Good News 3: Interview on religious education

FROM BOSTON COLLEGE’S THOMAS GROOME comes an in-depth guide to rethinking the purpose of religous education. FROM TOP: Boston College Chronicle profiles Groome (click the image to read the Chronicle’s entire profile), NEXT is the book cover, THEN Groome’s faculty page at Boston, BOTTOM is the Boston School of Theology where Groome teaches.“You don’t grow Christians by merely sending them to religious education once a week,” The Boston College Chronicle reports this week in a profile of Thomas Groome—chair of the school’s Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. The Chronicle reports on the importance of Groome’s latest book, an inspiring, in-depth look at the purpose of religious education called: Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples. “To raise good Christians—who know the faith intellectually, feel it in their hearts and demonstrate it with their actions—Groome says parents need to have intentional Christian practices in their homes,” the Chronicle reports. That is, indeed, the bottom line of Groome’s latest book: Effective religious education is a lifelong journey that touches all phases of our lives, until our faith and our daily life are interwoven.

In the course of 377 pages, Groome says a whole lot more than that. He provides a step-by-step rationale for religous education—specifically Christian education, which is his specialty. He starts with Jesus in the Gospels and works his way up to today, even taking us on a quick circle of the globe before his book closes.

Groome and his new book fit nicely in our series this week on Good News about the Church. (ALSO: Read our earlier excerpts from Stephen Rossetti’s book about why priests are among our nation’s happiest professionals, then our interview with Rossetti about his research on clergy and, later this week, read our interview with Jana Riess about reclaiming the wisdom of Christian classics and spiritual disciplines.)


DAVID: Let’s start with how broadly this new book speaks to readers. You’re a Catholic scholar—but I think a lot of parents will find this book helpful, whatever their denomination may be. I also think the book’s value extends beyond Christianity. These general principles could be adapted in other faiths, as well. Does that comment surprise you?

THOMAS: I do write self consciously out of my Catholic identity and I sometimes quote from Catholic documents in this book, but my work is broadly ecumenical. I think the best way to be universal is to write out of the truth we find in our own back yard. Over the years, my books have been picked up by Jewish, Hindu and Muslim educators. I’m talking about general approaches and principles, so—yes, I hope that this book has value for lots of readers.

DAVID: While this book is brand new—the title question certainly isn’t new. Way back in 1976, John Westerhoff, professor of theology at Duke, was asking, “Will our children have faith?” In 1983, Walter Brueggemann was flipping the words around to ask, “Will our faith have children?” And, last year, we reported on Kenda Creasy Dean’s important new look at younger Americans’ mixed-up version of Christianity in “Almost Christian.” We’ve been asking this question for decades. Why do we keep asking? Is it that no one has a good answer—or that we are called to keep asking the question in all generations?

THOMAS: The latter. A friend challenged me and asked: “Aren’t you reflecting a lack of faith by raising this question?” Remember that Jesus promised to be with us always until the end of time. My answer is: Jesus himself raised this kind of question. I actually footnote John Westerhoff’s book—it’s the very first footnote in this new book. Will our children have faith? Yes, Jesus will be with us always, but how do we keep our children and our families connected to the faith? And I’m asking about more than just the education of our children. I’m raising these questions about our society and the whole world. We have moved into a posture in Western culture where the default position is a lack of faith. The cultural expectation today is that you’re not a person of faith. We favor a kind of self-sufficient humanism in our popular culture.

We are becoming a secular society in the West. And we should say: There are positive aspects to secularism. When the prime minister of Turkey stands up and says that he wants Turkey to remain a secular society—we all breathe a sigh of relief in this country, right? But the negative aspect of this is that it becomes easier for people to lose track of their faith. My concern is the question: How do we see to it that there will be faith in the future? How do we include faith in the family, the parish and the larger community?

DAVID: You write as though there is some doubt about the outcome. This isn’t simply an intellectual exercise for you. People who care about the future of our faith really need to stop and think about this in a serious way, right?

THOMAS: Yes, I think our situation is precarious. I was born and raised outside of Dublin, Ireland, and it’s amazing to see what has happened in Ireland in a very brief period of time. There has been such a major social shift. There are parishes that have shifted from 80 percent Mass attendance on Sundays to 10 percent or so in about a 10-year period. It’s not inevitable at all that our faith will endure. And the larger question, beyond just the endurance of faith is: What kind of faith will endure? Can we continue to foster a life-giving, emancipatory faith in the next generation—or will we find a limiting and controlling faith growing? Fundamentalism is on the rise in all of our faith traditions, including Protestantism and Catholicism. That is ominous. What kind of faith do we hope to see?

DAVID: Well, you’re certainly not alone in this campaign. We just featured an interview with Marcus Borg in July in which he talked, once again, about his deep concern about the future of religious education. From Marcus’ point of view, and from your own as well, religious education can’t end with a few classes in elementary school.

THOMAS: Yes, you’re hitting the nail on the head. I ask crowds sometimes: “What kind of community does it take to raise a Polish person?” And this question sounds silly, at first, but the crowd usually calls back the answer: “A Polish community.” And I’ll ask: “What does it take to raise a Hispanic person?” They’ll say: “A Hispanic community.” But then I ask the zinger: “What does it take to raise a Christian person?” Well, many people don’t even realize that we need a whole Christian community to raise Christians. That question stops a lot of people and makes them think.

My whole theme throughout this new book is that we need lifelong continuing education. Otherwise people’s faith journey becomes arrested at second, third or fourth grade. In many of our churches, education ceases when young people make their confirmation. If our faith journey leaves off at age 10, 12 or 13, then lifelong faith becomes a pretty precarious question. Parents today are hyper involved in the formal education of their children. They want them to get music lessons, math training and help they might need with their homework. But, do they have the same intentionality about faith formation?

Parents sometimes complain to me about the situation in their parishes. They’ll say, “This Christian education doesn’t work.” Then, I say to them: “How can it work if you’re just dropping off your child and expecting someone else to turn out a Christian by the time you pick up your child an hour later?”


DAVID: Well, there’s a whole lot between these covers. You touch on many principles. Here’s one example that jumped out at me from the middle of the book. You write that it’s not enough just to intellectually understand Christian theology. And, beyond that, it’s not enough to learn some spiritual practices like prayer—and to feel inspired ourselves. You cite a statement by an international gathering of bishops on the purpose of education and you sum it up this way: “If what we preach or teach does not require and prompt people to do the works of justice, we are not representing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” In other words: The proof is in what Christians actually do in the world to improve life for all of humanity. And, that principle extends far beyond the Catholic church. That’s a principle taught by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for example.

THOMAS: It’s true and I’m totally convinced of that principle. I don’t know how people can claim to have read the gospels and claim to be taking them literally—and miss this central point. When I listen to radio preachers across the radio dial, I keep hearing sermons about praising God and Jesus for saving me—then Hallelujah and that’s all there is. I hear very little from that kind of preacher about the central call to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and reach out to the poor. Nothing about: “I was in prison and you visited me.” There’s nothing about living out these great commandments. It’s all about the wonderful feeling of being saved.


DAVID: You go even further in the book. You argue that, even if you add in a little charity with your faith—that’s still not completely understanding Jesus’ call. You write, “If people come through a curriculum of Christian religious education and remain sexist, racist, classist, ageist, homophobic, negligent in their responsibilities to the poor and marginalized, for the abused and oppressed, for the environment and ecology, then their program or school has not educated them in Christian faith.” That’s on page 143 if readers want to look it up for themselves. And, that’s powerful stuff!

THOMAS: I do need to say: There’s certainly room for charity in our Christian calling. I often get angry at people when they criticize someone like Mother Teresa and say things like: “Yes, she fed the hungry and was present with the sick, but she didn’t really challenge the political structure in India to reform!” I tell people: “She did enough!” Not everyone can engage in the social reconstruction of their society. There is a place for compassion. There is a place for charity. I sometimes go with my son to help out in the feeding program at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in downtown Boston.

So, there is a place for compassion, but then I am saying that we must try to go further than just feeding people and ask ourselves: Why are people hungry? What are the structures that are leaving so many people in poverty? Where do people keep picking up these attitudes like sexism and racism—and all those other attitudes in that passage you just read? I say that they all begin with a basic denial of the essential truth of our faith, which is that we are all made in the likeness of God. We teach that God made us all in God’s image. We must be concerned for all.


DAVID: Your book goes back to the Bible and to powerful truths at the core of the Christian faith—and the core of Judaism before that. You literally are teaching that people can learn to do religious education like Jesus did it 2,000 years ago, right?

THOMAS: This may be the most important point in the book. People want to know: How we should do this? How do we help people find a positive, life-giving faith? That’s where the rubber hits the road. And I do have this simple proposal that we go about it in the way Jesus went about it. There is a style to how Jesus taught in the gospels. No, we can’t replicate that in terms of Jesus’ place and culture 2,000 years ago. But we can approximate the way he went about it. You find examples of this throughout the gospels and especially in Jesus’ parables. But a central text to look at is Luke 24:13-27, the story of Jesus encountering the two men on the road to Emmaus. It’s extraordinary in that story to see how Jesus joins these men and walks with them. He doesn’t tells them what they should see. He asks them to tell their stories. He starts with their lives. He gets them to name what matters to them today. Then, they lay out their laments to him and he still doesn’t tell them what to think about it. Then, he interprets Scripture and he brings them into the story of the faith community. He begins with their lives, then brings them into the faith tradition. I tell Christian educators: That’s our job.

We invite people to bring their lives to the faith—and their faith to their lives. That’s writ large in the life of Jesus: Life to faith—and faith to life.

REMEMBER: You can order Will There Be Faith? A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples from Amazon now. AND: Come back tomorrow for our interview with Jana Riess.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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