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"Bridging the gap between faith and culture"

By Paul Cannon, Dave Lefurgey, Rolanda Ward, Lisa Zambarano

Main Page for this Project | Bibliography | Index of Class Projects

Theological Reflection on the Public Religious Education Movement: "What Would Jesus Do?"

By Rolanda Ward

Purpose of Religious Education

Religious education resources are crucial to the development of faith among young believers. With the dedicated actions of church leaders, young people can be lead to a deeper understanding of the theologies and doctrines that govern the religious institutions in which they attend.

Religious Education formats differ from denomination to denomination. In fact the goals, objectives and activities used to inculcate beliefs are very different among religious institutions. If strategies for religious education differ so greatly, is there any sense of continuity across the masses? Somewhat.

In looking at three very different religious/ educational organizations with formalized religious education materials, United Church of Christ, a Catholic Diocese, and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, common themes can be crossed referenced.

The authors of Affirming our Faith, a resource for religious educators in the United Church of Christ write that the book is based on the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith. The statement includes references to; the cost and joy of discipleship; the service of others; the proclamation of the gospel and; the following of Christ (UCC 1996, x). The authors further state that the material should be used to explore what faith is and what is means in the lives of the young people utilizing the book.

The Archdiocese of Melbourne writes on their website that religious education attempts to provide evangelisation, catechesis, and the development of relationships within its religious education ministries. For further information regarding catholic guidelines for religious education click here.

In addition to religious institutions, government agencies have identified the necessity to include certain philosophies in academic religious education curriculum. In the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, legislators have argued that the incorporation of religious education into the academic curriculum encourages students to grow religiously, spiritually, and morally. They also argue that an interdenominational religious education develops an appreciation for the beliefs of others and that it highlights the contributions of Christianity and various religious denominations to the human life. For further discussion of the "Nature of Non-Denomination Religious Education" click here.

For a look at Unitarian Universalist religious education criteria, look here.

To summarize the purpose and objectives of religious education ministries would to say that religious education programs should; provide a format in which the questions of young people can be addressed; to provide children a place to belong; to develop faith; to explore the responsibilities of human life and; to explore how faith and life work together.

For Christian communities the goals would be:

  • to define Christ’s life as center to the faith,
  • to compel young people to service,
  • to foster Christian community, and
  • to integrate faith and life.

For further explanation of these four criteria for Christian ministries click here.

Tradition Religious Educational Models

Religious education ministries have long been a part of church programming. They have aimed to provide the formal link between a church’s beliefs and the development of young church leaders and participants.

Religious educators have always been challenged with how to relay the church’s statements of faith, church covenants, church creeds, or handbooks of principle’s without boring the young people out of the church. Most resource tools contain three out of the four criteria established earlier for Christian ministries to; be Christ centered; to compel to serve and; to foster Christian community.

The one criteria that seems to be missing but also seems to be a very important aspect of religious education models geared toward teenagers is the integration of faith and life.

Why aren’t traditional religious education models working on today’s youth? Are youth of today different than the youth of a generation ago? Is society different for today’s youth? For a brief description of generation x and the millennial generation, click here.

Sociological Issues

Micheal Warren describes the magnitude of secular images, the ideas and ways of life seen by the youth living in the United States as an "enormous picture window" of pop culture (Ammerman and Roof 1995, 199). He further states that we as religious educators can only provide a "peephole" of influence upon the lives of the youth involved in our religious institutions in comparison to the everyday pop culture influence.

In addition to the barrage of secular images, Charles Foster argues that the youth of our church’s, no longer have many of the symbols that define a "civil religion" (Ammerman and Roof, 201). Wolfgang Schluchter argues that the former situation is present because church’s have lost authority and power over society, the people in it and the people in the church because of the move to provide individuals with authenticity (Ammerman and Roof, 201).

Why have these shifts in society influenced the church? As the family structure has changed; the pursuit of a two income family; women to work; children to daycare and; the pursuit of a middle class lifestyle, the indoctrination of children failed to happen because of a drop in church attendance and participation (Ammerman and Roof, 115, 201-202, 204).

The "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) Movement

If society if changing and if traditional religious education tools lack an integration of faith and real life experience, how can we as religious educators overcome these obstacles and close the gap between faith and culture? If we must change our materials or resources, what questions should we be asking ourselves? Joseph t. Reiff in his essay entitled, "Nurturing and Equipping children in the Public Church," argues we should ask what is the role of the church in relation to today’s world? How can the church and its adults nurture its child and equip them for Christian ministry? (Ammerman and Roof, 200).

Although there are various arguments and resources available to religious educators, the on I found to be most prevalent in the lives of today’s youth, is the WWJD? What would Jesus Do? materials.

The WWJD movement began approximately ten years ago as a result of a Michigan youth group studying a book written by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps (see http://search.gospelcom.net/wwjd/books.html). As a follow up to their study the decided to ask themselves, like the community in the book, What Would Jesus Do? as they went about their daily lives. Their initial creations, woven WWJD bracelets, have been worn by more than 14 million people. Logo T-shirts, bookmarks, hats, and various other promotional products have accompanied these bracelets. These products have been found in local bookstores, Christian bookstores, teenage boutiques, and supermarkets.

Although the philosophy of the WWJD promoters has been very simple; to ask people a simple question and thus introduce them to a Savior, the strategy they have used is illustrated in the arguments of Joseph T. Reiff.

First, Reiff argues that the public church is a worshipping community, formed by the Christian story and tradition. Second, people who accept the Christian life act out their faith as a life centering commitment. Third, as a member of the Christian community, they are concerned about the lives of others (Ammerman and Roof, 202). Fourth, faith is a not a private matter but a public statement of identity (Ammerman and Roof, 204-5). Sixth, faith language must be used between the home and the church (Ammerman and Roof, 214).

WWJD attempts to simply do all of the above. The WWJD website states the bracelets and the other items don’t mean much by themselves. They claim that through the bracelets, people are wear and share; to bravely witness. In doing so, the people around the bracelet wearer will get a glimpse of Jesus and thus they might change their lives and become followers of Christ. Also, the WWJD bracelets help to keep the wearer focused on their spiritual goals.

In fact the distributors of the WWJD materials claim that his religious tool is a revolution. The slogans, they have developed as well as the musical and written materials have helped to spread the movement and a philosophical revolution.

But is there more to the commercialized promotional products? Yes. The distributors have created a series of bibles, youth spiritual challenges, and devotionals to assist youth workers.

The resources meet the criteria established earlier as goals of a Christian ministry. It is my argument that the WWJD movement has a great deal of success because it fosters a Christ centered language; it sends its disciples out to quietly witness to others; it encourages all to think about helping others in and outside of the Christian community and; it takes pop culture into consideration. Thus integrating faith and life.

How has it integrated culture and faith so well? It took a simple but popular teen-age gadget, the friendship bracelet, and added a chatchy phrase. It then distributed this pop culture icon and distributed it to places teenagers can be found. For its religious education resources, the phrase religious education was dropped and the phrase spiritual challenge was added. References to the bible were kept but stories about everyday fears and adventures were added to engage God-talk. Finally, worship hymns were dropped and melodies with hip-hop beats were added to God-talk lyrics.

Certainly by recognizing the popular culture in which today’s youth live in, the WWJD movement has significantly closed the gap between life and faith. But is this movement really bringing youth to Christ or has it created something hip and faddish for youth to add to their pop culture lifestyle? Is the WWJD movement a valuable movement even if it meets the four criteria for a good Christian ministry or is it a theological blunder? Can Christ be sold?

Theological Reflection

The sharing of skills and knowledge has always molded human culture. After birth, mammals show their children how to feed themselves, bath themselves, and protect themselves in a world where nothing can be taken for granted. The same is true for the development of spirituality.

Children spend the majority of their time engrossed with images of popular fashions, lively music, and relaxed languages. If our children are to live in a public world should they receive an introduction to religious life in a public way as well? I say yes.

The message Christ delivered was a message delivered outside of the temple. Believers and non-believers witnessed his message, his life, and his actions. Although, he never wore a bracelet to symbolize his beliefs, people knew he was different from other religious icons. Perhaps people thought he was different because of the crowds that followed him or by the mysterious miracles he performed. Regardless, his incarnation helped him to share quietly and freely with those that chose to be close to him. The model used by Christ is similar to the model promoted by the WWJD distributors.

Even if we as religious educators choose to support this religious education model, we still must be careful to present the material in a way that does not support the actions of some that purchased the bracelets because they are cool. The message of Christ can not be delivered with the purchase and deliverance of a bracelet. The bracelets are powerful with the addition of a spoken word. Surely, the philosophy of WWJD is accurate; children must be taught to go out and use their faith language among their peers, but they must be instructed to do so after being given the guidelines for how to live a Christian life. Christ’s disciples were sent out with a message of salvation only after watching Christ in his ministry.

It is my argument that the public and commercialized movement of WWJD is a viable religious education tool. The WWJD bracelet worn by millions is a symbol of faith, just like a golden cross, worn around the neck. The WWJD bracelet has created a symbol of faith that is cross-generational, that has pop culture representations but also has depth and meaning seen in a Christ centered life.

Focusing Religious Education Effort using a Questionnaire

At your next church planning committee meeting, use some of the following questions to provoke conversation regarding the religious education of the youth in your church.

  1. Do we have a formal religious education committee or board? If so why? If not why?
  2. How much time do we commit to youth programming each week?
  3. Do we recruit enough youth workers to work proportionately with the youth we have?
  4. How much money have we assigned to religious education in our church budget?
  5. Are we current on trends, fads, and popular youth resources?
  6. Do we know what resources are available to youth workers?
  7. Do we know what faith symbols are being sold in our local mall?
  8. Do we purchase symbols of faith as prizes or rewards for the fun games we play in youth group?
  9. Are we as a church aiming to entertain or educate or youth in order to keep them interested and attending?
  10. Are our youth group materials purchased with insight regarding the needs of our youth?
  11. Do we look for resources that encourage our youth to serve others?
  12. Is the message of the gospel compromised in the resources we use? Can you really see Christ in the materials?
  13. Does our youth programming resources encourage our youth to care about their fellow youth group member or other Christians or other non-Christians?
  14. Is religious education important to us as a church?
  15. Are we taking the cheap, quick, easy way out for religiously educating our youth?
  16. Are we giving at least a tenth of our time, talents, and resources to the religious education of our youth?


Works Cited

Ammerman, N. and Roof, W. 1995. Work, Family, and Religion in Contemporary Society. New York, New York: Routledge Publishing:.

United Church of Christ, 1996. Affirming our Faith. United Church Press, Cleveland, Ohio

1997 WWJD Leader’s Guide: 6 complete youth meetings that guide students through the WWJD spiritual challenge journal. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Related Books

Charles Foster, Teaching in the Community of Faith. Nashville:Abingdon, 1982.

Sonja M. Stewart, "Children and Worship," Religious Ecuation 84, 3 Summer, 1989.

Michael Warren, "Facing the Problem of Popular Culture," Youth, Gospel, Liberation. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

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Main Page for this Project | Bibliography | Index of Class Projects