The Church has its own weird language. On the whole, I think that this is a good thing. Strange and particular words for things—pacina, sacristy, chasuble, sanctification, supralapsarian, theophany—serve a variety of purposes. One purpose is aesthetic. Words are cool, language is something to take delight in, and Church words ought to be beautiful and mysterious because Church itself ought to be beautiful and mysterious.
That being said, total bewilderment is not the goal. As we look forward to next Sunday and the start of what we often call “the program year” with the return of the adult choir and a new year of Sunday School, I want to crystalize the meaning of a few related words and phrases that I toss around a lot: Christian education, formation, and discipleship.
Everyone knows what education is, but a Christian vision of education is a bit different from what we normally think of as education. While facts and the rote acquisition of knowledge play a role, Christian education is more concerned with wisdom and the transformation of humans on every level—body, mind, and soul. Christian education requires not just learning, but experience. Here’s an example. In seminary, I learned a lot of facts about the geography of the Holy Land as it pertains to Biblical study. I read books, I passed tests, but I didn’t really know the geography of the Holy Land until I experienced it, until I stood in the places Jesus stood, until I broke bread where he broke bread, and kissed the ground where he died. Knowing something in a deep, experiential, and multifaceted way is transformational. We were created as human beings to know God in just such a way. Books and facts and tests about God are fine, but we are meant to experience God in a way that changes everything. That experiential knowledge is the vision of Christian education, that’s the purpose for it. That’s the ultimate measure of the success of our programing at Holy Apostles. And to be clear, you don’t have to go to Jerusalem to experience God; that can and does happen right here.
Related to this is the notion of Christian formation. This refers to the process and activity of being formed into a Christian. Here, we are talking about being formed on the heart level: our desires, our wills, our thoughts all being shaped in a Godward direction. This is both an active and passive process. There are particular practices that we participate in that actively form us in particular ways. At the same time, the activity of forming Christians is primarily something that the Holy Spirit does in us if we are open to being changed. Whether we realize it or not, everything we do and experience is part of our formation. Not all of our formation is in a Godward direction. We are actively being formed as members of this society—our desires shaped in particular ways toward ends that are not ultimately worthy of our destiny and calling as God’s children. So we have to be intentional about our formation as Christians and as people who know that they are beloved by God and act accordingly.
Finally, discipleship refers to the lifelong project of learning to be a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is a follower, one who emulates. Discipleship entails discipline. Just as it takes discipline to follow an exercise routine, so it takes discipline to learn to follow Jesus. It takes commitment. You can see how the formation of our desires and wills is an important part of discipline. It also takes the formation of a sacramental imagination for us to understand the purposes and goals of following Jesus are so much deeper than the simple work-to-receive-the-benefit calculus that so often motivates us. “Progress” in following Jesus is not as straightforward as watching the calories burn at the gym. What is at stake in following Jesus is of eternal worth and eternal beauty—communion with God. We can of course read about this, but to really know it, you’ve got to experience it.
Experience of the divine, formation of hearts and minds, and the discipline of following Jesus are not things that happen overnight, or through one program or activity. The purpose of our Christian education programs requires a multifaceted approach to education on a variety of levels—learning, fellowship, personal devotion, worship, and service. It is lifelong work, but it is the work that Jesus calls us to do (Matthew 28:19). Lest we lose heart or think it is all about humans striving, we need to remember again and again that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit doing the work of transformation in us and through us as we open ourselves to the unfathomable grace of God. In a world of ruthless advancement, meritocracy, and soul-eating disappointment, that’s some pretty astonishing news.