June 25, 2015 — by Mickie O'Donnell


Theological Education for the Next Generation

The concern for the younger generation's theological education lies deep within our Reformed Heritage. In 1563, Frederick III addressed it in the Preface to the Heidelberg Catechism:

Therefore we also have ascertained that by no means the least defect of our system is found in the fact, that our blooming youth is disposed to be careless in respect to Christian doctrine… the consequence has ensued, that they have, in too many instances, grown up without the fear of God and the knowledge of His Word…

What a wonderful reason for the Heidelberg Catechism:

Concern for the Next Generation of Believers

As a Christian Educator for almost 40 years, I can’t help but wonder why it is, with this historic concern for children and youth to learn sound doctrine, that our churches continue to have adults who do not know the Bible, can’t defend their faith, and who are more easily swayed by the culture than by God’s Word. Perhaps we have used an ineffective educational paradigm. We have used the instructional-schooling model, which focuses on transmitting facts about God and about the Bible and not necessarily with helping people to experience God through knowing and handling the Word. It’s as if we believe transmission of religious knowledge about God is all it takes to be transformed. In reality, knowledge may only produce educated atheists (John Westerhoff 1976). 

Perhaps it was something about ineffective methodology that caused Scottish preacher Robert Smith Candlish, almost 300 years after The Heidelberg Catechism, to write in his commentary on 1st John. His concern with how to protect us from the spirit of error in the world and ensure victory over false prophets:

Let me warn you that it is not head knowledge that will do; not logic or rhetoric, or philosophy, or theology; not creeds, or catechisms, or confessions; not early training in the soundest manual; not family with the ablest and most orthodox writings; not skill in argument and debate; - no; nothing will do but God being in you; in your heart, your heart of hearts; God in Christ dwelling in you; God giving you the Spirit.

ECO churches need to commit to a better paradigm for theological education as we equip the next generation. Depending solely on teaching about God’s Word hasn’t worked.

It has been my experience that most curricula use the about God eisegetical approach. They begin with trying to teach a moral concept, pick a Biblical text they think fits, visually enhance it with historically inaccurate and whimsically cartooned illustrations, focus on a modern day application story, throw in a craft and include a random memory verse. Sound familiar?

Equipping with the Spirit

If we want ECO Churches to thrive and help the next generation stand strong amidst the spirit of error in our culture, we need to equip our people with the “Sword of the Spirit.” Not eisegetical moral principles. We need to help people know God through the medium God has already given us – His Word - which is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) .

Good research reveals how we learn best, how our minds absorb information and what kind of learning is transformative. We remember 70% of what we say. When we say something enough times it becomes a part of us. God’s Word is 75% narrative and 15% poetry and song. These wonderful narratives, poems and songs are to be told, recited and sung not just explained. We should become people who know how to tell the stories of God’s Word so that we recognize truth from error, as our Reformed Heritage intended. If we trust that God will not allow his Word to return void than we can trust that from within the Biblical narratives themselves God can and will speak to us. We should learn how to tell the Biblical narratives to one another and thoughtfully dig deeper into what is revealed of God from these texts. Certainly, we can turn to ancillary theological documents to add richness and historical connections, but if we do not know the Word well enough to tell and re-tell it with ease and confidence, we will not recognize the false teaching that is contrary to it and the next generation will fall prey again.

When God’s Word lives in us we will hear and recognize God’s voice. As it says in John 10,The sheep know their shepherd’s voice… he walks in front of them, and they follow, because they know his voice. The sheep will not follow strangers. They don’t recognize a stranger’s voice, and they run away.” (CEV)

In ECO we want to celebrate our Reformed Heritage’s concern for the next generation. Let’s do theological education better for the next generations so God is in them, in their heart of hearts and they will recognize and follow only Christ’s voice.


Mickie O'Donnell

Mickie O'Donnell has been a Christian Educator since 1976 currently serving at Noroton Presbyterian Church Darien, CT. She has been a professor at Benedictine University, Trinity International Divinity School, Trinity College, and most recently Mission India Theological Seminary and Bible College in Nagpur and Warangal, India. Formerly Executive Director of Children's Ministry of America, and author of "Workshop Wonders," Mickie speaks at educational conferences promoting creative teaching methods for churches.  She recently formed "Family Ministries International" partnering with Bibletelling.org to help churches know how to tell and retell the Narratives of Scripture. Mickie is pursuing ordination in ECO and is on the ECO Theological Task Force.

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