to live God’s life in the here and now, for the good of neighbor and world. Consequently, teaching has only been effective if the student learns, in some small way, to live well and that for others.

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