Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Need for an "Asian" Christian Education Strategy

In most Malaysian churches today, teaching on the Christian life is mainly through the pulpit ministry and by various education or discipleship programs. Discipleship is defined as living a life following Christ. Some education or discipleship programs are holistic, resulting in spiritual formation. Dallas Willard defined spiritual formation as character formation.

Unfortunately, many education or discipleship programs tend to be individualistic. The emphasis is on building a personal relationship with God only. Though this relationship with God many overflow into relationship with other people, it tends to be a very individualistic Christian spirituality. The relationship is “I and Thou” and the faith community exists only as the medium where personal relationship takes place. The teaching method for these types of discipleship programs are mainly instructional-schooling (content centred). Teaching may have occurred but one cannot be sure that learning has taken place. This discipleship programs are mainly designed for behaviour modification (teaching the right “Christian” behaviour) rather than character transformation. One measures the success of these programs by how their participant behaves rather than what character changes have occurred. True learning always involves character transformation. Therefore there is a need for all Malaysian churches an educational strategy that will be effective in character formation rather than church activism.

How do members of the Malaysian Christian churches, who are mostly Chinese, Indians and tribal ethics groups process their faith? Asian societies tend to be tightly organized, collectivistic, hierarchical, greater emphasis on social order and conflict avoidance and more concern with main-zi (face) and group approval. Should Malaysian Christian faith communities follow the same approach of a discipleship program designed in the West and tailored for Western Christians? Western discipleship programs tend to be more individualistic in their approach. This is an important consideration as many Malaysian churches are buying education and “discipleship” programs from the West especially the United States. These “discipleship” comes in ‘packages’ which includes a content book, study guides, leader’s guides, DVDs, music CD and sermon transcripts. What is worrying is that churches are using these programs wholesale without analyzing the underlying theological foundation and the fact that these programs are marketed at American Christians. Would it have the same impact in Malaysia where the thinking processes are different? Would the faith development of the Malaysian Christians be more rapid if the educational approach should be more community based rather than an individualistic? Would it retard our own education or discipleship program development? Would it give a distorted view of Christianity as mainly an “individualistic evangelical middle class superpower white male religion”? How does it fit into a multicultural, multiethnic and pluralistic Malaysian culture?

There is a need for an educational approach that takes into consideration character formation as its goal, the Asian culture of community rather than individualistic Christian spirituality, and is holistic in developing all aspects of faith development. Such an approach will be powerful instrument under the Holy Spirit as churches become learning communities.

While there have been many on-going attempts to develop an “Asian Theology”, there has not been any work done to develop an “Asian Christian Education”. Asia is a major growth centre for Christianity and there is a need for an indigenous contextualized Asian Christian education. Previous Christian education strategies have always been to fit an existing “Western” educational model into an Asian church. It is time to develop Asian or Malaysian Christian education model.

17 comments:

jacksons said...

Hi Doctor Alex, I just posted some thoughts on the Budget 2007 on my blog, and how the government really needs to have a change in our education culture if we are going to attain our goal of human capital development.

alwyn said...

Hi Alex, very refreshing topic. I've done some thinking about education vis-a-vis theology (or 'the school and the church'( but not, strictly speaking, Christian education, let alone Asian Christian ed!

But I appreciate the call to make disciple-training more communal-based and less individualistic...at present my youth group is going through a study on the spiritual disciplines (as per Richard Foster's 1978 classic), what are your views on SD?

Because SD, esp. the "outward" and "corporate" disciplines, include Service, Simplicity, Submission, Celebration, Forgiveness, etc.

Some additional thoughts, for now, is that we should make Christian Ed less doctrinal and more practical...kinda like a workshop on service with SPECIFIC examples as opposed to a "lecture" on a sys. theology of service?

Appreciate your input.

Alex Tang said...

Hi alwyn,

Thanks for your response. Yes, I do agree with the inwards and outwards categories of spiritual disciplines of Richard Foster. When I teach spiritual formation classes, I also add a few more spiritual disciplines which he did not include. Here I must emphasis that spiritual disciplines are only a tool. It should not be an end by itself. Spiritual disciplines are a tool. For what? To know the mind of God. Why should we know the mind of God? To understand and be transformed into His likeness. So essentially, spiritual disciplines are tools for character formation (spiritual formation).

We need to define what we mean by Christian education so that we are both on the same wavelength. To most of us, Christian education means Sunday school, adult education classes or discipleship classes. Christian education is broader than that. Groome, a Christian educator describes Christian education as “a political activity with pilgrims in time that deliberately and intentionally attends with them to the activity of God in our present, to the Story of the Christian faith community, and to the Vision of God’s Kingdom, the seeds of which are already among us.” Christian education should encompass everything we do in church to help us to learn to know the mind of God.

To me, Christian education should be more doctrinal and more practical.

I believe your question is about teaching methods-workshop or lecture. Actually, we should first consider how we learn. In any teaching activity may not necessarily means learning has taken place. We can sit through a lecture on the Doctrine of the Trinity and acquire a lot of head knowledge which we forget 15 minutes after we leave the hall. Has learning taken place? Suppose you are suffering from a severe disease and I have a special form of exercise that can save your life. You will listen carefully when I teach it to you and when you reach home, you will practice the exercise diligently. Then teaching and learning has taken place. So in answer to your question, make sure that learning occurs in your teaching whatever the method.

Alex Tang said...

Dear jacksons,

I agree with wholeheartedly with what you have written in your blog. You have touched on two importnat issues in you blog.

First, the concept of a learning organisation. Unless there is the existence of a learning organisation in any institution,no learning can take place.

Second, on the concept of learning. Learning can only take place if there are 'safe spaces' to learn. Otherwise, our students shall retreat to what they consider safe spaces-complinent, docile, conformist, role learners.

And that is the sad state of education in this country.

learning organisation (Peter Senge)
safe space (Palmer Parker)

Dave said...

Amen, Alex... "Christian education should be more doctrinal and more practical".

An enlightening model can be seen in the iBridge ministry founded by James daniel, Alvin Ung, Yoke Yeow etc where cohort groups meet up for sharing/accountability/discuss marktplace issues/fellowship as well as studying together - for example, the book Between Friends (marvin wong) which has good coverage of theology of vocation as well as a simple/down to earth language...

alwyn said...

Hi Alex, thanks for responding. Which are the spiritual disciplines you teach which Foster didn't include? (Some from Chambers, too?)

The angle I took was to say that SD is a way we experience and live the REALITY of God...I've found that most of the times we're so concerned about learning the RIGHT doctrines that scarce attention is focused on whether the Bible truths are 'real' to us i.e. do they impact our lives, do they connect with our non-church worlds, do they change us, etc. To this end, I found Foster's introductions to meditation, simplicity, fasting, study, etc. tremendously helpful - it was like opening a window in a stuffy room, or like instead of theorizing about a game to instead begin PLAYING it, :)

Which is why I suggested that 'Christian Ed' today should 'lean more' towards the practical. But yes I get your point about Christian Ed being a continuous activity of bringing God nearer to (and making Him a part of) us and our community.

Do you have any particular doctrines in mind with respect to C.Ed? And what do you think about the various divergences in doctrinal views?

Dave said...

Let's try this experiment...

Get 22 boys who had no prior knowledge of football on a field with two goalposts at opposite sides...

Throw in a ball...

And observe what they 'play' :D

Alex Tang said...

Ah, dave,

me thinks, the 22 boys will form a circle in the centre of the field and pass the ball round from hand to hand in a clockwise matter :)


alwyn,

I will say amen to the 'experience and live the REALITY of God'. That is what Christian education is all about.

What doctrines do I think of in respect to Christian education...Hmm. Most people will expect me to say the doctrine of ecclesiology but I would say what Jesus teaches us about what the Kingdom of God is.

sorry, I do not understand the part about 'divergences in doctrinal views.' Hope you will clarify. Thanks

alwyn said...

Hi Alex,

Pls allow me to back-track a little.

I find your Asian Christian Education (ACE) proposal intriguing for roughly the same reasons why I find a post-colonial theology or an Asian theology or emergent/postmodern theology interesting: It's a fresh perspective on learning and thinking about God and the world which seeks to reflect/reconstruct theological activity in line with the nature and priorities of the culture, the community, the 'times'and so on.

I find the view that Christian education is a "political/pilgrim activity" attending us to the story of the faith and God's kingdom, very resonant with the emergent understanding of a missional view of Christian living/thinking.

What I'd like to probe deeper is more about how ACE will "look like" in the near future, for it already:

- challenges (mainly Western) INDIVIDUALISTIC theology

- seeks to incorporate(?)/deal-with/respond to the multi-ethnicity and pluralism of Malaysian culture

- challenges CONTENT-centered teaching (interesting, but how would you square this with the preference for more doctrine? I have some ideas how, but I thought I might confirm what you have in mind...)

- promotes LEARNING-centeredness (elements of constructivism perhaps?)

- promotes a more down-to-earth(?)and action/ethics(?)-oriented kingdom-living posture (esp. when you imply(?) that the kingdom of God is a key doctrine to teach in ACE; have you read Brian McLaren's Secret Message of Jesus, btw?)

All in all, I'm frankly encouraged by such elements of ACE! And I'd like to propose some kind of research/thinking 'agenda' later but for now: How will ACE deal with the divergent evangelical views on various doctrines? What do we 'do' with the fact that diff groups hold very different views about God, His nature, the nature of truth, etc.? Is ACE tied to a 'particular' theological school or philosophical program? Can we be indifferent between, say, a Calvinist ACE and an Arminian ACE?

Because if I'm sensing correctly where you're coming from, Alex, I think you're more or less skeptical about the doctrinal agendas of the West, just as you about their 'methods' for character formation, teaching and so on.

Let me know if I'm on track...yours, Alwyn.

p.s.: Dave, let me know how the experiment goes...:)

alwyn said...

I thought I might add that Sherman has a good series on "Voices of Asia" which relates to some of themes we're talking about.

http://www.shermankuek.net/

y2k said...

Hello Alex - Alwyn mentioned to me about this posting so I came and checked it out. Excellent stuff - yah, wholehearted agreement on a need for educational methods more suited to how Asians learn. Just thinking aloud: Like the Sufis and in martial arts, maybe we should emphasise more of a master-apprentice type of training. More and more churches are starting some form of "discipleship" program, but most tend to centre more on bible-study or book-study. I believe there are merits in a system where a master chooses a pupil (or pupil applies to follow a master) and they covenant to walk together for an extended period, so it's not just about study, but also daily living... requiring both to completely open up their lives to each other. It's not a new idea, but maybe one requiring rediscovery - and maybe some risk in this day and age of individualism.

God bless. Yew Khuen.

Alex Tang said...

Hi alwyn,

I like the acronym ACE for Asian Christian Education :) I also like your comments on the reevaluation of theology (Asian Theology), the way we do church (Emergent churches) as “a fresh perspective on learning and thinking about God and the world which seeks to reflect/reconstruct theological activity in line with the nature and priorities of the culture, the community, the 'times' and so on”. Hence it does not surprise me that you find resonance in the emerging Asian theology, emergent churches and ACE.

I believe that it is the one thing needful- in every generation, we need to reevaluation how we are living a “Kingdom” lifestyle. I also believe that it is time that we in Asia, also need to evaluate how we construct our beliefs.

You wrote, “What I'd like to probe deeper is more about how ACE will "look like" in the near future, for it already…”

- challenges (mainly Western) INDIVIDUALISTIC theology

Yes, we need to rethink the underlying implicit and null curriculum of the Christianity we are importing from North America. Let me say here that I am not anti-West or anti-American. We need to recognize that American Christianity is very individualistic. Ellis Nelson (How Faith Matures) wrote about the role of secular individualism influencing the social construction of our Christian faith. What about us in Asia? Should we not be more community based rather than individualistic?

- seeks to incorporate(?)/deal-with/respond to the multi-ethnicity and pluralism of Malaysian culture

ACE should have the ability to help its participants learn to live in a multiethnic, multicultural and pluralistic society. Hence we need to know and understand other religions and other cultures. ACE should teach us to be incarnational in our lifestyle and interactions with our neighbors.

- challenges CONTENT-centered teaching (interesting, but how would you square this with the preference for more doctrine? I have some ideas how, but I thought I might confirm what you have in mind...)

When I mentioned CONTENT-centered teaching, I meant teaching that focus on completing a certain syllabus by a certain timeframe. Content is important and must include doctrines. The focus must be on learning, i.e. what does the people takes home that they can apply in their life.

- promotes LEARNING-centeredness (elements of constructivism perhaps?)

Yes, elements of constructivism definitely. I believe that people learn best if they start from where they are and uses what they already know to build up new knowledge and insight. That’s why the role of the Holy Spirit is so important in ACE learning.


- promotes a more down-to-earth(?)and action/ethics(?)-oriented kingdom-living posture (esp. when you imply(?) that the kingdom of God is a key doctrine to teach in ACE; have you read Brian McLaren's Secret Message of Jesus, btw?)

No, I have not read McLaren’s book, but thanks; it is now on my reading list.

I think you have asked me the philosophy behind ACE. It is perennialism. ACE stands between idealism and naturalism.

How does ACE deal with the divergent evangelical views of various doctrines? ACE is an APPROACH for learning. Hence I do not see any problem with the different theological stands. It should work well with all theological stands.

Shalom

Alex Tang said...

Dear Yew Khuen,

welcome to the discussion. I like your idea of sifu and discipleship model. However I do not believe there are such persons as Christian spiritual masters. We are all children of God and fellow pilgrims. Only some pilgrims have journeyed further than others and hence can help the young ones alone.

I wholeheartedly agree with you on the need for one-to-one personal relationship in our spiritual growth. You have have noticed that we learn most from people whom we now and trust.

Fortunately the Church does have this type of disciplemaking format. Unfortunately, we lost it during the Reforamtion. It is called spiritual direction.

Spiritual direction should be a component of ACE. Spiritual direction can be in different forms; as soul friends/companionship, as accountability groups (Richard Foster) and with a spiritual director.

Great contribution. Thanks.

Shalom

alwyn said...

Hi Alex,

Very exciting and probing post. I think it's interesting given that an Asian Christian Education entails an Asian kind of Christianity...this juxtaposition of 'Asian' with 'Christian' isn't easy, for there are many doctrines which I suspect cannot be divorced from their 'Western' contexts (perhaps more on this later).

Still, I'm particularly intrigued (yet again) by your brief comments about:

1. the need to evaluate HOW we construct our beliefs (encore encore; what books would you recommend in this area?)

2. the null individualistic curriculum of Western Christianity (may I ask which Western doctrines you feel has been unduly influenced by secular individualism?)

And how would you feel about an "Asian-isation" of those topics we normally find in 'systematic theology' books, e.g. Erickson and Grudem? Or is it something like order/relevance/priority of doctrine, i.e. some doctrine are more important in the East than in the West and vice-versa? (btw, would you think that Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology is a good example of Asian Christianity?)

3. the need for a communal based theology (I recall N.T. Wright saying that the individual is important BECAUSE of his/her membership in a people, a narrative, etc.)

4. coping/adapting to multiethnicity, pluralism, etc.; I haven't thought much about multi-ethnicity, but regarding pluralism one approach of value, IMO, is to teach a diversity of views on doctrine (i.e. 4 views of this, 4 views of that, etc.)...granted there are drawbacks to this, but I don't see many other ways to a) obtain a holistic understanding of the data-perspectives and paradigms involved b) be as fair as possible to those who DISAGREE with you...one thing I like to remind my group is that unless we can restate our opponent's position BACK to him in an acceptable manner, we probably haven't been fair to him...

5. the more practically-oriented and applicational nature of what you're proposing; I would interpret this as letting praxis (in the form of mission or service or compassion) 'lead the way' in theology, not unlike William McClendon sys. theology trilogy which begins with Ethics instead of Doctrine!

6. constructivism and perennialism (we have GOT to talk more about these words! *grin*!)

7. ACE as a 'learning approach'...except wouldn't an Asian Christian Education differ also in doctrinal CONTENT?

It's not just that one comes with chips and the other is wrapped in seaweed, is it? It's also that fish n'chips is very different from sushi (though they both nourish, have fish, etc.)? ;>)


This is a good dialogue, Alex. Let's see how long we can keep it up. Until we meet, :)


Yours,
Alwyn

Alex Tang said...

Hi, where were we?

Very exciting and probing post. I think it's interesting given that an Asian Christian Education entails an Asian kind of Christianity...this juxtaposition of 'Asian' with 'Christian' isn't easy, for there are many doctrines which I suspect cannot be divorced from their 'Western' contexts (perhaps more on this later).

I do not know whether there is an “Asian kind of Christianity”. There is Christianity and there is Christianity in Asia. There is also theology and doctrines. One must understand that theology is not static and is influenced by the culture and intellectual-socio climate of the times. During history, the center of theological thinking has moved from Germany to Britain and then to the United States. In time it shall shift to Asia as the demographic of Christians changes. ( Philips Jenkins, “The Next Christendom: The Coming of the Global Church”). Doctrine is constant, theology is not. In history, at certain time, theology has been influence by Christology, Atonement, Mission, Social Concern, Poor and Oppressed (Liberation), Open theism etc. Due to its history, theology cannot be divorced from the “Western” context but it can be modified or contextualized.

Still, I'm particularly intrigued (yet again) by your brief comments about:

1. the need to evaluate HOW we construct our beliefs (encore encore; what books would you recommend in this area?)

Carl Ellis Nelson in his two books, “How Faith Begins” and “How Faith Matures” give a good discussion on how we construct our faith. His theory on religious experiences is worth reading and I especially like his strategy for education which he called “congregation edification.” Westerhoff’s “Will Our Children Have Faith?” is another interesting book to read.

2. the null individualistic curriculum of Western Christianity (may I ask which Western doctrines you feel has been unduly influenced by secular individualism?)

It’s not so much the doctrines as the theology. Evangelicalism from the United States is very much affected by secular individualism. “The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys” by Mark A. Noll makes interesting reading. George M. Marsden’s “Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925” is also worth reading.

And how would you feel about an "Asian-isation" of those topics we normally find in 'systematic theology' books, e.g. Erickson and Grudem? Or is it something like order/relevance/priority of doctrine, i.e. some doctrine are more important in the East than in the West and vice-versa? (btw, would you think that Simon Chan's Spiritual Theology is a good example of Asian Christianity?)

Again I differentiate theology and doctrine. Different authors approach theology from a different directions (or biasness). They are not necessarily wrong. Truth has many facets and “we see though the glass darkly”. “Asian-isation” of theology is not taking the existing systematic theology books and painting a coat of “Asian” paint on it and calls it “Asian theology”. Bishop Hwa Yung made a good point in his book, “Mangos or Bananas”. Asian theology is looking at the Bible and seeing our multicultural, multiethnic and pluralistic society through its lens. Then asking, “How shall we then live?”

Simon Chan’s “Spiritual theology” is not about Asian Christianity even though he is an Asian living in Singapore. It is more to explain spiritual theology as distinct from systematic theology. I do not have the time yet to read his new book, “Liturgical Theology” and am looking forward to that.


3. the need for a communal based theology (I recall N.T. Wright saying that the individual is important BECAUSE of his/her membership in a people, a narrative, etc.)

Communal based theology does not demote the individual. The individual is always important in Biblical teachings. God deals with individual individually… but always in context of a community. We failed when we see only the individual and not the community. In the Israelite schema, the first part has to do with God and the individual, and the second part, the individual and his community. But we have to understand the individual in term of the Biblical narrative of Christian Story. Individuals together make up the people of God/Body of Christ.

4. coping/adapting to multiethnicity, pluralism, etc.; I haven't thought much about multi-ethnicity, but regarding pluralism one approach of value, IMO, is to teach a diversity of views on doctrine (i.e. 4 views of this, 4 views of that, etc.)...granted there are drawbacks to this, but I don't see many other ways to a) obtain a holistic understanding of the data-perspectives and paradigms involved b) be as fair as possible to those who DISAGREE with you...one thing I like to remind my group is that unless we can restate our opponent's position BACK to him in an acceptable manner, we probably haven't been fair to him...

It may be helpful to teach a diversity of views in a seminary but will be very confusing in a congregation 

Restating a different viewpoint back to your opponent is a great way to find out whether you have understood he/she correctly. A good way for dialogue, obviously.

5. the more practically-oriented and applicational nature of what you're proposing; I would interpret this as letting praxis (in the form of mission or service or compassion) 'lead the way' in theology, not unlike William McClendon sys. theology trilogy which begins with Ethics instead of Doctrine!

This is what Nelson called “practical theology”. In the average congregation, people want to know how to live a life pleasing to Christ and to be in God’s will. They may not understand the many theological stands/diversities and they may not want to. They need a creed to follow (infrastructure for their beliefs). Within the framework of the creed, they live their lives as a family, a community, a society, a nation and that forms and informs their theology.

6. constructivism and perennialism (we have GOT to talk more about these words! *grin*!)

fancy words.

7. ACE as a 'learning approach'...except wouldn't an Asian Christian Education differ also in doctrinal CONTENT?

It's not just that one comes with chips and the other is wrapped in seaweed, is it? It's also that fish n'chips is very different from sushi (though they both nourish, have fish, etc.)? ;>)

A learning approach is an educational strategy. It is to facilitate teaching. It does not dictate its content. Hence the approach can be used in an Evangelical church, a Pentecostal church, a Catholic church or an Orthodox church. It’s not fish n’ chips or sushi. It is how you approach the food so that you get the maximum enjoyment out of the meal.

Shalom

Alex

alwyn said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions and your book recommendations. We have to move this to another forum, another time. And perhaps one day you'll share a paper on ACE?

Will take yr advice and seek to maximise satisfaction of the meal/(fruits?)(of Spirit).

I liked Mangga & Pisang, too.


Alwyn

Dave said...

"Asian theology is looking at the Bible and seeing our multicultural, multiethnic and pluralistic society through its lens. Then asking, “How shall we then live?” "

Amen, and amen!

Asian theology ought not be done by first asking "How wud we like to live or practise?" and THEN using a 'pluralistic' lens to look at the Bible and ransack it for justification :)