What Is New Church Education?

What is New Church education? What does the Lord's Word have to say about education?  I would like to offer eight ways of defining the use of New Church education. Each one springs from a few key quotes in the Word, and seeks to capture in simple form what the Lord is calling us to rally around.

“Bringing the Lord to children and children to the Lord”

There is a famous episode from the Lord’s life recorded in three of the Gospels, where parents brought children to Him “so that He might touch them.” (Mark 10:13-16) The disciples, as you may recall, rebuked those parents, apparently thinking that the Lord was too important to be bothered with children. But the Lord said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”

This quote, perhaps more than any others in the Word, has become a focal point for the use of New Church education. The Lord’s love for children is further taught in the Heavenly Doctrines, where we learn that “all children are under [His] direct care…” (Heaven and Hell 332) So it is that a team of people at the General Church central offices came up with the beautiful way of framing the use of New Church education as “Bringing the Lord to children and children to the Lord.”

It is an intentional acknowledgement that the Lord wants to influence their lives, and that they have been created to have an almost innate openness to Him. Surely it is easy to see many manifestations of this goal, in classroom and home worship settings, blessings before meals, conversations about the Lord, Sunday School and so on. Every time parents take their children to church, they are bringing them to the Lord. Every time they talk to their children about the Lord, they are bringing Him to them. Perhaps obviously, the more this happens, the more children grow with the living sense that the Lord is a part of their lives.

“An extension of the home”

Another key quote from the Word that speaks to the use of New Church education comes in Deuteronomy, when the Lord was establishing His covenant with the ancient Israelites. After calling them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and strength, the instruction continues, “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) Many a parent correctly hears these words as speaking to them, urging them to raise their children with the Lord in mind, and teaching them the Lord’s commandments.

This willingness of parents to focus on the spiritual welfare of their children is further taught in the Heavenly Doctrines: Spiritual parents love their children for their spiritual intelligence and moral life, loving them thus for their fear of God and for their piety of conduct or life, and at the same time for their affection for and application to useful endeavors of service to society, thus for the virtues and good habits in them. Out of a love for these traits principally do they provide for and supply their needs. (Conjugial Love 405)

This spiritual calling is what inspires many parents to turn to the Church for support. In response, the Church has developed venues such as Sunday Schools or day schools which strive to cooperate with parents in the spiritual education of their children. While we may acknowledge that not every home is perfect, and that sometimes the school or Sunday School can become a substitute for what is not happening in the home, the goal is to engage with parents in what they most want for their children – to help them launch into life with a strong desire to be good people.

“Success in this world and the next”

Success is a word with many connotations, some of which lend themselves to getting ahead in this world, and striving for a kind of worldly stature or opulence that is not always healthy. Today we remind ourselves that success can capture a much more noble pursuit. Nowhere is that better captured than in Joshua, where the Lord instructs Joshua himself to meditate in the Book of the Law, ensuring that he “do according to all that is written in it. For then [he would] make his way prosperous, and then [he would] have good success.” (Joshua 1:8)

Ask parents if they want their children to be successful, and you will get a resounding yes. If you dig a little deeper, most parents would welcome the qualifier of “goodness” along with that success. The phrase “good success” brings into the equation the Lord’s definition of achievement. It means being a good person. It means successfully living according to the teachings of the Word, so that the Lord is able to form them into people who can live in heaven. It means framing our goals on, and celebrating milestones, that accord with what the Lord says is most important. That could include successfully raising a family, or serving in a job that intentionally makes the world a better place, or developing skills of truly wise friendship.

In terms of New Church education in a school setting, this concept of good success is captured in the phrase, “success in this world and the next.” It implies a trajectory of life that is eternal. The beauty is that it can include the pursuit of excellence in science or math or any other educational discipline, because these can help people to be useful human beings. But ultimately it is the spiritual focus of the education that ennobles the whole educational process. It is, again, the focus on what is eternal, as stated in this compelling teaching: “What more ought anyone to have at heart than his or her life which lasts to eternity?” (Arcana Coelestia 794)

“Opening the eyes to spiritual reality”

In the Psalms we read, “The eyes of all look expectantly to You...” (Psalm 145:15) Implied is a conscious turning to the Lord as the One who provides what we truly need. In the Gospel of Luke, we learn of two disciples on a journey to a town called Emmaus shortly after the sad story of the crucifixion. The Lord joined them, but they did not know Him until He dined with them and broke bread. Then it says, “Their eyes were opened, and they knew Him.” (Luke 24:31)

So it is with the use of New Church education. The goal is to open the spiritual eyes of children and young people, so that they may come to know the Lord, and behold the things that the Lord would most want them to see. There is a learning component in this description of New Church education. Seeing with the eyes corresponds to seeing with the understanding. In this vein, we could ask ourselves what we most want children to come to understand as they grow. One teaching lists for us: The truths that people learn and believe in their earliest years when they are young children but which later on they either endorse, have doubts about, or refuse to accept, are in particular these: There is God, and He is one; He created everything; He rewards those who do what is good and punishes those who do things that are bad; there is life after death, when the bad go to hell and the good go to heaven, and so there is a hell and a heaven; the life after death lasts forever; also, people ought to pray every day and to do so in a humble way; they ought to keep the Sabbath day holy, honor their parents, and not commit adultery, kill, or steal; and many other truths like these. (Arcana Coelestia 5135:3)

There is a world of spiritual information in the Word that the Lord would have us all learn. So it is that parents might rightly turn to the Church for help in the systematic exposure to all that the Word contains. But there is another related way of answering the question, “What would we most want children to see as they grow?” Wouldn’t we want them to see people worshiping on a regular basis, praying, opening copies of the Word and learning from them, and so forth? And wouldn’t we want them to see examples of honesty or kindness or usefulness, because these things are taught in the Word? Opening the eyes to spiritual reality, then, includes learning as an intellectual process, and also as an experiential process.

“Helping people become loving, wise and useful human beings”

There is a phrase that captures the goal of some of our General Church schools, namely to “feed the mind, touch the heart, and prepare for life.” The purpose for now is not to focus on the school setting but to see this as another example of how to regard the use. This three-part purpose was chosen because it describes who we are as human beings. We have minds that can think and learn, we have hearts that can care and love, and we have bodies that are incredibly capable of useful action. It is this essential trilogy which makes us the human beings we are.

The clearest teaching I have found on the subject comes in True Christianity: "There are three things that flow as one from the Lord into our souls. These three-in-one, or this trinity, if you will, are love, wisdom and usefulness. Love and wisdom do not actually take shape, except in some conceptual form, because they reside solely in the feelings and thoughts within our minds; but in usefulness they become real, because then they come together in some activity and work on the part of the body. (True Christianity 744)

Other teachings focus on parts of that three-fold picture. For example, concerning our ability to learn and love, we read: “The Divine resides in a person in these two faculties, in the faculty for becoming wise and in the faculty for loving – or rather, that He is able to do so.” (Divine Love and Wisdom 30) Another, focused on the goals of these things, states: “We are not born for our own sake; we are born for the sake of others. That is, we are not born to live for ourselves alone; we are born to live for others.” (True Christianity 406) All of these things together – a desire to become wise and loving and useful – is what makes us “truly human.” (See Conjugial Love 269) The beauty of framing New Church education this way is that it accords with the coaching and guidance that most parents and teachers do on a daily basis. “Was that kind?” “What a thoughtful thing to do.” “Was that smart?” “What would be a wiser way of handling the situation?” “Can you help me?” “Hey, you’re really good at…” And so on.

“Forming spiritual habits”

Another useful question that could be asked with regard to children is what we most want to become habitual with them. As the picture associated with this way of framing New Church education indicates, we learn through repeated trial and error, or through practice. One teaching makes the claim that “people are not even able to walk, or to talk, until they learn how to do so; and the same applies to everything else.” (Arcana Coelestia 1050) It continues, “The things they learn to do become, through the performance of them, habitual and so to speak natural.”

Consider almost anything you know how to do, from driving a car to looking both ways before you cross the street, to calculating times-tables in your head, to exercising, to playing an instrument. All of them involve habits – habits of practice or diligent effort, habits of frequency or things we choose to do on a regular basis, and habits of skill or things we become proficient in. So it is that we can see the whole process of education as a series of habit-forming activities.

The amazing thing, though, is that it’s not just about developing certain skills. It actually gets to the heart of character formation, and in spiritual terms, of the development of a heavenly disposition. We read: “Everyone acquires a disposition or nature from frequent practice or habit, and that practice or habit from the things he or she has learned.” (Arcana Coelestia 3843) This teaching goes on to say that what becomes internalized through frequent practice or habit “flows into action spontaneously.”

So we ask again, what do we most want to become habitual with children as they grow? What do we want to flow spontaneously into action? The list includes such things as praying, frequent reading of the Word, considering the usefulness of what they are about to do before they do it, apologizing and taking responsibility for their actions, responding with kindness, speaking truthfully, treating others with respect, being generous with their time and energy, persevering, and many other things.

An intriguing teaching along these lines says: “It is easy for manual laborers, porters and farm workers to work with their arms from morning till evening, but a delicate person of the nobility cannot do the same work for half an hour without fatigue and sweating.” (True Christianity 563) Along these lines, we’d love spiritual practices and good actions to become increasingly easy for children as they grow.

“The formation of conscience”

A seventh way of viewing New Church education regards the intrinsic motivation of each child. Yes parents, teachers and others provide useful boundaries for children as they grow. “No, you are not allowed to walk home after dark by yourself.” “You need to say sorry for what you just said.” “It would be really great if you took better care of your things.” But isn’t the goal not to have to say these kinds of things as often? We rejoice when children choose to do the right things without being asked or corrected.

The word that the Word uses for this process is conscience. Conscience is that “still small voice” in our minds where the Lord speaks to us, letting us know what is good and what is bad. (See 1 Kings 19:12) It is formed “from knowledges of goodness and truth which children have taken in from parents and teachers and later on from their own devotion to doctrine and the Word.” (Arcana Coelestia 2831) Since “conscience is formed from things revealed in the Word” (Ibid. 371), it is important that information from the Word is shared with children as they grow. Teaching good from evil, and coaching in what works and doesn’t, gives the Lord the tools to form that voice of conscience within a person.

But conscience is also strengthened by the use of it, and weakened by the ignoring of it. We learn that people who act in accordance with conscience, experience “the quiet of peace and internal blessedness,” whereas those who act against conscience “experience disturbance and pain.” (Heavenly Doctrine 133) A wise parent or teacher might say to a child, “If you feel bad about it, it’s probably a good thing”; or “The best way to avoid a guilty conscience is to be honest”; or “Notice how good it feels to do something that really helps someone else.”

Another beautiful teaching says that “those who possess conscience speak from the heart what they speak, and do from the heart what they do.” (Heavenly Doctrine 131) It’s not someone else making them behave; it doesn’t even have to do so much with correction; it’s about helping people to experience the joy of doing things that work.

“Fostering innocence”

A final way we could define the use of New Church education is as an effort to foster innocence. Innocence is a fascinating word. To most of us, it calls to mind childhood purity and naïveté. It invites us to think about sheltering children from what is harmful or disorderly about society. While it is certainly true that parents, teachers and others may choose to steer their children away from certain things, most of us wouldn’t say that mere avoidance is the life-long goal. Innocence has other dimensions, valid and beautiful as an untainted nature is. One place where the concept of innocence is expanded for us was when some people asked the Lord who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The Lord took a young child, set him in the midst of them and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

It isn’t hard to see that the Lord’s urging is toward internal purity, the kind of purity we see in little children. For adults, and even for children as they grow, there can be great use in looking within at what’s going on with an eye to work on what needs to be changed. It could also include the life-long goal of living with less to hide, less that we are ashamed for others to see about us. Our efforts to work in these directions, and to help children do so as well, will result in more of this quality of innocence.

But there is another facet of innocence that is key. Children generally have an openness to learning and being taught. Of course they can be stubborn and self-centered at times, but more often than not they know they’re not the ones in charge, and submit to the authority of the adults in their lives. This willingness to follow those in charge, or openness to guidance, is captured in a far-reaching definition of innocence given in the teachings of the New Church. We learn that “innocence is a willingness to be led by the Lord and not by ourselves.” (Heaven and Hell 280) The innocence of wisdom – an adult version of innocence – is to freely submit ourselves to the Lord’s leadership, just as children so often submit themselves to the leadership of their parents. We learn further that this innocence or openness to the Lord is “that essential human quality into which love and charity from the Lord can enter.” (Arcana Coelestia 4797)

The goal in terms of education then, whether in the home or in a church or school setting, is to support that openness and willingness to be led, to guide young people to that “nothing to hide” state more and more often in their lives, and to bring the Lord into the equation as often as possible. By doing so, we are laying a vital foundation for them in terms of their willingness to be led by the Lord – a willingness which allows the Lord to guide them by means of conscience, to become loving, wise and useful human beings, to see and honor the reality of the spiritual dimension of life, to live lives of success and usefulness in this world and the next, and to experience greater joy within their homes together with their families.