When I was a youngster, my home church in Mobile called Jim Tucker as Director of Education and Promotion. Brother Tucker was a Christian educator. He directed all of our education programs including Sunday school and Training Union and was the lead person in outreach. (He also was the congregational music director since our choir director was a woman!) He was part of a long line of congregational educators that began sometime in the 19th century with paid Sunday school directors. The lineage was continued by those who served as Directors of Christian Education, Ministers of Education, and more recently Ministers of Christian Formation.
Although all of these individuals have had a personal ministry with believers, their primary purpose in the early years was to lead programs that would nurture Christians in the faith. In recent years, however, there has been something of a change in emphasis in their work from program to process. This means that the expectations for those in Christian education roles have changed and the preparation to serve in these roles has evolved in new directions.
Those who have the responsibility for leading in Christian formation are no longer simply administrators. They are expected to grow disciples—men and women, boys and girls—who will be effective Kingdom citizens. In order to do this, these leaders must have certain competencies.
First, they must understand the process of faith development. None of us is fully formed as a disciple. Each individual is involved on a life long process of becoming a person of faith. James Fowler, John Westerhoff, and others built on the human development work of secular scholars such as Erik Erikson in order to explain this process. A Christian educator understands that people are at different points in their faith journey and tries to meet them where they are.
Second, competent Christian educators also realize that people have different needs and teachable moments based on their stage in life. Starting grade school, getting a driver’s license, experiencing puberty, leaving home for work or study, getting married (and divorced) or remaining single, having children, growing older—all of these and more are significant milestones in the life of an individual. One’s faith can be either a stepping stone or a stumbling block in each situation.
Third, like all educators, those who guide this process in the church understand that people learn in different ways. Some are visual learners, others are more reflective, others tactile, and some are abstract thinkers. Content must be presented in varied ways so that all may learn in their own way.
Fourth, those who lead the church to disciple believers understand that there are varied approaches to spiritual formation—mind, heart, body, and spirit. Just as there are different learning styles, there are various ways to approach God. Some believers are very rational and logical in their faith. Others are contemplative. There are those who learn most through hands-on service, and those who find God in worship. No approach is better than another. All contribute to the richness of the Christian church and must be encouraged.
Finally, competent Christian educators will call out the best in others. They will help congregants to identify and own their personal strengths, gifts, and passions—the way that “God wired them”—then assist them to use their individual giftedness in ministry.
Christian education or formation is a specialized and necessary ministry in the life of the church. We must continue to call out, equip, and encourage those who can lead in the formation of Christian disciples.