I’m giving you my permission to leave this blog today and to go and buy Thomas Groome’s new book on building a more modern religious education ministry. Will There Be Faith? takes the title as its premise directly asking the larger question of whether faith can survive in the state it is in today. Groome deftly reminds people who bemoan the state of religious education today (and at times, I’ve been one of them) that we are facing an entirely new climate in the world when it comes to religion. Not that long ago, faith was presumed by most. People would readily religiously educate their children. Today more than ever before religious adherence is becoming outmoded in favor of “moral therapeutic deism” a term coined by Christian Smith a well known sociologist who I’ve quoted at length here often.

I go a step beyond Smith’s characterization of the religious climate as describe the world as “Googlism” — meaning, that people want God on their terms and instantly. People aren’t random spiritual searchers in my view, rather they search for God only when they feel they need guidance or direction or simply a nice shot in the arm (a hat tip to Dr. Smith’s theory here).

Dr. Groome on the other hand has given us much to chew on in his “It-takes-a-village-schemetic-diagram” of religious education. He claims that we need a new model of religious education–one centered on Jesus and the actual life experiences of those we aim to educate. The model as he puts it is from “life-to Faith-to life.” And he starts by stating that Jesus used this exact model himself by employing the teaching methods:

-Beginning with people’s lives
-encouraging their own reflections
-teaching them His gospel with authority
-Inviting them to see for themselves, to take his teaching to heart, and
– Encouraging their decisions for lived faith as disciples

Groome masterfully weaves stories into his chapters, many from his own life, including a touching tale about a former student who he met at a conference who welled up because he remembered him by name. Perhaps that indeed is a greater point: religious education thrives when we insist on knowing the members of the community well. He details this throughout his pages extremely well, at time explicitly calling for the practice and others demonstrating it by the practices he encourages himself.

His first four chapters details much of the whys in modern religious education and he forms his reader to be able to understand what the blueprint for what we would like to experience with persons (both adults and children) in terms of how we religiously educate.

The second half of the book I found most helpful. His description of total community catechesis in these chapters are in great detail. I often wondered how this would practically work and Groome sold me from the get-go. I even realized that we used this model in our parish for our marriage ministry and he allowed me to be able to outline some further steps in educating our engaged couples in the faith.

An amazing storyteller, Groome reminds us that family is the primary educator of religion, something that’s always been true in my experience both personally and anecdotally from others I’ve known. My parents certainly talked about religion with me and it became a part of who I am. My childhood friends had a more lukewarm experience. They received their sacraments and promptly took a vacation from church after confirmation. He lauds parishes that respect families enough to let them be the primary educators of religion but also, give them enough tools to be able to do a great job at it.

This book should be required reading in all schools of pastoral theology and ministry. I plan to buy it for my LifeLong Faith Formation Director and it gave me the confidence to figure out how I can do a better job of religiously educating students and young adults and allowed me to see what’s already going well.

I have two small quibbles:

1) The book lacks a bit on ideas about evangelization of younger people. I can see someone saying “I’d love to engage people with Total Community Catechesis–if they were here in the first place.” He does offer some thoughts on the parish as witness which will certainly have evangelization effects. I think his thought on starting with some life events and having a shared experience of these to serve as the jumping off point for further education will also attract some, but not all, I fear.

2) With the above point in mind, I would submit that time is an element here that could be problematic in his model. He does admit a need for technology to help with serving the needs of young people (meetings on Skype, use of social media), but I wonder how many young people would take the time to deeply reflect on a life experience and then spend time in community sharing. Evangelical churches have done this with great success, but I still see a lot of push back on how lengthy the programmatics of what he proposes might be. Groome sheepishly also admits that there are more choices today and that Jesus often offered people an opportunity to engage with him and some just left completely. (The Rich Young Man comes to mind).

In all though, Groome’s book is ultimately a boon. Our communities he challenges need to realize that “Christian socialization that was once acquired in the village simply by osmosis must now be intentionally organized & planned” That would include not just a school model but also a community model.

Who are we called to teach? That might be the question Groome asks each one of us. The answer is: “We’re called to teach all with our lives and because of that we have to celebrate those lives with much fanfare.

So grab Tom Groome’s new book. If you aren’t familiar with Dr. Groome, he’s one of the foremost religious educators in the world and he is at Boston College.