There has been some confusion regarding the term spiritual formation and Christian education. In this post I will attempt to (1) differentiate between the two and also (2) identify when the two terms may be considered synonymous.
a. Definition of Christian education
The meaning of the term “Christian education” or “religious education” or “Christian religious education” has over the years become expansive and ambiguous. Christian education is commonly associated with classes, resources, time-limited courses, the need for more trained teachers and teaching materials; most of these activities are conducted on Sunday in the church grounds using church facilities. Many educators have tried to map Christian education over the years in attempts to appreciate the diversity of the term. American Catholic educator, Mary C. Boys, in her seminal study, Educating in Faith, tries to map it into four categories: (1) evangelism, (2) religious education, (3) Christian education, and (4) Catholic education (catechetics). She approaches the subject from a historical and conceptual framework (Boys, 1989).
Jack L. Seymour and Donald E. Miller in their 1982 book, Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education, describe five different approaches or key metaphors in understanding Christian education (Seymour et al., 1982). These approaches are (1) Religious instruction; (2) Faith Community; (3) Spiritual development; (4) Liberation; and (5) Interpretation. Commenting on this book, Johnson has this to say,
This book proposes formation as a decisive image through which to understand Christian education. One can detect in Seymour and Miller’s survey the nascent appearance of spiritual formation as a guiding image, though its distinctiveness disappears into developmentalism, on one hand, and the faith community model, on the other hand (1989, 103. author’s italics)
Johnson is correct in her assessment as the theme of spiritual formation become stronger when Seymour (1997) re-examines Christian education 15 years later in Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning. Here he maps Christian education into four themes: (1) Transformation; (2) Faith community (3) Spiritual growth; and (4) Religious instruction. Compared to the 1982 survey, the approaches of liberation and interpretation appeared to have been integrated into transformation. Transformation which has the goal of “assisting people and communities to promote faithful citizenship and social transformation” is a better category that includes liberation and interpretation (1997, 21).
Other significant and representative definitions of Christian education include divine-human interactions, shared praxis and socialisation. Concerning divine-human interventions, educator Pazmiño, offers the following definition:
Christian education is the deliberate, systematic, and sustained divine and human efforts to share or appropriate the knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, sensibilities, and behaviours that comprise or are consistent with the Christian faith. It fosters the change, renewal, and reformation of persons, groups, and structures by the power of the Holy Spirit to conform to the revealed will of God as expressed in the Scriptures and pre-eminently in the person of Jesus Christ, as well as any outcomes of that effort (1997, 87).
Christian education according to Pazmiño is more than schooling but less than socialisation. It emphasises the intentionality of a cooperative activity between persons and God. This activity includes the efforts to share the context of the Christian faith through the power of the Holy Spirit with preaching Jesus Christ as a goal. There is no emphasis on spiritual growth of the inner person, role of the church, and building relationships with other persons though those may be implied.
Catholic educator Thomas Groome defines Christian religious education “as a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with them to the activity of God in our present, to the Story of the Christian faith community, and to the Vision of God’s Kingdom, the seeds of which are already among us” (1980, 25). His definition highlights the intentionality of religious education, being sensitive to God, the Christian story, and the goal of the kingdom of God. The methodology of his religious education is shared praxis. There is the emphasis on community, shared practices, and working towards a common goal – shared praxis.
b. Spiritual formation and socialisation
Socialisation or enculturation is the approach adopted by several Christian educators. One of them, Westerhoff III, defines religious education as “all those formal and informal influences through which persons acquired their understanding and ways of living…deliberate systematic, and sustained efforts within a community of faith which aim at enabling persons and groups to evolve particular ways of thinking, feeling, and acting” (2000b, 14, 579). This is based on his theory of enculturation where a community nurtures and helps its members to develop a particular pattern of being. He calls it “catechesis” or Christian formation. Westerhoff builds on C. Ellis Nelson’s ideas about socialisation. His approach is based on the community of faith. He subsequently influences Craig Dykstra (1978) in his works on Christian practices in congregations.
I find the Christian education model of socialisation/enculturation closest to my concept of Christian spiritual formation. I define Christian spiritual formation as the intentional ongoing process of the inner transformation of the character of a person to become like the character of Jesus Christ himself, of becoming with others a community of the people of God, and of becoming an agent for God’s redemptive purposes.
While the elements of spiritual formation are present in Christian education, Christian spiritual formation is only synonymous with the socialisation model of Christian education.
Boys, M. C. (1989). Educating in Faith: Maps and Visions. Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press.
Dykstra, C. (1987). The Formative Power of the Congregation. Religious Education, 82(4 Fall), 530-546.
Groome, T. H. (1980). Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Johnson, S. (1989). Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Pazmiño, R. W. (1997). Foundational Issues in Christian Education (2d ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Seymour, J. L. (Ed.). (1997). Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Seymour, J. L., Miller, D. E., Little, S. P., Foster, C. R., Moore, A. J., & Wehrheim, C. A. (1982). Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press.
Westerhoff, J. (1976, 2000). Will Our Children Have Faith? (rev. ed. enl.). Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing.
 In some countries, religious education refers to education in schools. In Malaysia, there are only one or two “Christian” schools which offer the national education syllabus with one or two religious subjects and chapel services. In practice they are closer to the National Type schools than to schools offering “(Christian) religious education”.