The future of religious education

In this discussion we want to focus on the future of religious education: in the contexts of our professional organization (REA/APRRE), the denominations, the academy/profession, the congregations, public life. Please write a few paragraphs on this topic either initiating your own thoughts or responding to posts.

5 thoughts on “The future of religious education”

  1. This comment comes from Gabriel Moran is dated May 23, 2014 (Bob O’Gorman)

    My view on the future has not changed much since I wrote 21 years ago in Religious Education as a Second
    Language that religious education would have to be inter-religious, inter-generational, inter-institutional,
    and international. Although that view may seem unrealistic, I think it carries forward to a new world
    what the founders of the REA started in 1903. I wish that people since then, including myself, could have
    made more progress but I am not surprised that religious education is still in its infancy.

    Inter-religious has to go further than Catholic, Protestant,
    Jewish although that is still difficult enough. The changing world will make more realistic and more urgent
    conversation with Muslims and perhaps with Buddhists and other religious groups

    Inter-generational has long been obvious but education still gets equated with
    big people telling things to little people. The term inter-generational is clumsy
    and should disappear when and if education is recognized as going from birth to death.
    Religious education could be a leader in highlighting infant education and parental teaching,
    as well as education for the old..

    Inter-institutional is also an area that religious education
    could be a leader in linking the academic world and whatever political/social institutions it can link up
    with. Education should be concerned with ideas and action, a link that proves difficult to make

    International is something obvious for the future and something already begun in the present. Last
    year’s meeting was impressive in drawing on people from other countries; it is important to keep that
    possible momentum jn order to broaden the conversation about what religious education can be.

    These four characteristics are not discrete; any one off them can have an effect on
    the other three.

    Gabe Moran

  2. Harold (Bud) Horell

    I affirm Gabe’s comment that RE should be “inter-religious, inter-generational, inter-institutional, and international.”

    As I think about the future of religious education I want to add that for me one of the other important issues is the relationship between the academic discipline of religious education and the educational ministries of religious communities. As a practical issue, people educated in academic programs in religious education often seek employment in a ministry that is primarily educational or that includes a strong educational component, including parish/congregational or diocesan RE, youth and young adult ministry, high school religion teaching, high school or college campus ministry, and even social justice and service ministries. Additionally, people are often drawn into the academic study of religious education through involvement in the educational ministries of churches.

    Looking inwardly, I think it is important to reflect more fully on RE as an inter-disciplinary, and as Richard R. Osmer has noted, a multi-disciplinary field of study. What approaches or methods can we use to guide us in doing and evaluating interdisciplinary work that draws insight from one or more of the various academic subdisciplines of education and theology and, more recently, from one or more other academic fields as well? In a broadly interdisciplinary field, how can we be more intentional about attending to the common issues and concerns that bring us into conversation with one another as religious educators?

    Finally, as we looks to the future I think that it is important for us also to be intentional about claiming and being able to carry forward the history and traditions of religious education as a field of academic inquiry. In my own work, for instance, I have found it helpful to turn to the work of Harrison Elliot, Luther Weigle, James D. Smart, Randolph Crump Miller, and even the less well known Frank McKibben in thinking about the ways theological insight can inform an educational outlook. Similarly, in searching for ways to talk about the various dimensions of learning I have found gems of insight in the often turgid prose of Michael Grimmitt. My studies of the history of religious education have led me to wonder: Do we turn to and draw insight from the history of RE as often as we could? How intentional have we been in educating and forming younger scholars in the rich history and traditions of our field? How much better equipped might we be to address contemporary religious educational challenges if we were more fully steeped within the history and traditions of our field?

  3. I would affirm the comments of both Gabe and Bud. In my own comments, however, I would like to approach a discussion of the future of religious education (and indirectly the questions about the identity of the religious educator and the relationship of religious education to practical theology) by asking a different question: “why are we religious education academics asking these questions in the first place?” As I pondered this last question I would argue one clue as to why they are on our minds has to do with the changing social location of “religious education” in the ecology of religious communities and the academy. Three interdependent shifts in our context have caught my attention.

    1. One shift in our social context may be traced to the loss of what might be called our practice partners. An example may clarify my claim. Shortly after I joined the faculty of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio in 1966, Bob Browning my colleague completed Communicating the Faith with Junior Highs. Although an explicit practical theological framework shaped the argument and proposals of this rather narrowly targeted book, he and his audience understood it to be a book contributing to discussions in Christian education. I remember him coming to my office perhaps two years after its publication to share the recent publication figures. With very little involvement on his part the book had sold nearly 30,000 copies. Why so many? Colleagues, at least in Protestant seminaries and colleges with often large religious education academic programs, bought his book and assigned it in their classes on youth ministry. But more important for this discussion, pastors, national and judicatory education staff (a fair number with Ph.D’s), local church Christian educators, youth ministers, and hundreds, if not thousands, of laity involved in ministries with junior highs bought the book. They were introduced to it by denominationally trained leaders in youth ministries in workshops, lab schools, and conferences across the country. That public of advocates for youth ministry and practice partners disappeared soon after. In 1968 the General Conference of his denomination shifted the initiative for the Christian education in congregations from the general church to the congregation, effectively dismantling the delivery system he and his academic colleagues had enjoyed for almost a century. Youth ministry and local church educator positions dried up. National and judicatory staff were eliminated or deployed into more program manager roles. Denominationally initiated training programs for laity were radically curtailed. REA membership declined. As I look back on that decision (which I have written about in From Generation to Generation, Cascade, 2012), I would argue that it reflects a loss of urgency among mainline Protestantism denominations about ensuring their own futures through the Christian education of their own children and youth. In a sense, these denominational decisions meant that the primary audience for the publications of Protestant academic religious educators from that point on would be colleagues in academic settings who assigned their books and articles to students.

    2. The loss of a public of religious education practice partners was intensified by questions about the legitimacy of the field in the academy. In the introduction to Educating Clergy (2005), Bill Sullivan notes in his “Foreword” that in that same year—1968—Talcott Parsons defined the “professions by their exercise of ‘cognitive rationality….’” (3) He goes on to observe that one of the consequences of the appropriation of that notion in higher education for “Jewish and Christian religious educators” has been the necessity of “standing within traditions of thought that antedate the cognitive revolution of modern science and that, moreover, assert alternative understandings of reality” that emphasize among other things “notions of transcendent reality (4)”. Even as Protestant denominations were dismantling the link between the academy and the congregation, academic professional societies and accrediting committees were ratcheting up expectations for evidence based academic rigor and expertise. In this new academic environment, historic connections academic religious educators had had with congregations and denominations became increasingly suspect. A field already often marginalized in the theological world, ran the danger of becoming even more so. Several seminaries and most undergraduate colleges abandoned their degree programs in the field and curtailed faculty appointments. Those of us in academic positions increasingly participated in academic societies. Indeed we created our own academic professional society. Many of us still make forays into the non-academic world of the church and some of us are invited to participate on denominational curriculum committees or speak to some regional or national denominational convention. In the tenure review process however, the value of those activities cannot be compared to an article in Religious Education or even more, to one published in an explicitly theological or social science journal.

    3. A third shift located in the expanding boundaries of the field has also significantly altered the way we talk about the field and therefore about the future of religious education. As my comments have indicated to this point, the field was dominated for decades by Protestant perspectives and approaches, then by Christian, namely Protestant and Catholic perspectives and approaches before being challenged by a broader approach to the field by Jewish religious educators in the 1960’s and 70’s and now by religious educators in many religious traditions. As I contemplate the field today, it seems as if we are engaged in a number of different conversations about the theory and practice of religious education—all centered on some notion of religious education—but each with its own distinctive assumptive framework and practices. The range and variety of these conversations only complicates our questions about conversation partners and the public for our work. Some of the conversations easily ally with certain academic disciplines and methods; others do not. In a 2003 essay in Religious Education, I was inspired by Gabe Moran’s discussion of religious education as a second language to ponder the vocabularies informing the various conversations that currently make up the field. They include:

    a. A vocabulary for what Gabe called “communal” religious education – the religious education integral to particular religious traditions. For example, practical theology provides a distinctive lens for viewing the religious education of Christian communities; but not Jewish, or Hindu. They draw on different methodological and theoretical frameworks. I would argue that none of the conversations identified below however, would make much sense if the religious education of faith communities is not robust and creative. I would also contend that in the contemporary academic environment, this conversation has the most difficulty achieving recognition.
    b. A vocabulary for “inter-religious” religious education—the religious education that honors in the encounter of different “communal” vocabularies of religious education their distinctive but mutual concerns and practices. We had a glimpse of this conversation in religious education during the 2013 REA conference in Boston.
    c. A vocabulary for “public” religious education – the religious education that draws on the wisdom and practices of communal and inter-religious education to speak constructively to issues and to cultivate practices at stake in the formation of public life in and among the nations of the world.
    d. A vocabulary for “a postreligion” religious education – cultivating a vocabulary of religious education capable of engaging those whose technological and secular commitments do not see a place for religion and its practices in personal or public life. This vocabulary would push religious education to be something more than the cultural study of religious education.
    e. A vocabulary for “an academic” religious education that prepares researchers and scholars to move in and out of the various intellectual and practice traditions associated with each of these “conversations” in religious education initiate, facilitate, and mediate the conversations among them.

    Some may view the agendas embedded in each of these possibilities for the future of religious education to be overwhelming. I happen to think they suggest a more lively and interesting future than our immediate past.

    Chuck Foster

  4. In thinking about the future of religious education, I went back over all the different themes that we have had for the APRRE and REA annual meetings. We have addressed the juncture of religious education and globalization, contextual pedagogies, peace and justice, intercultural explorations, literature, interfaith dimensions, neuroscience, liberation and civil/human rights, the public sphere and this year – violence/nonviolence. These themes alone show how our field is intertwined with a wide range of disciplines and concerns. In this way, I absolutely agree with Gabe and Chuck and the “inter” role of religious education.

    When the recent studies came out with their research on the “nones” – a fast-growing segment of our Western population (self-identified), I came to two conclusions. First, unless religious education is comfortable with being interdisciplinary and intertwined with life today, we will not be able to engage the “nones” or most young adults for that matter. Their life is lived in the midst of everything around them. Second, we need to rethink the how of what we do as well. And I am not merely speaking of pedagogies and methodologies (though that is what I teach oddly enough). I find I can no longer look at what I do in this light because our students are progressively wired to think differently. It is more like religious education in the key of ??? (I haven’t found a term yet for it). Yet, this is what makes it exciting. It becomes very real, personal and dynamic. So in that sense, I think the future of religious education can be exciting if we can be open to a new how.

    At the same time, as a professional organization I think this kind of diverse, fresh and intertwined future has the potential to bring new faces, new conversation partners and new dynamics into REA. By this I mean scholars and practitioners from diverse fields who are also religious educators but from a different discipline and perspective. That kind of diversity with different levels and fields of engagement can be quite exciting and enticing for the new generation of scholars coming up. This is the level of interdisciplinary engagement that I see in the near future.

    This is also why I gravitate to the term “communities of practice.” We live and teach in diverse communities of practice where each one contributes to each other in overt and subtle ways. By embracing our communities of practice -whether on campus, in our communities or even within our faith groupings – we find new ways to contribute to and to contribute. Such communities of practice are, by their very nature, intercultural, interreligious, interfaith, interspiritual, intergenerational and interdisciplinary. In this context, I find my understanding of and work as a religious educator to be shaped and reformed in ways I had not previously considered. So like Chuck, I see the future of religious education as lively and will be what we make it.

  5. I agree that when Moltmann says the way we continue to do infant baptism is a clear sign that (for us and for most protestant congregations) the age of Constantine has not yet ended. But it has ended. We might call what is happening (or happened) post-modernity, post-Christendom, or post-Christian, but I agree with Chuck that most of our “delivery systems’ have disintegrated, and I find myself wondering at the downturn in seminary applications as well as the grayness of those churches I have recently visited. Maybe this is cynical, but we have operated from a fairly privileged position within Christendom, and until we recognize that position is fading (if not gone) we’ll be forever wondering about the future from that vantage point. Not that “religion” has ended; not at all…. but until we address the case in front of us, all else seems superfluous.

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