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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Director's Word: On Innovative Spirit

A friend of mine recently shared this cover issue of LIFE magazine from February 11, 1957. Next to the iconic LIFE logo, the title reads: "'The Most Wasted Hour of the Week': What's wrong with our Sunday schools and what churches can do about it." Here’s what John H. Westerhoff, renowned author of the church, says in the LIFE article:

"The church school, despite numerous bold innovations and even a few modern success stories, is plagued with disease. The church’s educational problem rests not in its educational program, but in the paradigm or model which undergirds its educational ministry—the agreed–upon frame of reference which guides its educational efforts.

Since the turn of the century, in spite of nods to other possibilities, Christian educators and local churches have functioned according to a schooling–instructional paradigm. That is, our image of education has been founded upon some sort of “school” as the context and some form of instruction as the means. Plato, in all his discussions of education, gives little attention to schools. As far as Plato was concerned, it is the community that educates, by which he meant the multiplicity of formal and informal forces which influence persons." (John H. Westerhoff III, February 11, 1957)

Later, in his 1976 publication, Will Our Children Have Faith, Westerhoff points towards hopeful signs of innovation and changing paradigms, while recognizing that progress moves slowly.

I believe we will not only begin to answer his timely question, “Will our children have faith?” We will also discover more about the adult journey of faith and how the generations playfully come to receive God’s generous gift of a loving and trustworthy life of faith.So, what can we say about innovation and change in the Sunday School model in March, 2015? As we consider our leadership in faith formation in our local churches, stories of decline and the need for new paradigms persist. In the ELCA alone, we have watched a steady decline, from over 1 million participants in Sunday School programs in 1990 to just over 400,000 pupils in Sunday School as recent as 2010. The critiques by Westerhoff and others through the decades move us to not only consider the startling decline in numbers (a symptom), but more importantly, addressing head-on the pedagogical character of faith formation for children, youth, and their families. “Will our children have faith?” becomes a pressing question all the more!

As you, Luther seminary students, seek to serve children, youth, and adults while on internship and/or in contextual placements with our many partners, I hope and pray that an innovative spirit is among you. What might it mean to engage one’s learning community around faith formation in these changing times?

Key in our learning here, I think, is the notion that faith formation is just that: formation. Not simply imparting information, but rather faith formation looks like fully embodied experiences of engaging faith questions and doubts and curiosities as the very fabric of one’s life and being. It includes parents, and other caring adults, inter-generational interaction, all of which serve as scaffolding in one’s steady growth.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 leads us in this direction with prophetic focus for our times. What might it look like for you to engage this text with the imagination of the people with whom you serve?

I hope you will join me in diving into this conversation just as Westerhoff once did. And, in doing so, I believe we will not only begin to answer his timely question, “Will our children have faith?” We will also discover more about the adult journey of faith and how the generations playfully come to receive God’s generous gift of a loving and trustworthy life of faith.

Peace to you in these days of Lent,

Tim Coltvet

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