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Toward 'faith-adjacent' pedagogies: Reconfiguring the roles, spaces, and practices of religious education


Abstract and Figures

Social and religious change are posing significant challenges for religious institutions and giving rise to novel forms of religious and spiritual community. How learning happens in such communities, and how religious educators can help shape it, is sometimes difficult to understand and describe via traditional framings of the work of religious education. In this conceptual analysis, I draw on religious, social, and anthropological literature and ethnographic field data from several recent studies to theorize “faith-adjacent” spaces, and to illustrate the analytic benefits and pedagogical possibilities raised by this reframing.
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Kyle Matthew Oliver, Teachers College - Columbia University,
2019 REA Annual Meeting, Nov. 1-3
Toward ‘faith-adjacent’ pedagogies:
Reconfiguring the roles, spaces, and practices of religious education
Social and religious change are posing significant challenges for
religious institutions and giving rise to novel forms of religious and
spiritual community. How learning happens in such communities,
and how religious educators can help shape it, is sometimes
difficult to understand and describe via traditional framings of the
work of religious education. In this conceptual analysis, I draw on
religious, social, and anthropological literature and ethnographic
field data from several recent studies to theorize “faith-adjacent”
spaces, and to illustrate the analytic benefits and pedagogical
possibilities raised by this reframing.
Social and religious change in the U.S. are challenging our long-held understandings of
are the teachers and learners engaged in religious education, where
these changing
constituencies convene for such learning and formation, how
they are growing together through
shared practices, and why
they choose to do so.
Consider the case of Tapestry , a foster youth mentoring organization run by two
Protestant ministers in a Western U.S. metropolitan area. The founders of Tapestry originally set
out to found a new, denominationally affiliated congregation. Tapestry, the church, would
engage the primary mission work of growing healing and developmentally supportive
community around young people in the foster care system. Over the course of several
foundational years spent connecting a network of (1) adult mentor teams, (2) the individual
youth those teams support, and (3) facilitators who coordinate and troubleshoot weekly mentor
team outings, Tapestry’s co-directors decided this network was
the community they had set out
to build—albeit one with a very different group identity from what they expected or were
familiar with.
Tapestry is not a church, but it is an explicitly spiritual community convened by ordained
religious leaders. It’s not a religious educational endeavor per se, but it does engage practices of
learning, healing, caring, growth, and inclusion that have much in common with at least some of
the formational objectives and trajectories found in congregations and certain schools, camps,
and other explicitly religious settings and programs. As such, it has stimulated my thinking about
1 People, place, and organization names from the ethnographic studies discussed in this paper are
the limits of our traditional theorizing about the broad purposes of religious education in the U.S.
and beyond.
Without finding new ways to complement more familiar framings of religious
educational purposes, tasks, and challenges, I believe it will be increasingly difficult to
communicate about our sites and modes of teaching and research—with each other as
practitioners and scholars, and with publics much less likely to organize their understandings and
practices of religion and spirituality with respect to traditional categories (Drescher 2016;
McGuire 2008; Smith and Snell 2009; Wuthnow 2007). Moreover, exposure and/or commitment
to spiritual and religious diversity must continue to register not just in how religious educators
talk about our work, but also how we conduct it
. As we shall see, the challenge for educators
who are in various ways representatives of particular faiths is especially ambiguous and
especially acute in these times of rapid change and high institutional anxiety.
This paper will draw on religious, social, and anthropological literature and on
ethnographic field data from my research partnership with Tapestry and from other projects.
Following colleagues in literacy studies and other fields, I draw on spatial theory to conceptually
analyze how we position the roles and practices of religious education in a complex religious
landscape like the U.S.—where religious belief is quite widespread but traditional religious
affiliation is rapidly declining (Gallup 2019; Pew Research Center 2015; Putnam 2000), and
where interest in spiritual practices is high but so is ambivalence about the roles of authority
figures and institution-based community (Drescher 2016; Gallup 2018; Pew Research Center
2016). I develop and illustrate an empirically responsive framing that theorizes what I call
faith-adjacent spaces
and that discusses some of the benefits of taking a faith-adjacent stance in
our religious education.
Literature review: Framing the orientation(s) of religious education
In this first section, I review several authors’ high-level understandings of the purposes
and priorities of religious education. While obviously not comprehensive, this summary of
approaches provides a foundation and trajectory for further theorizing religious education in light
of the shifting landscape described above.
Working in the UK primarily during the final third of the twentieth century, Michael
Grimmitt carves out a role between “confessional” religious nurture on one hand and purely a
phenomenological religious studies orientation on the other. His advocacy for going beyond
learning about
religion to learning from
religion provides an important precedent for thinking
about how educators can not only inform but also stimulate a religiously diverse community of
students: “[Religious education]'s prime responsibility [is] to help pupils to come to terms with
questions about their own identity, their own values and life-styles, their own priorities and
commitments, and their own frame of reference for viewing life and giving it meaning”
(Grimmitt 1981, 49). His pedagogy uses religion “as a tool” for “reflection, judgement, thought
processes, [and the] search for meaning and identity of the students” (Engebretson 2006, 677). I
believe Grimmitt’s hybrid approach (see table 1) and those like it—previously relevant mostly to
settings where religious education takes place in committedly pluralistic settings—is becoming
increasingly important for representatives of particular
traditions providing even confessional
formation or nurture.
Philosophers of education Hanan Alexander and Terence McLaughlin (2003) draw on
a number of categories and metaphors to organize their civically minded philosophical
discussion. They delineate education in religion and spirituality “from the outside
… in which
no one religious or spiritual tradition is given normative status” against education “from the
… in separate religious schools” and “other educative contexts” that “attempt to form and
nourish a commitment to the particular beliefs, values, and practices of a specific religious and
spiritual tradition” (361, italics mine). The authors associate the ability of the former approach to
form openness
, both to knowledge of and acceptance of diverse religious communities and to the
spiritual dimensions of all human life. The latter they associate with an ability to form
in particular traditions.
Nevertheless, the pair conversely nod to the fact that true openness “from the outside”
requires an empathetic appreciation for the ways particular communities are rooted, and that
education “from the inside” demands careful preservation of the autonomy of especially those
who find themselves in such an educational setting despite outsider status with respect to the
majority identity. Thus, while I do not detect in their account a desire to construct a distinctly
hybrid approach, as Grimmitt does, it is clear the pair wishes for both approaches to take account
of the central insights of the other and to apply those insights when appropriate.
A teacher, teacher educator, and researcher in Singapore, Charlene Tan (2009) engages
with Alexander, McLaughlin, Grimmitt and others and organizes her treatment around the
question of commitment. She critiques teaching about commitment
in part for reasons similar to
Grimmitt’s advocacy for moving beyond the purely phenomenological approach. However, she
also finds the liberal ideology at the heart of a supposedly neutral stance to, in practice, bias
educational systems against religion entirely. On the other hand, Tan views teaching for
to be inappropriate even in religiously monolithic contexts because of its close
2 The pair treat religion and spirituality separately and include a helpful distinction between spiritualities
that are tethered to and untethered from various religious traditions. Nevertheless, in the question of
whether to treat the two separately, I concur with Drescher (2016) “that the ongoing debate about what
counts as ‘spiritual’ and what is more properly ‘religious’ reveals more about who is using these words
than about the terms themselves or, perhaps more significantly, than it does about the spiritual and/or
religious experiences and commitments of ordinary Americans in the midst of everyday lives” (7).
3 The pair define spirituality through a discussion of five distinct strands: searching for meaning,
“cultivat[ing] ‘inner space,” manifesting virtues in everyday life, responding to the human and natural
worlds (“awe, wonder, and reverence”), and sharing in community (359–360).
4 Tan intentionally does not differentiate between religious education, i.e., in schools, and other forms of
religious nurture or upbringing, i.e., at home or in faith communities (210).
association with indoctrination and its inconsistency with the desire to preserve learners’ rational
Consequently, Tan also advocates for a hybrid approach, one that she calls teaching from
. This two-step process involves first introducing a single religious framework and
then, over time and in age-appropriate ways, subjecting it to critical reflection. From Tan I take
the importance of even religiously affiliated instructors learning to bracket their own wishes
about their students’ religious formation. Her implied strategy of doing so by stressing
perspective-sharing (from
commitment) rather than case-making (for
commitment) seems to me
a realistic compromise between teachers’ desire to pass on faith to a new generation (Foster
2012; Westerhoff 2012) and students’ awareness of the many “fully-formed alternatives …
before us” (Taylor 2007, 28).
A Catholic religious educator teaching in a U.S. Lutheran seminary, Mary Hess calls
religious educators who represent particular faiths to locate and emphasize the parts of their
traditions that look beyond
those traditions (a “from the inside” approach that focuses its
attention “to
the outside”). She calls this approach “respect[ing] a community of communities”
(2017, 38), and she notes that it often receives only lip service: “a curriculum that explicitly
names religious pluralism as a contemporary issue, but then marginalizes it to study in only a
few courses, or only in electives, implicitly teaches that religious pluralism is actually not all that
relevant or important to practices of faith” (2017, 38). Rather, she asks elsewhere,
Can we embody religious education that educates within
and for
specific religious
communities, but also and concurrently with
and for
people who are not part of religious
communities? Can we reach people who might have very little interest in, or perhaps
even hostility towards, religious institutions? I fear that until and unless religious
communities can communicate … our integral and inextricable commitments to
relationship across, among, within, between and amidst various kinds of difference, we
will lose even more ground with a generation of people growing to consciousness within
the rich and varied landscapes of the US. (2016, 1, italics hers)
Thus, Hess remixes multiple approaches defined above, nodding to Alexander and McLaughlin’s
inside/outside framing, trusting with Grimmitt that it is possible simultaneously to nurture the
belief and practice of religiously diverse
learners, and seeking like Tan to uphold the autonomy
5 Of course, she is far from alone in making this point. See, for example, Westerhoff (2012) writing from
his tradition: “To be Christian is to ask: What can I bring to another? Not: What do I want that person to
know or be?” (Kindle location 424). Even Alexander and McLaughlin (2003) hold up such a standard,
calling it “a kind of ‘openness with roots’”: “Students are exposed to, and involved in, a form of
education articulated by a particular conception of the good, but they are encouraged to put their
formation into critical perspective and to make any acceptance of it on their part authentic” (369). In fact,
I debated whether to put “openness with roots” in the hybrid column of table 1, but doing so seemed to
confuse a discussion that despite acknowledging some mild and partial hybridity, nevertheless is
intentionally organized around the inside/outside dichotomy.
of students exploring or committed to identities that may go against the grain in a particular
Table 1 Summary of various authors’ framings of religious education
Purely secular
notes on
notes on
Purely religious
(1981), see
Learning about
religion via
process for the
purposes of
foundation for
Learning from
religion via
process for the
purposes of
must avoid
engaging in
Learning through
religion via
nurturing process
for the purposes of
Education in religion
and spirituality from
the outside to form
tolerance, civic virtue)
must still be
grounded in
empathy that is
particular to
must still avoid
Education in
religion and
spirituality from the
to form
rootedness (beliefs,
practices of distinct
Tan (2009)
Teaching about
commitment to
expound “a wide
range of religious
views in a
neutral and
objective fashion
protects against
the reductionist
and secularist
impulses of
protects against
impulses of
Teaching for
commitment to
believers into the
faith” (210)
relationality across
difference … without
perceiving such
as being in any way
connected to
religion” (2016, 1)
authorizes and
participants to
examine own and
others’ beliefs
and practices in
context, in
contrast to
Educating for
community of
“within and
for” particular
traditions, and
“with and for”
between explicit
and implicit
claims to value
difference, in
contrast to
identity to be
through only one
(2017, 38)
6 The arrows should be interpreted as follows: ← = “the approach to the left”; → = “the approach to the
right.” E.g., “Learning about religion provides foundation for learing from religion.”
7An extrapolation representing my best guess at how Grimmitt would extend the “learning ____” formula.
Conceptual analysis: A spatial turn for religious education
There are a number of appeals to spatial reasoning in the understandings of religious
education surveyed in the previous section and summarized in table 1. The most explicit is
Alexander and McLaughlin’s (2003) discussion of religious and spiritual education from the
versus from the inside
. In this case, and in others that replicate its logic, what determines
the boundaries of “inside” and “outside”? While it may be true that there are characteristic
“inside” and “outside” pedagogies and learning activities, it seems to me unavoidable in this way
of framing things that participants and observers will be led to ask, by extension, who are the
“insiders” and who are the “outsiders”?
I see such a framing as significantly problematic. First, even if we view insider/outsider
labels themselves as somehow neutral , this framing fails to account for the tension that Tan
registers in her proposal of a two-step process of first learning the tradition and then questioning
it (but see also footnote 5). For example, if I’m a youth or adult seeker or inquirer in a Christian
baptism or confirmation class, am I likely to experience my positionality as “on the inside”?
Likely not, I’d venture, and certainly not fully. Indeed, many of the traditions of the
catechumenate seem especially and appropriately designed to mark a hybrid or liminal status:
periodic public liturgies of intention setting, particular ways of conducting oneself inside and
outside the worship space, etc.
Moreover, empirical research suggests that an inside/outside framing is overly simplistic
even for a significant number of—to use a Christian term with a certain spatial
sensibility—“people in the pews.” Drescher (2016) provocatively emphasizes this point in her
choice to compare and contrast religious Nones with those she calls “Somes”—who, despite their
positive affiliation, turn out to have much in common spiritually and sometimes even religiously
with Nones . As I mentioned in the introduction, Drescher and others (McGuire 2008; Smith and
Snell 2009; Wuthnow 2007) are helping us come to a clearer understanding of a phenomenon
that was probably always true and is certainly becoming more numerically significant: the people
“inside” our traditions and our individual faith communities aren’t as religiously or spiritually
similar as we might be tempted to believe, nor are the people “outside” as dissimilar. If our
categories for understanding are getting messier, so should the ways that we teach and learn with
them. For example, my pedagogy from the inside
as an Episcopal priest serving on Sunday
mornings is likely at best to fall flat with and at worst to erase the experiences of many
8 Or even as fraught but inevitable—no group identity without a group boundary, etc.
9 Perhaps most strikingly, both the religiously affiliated (78%) and unaffiliated (22%)
in her Spiritual
Practices Survey (N=1,166) ranked what she calls “‘The Four Fs of Contemporary American Spirituality’:
Fido, Family, Friends, and Food” as the most meaningful spiritual practices (e.g., “enjoying time with
family,” “preparing or sharing food”); even the Somes ranked “attending worship” and “studying sacred
scriptures” near the bottom of the list, with prayer coming in below the Four Fs but above other practices
for both groups.
participants who are not insiders
with respect to all or even many of the various dimensions of
Christian belief and practice.
Most importantly, though, I argue any
framing that accepts religious education settings as
empty or neutral space—or even as straightforwardly delineated, enfused , filled , or set aside,
11 12
e.g., a house of worship as “sacred space,” a classroom as “learning space,” etc.—fails to
adequately account for the insights of postmodern geographers and other social thinkers who
attend to the perceived, imagined, and lived complexities of space. Writing in the introduction
to an important volume in literacy studies, Sheehy and Leander (2004) call for a spatial turn in
their field of educational research and beyond:
Whereas space was once thought of as empty, available, and waiting to be filled up,
recent theorizing about space has brought to light that space is a product and process of
socially dynamic relations. Space is not static—as in metaphorical images of borders,
centers, and margins—it is dynamically relational. Space, as a noun, must be reconceived
as an active, relational verb, which is our intent in invoking “spatializing.” (1)
To spatialize our understandings of religious education, we have to see and imagine our spaces
more complexly—as simultaneously serving many purposes for diverse constituencies, groups
and subgroups whose members are connected to and beyond each other in ways that need to be
traced out rather than taken as a sociological given (Latour 2005). According to Knott (2005),
the value of understanding religious spaces in these theorists’ terms is
realised through an awareness of the interconnectedness
of events and relational nature
of the persons, objects, and places that constitute space. The spaces of religion … are
overlapping, co-existent, in parallel with other spaces, and because they are internally in
tension, being made up of multiple, contested, real, and imagined sites and relations. (23,
italics hers)
In the remainder of this section, I will discuss three characteristics of social space described by
these theorists and ask what difference these characteristics might make to our understanding of
our spaces of religious education. As we will see, a spatial framing according to these rich
10 Beaudoin (2008) points out that “[t]he very opposition between ‘picking and choosing’ and ‘accepting
the whole’ is itself a recent way of imagining, often for the sake of intended control, what the ‘options’
for belief are today” (Kindle location 1955).
11 As with an ethos, spirit, or pedagogical approach.
12 As with religious insiders, and possibly also outsiders.
13 See Oliver (2018) for a brief discussion of these three principal categories from Henri Lefebvre and
their relevance to one of the ethnographic studies discussed later in this paper.
14 Leander and Vasudevan (2009), following Massey (2005).
characteristics will inevitably call us to ask the big questions of people, purpose, and process
with which I began this essay.
The first thing we need to know about social space is that it is relational: “constituted
through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny” (Massey 2005, 9).
You instantiate (or re-instantiate) the space around us when you shout at or whisper to me from
across the street, or the Twitterverse, or the classroom, and the choice to shout or whisper is as
formative of the space as your choice of venue, as is how or even whether I choose to respond. If
space is
relational, then the cohesion of our spaces of religious education is constituted not only
by each teacher’s and student’s relationship to the content, but by their relationships with each
Intentional pedagogical design can attempt to influence the latter as well as the former, but
the latter is even more resistant to any attempts at control.
Next, and consequently, we note that social space is hybrid, “the sphere … of coexisting
heterogeneity” (Massey 2005, 9). The central column of table 1 explores one way in which
religious educational spaces can take on a hybrid character, i.e., approaches shaped by two
different broad orientations to particular religious experience. But spatial theory helps us
recognize hybridity of quite another order of magnitude: “Wherever two or three are gathered”16
—how much more so eight or ten or thirty or hundreds—we will find “the existence of
multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality” (Massey 2005, 9). Here again, a certain
wild unpredictability comes to the fore, especially as we take stock of the (potentially) growing
presence and impact of learners committed to a religious and spiritual identity characterized by
the mantra “No Labels Except No Labels” (Drescher 2016, 21). If space is complexly
then the composition of our spaces of religious education will always make them stubbornly
resistant to generalized, homogenous characterization.
Here I particularly appreciate the way
Hess’s “community of communities” framing for religious education foregrounds
acknowledgement of, wrestling with, and rejoicing in forms of difference—religious difference,
and also ways other kinds of relationships and life commitments complexly intersect with our
religious identities.
Finally, social space is dynamic, “always under construction,” borne forth in each
moment by “material practices which have to be carried out
” (Massy 2005, 9, italics mine). Such
a way of understanding the practices in progress in our spaces of religious education seems
especially important during a time when “traditional modes of believing, belonging,
” mean less to most Nones and Somes than “narratives … of being
and becoming
15 This explicit mention of global interactions reminds us, for example, of the role digital
interactions may
play in convening social and religious space. I have discussed these dynamics in depth elsewhere (Oliver
2019; following Campbell 2012; Vasudevan 2010).
16 Matthew 18:20a.
17 See also Beaudoin (2008): “the particular beliefs that are ‘sanctioned’ by religious leadership at any
particular time and place are deeply implicated in ‘nontheological’ or ‘nonreligious’ political, social,
cultural, and economic factors
” (Kindle location 1953, italics mine).
(Drescher 2016, 13, italics hers). In other words, we have the opportunity to align, on the one
hand, the lived reality that learning (and/as relating) is always unfinished business with, on the
other hand, the lived reality that religious identities are no less a work in progress. I have chosen
to align my own research with those seeking to shape religious educational spaces by convening
diverse communities of identity-rich narrativity—in which story “tellers” (Hess 2012; 2014),
story “linkers” (Wimberly 2005), or story “sharers” (Mallette Stephens 2018) join their voices in
what Massey (2005) might call the resonant and/or dissonant “simultaneity of stories-so-far” (9).
If space is
dynamic, then the (inevitably multifaceted) learning objectives operating in our
spaces of religious education mock our attempts to prescribe or proscribe particular outcomes
of identity and disposition.
We are now in a position, I hope, to appreciate the full utility of framing the spaces (and
hence diverse participants and purposes) of religious education as increasingly faith-adjacent
. I
began using this term merely to distinguish my work at my first research site from what I take to
be the popular understanding of most
religious education activities in the U.S. context, where
Grimmitt-esque religious education isn’t prominent . “Faith-adjacent” seemed to capture my
orientation as an Episcopal priest conducting participatory storytelling research in a church-run
but decidedly non-religious summer camp, a camp that nevertheless met in a church and that
included both members and nonmembers of the congregation as counselors and staff (see
Oliver 2018). When I later met the leaders of Tapestry and started attending the organization’s
events, the label began to feel durable for a kind of space and kind of learning taking place in
novel not-quite-religious communities.
But as I hope the foregoing spatialized analysis has suggested, an appropriately nuanced
understanding of “adjacency” to faith may be quite appropriate for understanding a growing
18 While I appreciate certain religious leader colleagues’ adoption of the term “faith formation” to
distinguish their work from descriptive/phenomenological learning about religion
, I am nevertheless
increasingly of the opinion that seeking to broaden the sense of “education” beyond mere schooling or
“book learning” in the narrow sense is a more advisable rhetorical move than telling participants in any
our religious education spaces that the forming of faith is a learning community’s ultimate and shared
19 In other words, I hoped to maximize the potential of my mentors and classmates in a secular doctoral
program to nevertheless be engaged with and supportive of my research beyond what might have been
possible were I working in the mode(s) of table 1’s right-hand column approaches.
20 And notice that these nonmembers might be quite comfortable describing their relationship to this
church and its faith as “adjacent” in any number of senses: “I live in the neighborhood,” “I hang out there
sometimes,” “I volunteer in their outreach programs but don’t go to services,” or “I go to services there
but don’t really believe all the dogma.” I’m thinking especially of the complex relationship one
“Lutheran-None” among Drescher’s (2016) research subjects has with the church where she sings in the
choir: “I’ve been around
church for long enough to know that most of it is a lot of crap. I don’t believe
very much of it. But I like to sing, and I couldn’t do that if I told everyone I’m probably a None” (13,
italics mine).
number of religious education spaces in a religiously pluralistic world—including many we
wouldn’t have thought to label as such, and some we might have been overeager to:
Since learning spaces are convened through all kinds of interaction and relationship, then
a conversation doesn’t have to take place in a teaching space adjoining a house of
worship or at a formally organized interreligious dialog to “count” as religious education.
Any interaction in which one or more participants’ faith is named, noticed , called upon,
or otherwise implicated is faith-adjacent , i.e., connected to or bound up with
faith, when
considered through the lens of spatial theory. If disaffiliation trends continue in the U.S.
context, such interactions (“pop-up spaces”?) may come to be the most influential sites of
religious education.
Since learning spaces are inevitably marked by the multiplicity of their diverse
participants, understanding them as “inside” or “outside” a religious tradition through
appeals to a singular identity categories of those present, or to an abstract set of practices
and beliefs appropriate (or not) to a particular faith, may not be especially useful. This is
not to say that a religiously diverse community holding space to together at a particular
moment convenes religious education in some momentary “composite faith”; rather, their
learning space is in that moment complexly adjacent to any number of faiths implicated
by the participants’ various networks of commitments and relations.
Since learning spaces are dynamically open-ended, and growing numbers of Americans
and others feel comfortable following these learning trajectories in diverse,
“contradictory,” or non-normative directions, educators with a faith-adjacent framing
for their work prepare for, and support as they are able, the journeys their students choose
to undertake. In my view, wishing that the nature of learning spaces were different or that
None-style orientations to faith were less popular is not an excuse for choosing
pedagogies that work against rather than with these realities, even if we work in contexts
still better described as straightforwardly religious rather than faith-adjacent.
21 See especially Knott’s (2005) discussion of de Certeau’s “walking rhetorics” in the special case of
religious people’s spatial practices, such as wearing religious clothing in public or making (even
unconscious) routine religious gestures (39–42).
22 Or “religion- and/or spirituality-adjacent” if you prefer. As for me and my household, losing a little
precision seems a small price to pay for dropping so many syllables. See footnote 2.
23 Such a view makes me sympathetic to, or has perhaps been partially formed by, Latour’s (2005)
methodological skepticism about the sociological givenness of various groups or categories—his mantra
is “No Group, Only Group Formation” (27). I am intrigued by the connections (pun intended) between
these spatial theorists’ work and Latour’s actor-network theory and working to articulate this fusion in my
dissertation work on faith-adjacent communities.
24 To religious leaders or to the wider social practices of the surrounding cultural milieu.
Illustrations & discussion: Two moments of faith-adjacent religious education
Having sketched this orientation to religious education and discussed some of the ways it
both differs from and builds on well-known understandings from the literature, I now seek to
illustrate some of the characteristics of a spatialized understanding in action. I will describe two
significant ethnographic turning points or narrative moments (see Oliver 2018 ; following
Bruner 1994; Lambert 2012; Ricœur 1991; Taylor 2016) in learning spaces that I believe are
appropriately, and productively, understood as faith-adjacent.
Moment: Embodying faith-adjacency through flexible, pluralistic pedagogy at Tapestry
On my second formal ethnographic field visit with Tapestry, I observed explicit
faith-adjacent pedagogies in action amid the multifaith learning space convened by co-director
Hannah. The event was a monthly mentor training, what turned out to be their largest to date. I
saw when I arrived that Hannah was wearing her clerical collar, as she often does. Her collar was
just one of the symbols of her role as a religious leader, but one she would complexify over the
course of the morning. Our introductory activity involved a form of sharing and listening seeded
by a reflective step in which we wrote our names in the center of a circle and words that
“describe [our] world” in the space outside the circle. After each participant spoke about
significant parts of their world and what those elements had to do with their decision to explore
becoming a Tapestry mentor, Hannah then introduced a presentation about the “core principles”
of Tapestry. She said this presentation would help everyone get clearer about how they would
care for their youth “both biologically and spiritually.”
25 I have since significantly expanded this paper’s discussion of the analytic character of narrative turning
points in ethnography. I will gladly share as work in progress with interested scholars as I revise this
theoretical and methodological essay for publication.
Figure 1 A photograph of the January 12 mentor training, taken by Hannah. Instagram post
de-identified via procedure similar to that of Kligler-Vilenchik and Literat (2018).
The core principles presentation began with Hannah unloading a blue backpack full of
objects that she used to tell a Montessori-style story about Tapestry’s four guiding principles:
hope, presence, recreation, and communion. The first object was a 6–8 inch circular yin-yang
disc (lower right in figure 2) with a labyrinth pattern printed on it. She said that this training, and
each meeting with our youth, would “start at a threshold,” and it would be good for us to “walk
slowly with deliberation.” She said this work is about holding space, sacred space, safe
space—and that as with walking a labyrinth, we’d need to ask at the end how do we walk back
into everyday life. When she later placed the articulated wooden figure near the PRESENCE
placard (upper left), she said, “You have what you need to be a mentor. Bring your full self. You
don’t need to do or be anything special.” When placing the interlocking gears toy (lower left),
she referenced her ministerial and denominational identity and said “[In] our tradition
communion is about togetherness. We want you to never feel alone in this work. There are many
layers of support.”
This moment was a turning point in my understanding of Tapestry. I later confirmed with
Hannah that the core principles presentation reflects her training in Godly Play (Berryman 2009),
a popular and well-respected story-based curriculum used for experiential religious education
with elementary-aged children in traditional congregations. I had seen a few Godly Play stories
told to adults before, but certainly never any that began with a well-known symbol from Chinese
26 Tapestry has since shared a standalone video version of this presentation, which I have deidentified and
made available at
philosophy and cosmology. Her willingness to adopt, for a multifaith learning community, a
common educational practice that would be at home in the right-hand column of table 1 shows
an obvious way in which her Christian faith is connected to the space she co-convened with the
community of trainees, but in a hybridized way. Indeed, she simultaneously and consistently
invited the others present to bring connections from their own religious and spiritual practice to
bear , pointing out that the guiding principles are connected in particular ways to Christianity
but can and should take on different meanings for different participants. I don’t know if she had
Drescher’s work in mind, but it seems especially fitting that Hannah began the presentation by
discussing the very practice (labyrinth walking) with which Drescher opens Choosing Our
Religion . In sum, many faiths were woven into the Tapestry on that January morning, for the
primary purpose of helping trainees learn to support their youth and each other in the spiritual art
of healing—flexibly and pluralistically understood.
Figure 2 Artifacts Hannah used to tell the “guiding principles” story.
The potency of relationality at St. Sebastian’s Camp (and Church)
If the Tapestry example highlights the kind of hybridity we might expect to be at play in
a faith-adjacent learning space, a moment from my research at St. Sebastian’s can show us the
27 A precedent she set in beginning with the “world sharing” activity, notice.
28 “Labyrinths are in many ways the perfect symbol for the spiritual lives of many Americans today,
appearing as they do in traditional religious settings as well as in the ad hoc spiritualities of people
affiliated with institutional religions as well as those whose spiritual lives unfold largely outside the doors
of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples” (Drescher 2016, 2)
significance of relationality and what faith-adjacency has to do with it. St. Sebastian’s Camp is a
summer-long, whole-day camp run by a Protestant congregation in Woodfield, a primarily
Latinx immigrant community in a northeastern U.S. metropolitan area. The purpose of the camp
is outreach and social support in a community where most parents work more than full-time and
options for affordable summer child care are scarce. The camp includes no explicitly religious
activities or content. Approximately 25 percent of the campers’ and counselors’ families attend
services or other events at St. Sebastian’s.
Lauren, Dylan, and Veronica, the participants in the weeklong digital storytelling
experience I convened there as a reflection activity for first-year counselors, are part of that 25
percent. My hope for the digital storytelling experience was that each of the participants would
create a 2–3 minute autobiographical video (see Lambert, 2012) to explore a personally
meaningful experience in their lives. I was eager to attend to if and how the context of the church
and/or the camp might inform the stories they chose to tell in that setting. Upholding the trio’s
autonomy, and zeroing in on their primary locus of excitement and meaning-making, I ended up
guiding the group through the creation of a single, shared digital story, which they called “The
Summer Camp” . Table 2 contains a partial reverse storyboard I have constructed, juxtaposing
the text of the authors’ script with three representative screenshots.
29 I produced a deidentified version from the group’s final files and have made it available at
Table 2 Final script for “The Summer Camp” by Lauren, Veronica, and Dylan
Lauren (0:10–0:25)
we grew up at this camp, we’ve been
attending it for 6-7 years. Now that
we are counselors it’s a whole
different experience we now have
more responsibilities. But we still
find a way to have fun while doing
our job. From being playful campers,
to c.i.t’s assisting this camp, to
full-grown counselors helping our
head counselors the responsibilities
have grown along with us.
Juliet reading on Lauren’s lap
(see discussion in Oliver [2018])
Dylan (0:26–0:35)
At this camp there is something for
everyone. You are cared for, respected
and you won’t be forgotten. There’s
always a way to express yourself.
Counselors watching over sprinkler time
(see discussion in Oliver [2018])
Veronica (0:57–1:05)
Our experience from campers to c.i.t’s
to counselors has been an amazing
opportunity, we look forward to
assisting this camp more years to
Lauren, Dylan, and Veronica
At the exact center of the script lies what I take to be the group’s collective summary of
what makes camp so meaningful to them: “You are cared for, respected and you won’t be
forgotten.” Throughout the week, the group reflected on the joys and occasional frustrations of
relationality at camp, including
the well known experience of nervous campers getting “stuck to” particular counselors
who show them kindness (e.g., Juliet in table 2 reading in Lauren’s lap);
their new responsibilities as “full-grown counselors” (script) to both “look after the kids”
and “play around with them” (Veronica), to be “a fun type of person” but also “serious”
the giving and receiving of respect
(Dylan’s quietly insistent contribution to the scripting
process); and
the opportunity to spend time and keep in touch with their “second family,” including
many friends from other towns who they only see at the camp (see below).
Notice that these reflections hit on but also move beyond familiar themes of camp being “all
about fun” or of teenagers just wanting to spend time with their friends. The group was aware of
a range of ways their connections to each other helped to constitute the camp community.
These relationally observant members of St. Sebastian’s Church
were also quite clear
about the differences between camp modes of interaction and what they experience on Sunday
morning. I was quite struck by the ways they characterized the latter:
What would you think about doing a project like this in Sunday school?
I feel like it would be different. I don’t think we’d be talking about camp we’d be
talking about like church and how if we like it.
Like if you like church? Okay. You think it would make a good video?
Depends on the people who make it. If it was kids it’d probably be like “Oh I
have to sit in the church listening to people at the altar and just sit there. But if it would
be like the parents it would be like “Oh, we’re talking about God, that’s helping me.”
What would you think about doing something like this as part of the Sunday
I feel like it would be different because for Sunday school it's basically all
about bible things, church things. Kids come yeah but it's usually because … the parents
don't want their children to be in church crying, bothering them … [I]nstead of like
having fun and learning … and doing their [summer] homework, they learn about the
bible and it's during like school time.
Both Dylan and Veronica can easily see past (through?) the physical place of the St. Sebastian’s
campus and differentiate between the socially constructed spaces of church and camp. Notice
that the difference doesn’t just have to do with the individual people with whom they relate. In
addition, Veronica and Dylan make explicit appeals to the different character of the social
practices at work in these distinct spaces. For Dylan, the experience of Sunday morning is
characterized by “listening” and “talking about God.” It’s a sedentary mode of engagement, and
it’s centered on “people at the altar.” Veronica contrasts camp’s fun forms of learning (even
working on summer homework!) with church’s more school-like modes of learning (but about
“bible things” ) with kids attending only reluctantly and mostly because they are deemed
disruptive to the worship service’s practices of attention.
These characterizations will not surprise religious leaders familiar with movements to
more meaningfully include children in worship and to reform religious education pedagogies
away from rote instructionism. And in an explicit sense, the young people’s fairly hard
distinction between church and camp calls into question the notion that the latter is meaningfully
“adjacent” to the group’s religious faith.
However, what’s so analytically interesting about this contrast is how consistently and
poignantly the group’s description of their camp-based social practices of care and inclusion
conform to the very kinds of faith values I know the leaders of St. Sebastian’s Church want to
instill in their members
. Indeed, I wrote about their roving screening of the final digital story to
each counselor’s group at the end of the week as the itinerant preaching of “a contextually
appropriate gospel of love and inclusion” (Oliver 2018, 23). In this sense the camp space and its
practices were faith-adjacent indeed. And in my view, the failure of the Sunday morning
experience to appropriately implicate faith—for these “kids,” at least—in a way that
encompassed not just religious content but meaningful relational practices
should make us pause
before dismissing the non-religious camp as an important and meaningful space of religious
Conclusion: The blessing of faith-adjacent teaching amid disaffiliation
Earlier this year I presented about this work at St. Sebastian’s to a group of religious
educators from my denomination, advocating that we be more open to participating in
educational spaces that might be made “faith-adjacent” perhaps only by our presence as
transparently religious people participating in non-religious endeavors. Partway through the
presentation, someone finally asked the blunt question I’d been expecting, something like, “I can
understand this as a mission project, but not a faith formation project. Why should we do this, as
Christians who are
?” I’m sure this is a question many REA members associated with
30 Later: “During the Sunday school they usually just like probably get bored because it's about the Bible,
like not to offend churches or anything like that.”
particular faith traditions have fielded from co-religionist colleagues over the years, especially in
contexts where non-confessional education—and hence this quandary—is more widespread. I
appreciated that several participants chimed in with answers, including the lesson/witness that
(again paraphrasing) “Your local faith leader cares about you for reasons beyond your potential
contribution to their community’s organizational and financial viability.” In light of Drescher’s
and others’ data about the high levels of cynicism toward religious institutionalism, this strikes
me as a pretty good answer. My less patient (and perhaps equally cynical) answer was that we
better get good at doing this kind of work because it may soon be the only kind of work we can
However, a better reason for taking a more faith-adjacent stance in our convening (or
simply participating) in spaces of religious education combines a sociological realism with
probably the single greatest concern all of table 1’s authors are wrestling with: preserving
autonomy. My colleague James Nagle has recently published a piece calling Thomas Groome’s
shared praxis pedagogy “to the courage of its [open-ended] convictions” regarding how to
respond to the process that Nagle, following Tom Beaudoin and Patrick Hornbeck, calls
deconversion (Nagle 2019, 536; see also Nagle 2017). He emphasizes in North American and
European contexts the need for educators to be open to deconversion and disaffiliation as
legitimate outcomes of religious education experiences in Catholic schools and elsewhere:
Despite the narrative of loss implied by descriptors like “lapsed,” “former,” and “fallen
away” to describe this growing group, consistent research suggests the religious lives of
disaffiliating persons are more complex than pessimistic assessments suggest …
“[L]apsed” Catholics often leave the church for moral and religious reasons—and these
“non-practicing” Catholics still practice something. (Nagle 2019, 528)
I agree with Nagle that treating deconversion always as an example of loss or failure is both
intellectually dubious—in light of our commitment to student autonomy and critical
thinking—and also unlikely to benefit the very institutions whose self-protective instincts give
rise to such characterizations. If it’s an accepted sociological reality that there are more choices
than ever about how to practice, how much more likely are we to alienate learners if they
perceive us to be convincing or coercing rather than sharing or witnessing. Indeed, before I
entirely understood Tan’s teaching from commitment
position, I thought it effectively captured
what I especially recognize in my colleagues at Tapestry: a transparency about what brings them
to the faith-adjacent table, combined with a curious—rather than controlling—interest in what
does (or doesn’t) bring others there.
I did not have room in this article to discuss a third example from my research, one that
might illustrate spatial theory’s understanding of social practice as dynamic, as “always under
construction,” and what this might mean for faith-adjacent approaches to religious education. But
it is the dynamic character of social space that I think of when I read this brief excerpt from
Nagle’s (2019) research, which puts Catholic school religion teachers in conversation with their
disaffiliating former students:
The thirty-year-old disaffiliating Catholic confidently shared with his teacher that his
courses helped guide him through the diverse religious world he encountered after
leaving high school. He explained thoughtfully the comfort and capacity he learned to
“go outside of religion to find religious answers” or “go outside of being Catholic to find
spiritual answers” because his courses included an exchange between religious and
non-religious sources, including personal experience … This disaffiliating young man,
who was in the process of planning a wedding that would not be a Mass, shared with this
teacher: “I believe my religious education was successful. Absolutely. I don’t think
church leaders would say that same thing, but I would. Absolutely.” What made this
dialog powerful was that, after their conversation, his teacher agreed. (538–539)
Of course, we don’t need to be committed spatial theorists, fixated on the ongoing becoming
implied in all social practice, to admire a Catholic religious educator’s commitment to the
integrity of his former student’s journey. And we don’t (necessarily) need to recast this teacher’s
classroom as a faith-adjacent space, however fully we might wish to divest ourselves of
institutionally centered understandings of religious education.
No, what made me smile when I read this anecdote—in another (2018) of Nagle’s
writings that had space for more ethnographic detail—was that the pair repositioned their chairs
and continued talking when the researcher concluded the interview and excused himself. In the
interview, and I bet especially in what came after, these two learners coconvened/reconvened a
dynamic and deeply relational space of religious education. I was tempted to call it a
“long-dormant” space, but it’s clear that remembered and imagined connections between the two
have continued to shape the younger man’s life and faith. Perhaps it’s been much more
influential than other more traditional education spaces in which he has participated since. It may
have shaped his once and future teacher’s faith as well.
If we look at this rekindled relationship and see among these two men a faith-adjacent
space of religious education, the question of “success” and “failure” falls away. What remains is
a beautiful mode of engaging faith, and the world, that is almost surely more ancient and
arguably more traditional than what we (think we) see when we visit a classroom like the place
where the pair first began their journey together.
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