by Richard Robert Osmer. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22547-0. Pb., 347 pp. $29.95
Last fall my daughter entered her senior year of high school and with that came the extracurricular activity of filling out college applications and writing application essays. Though each school has had its own list of suggested topics, most of them have included an option that goes something like this, “If you could invite any three guests, from any time in history, to a dinner party, whom would you invite and what would you want to discuss with them?”
In many ways Richard Osmer’s The Teaching Ministry of Congregations is a masterful variation of this type of exercise with a creative twist. Rather than guests at a dinner party Osmer invites three diverse faith communities to serve as illustrations of the teaching ministry of congregations. He also invites a select group of theologians, philosophers, education theorists, and other social scientists into his “artist’s studio” in order to hold a multidisciplinary discussion about the emerging field of practical theology. Fortunately for the reader, Osmer has synthesized all of their voices into a coherent, one might even say, systematic, consideration of the purposes, tasks and a potential model for teaching ministry in congregations.
A brief sketch of Osmer’s proposal based on this conversation begins with a statement of the purpose of teaching ministry as edification – the building up of the body of Christ. Edification happens as the tasks of: 1) catechesis – the handing on of story and tradition, 2) exhortation — moral formation and education, 3) and discernment — learning to interpret experience eschatologically, are carried out within the life of a congregation. Each of these tasks can be viewed from a variety of helpful perspectives, or interdisciplinary frames, including a congregation’s religious practices, its curriculum, its leadership development, and the individual faith pilgrimages of its members. One potential model for fashioning a teaching ministry within these frames is to shape congregational life as a Theo-drama.
This introductory sketch, however, does not do justice to the rich and thickly painted canvas prepared by Osmer for his readers. In what might be considered a second volume (read A Teachable Spirit as prequel), Osmer introduces and concludes Teaching Ministry with a discussion of the emerging field of practical theology and the present day challenges of making normative claims about the teaching ministry of congregations.
In Part 1 he paints a portrait of the Apostle Paul as an exemplary teacher then delves into Paul’s correspondence with early Christian faith communities to find the purpose and corresponding tasks of a teaching ministry. In Part 2 he paints, in the form of case studies, extended portraits of three diverse faith communities, one North American, one South African and one South Korean. These case studies allow Osmer to frame the teaching ministry of congregations in a variety of illuminating ways. The respective frames of practices, curriculum, leadership and pilgrimage bring into focus interesting questions that Osmer provides for congregational leaders to discuss as they rethink their own practices of catechesis, exhortation and discernment.
In Part 3 he invites the reader to step inside his “artist’s studio” and consider a new model for fashioning a congregation’s teaching ministry. Keeping with his emphasis on the constitutative role theology plays in Christian education, Osmer introduces JÃ¼rgen Moltmann as a primary dialogue partner. With several brilliant strokes painted from a pallet of the arts and humanities, rather than a more expected pallet of the social sciences, Osmer then fashions a model of teaching ministry as engagement in God’s great Theo-drama.
Teaching Ministry is a substantial book written for those who are seriously interested in the future of educational ministry in an increasingly globalized church and world. For pastors this book offers guidance and encouragement in fulfilling their responsibilities for “studying, teaching, and preaching the Word.” For church educators this book offers multidisciplinary grounding for their ministry and a particularly stimulating dialogue between Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and the practices frame. For all church leaders this book offers a more expansive view of the congregation’s role in providing a teaching ministry for its members.
Along with providing normative council and pragmatic help for churches, Teaching Ministry makes a significant contribution to the fields of practical theology and Christian religious education. First, Osmer has primed the canvas for a postfoundational model of practical theology. On top of that he has painted a new and refreshing language-scape for stimulating interdisciplinary discussion about Christian education. One of Osmer’s stated goals is to “expand the reader’s imagination.” He has succeeded with this reviewer.
Grace C. Yeuell is associate professor of Christian Education at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.