Towards a More Coherent Faith Formation

The findings of a recent Ethos Institute survey titled “On Christian’s Attitudes Towards LGBT” reveal that even though a large majority of Christians did not agree with the legalization of same sex marriage, both young adults and youths were “more open to the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage”. The report then made the observation that “churches’ equipping and teaching efforts are inadequate for the task of helping young people make sense of public morality issues, against the shifting tides of societal attitudes.” Based on the survey, church members felt that more focused teaching and dialogues on LGBT issues, together with the impartation of practical skills to help church members dialogue with friends on the topic of LGBT were needed.

As one of the members involved in the survey, let me state that I agree fully with the observations made. However, my limited time in pastoral ministry has also opened my eyes to the limitations of such didactic approaches. A more coherent faith formation must take into account the possible influence that this secular age may have on our ecclesial practices, and how these practices together with instruction mature or hinder us as disciples. Therefore, in this brief article, I will highlight certain features of this secular age as well as the way it has impacted the church, and why the church must look beyond its didactic approach to Christian education in order to equip and mature her members more coherently.

A Secular Age—The Culture of “Authenticity”

In his highly influential work A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues that today’s secular age is marked by a culture of “authenticity”. By “authenticity” he refers to:

…the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.” (A Secular Age, 475)

Taylor’s definition is a loaded one. But, in essence, what Taylor is saying is that today’s secularism is marked by a quest for individuals to discover their “authentic” self. This journey of discovery requires the individual to decide for him/herself who the individual is and what the individual wants by means of expression. Crucial to this process lies a certain notion of freedom that is not bound by any grand narrative that imposes itself on the individual nor by any external authority. The individual must be free to decide.

Examples of this can be seen in motivational slogans telling us to “Be who you want to be” or “Discover your true self”. Quite naturally, choice becomes the celebrated value within such a framework. At times, this highly prized value of choice takes on different words such as “rights” or “freedom” as we see in the popular slogan “Freedom to Love”.  To be fair, choice has always been an important feature in the history of mankind’s moral deliberation. But what marks this culture of authenticity as different is its elevation of choice to the extent that it potentially serves as an argument stopper.

In Taylor’s words, choice is “regularly invoked in our society as an all-trumping argument in weighty contexts… It is a word which occludes almost everything important: the sacrificed alternatives in a dilemmatic situation, and the real moral weight of the situation.” (A Secular Age, 478-479).

Yet choice has such a premium only because the identity of the self has undergone a shift. If, previously, meaning and identity were discovered in relation to the purpose of created order as well as the larger community, meaning and identity has now come to be defined according to psychological categories where feelings take centre stage. The referential point takes an inward turn to the self—you are whoever you genuinely feel you are and your authenticity is lived out by your ability to express yourself in the manner that you choose. Questions of the self are thus viewed in an open-ended manner limited only by choice.

The Culture of Authenticity in the Church

In response to this, churches have generally been quick to offer a counter response against this culture of authenticity by rightly pointing out that, from a Christian perspective, identity is not open-ended. All of us, by virtue of being created, have been defined. We are God’s image bearers. With the coming of Christ, we can go a step further to say that humanity’s identity is rooted in the life and work of Christ. Identity and human expression, from a Christian perspective, thus takes reference not from the self but from God who assigns meaning and purpose.

However, while our verbal response may seem to counter the claims of the secular age, the decisions that guide our practices together with our practices may suggest otherwise. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of worship, particularly when it comes to youths or youth ministry.

In my time working with youths, one of the most contentious issues has always been the integration of youths into the church. Solutions can vary between starting an entire youth service specifically for the youths or tailoring the main service in order to make it more accessible to them. This often results in the modifying of the liturgy into something more free flowing to make space for the youths to express themselves in a manner that feels most authentic to them.

However, in taking this approach, features of the secular age immediately reveal themselves. As with the culture of authenticity, what counts as authentic (and true) worship has now become dependent on how one is able to freely express him/herself based on the subject’s identity. Because of this, repeated actions, or rituals, are often treated with suspicion. At most, they are insincere attempts at worshipping God precisely because rituals lack the authenticity that can only be attained through freedom of expression. Worship thus no longer becomes about what God does to us as His people, mandating the need for a collective response. Instead, it becomes the sum total of each individual’s human expression. Put differently, if previously human expression took its cue from the meaning and purpose of worship, today, human expression, enabled by the freedom of choice, is what gives meaning to worship. Just like the secular age we live in, the central act of the church too, succumbs to that inward turn where feelings and the self take centre stage (i.e., true worship is determined by how authentic I feel through the way I am able to express myself).

Therefore, on the one hand, while the church may verbally denounce this culture of authenticity as found in the secular age, on the other hand, the church reinforces it through one of its core practices—worship.

A Call for Greater Coherence

If the above observation is true, the need for greater deliberate reflection on our ecclesial practices is crucial. This is because, as embodied human beings, our worldview or, in the words of Taylor, our “social imaginary” is not shaped and formed purely through instructions or reading a manual. On the contrary, we are more heavily influenced and formed by the years of daily practice that we have accustomed ourselves to. The Christian philosopher James Smith elaborates:

How do we learn to be consumerists? Not because someone comes along and offers an argument for why stuff will make me happy. I don’t think my way into consumerism. Rather I’m covertly conscripted into a way of life because I have been formed by cultural practices that are nothing less than secular liturgies. (You Are What You Love, 45)

Applying this to the church, if the youths and young adults today are more open and receptive to same-sex marriage and the debates surrounding sexuality and gender identity, it may not be due purely to a lack of focused teaching. An equally probable reason could be that they have been formed by practices found in both society and the church that leans them towards the secular age.

To be clear, this article is not advocating any one particular style of worship. The point simply is that, when we think of Christian education in the church, we must go beyond the didactic approach that often seems to be the default mode of education. If anything, a thorough examination of our practices as well as the philosophy that undergirds them is needed to ascertain that our beliefs and practices are consistent, so as to enable a more coherent faith formation.

More urgently, if formative practices are ultimately what conscript people into a way of life (rather than arguments), as proposed by James Smith, an overemphasis on the didactic to the neglect of the church’s formative practices runs the risk of overlooking how we may in fact be subtle yet effective promoters and practitioners of the culture of authenticity that drives the secular age. The result is an incoherent faith formation of our members that potentially sets us back three steps for every two steps we take forward through didactic teaching.

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