Talking with professors from various seminaries, as I tend to do, I’m struck by the shrinking resources devoted to the discipline of Christian Education. Fewer CE classes are offered as time goes on. Now, many of these institutions no longer have a degree major (or even a minor) in Christian Education.

I realize that the nomenclature has changed. Seminary catalogues are more likely to call this discipline “Spiritual Formation,” “Discipleship Ministries,” etc., but I believe this signifies more than just a change of name. It indicates a sea change in our understanding of the ministry and mission of the church. We’re sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific around a stormy cape, where many a ship has foundered on the rocks, and I fear that the old Ship of Zion may be perilously damaged in this transit.

On the “Atlantic” side of this sea change, we understood that Christ called the church to be primarily a school of godly living. On the “Pacific” side, we see it as a support group, a therapy group, or a focus group where individuals can share the serendipities of their Christian experience.

This has made the 21st century church a more friendly, welcoming place for seekers and believers alike.  We all need such a place.

However, this change also means that the 21st century church is a more dangerous place, because everyone’s views (no matter how eccentric) are affirmed without their being trained in how to use the tools of biblical faith and church tradition to test the validity of these views.

I imagine enrolling in medical school and discovering that all of my classes — even introductory courses on the 101 level — are seminars. In this innovative school, I have no textbooks, no curriculum, and no essential body of knowledge to master. I simply gather each week with the most experienced surgeons, the interns, the rookies, and the curious public, so that everyone can share their own opinion about how a ruptured appendix should be treated.

Now I love serendipity, experimentation, and speculation as much as the next person. I hope I will always be open to learning whatever God may reveal about my relationship with him through these channels of discovery. But in order to draw reliable conclusions from those discoveries, I need to know how to think. I need to know how to evaluate what I experience and observe in others.

These cognitive and evaluative standards are what an education provides. They’re what an effective Christian education can provide with respect to my spiritual journey.

This isn’t a plea for a return to traditional educational methods in the church (Sunday School, the catechism, etc.), but for a return to biblical outcomes. To use the words of Scripture, the church should be the place where “you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). 

Christian education trains us in this fruitful way of life. To the extent that the church neglects the work of Christian education, it neglects its primary mission on this earth.