Christian Education as Narrative Identity Formation
“Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity—
an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: ‘You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.’” – Henri Nouwen
What is the goal of Christian education? In order to answer this question one must first have a clear understanding of the nature of Christianity. Is Christianity a collection of rituals and moral practices? Is Christianity cognitive assent to communally agreed upon doctrines and biblical articulations? Is Christianity simply faith in Christ as our Savior from sin? With each answer the educator is exposing presuppositions that shape his or her philosophy and practice. Over the years my own answers have shifted. Early in my ministry, my attempts at catechesis looked a lot like Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy. The unspoken philosophy was that in order to be Christian there were specific things one needed to know, and the goal of education was to help the learner know these vital truths. While it is true the Christian faith involves a body of knowledge, the goal must be something more than mere transmission. Transmission is not enough because Christianity is different; Christianity is life. And the goal of Christian education is to help God’s children live that life faithfully before Him.
The daily life of the Christian is the background against which all Christian education takes place. While it can be tempting to view Christian education as training for the afterlife alone, there is much that God is calling us to do in our daily vocations that needs reinforcement and instruction. What does it look like to live faithfully before God in our daily life? What does it mean to live as ambassadors of God’s now/not-yet kingdom? How can we live our lives in a way that fulfills Christ’s calling to be salt and light? The answers to these questions become the focus of our Christian education efforts in our homes, congregations, and communities. For me, the answer to these questions has been the formation of Christian identity
Identity formation is the primary goal of Christian educators. Inculcating a biblical sense of self and a Christ-centered connection to God and the world is paramount. Without an identity grounded in the gracious waters of baptism, we are easily distracted and swayed by competing cultural narratives. A strong Christ-centered Christian identity is not only the foundation of Christian education; it is the well to which we must return throughout our lives.
The best approach I have found for inculcating this grace-based identity is narrative. The narrative that we tell shapes the learners’ perceptions of who they are and the kind of God they have. In many ways we are always working with a narrative, but the story that our narrative tells is often confusing and self-contradictory. As Christian educators, our narrative is one that must be firmly rooted in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and the assurance that we receive through His atoning work on the cross. We are the forgiven children of God who yet sin. While we must never minimize our sin and rebellion against God and His will, we must also never minimize the loving disposition of God toward his creation in Christ. Too often our narratives present a picture of the Christian that is bifurcated. Taking a page from the doctrine of Christ’s divinity we act as if the Christian is 100 percent sinner and 100 percent saint. We must resist the temptation to tell our narrative in such a way that it leaves the learners uncertain of their identity before God and the forgiveness that Christ has won for them. The universal grace of God in Jesus Christ needs to be the center of our narrative. The Gospel must predominate in the hearts and the lives of the learner. Learners who are uncertain of their grace-based identity will frequently be burdened with doubt regarding God’s attitude toward them and will be tempted to view the Christian life as an opportunity to merit God’s grace through works of various kinds. If the narrative is not clear, the learners will be formed in a way that is inconsistent with their identity and contrary to the biblical narrative of Christ’s gracious work.
In order to keep the narrative clear, one must have a clear understanding of the nature of Christianity. The nature of Christianity is grace—the grace of a loving God for His creation in Christ. Our sins are forgiven. Death and the devil are overcome. Life with Jesus in the new creation is assured. What is the goal of Christian education? The goal of Christian education is deceptively simple. It is to help God’s children embrace their identity in Christ and live daily life faithfully before Him.
Rev. Dr. Anthony A. Cook
Associate Professor of Practical Theology Director of Curriculum Development and Design, and Director of Continuing Education, Concordia Seminary
St. Louis, Missouri