“Religious Education” vs. “Faith Formation”

A Failed System

Any business, school, or charity with an 80% failure rate would be considered a lost cause. An entity with such dismal stats would rightly be dismantled and replaced as soon as possible. But in the Catholic Church, these numbers don’t seem to be affecting the practices of many parishes.

According to numerous studies, about 80% of adults under age 30 say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.[3] Even more disturbing is the fact that the median age of disaffiliation is 13 years old (See Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, Saint Mary’s Press, September 2017.)

Despite these results, most parishes today still operate on the “classroom” model of catechesis: Principals (“Directors of Religious Education”) lead teachers (“Catechists”) with students in classrooms taught from textbooks to be tested for their level of spiritual preparation so they can “graduate” (receive sacraments). The classroom model naturally fosters a “school mentality” where the faith is equated to classes, homework, and tests.

Under the classroom model it is easy for faith formation to be treated as a subject to be learned rather than a faith to be modeled and lived. It should come as no surprise when many families come to see the sacraments as prizes to earn, attending Mass a requirement to meet, and catechesis as a program to complete. When faith formation is reduced to such a set of requirements it will produce a “faith” that is easily dismissed once they have been checked off.

Why Do We Keep Doing It?

Since the results cannot be the reason to keep such a system in place, what is it? I think the explanation is inertia. The model already exists and people are used to it. Enrollment, volunteers, facilities, scheduling, summers off . . . we’ve been doing it for so long, the idea of a major change is difficult to even imagine.

It is also easier to implement than a thoughtful, in-depth faith formation program. Good catechists are hide to find, and if you’re in a large parish, it can be a full time job just coordinating and supporting the volunteer pool needed just to keep the system afloat. Scheduling all of these faithful volunteers is difficult enough but then you have to add in family schedules (school sports, etc.) and it is easier to navigate this tricky process if you already have a template (e.g., a school calendar) to work from.

And hey – why fix it if it ain’t broken? Oh wait.

For these and other reasons, the school model continues despite its objectively poor performance.

How Do We Fix It?

If we want to get out of the graduation mentality we need to get out of the school mentality. Signs of the latter include:

  • Program terminology such as “religious education,” “school,” “teachers,” “students,” “classes,” “curriculum,” “textbooks,” “homework,” “tests,” “enrollment,” “attendance,” etc.
  • September-May schedule with nothing offered over the summer.
  • Lecture format instruction.
  • Grouping by school grade alone (e.g., rather than include formation level).

So, one of the first things we can do is change our program (admittedly this is a questionably useful term itself!) terminology. This may seem to be merely a rhetorical trick – and it will be if this is all that is done! – but it can be quite powerful as a mindset changer.

If volunteers are asked to sign up to be “teachers” (and, for most, “catechists”) what will come to their minds? Probably someone standing in front of a classroom full of students lecturing them from books. If parents are told that sacrament reception requires “classes” what will they expect? Same thing.

But what if they volunteers asked to serve as “discussion leaders”? What if families are invited to attend “sacramental retreats”? What if catechesis stopped being seen as something only for kids?

Here are some of my suggestions for re-branding religious education:

  • Religious Education        –          Faith Formation
  • Class (Room)                      –           Session or Meeting
  • Curriculum                        –           Resource
  • Teacher                              –           Catechist
  • Student                              –           Learner
  • Attendance                       –           Participation
  • Assignment                      –           Activity
  • Test                                    –          Assessment

Granted this is only a first step – but it’s a good one.


The purpose of this change is not simply to follow a terminology trend or exercise Orwellian “Newspeak.” Words matter, and what we choose to call ourselves and the elements of our programs need to reflect what we’re really about: faith formation (which is a lot more than “classes”).

Like the popular change from “volunteers” to “stewards” to reflect the fact that praying, serving, and giving are not (in a sense) “voluntary,” getting rid of the kinds of “education” language that makes catechesis seem like something just for kids and which created the sacramental “graduation” mentality is a good first step in eradicating the catechetical failure that is plaguing the church.