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?


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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9 Responses

  1. Ben Garren

    “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 rhetoric in an unassuming civil frame so that it cannot be called out as such. This piece is an act of promoting animosity towards LGBTQ+ children and youth by our government and society and needs to be read as such.

    It is shameful that anyone would do this in the name of Jesus, but such is nothing new for those who fail to respect the dignity of all human beings and cannot understand that God knitted each of us beautifully in the womb, including LGBTQ+ persons.

    • Jon Jordan


      First, I am not personally, professionally, or through this article in any way even entertaining a call for conversion therapy.

      The comments you react to are rooted in St. Augustine’s virtue ethic which is rooted in ordo amoris, the right ordering of loves. It is upon this ethic that the third principle rests. To use Lewis’ own summary of St. Augustine’s thought: “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.” In other words, having rightly ordered loves is about giving proper weight to various things—often various good things—according to what they were designed to bear. This means that a pupil formed towards a right ordo amoris will value human rights over profit, because human beings—all of them—are inherently more valuable than money.

      To read this article about ancient educational practices rooted in a proper anthropology and arrive at the conclusion you did baffles me. I wanted to clarify my point, but don’t intend to continue this conversation any further in the comment section of the blog.

      • Ben Garren


        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 exceptionally long standing. It has also been used against other marginalized groups, the indigenous school system being an exceptionally horrific example. Knowing this reality, and addressing it, is important for any person wanting to perpetuate these methods upon another generation of children. They can have other potential ends but not without clear caveats.

  2. Sharon Ely Pearson

    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 and practice of the Christian life of faith; a natural conforming and transforming process about which we (the Church) need to be intentional. We are “educated” by a process of critical reflection on participation in light of the gospel. We are “instructed” by processes by which knowledge and skills important to the Christian life of faith are acquired. In many ways our churches fail to embrace these three interrelated life-long processes, only focusing on the instruction piece for children as well as adults.

    I’m not sure what was so great about the “older, better way” of passing along the faith – at least since my Baby Boomer days in Sunday School when the teacher was the “sage on the stage,” children were seen as empty vessels, and I had to memorize – not question – what well-meaning adults interpreted what God said. I believe we know what works better today. One example that comes immediately to mind is Godly Play, a method in which we engage the child in story, allowing their innate spirituality to wonder and embrace the mystery of God. Children truly “fall in love with God” in Godly Play. As a storyteller, I am not “forming” the children – God and God’s Story does that. As a child I was formed by God, surrounded by a community that loved me. How dare I assume to be the one forming (or needing to change) anyone. 

    Ultimately, we are only formed by God. As part of God’s creation and given free will, we can help provide a healthy, spiritual environment for children that fully welcomes and includes them in our (1) worshiping communities (leitugia), (2) allows them to accept pastoral care from us as well as giving care to us  (it’s a two-way street), (3) joins in our mission to seek and serve God in all persons (diakonia), (4) learns how to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday life (didache), and are full members of an embracing community that shows no boundaries or litmus tests (koinonia). Together we do this to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ (kerygma) in word and action in our daily lives – inside and outside the church building. Each of these areas help us (and our children) to make choices. As Lent approaches we are reminded to turn from the evil forces of our world that surround us: war, violence, greed, fortune, and fame and turn toward the ever-embracing love of God as shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

    Anyone who serves in the role of teacher or guide should know the developmental, cognitive, spiritual, and ethical stages of growth. It is the obligation of church leaders (lay and ordained) to ensure they have the training to take on these roles. There are many opportunities available for individuals who do not have an education background to increase their skills; Forma, Bexley-Seabury’s online Pathways for Baptismal Livingschool as well as other diocesan schools of formation, Building Faith, and Grow Christians to name a few. It would behoove parishes and dioceses to promote these resources to our leadership, and I would invite Fr. Jordan to check them out for use in his parish and school instead of models of antiquity from the Greeks and Romans.

    The three proposals mentioned as an “older, better way to form children” already exist in most of the congregations I have served or advised. (1) Formation is lifelong and it is imperative that we embrace multi-generational opportunities in our congregations. (2) Our desires should be toward God above all else. All people are worthy of respect and honor because we are made in the image of God. (3) Anthropomorphically, humans are ritualistic. Yes, our children need to be in worship – it is where we hear the story of God and God’s people and are fed to go forth into the world to bring about God’s shalom. Shame on those who continue to relegate children to the nursery or basement during the Holy Eucharist. 

    I have always understood that anthropology is the study of what makes us human. As a Christian, my faith informs what makes me fully human, as if I’d be anything other than full in God’s eyes. According to the Book of Common Prayer (845), we are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God. It means we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God. No matter our race, gender, ethnicity, age, or abilities we are made in God’s image and fully loved for who are, each uniquely made (Psalm 139:13-14). I do not believe it is a coincidence that “The Living Church” chose to publish this article on their Covenant blog on the same day that the governor of Texas put many of our human siblings “under the bus.” 

    My hope is that Part 2 of this commentary disassociates itself from the harmful rhetoric implied throughout this piece. It is a far cry from the teaching of Christ and our Baptismal Covenant that acknowledges all are God’s children, fully loved and uniquely created.

    I commend to “The Living Church” readership the following documents:
    ·      The Children’s Charter for the Church
    ·      Called to Teach and Learn
    ·      The Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation

    Sharon Ely Pearson, Norwalk, CT (Episcopal Church in Connecticut)
    Virginia Theological Seminary, Class of 2003

    • Jon Jordan


      First, I want to share that the “older, better way” I am referring to IS in many ways what you describe in your experience in Christian formation. In fact, what you describe in your fourth paragraph is very much what I am getting at as a good ideal for the formation process. Your experience in Christian formation sounds rich, robust, and fruitful. You have to know that this is not a universal experience in every modern church or school context, right? I am grateful to hear that you—and others—have been involved in this meaningful work for some time. But that does not mean that everyone is doing what you have been doing.

      Please understand that seeking an “older, better” is in no way a call back to the “sage on the stage” approach you describe. That approach—a cutting edge feature of the educational world at the time—to formation is one that is rooted in a poor understanding of what human beings are and what they are for, and I agree entirely with your assessment of its worth. Curriculum approaches like Godly Play are, whether they know it or not, embracing a classical approach to formation with their insistence upon using narrative and wonder as primary teaching tools for our youngest children. I am very familiar with—and a big fan of—Godly play, and like the classical tradition it insists that narrative and wonder are staples of formation for young children.

      I understand that I am asking you to trust me, a complete stranger, when I say that I am not aware of, attempting to imply, or in any way commenting on a political event in this piece. (As an aside: It may be to my own peril, but I am intentional about only consuming slow news, often weeks or months after the events take place, in order to appreciate more fully what led to them happening and the impact they have had on the communities involved.)

      It appears that your link of this piece to modern political announcements is caught up in the “rightly ordered love” language. That is unfortunate, because (1) it is based on a misunderstanding of what I am saying about rightly ordered loves, and (2) we are actually both trying to do the same thing.

      St. Augustine’s virtue ethic is rooted in ordo amoris, the right ordering of loves. It is upon this ethic that the third principle of this article rests. To use Lewis’ own summary of St. Augustine’s thought: “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.” In other words, having rightly ordered loves is about giving proper weight to various things—often various good things—according to what they were designed to bear. This means that a pupil formed towards a right ordo amoris will value human rights over profit, because human beings—absolutely all of them—are inherently more valuable than money. A formation program that does not move students towards properly honoring their fellow image bearers is not worth its salt.

      I do not believe that insisting that formation programs include giving rightful weight and value to all of God’s image-bearers is “harmful rhetoric.” In fact, I think it is exactly what you are aiming to do, too.

      There is plenty of overlap in your experience and my own. We both agree that education must be a lifelong and communal process (I called it by its Greek term paideia, you called it “embracing multi-generational opportunities”). I could go on.

      Thank you for sharing these resources with me, some of which are new, and others of which might deserve a fresh look. Godspeed on your continued work.

    • Eugene R. Schlesinger

      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.

  3. Jenifer Gamber

    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 ( 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 roots in ancient traditions?

    • Jon Jordan

      Thank you for the comment. Two quick but hopefully helpful notes:

      1. My audience is not confined to Episcopal parish formation programs. As a bivocational priest, the majority of my time is spent in formation done outside of the Episcopal parish context. If your Episcopal parish and plenty of other similar parishes are already doing robust formation that you are convinced needs no improvement, then I say “Yes, and amen” to you and yours. (That may sound sarcastic but it is not meant to be. If you are doing excellent formation work, praise God and keep going.)
      2. Episcopal parish-based formation programs make up an astronomically minute percentage of the formation of children that takes place in our country. Your Episcopal parish-based formation may be doing wonderful work, but the overwhelming majority of children in our country are not attending your programs, or mine.

      So this post, and the series that follows, has in mind some principles of formation that folks in any context might be able to use to more fully form Christian children.

      • Jenifer Gamber

        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.

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