For The Someday Book

Book Review: Faith Formation 2020

Posted on: July 27, 2013

Faith Formation 2020: Designing the Future of Faith Formation by John Roberto, LifeLong Faith Associates, 2010, 218 pp.

faith formation 2020Faith formation is one of my passions in ministry. How do we help people come to know the Christian life? How do we teach the stories of the Bible and the patterns of Christian living? The ways of faith formation are changing dramatically now that we live in a post-Christendom world, where young people can grow up having never heard even the basics of the Christian story. I was eager to read Faith Formation 2020 for insights about how to respond to this new reality and strategies for successful faith formation in the church. John Roberto is widely regarded as an expert in this field, and has successfully helped many churches adapt their programs and grow their ministries.

The book begins with a social-scientific approach dissecting and classifying the data of the current situation of the church. Roberto employs a strategy called “scenario thinking” to categorize and analyze the various types of people, life situations, programs and spiritual needs across the entire population. The approach felt almost overwhelming to me at times. He begins with “eight significant influences driving faith formation,” which include things like the increase in people identified as “spiritual but not religious,” changing patterns of marriage and family life, decreased church participation and the impact of digital technologies. (12-15) He then adds “two critical uncertainties for faith formation 2020.”

Will people be more or less receptive to Christianity and involved in churches in the next decade?

Will people’s hunger and openness (for God and the spiritual life) increase or decrease over the same decade? (17)

These uncertainties work together in a matrix to create four scenarios:

  1. Vibrant faith and active engagement: “people of all ages and generations are actively engaged in a Christian church, are spiritually committed, and growing in their faith.”
  2. Spiritual but not religious: “people are spiritually hungry and searching for God and the spiritual life, but most likely are not affiliated with organized religion and an established Christian tradition.”
  3. Unaffiliated and uninterested: “people experience little need for God and the spiritual life and are not affiliated with organized religion and established Christian churches.”
  4. Participating but uncommitted: “people attend church activities, but are not actively engaged in their church community or spiritually committed.” (19)

The remainder of the book is dedicated to sixteen strategies to address the various scenarios. The strategies include things like attending to milestones in people’s lives, engaging in service and mission as a path toward faith formation, organizing faith formation by generation, teaching discipleship by mentoring relationships and using digital media and technology. Within each strategy, Roberto identifies how it works with people within each of the four scenarios, how their particular needs will be different, and how the strategy can be adapted for them. There are many, many practical ideas, well-tested programs and useful techniques.

It took me an absurdly long time to read this book (a month), and even longer to get around to writing this review (another month). I think that’s because the whole thing left me feeling quite overwhelmed. It took me awhile to grasp the way that the factors, uncertainties, scenarios and strategies all related to one another and to me. I love big picture thinking and categories, but even so this was a lot to comprehend. However, the overwhelmed feeling did not subside once I understood the concepts.

Roberto’s approach breaks down just how different the faith formation needs are for different groups of people, especially across the four scenarios. I see each of them at work in my congregation and community, and I feel moved to respond to people across the four quadrants. However, unlike Roberto, who works predominately in Catholic parishes starting with 1,000 families, I am looking at a congregation of around 200 people, about 80 in worship on Sunday. It seems an impossible feat to organize faith formation unique to each scenario and life stage when you are only dealing with two to four people in each category. Reading the book made me feel a burden of scarcity–in resources, time and energy–about faithfully meeting the needs of such a wide range of people.

At the end, I am still left with that uncertainty about how faith formation can take place in a smaller congregation. Yet I know that I cannot let my feelings of scarcity rule–our God is the God of abundance. I leave the book appreciative for the depth of understanding it offered about the various spiritual needs and concerns of people in the different scenarios. I will be attentive to that in my ministry. I will adapt some of the strategies in our work together, and think about how they work for people in different places in life. I still leave a bit overwhelmed with it all, which is perhaps the only proper response to the rapidly changing times in which we live and do ministry.

I recommend this book as food for thought to people in all settings and sizes of ministry, because Roberto’s analysis of the landscape is unparalleled. But I caution the reader: you may find yourself overwhelmed by the vast work that lies ahead. Thankfully, our God is bigger than we are.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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