I have spent a large part of my life in Christian education, first as a teacher and headteacher and then, in the last 18 years, as a teacher of educational practitioners at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. My wife and I also spend time most years in India and Nepal helping to envision and equip Christian teachers.

But despite being a strong supporter of Christian schools and colleges, I have long had a deep unease about them. That unease concerns their missional task. Schools as we know them today in the Western secular world are just not fit for that purpose—I see too much evidence that many Christian schools do not do very well as regards Christian formation and discipleship. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that Christian schools can be effective only if they are embedded in a Christian Community with an authentically Christian culture. In particular, Christian schools should intentionally locate their students in a Christian history of their school that links into the Christian history of their community, of their country, and into the great Biblical story. Thus far in my thinking I had been particularly influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre (especially After Virtue, 1981) and by the Catholic anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle (e.g. Out of Chaos, 1988; Earthing the Gospel, 1990; Refounding the Church, 1993; From Chaos to Mission, 1996). I am still confident that the intuition is right, but I did not feel that I had got to the nub of my unease and it has only been very recently that I have understood that unease as I have been marinating in James K.A. Smith's Cultural Liturgies trilogy.

  • Smith, James K.A. (2009) Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies Volume 1), Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic.
  • Smith, James K.A. (2013) Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies Volume 2), Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic.
  • Smith, James K.A. (forthcoming) Embodying the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies Volume 3), Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic.

David Koyzis (Professor and Chair, Political Science, Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario) has an insightful review, Shaping the heart, not just the mind: Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist, 15 September 2010, https://byzantinecalvinist.blogspot.ca/2010/09/shaping-heart-not-just-mind.html, (accessed 19 April 2013)

My recent courses have been based in experiential learning (generally known as action reflection learning in theological circles) and in worldview awareness and critique. Smith's trilogy fully supports these, but demands some fairly radical re-thinking on how we bring about the Christian learning and reflection we desire for our students (see also James K.A. Smith (2011) Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty, and Desiring the Kingdom: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk, Pro Rege (Dordt College quarterly faculty publication) 39 (4), June 2011, pages 15-24, (https://www.scribd.com/doc/41552773/Worldview-Sphere-Sovereignty-and-DTK-A-Guide-for-Perplexed-Reformed-Folk, last accessed 24 April 2013) and the book co-edited with his Calvin College colleague, David I Smith (2011), Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

I can only say that I think that Smith's trilogy is very significant indeed for Christians reflecting on education. For me it clarified the insight that 'teaching,' 'learning,' 'knowledge,' and similar terms refer first and foremost to our concrete experiences of everyday life. Subsequently (secondarily) they can be analysed theoretically, but the concrete reality of everyday life is primary.

Western approaches to formal education have overwhelmingly emphasised cognitive channels of learning and reflection. What Smith does is remind us that—like the bulk of an iceberg that lies unseen beneath the water surface—the majority of our learning occurs through formative practices that shape the background drama of our lives and 'tune' us in ways that evade our thinking and even elude our awareness. In a secular world we are immersed in practices that recruit our imagination and feelings and form our habits and dispositions in ways that act against formation for Christian discipleship and mission. Much of what we do is "not the fruit of conscious deliberation but is rather the outcome of an acquired habitual disposition." (Smith 2013: 141). We "are unwittingly conscripted into stories that are rival tellings of what's in store for the world" (ibid).

We must, therefore, seek out—if necessary create—those right environments and communities of practice where we and our students can immerse ourselves in formative routines and rituals (what Smith calls cultural liturgies) that will retune our hearts and reform our habits and dispositions back into line with the grain of creation, and with what God has planned for His world. Intentional cognitive reflection is essential, but works effectively only when it is immersed in Christian formative practices, and is not merely reflection on practice. We learn as whole, active beings, not just as minds.

Put another way, we learn primarily through our bodies. For many, Christian education fails (fails to form committed disciples), because we have minds loaded with Christian thinking but our bodies (our emotions, habits and dispositions) are formed in an overwhelmingly secular environment and trained to function in secular ways. Almost unawares, the secular bodily formation wins much of the time:

[So we should not be surprised that, on average, unbelieving parents see their unbelief successfully passed on to almost 100% of their children, but religious parents see their faith passed on to barely 50% of their children (Crockett & Voas 2006, NatCen Social Research 2011, Voas 2005, Voas & Crockett 2005.) For more on the influence of secularism see Jones, 2013].

Finally, here are some relevant and helpful quotes from James Smith:

…I make three intertwined proposals in the book [Desiring the Kingdom, 2009], all indebted to Saint Augustine, that patron saint of the Reformers: first, I sketch an alternative anthropology that emphasizes the primacy of love and the priority of the imagination in shaping our identity and governing our orientation to the world; second, I emphasize the education is also about the formation ("aiming") of our love and desire, and that such formation happens through embodied, communal rituals we might call "liturgies"—including a range of "secular" liturgies that are pedagogies of desire; third, given the formative priority of liturgical practices, I argue that the task of Christian education needs to be resituated within the ecclesial practices of Christian worship and liturgical formation. In other words, we need to reconnect worship and worldview, church and college (Smith, James K.A. (2011) Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty, and Desiring the Kingdom: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk, Pro Rege 39 (4), June 2011, page 16, https://www.scribd.com/doc/41552773/Worldview-Sphere-Sovereignty-and-DTK-A-Guide-for-Perplexed-Reformed-Folk).
The ultimate upshot of my argument is to suggest that educating for Christian action will require attending to the formation of our unconscious, to the priming and training of our emotions, which shape our perceptions of the world. And if such training happens through narratives, then educating for Christian action will require an education that is framed by participation in the Christian story. Our shorthand term for such a narrative practice is worship (Imagining the Kingdom, 2013, page 38).
…if Christian formation (and Christian education) is going to foster Christian action for the kingdom, such formation needs to be nothing short of a sanctification of our perception. And that requires formative measures that are fundamentally aesthetic and imaginative. We need to be moved, not merely convinced (ibid, page 166).
We absorb Christian faith as a mode of "practical sense," not primarily by the didactic dissemination of content, but rather through our immersion in an ethos and an environment, where the Story is in the air we breathe and the water in which we swim, operative in the background in ways we might not always realize (ibid, page 174).


Crockett, Alasdair & Voas, David (2006) "Generations of Decline: Religious Change in 20th-Century Britain." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45 (4), December 2006, pages 567-584

Jones, Arthur (2013) Introduction to Christian Education 2: Culture of Death?—Secularism and its Consequences for Family and Society, All of Life Redeemed, https://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/jones.htm

NatCen Social Research (2011), British Social Attitudes 28. London, National Centre for Social Research.

Voas, David (2005) "Religious Decline in the UK: Blame Parents Not the Churches" The Edge, Issue 19, June 2005, page 20 https://www.esrc.ac.uk/_images/The Edge 19_tcm8-8226.pdf

Voas, David, and Crockett, Alasdair, "Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging," Sociology, 39 (1), February 2005, pages 11-28.

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