“Our Calling in Education” as a Teaching Document for the Church

[1] One of the stated purposes for this draft social statement of the ELCA, “Our Calling in Education,” is as a teaching document for the church. This evaluation attempts to examine that purpose, but it does so from the background of the Lutheran Church of Australia and hence from a context somewhat different from that for which it was written. However, from the outset it can be affirmed that the draft document would also prove to be a very valuable teaching document in the Australian context.

[2] The draft document challenges the church at all levels, congregation, district, synod, and in all its educational institutions and ministries, to address again basic questions relating to the calling of the church in education both within the church and also generally within society.

[3] The first section of the draft, “Why Do We Care?,” is a very tightly argued theological basis for the consideration of the subsequent sections of the document. Here the Lutheran legacy of education developed on the writings of Luther is also identified. The inclusion of references in the document to the writings of Luther is an important reminder of the impact which Luther has had on educational thinking and one which is often insufficiently emphasized.

[4] This theological introduction is critical to the document as a teaching document, for unless these theological foundations are clearly articulated and appreciated, much of the subsequent discussion could drift into little more than pious opinion. In working through this section, the excellent supporting articles for the original study, “Our Calling in Education: A Lutheran Study,” would be indispensable additional reading since the current document can outline only briefly the relevant theological concerns.

[5] Basing the theological presuppositions for the educational calling of the church on the three articles of the Creed provides an excellent structure for this first section, and one which is familiar for study purposes. It also ensures that there is a balanced examination of the implications of a Trinitarian approach to education. Too often in a Lutheran approach to educational issues there can be a focus on the second article of the creed with little attention being given to the important concerns raised by the first and third articles.

[6] The consideration in this document begins, therefore, from the first article and locates education clearly in theology of creation. Education is thus seen as part of God’s continuing creation for the benefit of all people, whether or not they recognise God as creator. However, the document is also realistic about the impact of sin in the world and the way God continues to preserve, protect, and bless the creation. This emphasis is an important corrective to approaches to education which have an over-optimistic view of the human condition, but it also avoids the danger of seeing human beings in too negative a light rather than as part of God’s continuing good creation through whom God continues to work as his “masks.”

[7] In dealing with the person and work of the Holy Spirit, this first section of the document develops a critical area of theology which has been somewhat neglected in the past but which is crucial in the current context. This is the insight developed by Luther on “vocation.” Thus the draft reads: “We care about education because the Church has been given the distinctive mandate to educate in the faith for vocation-to instruct, form, and bring forth faithful, courageous, and wise disciples to live out their baptismal vocation in Church and world” (p. 8-9). Developing an understanding of vocation and its implications for issues such as service to others, social justice, care for the world, and building up community through the joyful sharing of gifts, is one of the key areas in which this draft can function as a vital teaching document in the church at all levels.

[8] In the second section of the draft important issues are raised relating to faith formation and the link between teaching and baptism. Of particular interest here is the theological reflection on childhood (p. 12-13). The respective roles of home and congregation in faith formation require extensive exploration also in the Australian Lutheran scene and many parents need education and support in assuming responsibilities for which they feel ill equipped. One issue which may need to be explored further is the home as a “domestic church” where the home is no longer the stable environment which it once was because of marriage breakdown and other social pressures. What support do children and adults need in handling these complex and changing situations?

[9] A key issue for discussion in Australian Lutheran congregations is lifelong learning in the faith. In many congregations, confirmation instruction virtually marks the end of formal teaching in the faith. The draft document rightly asks (p. 17): “Can Christians of all ages be faithful in their vocation with its ever-changing challenges without a continuous discipline of study and faith formation?” Is, for example, the reluctance of congregation members to be active in evangelism the result of a lack of confidence in expressing their faith to others and of being unprepared “to give an answer to everyone who asks [them] to give the reason for the hope which [they] have” (1 Peter 3:15)? In this regard, addressing questions such as those on pages 18 and 19 is critical.

[10] While the schooling situation in Australia is significantly different from that in the USA (for example, more than 30 percent of students are enrolled in private schools which receive substantial financial support from the government), the role of the church as a significant dialogue partner with the state in educational questions currently being addressed in all schools is an important challenge for further investigation. While the Australian Lutheran Church has invested considerable resources in Lutheran schools, the draft document provides an important reminder of teachers and students who are engaged in state schools and who need appropriate care and support. The Australian church also needs to address questions of equity and access which the document identifies.

[11] The fourth section of the document raises some crucial questions for church educational institutions, also for those in Australia. The relationship between church and school can be a particularly sensitive one, especially where confusion arises about the nature of the church school in its prime function as an educational institution and the opportunity for outreach and nurture by the church through the school. A fundamental question here is what makes a school “Lutheran'”and what is the nature of education in Lutheran institutions. The more recent discussion which has been happening in ELCA Colleges and Universities has been particularly helpful for Australian Lutheran schools, as the issues raised have resonated strongly with concerns in the Australian scene. Again here, the focus on vocation is particularly helpful, for example in refocussing “vocation” from “what I want” to “what the world needs from me” and in helping students to experience their learning as “vocation” rather than preparation for “vocation.” Questions of anthropology, epistemology and the formation of community have also been identified as important discussion issues in the current educational context.

[12] The double question put by the draft document, “Will our church have schools and colleges?” and “Will our schools and colleges have a church?” challenges the church and its educational institutions to clarify roles and expectations for the benefit of both partners. Can there be a real partnership of mutual support with the responsibilities of each partner clearly articulated and any areas of tension addressed? Here the theological basis developed in the first section provides important insights.

[13] For the Australian scene, with only one relatively small Lutheran tertiary institution (Australian Lutheran College) this document also questions whether the Australian church needs to consider further options in higher education, especially to support the rapidly growing Lutheran school sector and also to provide resources, also additional web-based learning opportunities, for the support of lifelong learning in the church.

[14] The final section deals with the provision of campus ministry in the public higher education institutions. Lutheranism had its beginnings in the university world, and Lutheran theology has much to offer in the discussion of questions currently being raised in higher educational discussions. Support for Lutheran students and staff involved in this dialogue needs adequate resources so that individuals feel confident to be public and open about their faith in the pluralistic campus environment in which they are working. Have congregations, for example, explored the use of mentors for young people in tertiary studies, using members of the congregation who have backgrounds in the particular fields of study or generally in business or professional life?

[15] This draft social statement, “Our Calling in Education,” is certainly a document to stimulate discussion in the church and to allow all levels in the church to reconsider the shape and challenges of that calling in the current context in which the church operates. As indicated, it should prove to be a valuable teaching document, not only for the specific situation of the ELCA for which it was prepared, but also for other Lutheran churches such as the Lutheran Church of Australia. In preparing it, the taskforce has done a great service for the church which now needs to ensure that the teaching potential of the statement is realized to the glory of God.

Mark W. Bartusch

Mark W. Bartusch is Associate Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.