Christian education as used here includes all the methods Mennonites have used to impart Biblical knowledge and faith to their children with special reference to the non-institutional means. These methods include home instruction, catechetical instruction, Sunday schools, young people's work, daily vacation Bible schools, weekday church schools, Bible conferences, Winter Bible schools, and study classes. As some of these methods will be treated in detail elsewhere in the encyclopedia, the purpose here is to show the historical sequence and something of their interrelation.
The Anabaptist movement, though inaugurated partly by theologically trained men, was primarily a movement of. the common people. Especially was this so as persecution removed the trained leaders and forced the movement underground. Education in its secular aspect as well as theological education held no appeal for them, for it was precisely with the educated men that they disagreed. Yet the Anabaptists and early Mennonites were forced to a Christian education of their own type for two very cogent reasons. First, their reliance on the Scriptures as the final authority demanded that every man be able to read and interpret them for himself. Secondly, the responsibility for bringing up children so that they would voluntarily choose the right enforced a kind of child training that was real Christian education. Menno himself wrote specifically on the education of children, pointing out the special responsibility which Christian parents have for their own children. "For why," he asks, "teach those not of our own household when we take no pains to preserve our own families in the love and fear of God?" As to content, Menno emphasized first the need of moral instruction—that children fear and love God, walk in modesty, honor and obey parents, use good language and be truthful, not stubborn and self-willed nor seeking worldly honor, fame, or wealth. He urged also that children be instructed in reading and writing and further that they be taught habits of industry and be given an opportunity to learn a trade. As to method it is primarily home training that he relied upon. Parents are first to show themselves as patterns and examples; they are to start early and train children from youth up, teaching them in proportion to their degree of understanding; they are to admonish children with strictness, yet without bitterness or anger. It was this type of parental training that was the basis of early Mennonite Christian education. In fact some such type of home training has been recognized as desirable by Mennonites through the centuries.
Among the Hutterian Brethren with their communal type of living child training early developed into schools of the more formal pattern which were operated by the Bruderhof. They were apparently limited to primary schools with women as teachers for the kindergarten and men for the older children. Both Peter Rideman's Rechenschaft, written in 1545, and a Hutterite Schulordnung of 1578 reveal a deep sense of responsibility for child training and outline relatively advanced methods whereby children were trained according to their abilities with kindness though also with strictness. Beginning with Scripture and prayer, which children early learned to repeat, they were taught about God and His purposes, then obedience to parents and from that obedience to God. The last stage of education was the teaching of some kind of work or trade to which their talents were bent. Thus equipped young people were expected to "seek eternal things" and were ready fox baptism on confession of faith and to take their place in the Christian community.
With the emphasis on Christian training in the home, catechisms came into common use. Originally written as statements or explanations of faith, they came to be enlarged into home devotional, booklets. Friedmann, in his Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries, discusses in detail the composition and purpose of some of these which became popular. The earliest were published by Dutch authors: P. J. Twisck in 1633, Reynier Wijbrants in 1640, and T. J. van Braght, the author of the Martyrs' Mirror, in 1657. Very popular among the North-German Mennonites were van Sittert's Christliches Glaubensbekentnus of 1664, published in Amsterdam, and the anonymous Prussian Confession oder kurzes und einfältiges Glaubensbekenntnis of 1660. They were originally similar in content and purpose and became more so in later editions through borrowing. Both were prepared as guides for devotional practice or private worship and as such became popular in family worship and home training of children in religion and morals. The family use of the latter book is indicated by the fact that it was printed in the German language one hundred years before Prussian Mennonites permitted the change from Dutch to German in the pulpit. The host of successive editions of these books indicates their popularity and wide circulation among Mennonites in Germany, Russia, and America. A third booklet equally popular but more specifically a prayer book was the Ernsthafte Christenpflicht of 1739, which drew from Swiss sources. Through these books and many others less popular but of the same type, children and youth were taught the essentials of Christian truth. The Russian manual particularly was apparently designed for the examination of young candidates. American adaptations of these materials and English translations, along with the Bible, have until the mid-20th century been the instructional materials in catechism classes in America. Such classes, usually taught by the pastor and supplemented by home teaching, were characteristic of most Mennonite branches in America as the preparation for church membership.
As the catechism method became more formalized, efforts were made to adapt it to new conditions. This was particularly true in America as the Great Awakening of the early 19th century revitalized spiritual life and fostered new organizations. The Sunday school was one of these new developments, coming into American life after 1810. Being originally an institution of the English language churches, it was slow in making itself acceptable to the German-speaking Mennonites, coming in largely after 1860. Some preparation was found in adaptations of the catechism method, such as the Kinderlehre of J. H. Oberholtzer, as early as 1847. Here the children were gathered together on Sundays to practice singing and memorize Scripture and catechism. The pastor was prominent in the work but others assisted. Though strictly speaking not a Sunday school, this method had some of the features of the Sunday school and was one of the earliest attempts in that direction. A few Sunday schools arc known to have had brief existence in connection with Mennonite churches about this time but real Sunday schools on a permanent basis were not organized for at least another ten years. By the 1870s there were a considerable number and the first Sunday-school convention among Mennonite churches (General Conference Mennonite) was held in Philadelphia in 1876. In the 1890s such conventions became popular gatherings in most conferences, and Sunday schools were current in all congregations except those few more conservative branches which resisted in principle all innovations. For many it was regarded as the main agency for religious instruction of the young and was attended by all children. The International Uniform Lessons were mainly used but graded lessons were provided in many churches, and publishing houses of the different branches provided a variety of helps both for the International Uniform and for the graded lessons.
In the Netherlands Sunday schools, by the 1950s found in nearly all congregations for children from about 6 to 12 years, started shortly after 1900. In Germany, Switzerland, and France it started much later, largely after World War II. Educational materials for Sunday schools and summer Bible schools in these latter countries were being published under the sponsorship of a joint committee representing the Mennonite Publishing House of Scottdale, PA, and the interested groups in the European countries.
In Holland most Mennonite churches now have Sunday schools (for children only). The West Hill type for children and adolescent youth was largely introduced only since 1920. Sunday schools were just being introduced in the 1950s into the Mennonite churches of Switzerland, Alsace, and South Germany.
Another form of activity closely related to Christian education was the work of young people's societies. The experience in expression and administration and self-directed study and service made the various forms of young people's work recognized as efficient aids in the training of young people for the church. In as far as such work was introduced as an innovation it, like Sunday schools, was accepted slowly. Especially was this true where interdenominational contacts were involved. There is record of a young people's society organized in the Halstead, KS, church (GCM) as early as 1885 and one in the Hereford (GCM) church in Pennsylvania in 1886. The latter was associated with the Christian Endeavor movement. Before 1900 there were young people's conventions in some areas and in general young people's meetings were sanctioned. One of the most profitable developments of young people's work was the retreats which became common in the second quarter of the 20th century. Here a strong evangelistic emphasis combined with serious study of Mennonite heritage and a voluntary service program. (See Christian Endeavor.)
Among the Mennonites (MC), young people's activities appeared in the form of young people's Bible meetings with active Sunday evening services. As early as 1877 the Ontario Mennonite Conference (MC) had taken official action to approve youth gatherings. The young people's Bible meeting, however, very likely developed out of the earlier children's meetings. The Prairie Street Mennonite Church of Elkhart, IN, in 1887 changed its children's meetings into a young people's meeting. A serious and systematic Bible study developed in these meetings based on a conference publication called The Program Builder and edited tor this purpose.
In Holland youth activities started about 1920 (see Doopsgezinde Jeugdraad, Doopsgezinde Jongerenbond; Friese Doopsgezinde Jongeren Bond). Much the same time young people's work was started in South Germany (see Jugendkommission), and somewhat later in Switzerland. In France it began only recently, largely since World War II; whereas in Holland youth activities consisted largely of what the young people did for themselves, in the other countries they consisted largely of what the conferences and congregations did for their youth.
The Daily Vacation Bible School movement found a response among Mennonite churches in the 1920s but it was only beginning in the 1930s that serious attention was paid to this form of Christian education. In 1948 the Mennonite Publishing House of Scottdale, PA, issued the Herald Press Summer Bible School Series designed to provide pupils' material in workbook form and a teacher's guide for thirteen age levels from nursery to the second year of high school. This was the culmination of several years of activity and growth in summer Bible schools in which the demand was realized for material which should be consistent with the basic Anabaptist-Mennonite philosophy that "faith and doctrine are to be expressed in dynamic Christian living." The course proved very popular and the first printing, expected to last for several years, was sold out the first summer. The Mennonite Church (MC), which sponsored the printing of the series reported 609 summer Bible schools with a total enrollment of 64,307 pupils for the year 1951. The General Conference Mennonite Church, next largest in membership, adopted the same series with modifications to suit and reported 127 Bible schools with 5,845 pupils enrolled for 1950. The series is used widely by Protestant groups other than Mennonite as well as by various Mennonite branches.
Mennonites have also participated in weekday church schools in which public-school pupils are gathered for religious instruction. In some cases such classes have met in the school building and were taught by a minister or a church worker at designated periods; in other cases they have met in the church with the children released from school for the period. Afternoon or evening classes held outside of school time and meeting at the church are modifications of the same plan but not on released time.
Although it is not the purpose of this article to go into the part played by educational institutions in Christian education, yet it must be pointed out that such institutions have been an essential part of the whole program. Before the middle of the 19th century there was among the Mennonites no conception of education apart from Christian education. Such secular education as there was, was given in parochial schools or private schools. The former invariably regarded moral and spiritual training as its basic responsibility. Parochial schools only gradually blended into the American public school system and in some communities still persist. In others again attempts were made in in the 1940s and 1950s to revive this type of school. Church-sponsored Bible schools and high schools have grown out of the parochial school while colleges and seminaries have also found their primary purpose in relating modern education to Christian faith and living as taught by the church.
In the Mennonite Church (MC), short term Bible schools for older young people, held for two to six weeks during the winter, came into being about 1900 starting at Goshen College. The movement has spread, until in the 1950s some twenty such schools served over a thousand students in an effective adult education program.
Bible Conferences have been popular chiefly in North America but also in Europe to a lesser degree (South Germany, Switzerland, France, and Russia) since about 1900 and have also served well in adult education.
Many congregations in North America, particularly among the Mennonites (MC), have used weekday evening study classes in Bible study, missions, doctrine, teacher training, etc., as an effective adult education method. In the Mennonite Church (MC) a systematic and comprehensive program of promotion of these study classes has been developed.
In the highly organized North American churches, centralized direction, or at least promotion, co-ordination, and assistance of the church-wide program of Christian education has developed, particularly in the Mennonite Church (MC). In this group the Commission for Christian Education after 1937 and its predecessor, the General Sunday School Committee founded in 1913, served this function.
In Europe outside of Russia the program of Christian education has been far less comprehensive than in America and largely limited to catechetical instruction, except for the Bible schools and Bible conferences. In Russia, however, the Mennonite school program, with its village schools and higher schools, incorporated regular religious instruction and was the chief agency for the Christian education of children and youth. -- SFP
As a ministry mandated by Jesus, Christian education is essentially (but not exclusively) the ongoing unfolding of his gospel to believers and their children, "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you'' (Matthew 28:20). As used in this article it refers to all the provisions made by Mennonite Christians through church and home for persons of all ages to grow into the Christian life and to mature in commitment to Christ and his kingdom. The educational methods have included family nurture, formal instruction, prebaptismal experience, and postbaptismal discipling.
Developments in the general field of Christian education in the 20th century have given Mennonite educators new resources by which to review the validity and improve the effectiveness of their teaching methods. First, there have been new designs for the teaching curriculum, e.g., the Cooperative Curriculum Project, begun in 1960 (Sunday School literature). These designs generated the standard curricular principles of comprehensiveness, balance, and sequence that guided the production of many denominational curriculum projects, including for Mennonites the Living Faith Guided Sunday School Series (1960-72), its successor, The Foundation Series (1972-1993) and the Jubilee Series (1994- ).
Second, behind the new designs was a more integrative body of theory of how learning which may be called Christian is guided. For Mennonites as well as for other groups, Christian education has become a self-conscious academic discipline, especially in theological schools and denominational commissions. This is largely the fruit of the recovery of Biblical and historical theology since 1941 when H. Shelton Smith published his work on Faith and nurture.
For Mennonite educators the integrative principle of Christian education is a doctrine of discipleship that incorporates those processes that are valid in family nurture, formal schooling, and the supervised experience of the learner. Nurture, instruction, and experience do not always imply discipleship, but discipleship always incorporates these other educational processes into a more integrative whole.
Like the ancient Hebrew people after their exodus from Egypt, the Mennonites emerging front the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation carried on an informal religious nurture that transmitted the faith to each succeeding generation of members. The context of Christian nurture for adults as well as children may be the church or community in which religion is intertwined with all the other affairs of communal life; but predominantly it is the smaller, more intimate, circle of the Christian family. During its long formative period under persecution, Anabaptists developed a "family school" type of education that was unique in two ways.
First, it developed a view of children that was new in Reformation history. In refutation of the Reformers' charge that their rejection of infant baptism would cause them to abandon child training and treat their unbaptized children as unbelievers, the Anabaptist developed and explicated the belief that prior to the age of accountability, children are covered by the atonement of Christ and are thus saved in the life to come, whether baptized or not.
Second, it emphasized the parental-communal responsibility for bringing up children so that they would voluntarily choose the way of faith and discipleship. Writing to underground churches in a tract entitled, "The nurture of children" (ca. 1557), Menno Simons charged the elders of the Dutch and North German Anabaptist congregations as well as the parents to teach their children as the ancient Hebrews had taught theirs, by binding the words of the Lord as frontlets between their eyes and as inscriptions on the doorposts of their houses, talking about them when they sit in their houses and when they walk by the way (Dt 6:7-9). They were first to show themselves as "patterns and examples," but Menno also stressed the need for moral formation in the home so that children both fear and love the Lord and behave according to the purest moral values of the community. This early Anabaptist concept of nurture was developed further by Pilgram Marpeck for the South German Anabaptists and by Peter Riedemann and Peter Walpot for the Hutterian communities in Moravia.
In certain respects the early Anabaptist nurture system anticipated the 19th-century work on Christian nurture by Horace Bushnell, except that in their isolated circumstances the Mennonites and Hutterites were unable to be as perceptive and self-critical as Bushnell was in seeking to evaluate and improve the Christian family nurture of his time. For Bushnell, Christian nurture is essentially a fostering relationship in which the highest values and best way of life of the fostering group are propagated in their children as naturally and by a law as truly organic as when the sap of the trunk flows into a limb. From a 20th century perspective the early nurture concepts of Menno Simons and his Anabaptist contemporaries suffered from too much moralism and excessively harsh discipline. Both of these weaknesses stemmed from the assumption that the conduct of children was the highest end of nurture rather than the attitudes of faith, hope, and love. For Menno "an unrestrained child becomes as headstrong as an untamed horse. Give him no liberty in his youth and wink not at his follies. Bow down the neck while be is young, lest he wax stubborn and be disobedient." The main objectives in early Mennonite and Hutterite childrearing were submission and obedience to elders, with the rooting out of self-will. Disobedience required punishment, often with the rod and often with the intention of "breaking the will." In spite of these faults, Mennonites continue to emphasize family nurture, more recently through conference-wide commissions on family life education.
From the beginning of the movement, no doubt in part because of the inherent limitations of family nurture, there was a tendency to supplement the latter with more formal instruction in schools sponsored by the churches. This shift was already at work in the Hutterian communities in which most of the functions of nurturing the children were transferred from the parents to selected female teachers for ages 2-5 (the so-called "Little School") and male teachers for ages 6-12 (the "Big School"). In their separatist school system, emigrant Mennonite groups in Prussia and Russia were also compelled to provide for the total education of their children, which over time meant the development of a more elaborate school system on the elementary, secondary and higher levels of education.
In North America, with its separation of church and state and its free public schools, the Mennonites could concentrate more on specifically religious education with particular reference to a more systematic teaching of the Bible, which had always been accepted as the divinely inspired, authoritative, trustworthy guide to faith and discipleship. This took the form of church-sponsored Bible schools of various types, but in time chiefly of the congregational Sunday school, an agency borrowed from the broader Protestant Sunday school movement. The adoption of this method was not without internal opposition, but in-group leaders prevailed by working constantly to give it a content and form congenial to Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and practice.
This was especially the character of the closely graded cooperative Anabaptist Sunday school curriculum called The Foundation Series, jointly published in the 1970s and 1980s by the Mennonite Church, General Conference Mennonite Church, and Brethren in Christ, with the Church of the Brethren joining as a "cooperative user." The initial series was designed for children through grade 8, including preschool and kindergarten. It was then enlarged to include youth, grades 9-12, and adults (see below). The Church of the Brethren became a "publishing partner" in these additional series with the Mennonite Brethren Church participating as a "cooperative user."
The Foundation Series, designed to emphasize the distinctive qualities of an Anabaptist (believers church) heritage from a biblical perspective, was thoroughly revised in 1985-86. Regional and congregational teacher-training workshops were planned and administered by the respective participant denominational Christian education commissions.
Partly because the new series placed high demands on teacher preparation, some churches within these groups and most other Mennonite groups prefer to use other Sunday school materials. For groups not using The Foundation Series, the next most frequently used curriculum for adults is the older international Uniform Series, adapted by many denominational and nondenominational national publishers. For children a variety of nondenominational lessons have been used.
The Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church introduced a new Jubilee: God's Good News curriculum in the 1990s, to incorporate newer pedagogical techniques. The Brethren in Church Church and the Church of the Brethren were publishing partners in the project. The Mennonite Brethren Church was a supporting denomination.
The Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church together publish Builder: an educational magazine for congregational leaders in two editions: a Uniform Series edition with Sunday-to-Sunday teaching aids and a general edition for Jubilee Series teachers and congregational leaders. The latter edition is made available through each of the participant denominations in the series.
The weakness of formal instruction, like that of family nurture, comes at the point where it is supposed to carry the total function of Christian education in the congregation. Then it tends to degenerate into transmitting precertified content without necessarily contributing to the larger purpose of the person's continuing relationship to Christ as Lord. Some teachers complained that The Foundation Series was difficult to teach and demanded too much of lay teachers; and they were tempted to take shortcuts or revert to the easier-to-teach Uniform Series, with the constant temptation to moralize every lesson. The Jubilee series attempted to address some of these concerns. The superficiality of many Sunday school classes was also offset in part by an improved Summer (Vacation) Bible School program of one- or two-week duration. It is a popular time of focused study and creative expression for children of all ages, sometimes sponsored by a group of cooperating churches with their best lay leadership.
The perils of formalized instruction require a third motif in Christian education, which leaders with Anabaptist (believers church) perspective usually conceptualize as "discipleship" -- a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord in the fellowship of the church through which one learns not only by informal nurture and formal instruction but also by firsthand experience of living in God's kingdom with mature mentoring in the Christian fellowship. As Jesus taught, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me" (Matthew 11:29).
Given the inherent difficulties of family nurture and school instruction, 20th-century Mennonite educators have recast baptismal instruction into a mold more flexible and discipleship-oriented than the older rote forms of catechism, Newer manuals have been published, for example, Experiencing Christ in the church: a resource book for youth and adults preparing for church membership by Ernest Martin (MC) and Preparation for covenant life by Frank Keller (GCM). Moreover, The Foundation Series for youth, with its educational materials on basic Christian beliefs and the enduring emphases of the Anabaptist vision, was largely oriented toward the imminent commitment of youth to Christ as Savior and Lord in the context of the church as people of God.
Preparation for baptism is further augmented by youth-group work and the church camping program. Work with youth groups has shifted from an auxiliary program with the traditional three-phase approach of worship, service, and fellowship, to a type of apprenticeship. in this approach mentors guide teenagers in a kind of parachurch experience in which issues are discerned and tentative commitments are made. Members of local youth groups then gather at all-church youth conferences connected with the North American denominational assemblies.
Moreover, district and provincially owned church camps have come to be significant centers for the more informal study of the Bible and the deeper meaning of the Christian faith. The experience of "coming apart" into a nature setting for a continuous period of time is especially effective during campfire services of decision and commitment.
For adults The Foundation Series provided a continuing succession of study books designed as aids to a more wholistic discipling process. They reflected the distinctive aspects of the Anabaptist vision of the Christian faith, e.g., "the agenda of the people of God," "faith pilgrimage through life's stages," and "living in the Spirit." The trend in adult education in Mennonite congregations is to move from knowledge and information about the Word of God to application in the human life situations of believers in congregation and community beyond the bounds of the Sunday school classroom. To accomplish the larger goal, church members are being pushed to a more transformational personal and corporate discernment of what the Lord expects of followers in all facets of daily life. One key to this discipling process is accountability, another theme being incorporated into study guides for adults.
Implicit in the foregoing paragraphs are numerous problems for the modern theology of Christian education, the discussion of which are beyond the scope of the present article, e.g., the doctrine of the church as the structured context in which learning from Jesus takes place. Although the nature of authentic Christian discipleship is subject to considerable mystery and ambiguity in the church today, any curriculum for an education that is truly Christian must incorporate this dimension in ongoing and transformational ways. This is the most formidable task confronting Mennonite educators as they work in the last quarter of the 20th century and beyond.
See also Baptismal Instruction; Camps and Retreat Centers; Dedication of Infants; Erb, Alta Mae Eby; Private Christian Schools, United States; Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation; Sunday School; Sunday School Literature; Yake, Clayton F.
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Harder, Leland. "The Concept of Discipleship in Christian Education." Religious Education 58 (1963): 347-358.
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 578-581; v. 5, pp. 144-146. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Pannabecker, S. F., Bertha Fast Harder and Leland D. Harder. "Christian Education." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C4781ME.html.
APA style: Pannabecker, S. F., Bertha Fast Harder and Leland D. Harder. (1989). Christian Education. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C4781ME.html.