Learning to Read the Gospel Again
Hauerwas makes this case in a recent book, arguing that learning to "work with words" about God is the central task of Christian formation. In this respect, we are right to critically examine our attempts (or lack thereof) at acculturation. We are misguided, though, if we assume that getting acculturation right depends on constant novelty. The "words" that Christians work with—the Good News and its interpretation—are the fabric of our ancient faith. Teaching children and adults to work with the gospel's words about God, to speak the traditional yet constantly new language of the Christian faith, is the only real "fix" for what ails us.
A recent study on youth and discipleship by Slavic theologian Jana Struková suggests that the key to this sort of formation is in renewing a sense of Christianity as a vocation. A vocation is a calling, a "voicing" of the gospel into language that speaks directly to the reader or listener. As Martin Luther argued, the gospel is nothing until I hear it addressed to me; once my ears are trained to hear it, I can begin responding, "working with words" to live out an answer to its call.
Reframing Hollinger's concept of acculturation as vocation shows us that gospel words are irreplaceable in the formation of Christian youth. If they are brought up constantly hearing God's loving address, they will grow to love the gospel like they love their friends and family. And this is not just due to the nostalgic familiarity of the "big black book on the shelf." No, it is the message, the content—the very voice of God in the words of Scripture—that inspires devotion. The challenge of Christian education, according to the early 20th-century theorist George Albert Coe, is to "lead each one to adopt" the words and teachings of the faith "as his very own desire, purpose, and practice."
Putting Away the Faith
How well are we meeting this challenge? A quick survey of adult classes and Sunday sermons does not paint a pretty picture. Thematic life-management series (finances, parenting, hobbies) dominate the Sunday morning education hour and often the sermon as well. Many sermons seem allergic to the challenges posed by the text, and even those that manage some exegesis tend to offer a mere pinch of historical background before hurrying toward an ethical "life application."
For the kids, the situation is especially dire. Summer camps feature Jesus on a surfboard, or perhaps in safari gear, while Sunday morning classes tend to specialize in low-quality group counseling sessions. What we offer is anything but the simple gospel that "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:19). On good days, the children humor us by pretending to enjoy themselves, all the time wondering when they get to do something more fun. In our quest to become relevant to children, we risk being pathetically boring, and so denying them the greatest blessing going to church can bring: the love of God expressed in the story of Jesus.
What children today desire, according to Struková's research, is "the realness or authenticity of faith." What we give them instead is a hastily painted undersea mural. In the memorable words of Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, young people "look to the church to show them something, someone, capable of turning their lives inside out and the world upside down. Most of the time we have offered them pizza."