(Re)forming Christian Education in Congregations as the Praxis of Growing Disciples for a Missional Church

Author: Craig Mitchell

Mitchell, Craig, 2018 (Re)forming Christian Education in Congregations as the Praxis of Growing Disciples for a Missional Church, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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This study explores the question, How are churches reframing Christian education in order to be effective in growing faith and engaging in mission in Australian society in the 21st century? It is based on qualitative interviews conducted with leaders from thirteen congregations from the Uniting Church in Australia in 2012. The research explores how churches and their leaders are intentionally (re)forming Christian education and formation in the early 21st century in the Australian context. The Uniting Church is Australia’s third largest denomination, formed in 1977 from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches. For the purposes of the study, Christian education was defined initially as the theory and practice of teaching, learning and formation in life-long Christian faith and discipleship, both for individuals and communities of faith.

Across the western church, the place of Christian education has been changing in response to both institutional and social factors—the age and decline of mainline denominations, increasing pluralism, and relativism. Mainline churches have been influenced by a “missional turn” whereby the church’s mission is seen as participation by local churches in the missio Dei. This has raised questions about the place and purpose of Christian education in relation to mission.

The research interviews were structured around four themes: congregations as learning communities, congregations as communities of practice, leadership of learning communities, and forming disciples for mission. Research subjects were the principal ministers in their congregations. The sample was diverse in terms of geography, church membership, theology, length of ministry tenure, and orientation to mission.

The research method follows a Shared Praxis approach to practical theology, drawing particularly on Thomas Groome, and uses Bourdieu’s notion of habitus along with praxis and practice to frame the field of Christian education in relation to Christopraxis. Consideration is given to the practices of the early church as described in Acts 2, and to the nature of Christian discipleship in John 15, as a way of exploring the being and doing of discipleship.

The findings include details about the relational climate of congregations as learning communities, the cultivation of Christian practices as teleological participation in the mission of God, the intentionality and improvisation of church leaders, and how congregations learn for, in and from their engagement in mission. Particular teaching and learning programs are also described.

The key conclusion is that the intentional (re)forming of congregational Christian formation and education is core ecclesial praxis for growing mission-shaped disciples. Christian education and Christian mission are seen as inter-related and interdependent. The research suggests the need for further empirical studies of congregational Christian education, as well as attention by denominational leaders as to how congregations are resourced and led for lifelong learning in discipleship for the sake of mission.

Keywords: Christian education, Uniting Church in Australia, mission, missional church, praxis, congregations, church, disciples, discipleship, formation, religious education, leadership, ministry, practical theology, religion

Subject: Theology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Andrew Dutney