By Jon Jordan

If you encounter human children on a regular basis, you are doing the work of formation. A mark is left on them by your action or inaction, by your words or your silence. By what you choose to enjoy or dismiss in front of them. Every interaction we have with children is formation.

Don’t believe me? Ask my eight-year-old daughter what we call drivers who aren’t being safe on neighborhood roads while we are out on a run. I said it once and I will never live it down…

So, in the world of the church and the academy, when we speak of the Christian formation of children, what we really mean is the intentional Christian formation of children. How do we attempt to form young Christians when we stop to think about what we are doing?

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It is too easy to bemoan the reality that modern attempts at formation — both sacred and secular — have failed to hit their marks. There are many areas in which we in the 21st century are on the cutting edge, the state of the art. Formation is not one of them. Automobiles are more efficient than ever, microchips are smaller and more powerful, and almost any good needed for survival or entertainment can arrive on our doorstep in two days or less. Travel, computing, and supply chain management (present travails notwithstanding) in the 21st century are as efficient as ever. I am not alone in being convinced that this is not the case in the realm of formation.

At least from my experience in the church and the academy, fruitful formation today often comes from a discovery of an older, better way to form young Christians. And in looking back at older, better ways to form children, a foundational truth emerges that pagan Greeks and Romans, as well as early Christians built their formation programs upon.

Before you can intentionally form a human child, you have to understand what a human child is, and what a human child is for. Unfortunately, most of the modern educational movements of the past century have, as their foundation, a woefully inadequate anthropology. 

This is, of course, what C. S. Lewis argues throughout his lectures that became The Abolition of Man, and through the Ransom Trilogy he was finalizing while preparing those lectures. For the especially curious, these themes are most directly treated in lecture two, “Men without Chests,” and in the fictional adaptation of that lecture, That Hideous Strength. (If your interest in these things is even remotely piqued, it would be well worth your time to close your browser now and procure a copy of either book…or both!)

What follows is a short list of proposals that set forth a number of ways that a more robust anthropology can lead to a more robust program for Christian formation. This is not exhaustive, and there is much more to say about each proposal. I plan to do just that here in the months ahead. But each of these three proposals hint at an older, better way to form children that we do well to consider.

A final note before the list: there are some school systems, and even some parish educational approaches, that are designed at their core to ignore or deny one or more of these anthropological assumptions. (That this is as true in the world of Christian schools as it is in the public school realm is a great scandal.) But each of these proposals have practical implications that parents, students, teachers, priests, and godparents can adopt regardless of the school or parish they find themselves in. These are not foundational principles for some students in some types of schools and parishes. These are basic principles of formation rooted in a proper understanding of what a human child is, and what a human child is for.

To the list:

Humans are embodied souls, so our formation programs must involve more than the imparting of knowledge from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student. Information is available anywhere; knowledge and wisdom are best gained through paideia, the passing down of an entire way of life from one generation to the next.

Human desires can be shaped. Tastes can be developed and trained. Loves can be ordered, and reordered. So our formation programs must have as primary goals the development of desires, the deepening of tastes, and the right ordering of loves.

Humans are worshipers. Our formation programs, academic and otherwise, must recognize the fundamental reality that to be human is to worship. If we give our children nothing to worship, they will not worship nothing. They will worship everything. They will become devoted to things that cannot bear that devotion, and they will be crushed when a world that was never meant to be their god fails them time and time again.

This is just some of what it at stake when we consider what it means to form children.

About The Author

Fr. Jon Jordan is a priest at Church of the Incarnation, and serves as the Headmaster of the Dallas Campus and Theology Department Chair for Coram Deo Academy, a school in the classical Christian tradition.

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Ben Garren
7 months ago

“Loves can be ordered and reordered. So our formation programs must have as primary goals the development of desires, the deepening of tastes, and the right ordering of loves.” Given the known anti-LGBTQ+ stances of both the author and the editorial board of The Living Church it is basically impossible to read this as anything other than the promotion of “ex-gay ministry” and “reparative therapy” alongside the multitude of supremacist political actions being taken up against LGBTQ+ youth at this time across the country. This shouldn’t be considered thinly veiled supremacist rhetoric by these individuals, it is specifically casting supremacist… Read more »

Ben Garren
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon Jordan

Jon, Your response doesn’t alleviate any of my concerns. It simply perpetuates them because the talking points you are using are all ones used to abuse LGBTQ+ children and youth. My concern is that in regard to LGBTQ+ individuals you do advocate for celibacy while living into the expectations of their gender assigned at birth… which is a call to conversion therapy. It would be exceptionally easy to clearly state otherwise but this response specifically does not do so. While the implications of what you are saying regarding LGBTQ+ individuals is unsaid the use of these theories against us is… Read more »

7 months ago

A parishioner shared this article with me, seeking my response as a person who has called Christian formation her vocation and profession for over 40 years in the Episcopal Church on the parish, diocesan, and church-wide level. In discerning my response, I felt it important to share with Fr. Jordan and “The Living Church” readership my thoughts in response.  My experience in the church and the academy is very different. Summarized in the Episcopal Church’s document Called to Teach and Learn, Christian formation (whom many still called Christian Education or Sunday School) is a catechetical process. We are “formed” by participation… Read more »

Admin
7 months ago

Dear Sharon, thank you for taking the time to read and for your engagement. I’ll allow the author to speak for himself, but I do want to clarify that it is absolutely a coincidence that the article was published on the same day as the Governor of Texas’s pronouncement about trans youth. The essay had been scheduled for that date since last week, well before I had any inkling that this proclamation (which I, speaking only for myself, find horrifying) would be made.

7 months ago

I hope that any articles that follow this one cite the good and deep work of formation in many churches, which attend to very things that you seek. I find the author of this article, unfortunately, to be ignorant of (or willfully misrepesenting) decades-long work in the Episcopal Church that supports robust lifelong formation. Sharon Pearson has cited many in her comments below. I commend her blog (https://rowsofsharon.com/) to anyone seeking a foundation in the practice of Christian formation. How is it that we have formed priests who do not know the rich landscape of modern Christian formation that shares… Read more »

7 months ago
Reply to  Jon Jordan

I have also, like you, served in other contexts, specifically Episcopal schools here in the Washington DC area. I am proud of the work they do as well. And I did not say no one needs improvement. Of course we all do. I was suggesting it is disingenuous not to at least make a nod to the good work that many do already. I look forward to seeing you engage in the conversations about formation with the Forma community.