In one sense, the explanation for the so-called 'demise' of Christian education is very simple. Once, "Christian education" was the 'umbrella' term for both formation and education. Now, "formation" is becoming the "catch-all" to describe both formal and informal nurture/socialisation and education.Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or doesn't it really matter?
As I mentioned previiously, the development of CE in the USA paralleled the development of 'secular' education during the 20th century, with the former taking many cues from the latter (This is somewhat different from when the church was the leader in education in earlier times.) What this resulted in was both CE roles (paid and unpaid) in congregations, and courses of study in CE in universities and seminaries. Each fed the other, and fuelled the commitment of churches to lifelong Christian learning.
Most of the leaders in Christian education in the UCA and its parent denominations did their graduate studies in the USA, or were strongly influenced by theorists from the US (as distinct from the UK, which has had more influence on RE in schools). It is not surprising, therefore, that there were Depts of Christian Education in Synods, some CE offerings in theological colleges, and even faculty with CE as a specialty. Unlike the US though, Australian congregations rarely had Directors of CE. At best they had a youth/childresn/family worker, who may have had a qualification which may have had a subject or two in CE, and whose job included much more than CE.
So, while C. Ellis Nelson and John Westerhoff promoted a socialisation/anthropological perspective on growth in Christian faith as a broader perspective than a schooling paradigm, CE remained the catch-all term in the US in terms of the discipline, courses and expertise. [There are, however, some signs of a shift, with Duke University (where Westerhoff taught) now offering a Master of Arts in Christian Practice. The work of Dykstra, Bass and others in exending discussion about practical theology in relation to education is a key aspect of this as well.]
This of course was never the case within the Catholic tradition, where 'Catholic education', catechesis and formation were the dominant terms (along with more specific terms such as RCIA), and where the parish school itself served multiple functions. I believe that it is largely due to the growth in ecumenism, with the Protestant recovery/discovery of catholic traditions and practices, that 'formation' has come to the fore in theological/ministry education. The term is a clear recognition that preparation of people for ministry is about more than 'schooling' or classroom learning, or indeed about obtaining academic qualification. This use of 'formation' as an umbrella term is entirely consistent with the legacy of Nelson and Westerhoff.
I have to say again that the formation label is not without its problems - the justification of anything and everything as 'formation', a lack of attention to educational theory and method (pedagogy/andragogy), a decline of the valuing of CE as a field of academic enquiry. Like 'mission', 'formation' is a woolly term. It's ALL about formation...
But most importantly, 'formation' is primarily seen as something that colleges do to their students, which is quite different to equipping ministry leaders to attend to faith formation and education in their congregations. It seems clear to me that a congregational focus on worship, pastoral care and mission does not in and of itself 'make disciples'. While the popular interest in Christian practices is commendable, this has not yet been translated into disciplined teaching in colleges about the nature of faith formation and education. In other words, whatever we call it, with the decline of CE in most colleges, are we not as a church reinforcing the notion that CE is an optional program for children, that faith formation is mysterious and unintentional, but will nevertheless occur if leaders attend to all of the 'other' demands of ministry. ie. that you don't actually have to attend to discipleship in order to grow disciples.
[I'm not sure that ended where I wanted it to, but it will do for today....]