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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.

Making a Home for Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children by Elizabeth F. Cardwell, Pilgrim Press, 2000, 118 pp.

Making a homeI bought this book years ago, when it was new, but never got around to reading it. I finally tuned in not simply as a parent seeking advice on how to nurture faith in my child, but as a new contributor to this blog project called Practicing Families. (To be featured in a full introduction in a day or two.)

I was seeking a practical guide with strategies for integrating faith into our home in age-appropriate ways. While this book did contain that information, it was buried in a surprisingly dense, academic style. Caldwell spends a good portion of each chapter providing a literature review, surveying everything from developmental theory to models of faith formation. This is far better suited to religious professionals or academics than parents wondering how to teach their toddler to pray. I like theory, I like academic texts–it’s just not what I was expecting here.

However, if you’re willing to look for it, there is much insight within the book for parents imagining how to pass on their faith to their children. One of the most insightful things she offers are two “top-ten” lists. The first is a list of what every child needs from faithful parents. It includes things like parents who are comfortable living their faith, participation in a faith community, faithful adults outside the family, and help making connections between faith and life. The second is a list of what parents need to know or do in order to pass along faith to their children. This list would make an excellent starting point for parents and church leaders seeking to equip them to be their children’s primary religious educator. It includes things like reading or telling a Bible story, praying, asking and answering questions, maintaining their own spiritual practices, and explaining the sacraments and liturgical year.

Although each chapter comes with questions for reflection and discussion, I would not recommend giving this book to a group of parents for a small group discussion. The tilt toward scholarly sources and away from simple stories would not work in most settings. However, this book would be an excellent starting point and resource for Christian education teams or pastors or religious educators trying to develop strategies to help parents teach faith to their children. The ideas and information it contains could easily be translated into a series of workshops or classes for parents.

This is Part IV of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a Different Way and Part III: Moving toward Holistic Faith Formation.

I promise, we’re nearing the end of this long series of reflections. I’ve already pondered the cultural support necessary to sustain traditional adult Christian education, reasons why people don’t attend and argued for a different approach that takes a more holistic approach to faith as a way of life and seeks to form people into disciples of Jesus Christ.

The fact remains: learning about God, the Bible, spiritual practices and the Christian tradition is still important. While information and intellectual knowledge is not the only aspect of faith or even the most important one, knowing the scriptures and understanding the faith is critical to discipleship. How do we accomplish that piece of faith formation? As I explained in an earlier post, our current practices all work on a school model. I believe that the time has come to get much more creative with our delivery.

Bible teaching does not require a classroom context. In my previous post, I talked about integrating bible study and faith reflection into various aspects of church life. I also believe we need to find ways to deliver information and study to people outside of church life, to connect with people where they are, and expand our reach beyond our church walls. Here are some ideas, some we are trying and some I would like to try.

  • Video Messages: I post a brief (1-2 minute) sermon preview message every week. In it, I try to avoid simply hyping church events, but instead focus on a brief, devotional, inquisitive look at the scripture that anticipates the message I will be preaching on Sunday. I post the video on my church’s Facebook page and my own, on YouTube, on my sermon blog on the church’s website. I also send a link to church folk via e-mail. This puts the opportunity to pause and spend a moment with their faith right there in their news feed or inbox. I always try to pose a question or two for reflection, to engage folks in thinking about the Sunday scripture before they arrive. You can watch them here if you’re interested.
  • Mid-week Reflection: I have several colleagues who write a brief reflection every week, which is posted on the church’s website or delivered via e-mail. This is similar to the video message, taking a short topic or scripture and inviting people to pause for a moment to contemplate their faith.
  • Online Bible Study: We have tried this, but it’s never gotten off the ground. We usually have a “leader” who posts the lesson and a reflection, then invites commentary, questions and response. Because it usually hosted on a website, people forget to check back regularly for updates.
  • Still Speaking Devotional: This is a great tool produced by the United Church of Christ that delivers a beautiful, simple devotional reading to your e-mail inbox or Facebook news feed every morning.
  • Podcast Sermons: Nearly two years ago, I began posting my weekly sermons on the church’s website as podcasts. I imagined that they would be an evangelism tool for people exploring the church online before visiting in person. To my surprise, it has become much more. People who miss church often download the podcast to listen, and the podcast now has several RSS subscribers that I do not know and are not otherwise connected to the church. The site averages 70 podcast downloads per week, which is almost as many people as attend church on Sunday morning.
  • Theology on Tap: I’ve never been a part of a church that has done this, but it involves drinking beer at a local bar while listening to a speaker and having a conversation about God. Sounds like an awesome new model of faith formation to me.
  • Small Groups: Mega-churches and evangelical churches rely heavily on small groups. They fit well into a model of faith formation, because they gather regularly for fellowship, study, social service, and community. I’m not sure how well they work in small or medium-sized congregations.

What about you? What’s working for you and your congregation? Share your ideas!

Part III: Moving toward Holistic Faith Formation

This is part III of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists. It begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing? and continues with Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Imagining a Different Way

We need to move away from a school-based model of Christian education and toward a holistic faith formation. How do we do that? What does it look like?

A holistic approach to faith formation takes everything we do in the life of the church—worship, mission, meeting, meals, service, fellowship, and (of course) classes and bible studies—and sees it as an environment for experiential learning about the Christian life and the content of the Christian faith. Christianity was originally called “The Way,” because our faith is about a way of life in community. Whenever we gather as a church, we are instructing people in The Way of Jesus Christ.

Faith is more than an intellectual assent, an idea we believe in. Faith is a commitment to a way of life. Our instruction in the life of the faith is not solely an exercise in cognitive understanding. It is a discipleship, a disciplining of the body, mind and spirit into the shape of Christ. Hence the term “faith formation,” because we are not educating people with knowledge, we are forming them as a certain kind of person called Christian, one who practices generosity, compassion, worship, prayer, service, study, community, and hope.

What does that look like, in real terms in the life of the church?

At my church, we are working to understand everything we do as an act of faith formation. Our meetings, our worship, our mission activities, our prayer groups—everything we do is a chance to form all who gather in the shape of Christ. We are also working to take the Bible and faith formation to them, rather than expecting people to come to us. Here are several examples:

  • The meetings of our governing body, the Council, begin with at least 30 minutes of bible study and checking in. We take time to build community by listening to what’s going on in people’s lives. We understand this meeting as a time of learning and discernment, and we study together in preparation to lead and decide on behalf of the church. Many of those who serve on Council would never attend a traditional Bible study, but look forward to the learning and conversation at the Council table.
  • The Rite of Confirmation is an important milestone in faith formation for our young people, usually of middle-school age. In the past, preparation for confirmation was a class taught by the pastor that included bible lessons and catechism. Three years ago, we changed our understanding of the purpose of confirmation instruction. Instead of teaching our youth about Christianity, we wanted to help them experience the Christian way of life. We still had a class to study the Bible and the United Church of Christ, but we also required that they attend worship regularly, help lead worship occasionally, participate in service projects and experience all the major events in the church’s life. Each youth was assigned their own mentor, with whom they met regularly over the course of 18 months to talk about what it was like to live as a Christian. Of the ten youth we confirmed in that class, seven can be found in church almost every week, two years later. The remaining three still participate regularly, but not as often as they did during the confirmation preparation period.
  • We are still working on how to incorporate more reflection into our acts of service. The church hosts a weekly soup kitchen, and various neighborhood churches take turns preparing and serving the meal. There is always a practice of saying grace before the meal is served, and there is a custom among some groups to dine with the guests. When it is our church’s turn, we also invite one of the founders to gather the work team to say a few words about why this ministry is important, why it is grounded in our faith and how it impacts us and those we serve. It’s not complicated or lengthy, but it centers our actions in Christ. I would like to grow this kind of reflection, so that the team gathers for a brief (5-10 minute) scripture reflection before serving the meal. I hope to use this model in other service projects as well.

How about your church? In what ways to you practice holistic faith formation? What ideas do you have for engaging the task of forming disciples in the way of Christ?

There will be one more part to this series: Part IV: Engaging Scripture Reflection with Creative Delivery Methods

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and a Imagining a Different Way

This is part II of a discussion of adult Christian education, particularly the problem of low attendance. It originates in response to this post from Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists, and begins with Part I: Is Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

A Church for Starving Artists started a great list of reasons people do not come to adult Christian education activities:

  • People like the idea of adult education but they don’t necessarily want to participate. They believe the church should offer such spiritual enrichment but they don’t want to attend themselves. Any church worth its salt offers Bible studies and book discussion groups. But they’re for someone else.
  • People are too busy (and although they’d like to attend, they are simply too tired/overscheduled.)
  • Parents don’t want to disrupt their children’s schedules (even though free childcare is offered.)
  • They simply don’t want to attend because the classes sound boring/are led by someone who annoys them.

I think those are the biggest ones, and well-stated. I would add the following:

  • No supporting culture of education, as I explained in my previous post.
  • People believe they don’t know enough to participate in Bible study, and/or fear their ignorance will be exposed. (I hear this one a lot in my context.)
  • People don’t think the Bible or the classes relate to their daily lives in real or meaningful ways. (This is a variation on “boring,” but a little more precise.)

Here is the problem: no matter what the reason people don’t attend, we clergy generally think that they should. Most churchgoers think they should too. And we all generally agree that churches should offer Bible study and clergy should be involved in teaching. When no one comes, we all feel guilty and discouraged that we are not doing what we should.

In general, we are right: Christians should study the Bible, and we should all be learning more about the scriptures throughout our lives. We Protestants, whether we trace our roots to Luther, Calvin, Wesley or another reformer, share a commitment to meeting God directly through the scriptures. We are people of the Book.

Where we go wrong is in limiting our conceptions of what that means and how it can happen. In most congregations, the only way people intentionally engage with scriptures outside of worship is in a classroom setting. Whether it’s a traditional bible class, workshop, seminar, lecture or study, everything we offer fits within a paradigm that looks something like school. We even refer to this work of engaging the scriptures as “Christian education.”

To borrow from Paulo Friere, we continue to practice a banking model of education when it comes to faith. Whether a lecture or a group-led bible study, Christian education seems to be designed to help people acquire and store more information about Christianity and the Bible, its contents and history (or theology, or church history, or denominational identity, or spiritual practices, or anything). Even if the class itself helps people engage a spiritual practice of connecting with God, there is still an emphasis on providing them information or tools to store in their memory banks and draw out for later use in prayer, decision-making or evangelism.

Instead of Christian education, I propose the church needs to engage in holistic faith formation. Our task as clergy (and as the church) is to teach, but we are not simply responsible for teaching people about the Bible. We are supposed to be nurturing disciples in the Christian life, which includes prayer, service, study, leadership, worship, generosity and much more. That kind of formation is not ideally suited to the classroom setting, yet too often churches rely on Christian education to accomplish formation. When no one comes to classes, we get (understandably) anxious that they are not growing in their faith or increasing their discipleship. We want people to come to classes for formation, then go forth to practice service, leadership, prayer and generosity after they have been educated in them. When people do not participate in Christian education classes, for any or all of the reasons above, we still send them out as leaders, evangelists and servants, but rely on their secular training in the work world and try to steer them toward biblical principles as best we can.

I believe that the time has come to engage in a practice of ministry and faith formation that attends to the whole life of discipleship, and sees every aspect of our church life as a time of faith formation—which includes biblical teaching, reflection and discipleship coaching. The educational model is inadequate for the task, especially when people do not come for so many reasons.

I’ll share some ideas about what holistic faith formation might look like in Part III, coming soon.

What are your thoughts?

Last week, Jan Edmiston, over on her wonderful blog A Church for Starving Artists, wrote about the challenge of low attendance at worship and other church events. She discussed adult Christian education as one of the chief places where church’s struggle with low attendance, and speculates about why.  I have been thinking a lot about this issue myself, and appreciate her post prompting me to think some more. I have a lot to say, so I’m going to divide it into a few shorter posts.

Part I: Is Adult Christian Education a Cultural Thing?

I struggle mightily with what to do about adult Christian education in my current setting. In my last church, as an associate pastor I taught a Sunday morning Bible study that grew from 10-15 participants to 25-30 participants every week. I started a reading group that tackled Borg, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann, Pagels and more, and attracted 10-20 people every week. I created short-term workshops and evening programs that were popular and well attended. There was a culture of Christian education there, and people craved opportunities to read, study, reflect and discuss. The church worshiped with an average of 300 people every Sunday.

When I arrived in my current position, I tried similar strategies. The church itself is smaller, worshiping with only 80 on Sundays, but our general level of participation in activities is high. Sunday morning classes started out with 5-6 people, and dwindled to 2-3 within a month. Evening programs, workshops and short-term studies suffered the same fate. Those who attended gave high praise for the class, but other interests always pulled them away. I decided that it was not a good use of my time to prepare and teach for less than 5 people week in and week out, especially after those who were attending felt disappointed that our numbers were so small. It was often just me and one other couple.

Having spent a lot of time considering why it worked so well in growing one church and not in another, I believe it is as simple as a cultural difference. My first church was downtown in a large, northeastern city where education was everything. The members of the church placed a high value on education as an intrinsic good. They were avid readers and took classes in all sorts of topics, including faith. My current church is in a small town on the line between the south and the midwest. The members of the church are hard-working doers. While they value education, they see it as a means for future advancement, rather than a good in itself. While people read the newspaper or an occasional novel,  they prefer to spend their free time with family rather than taking classes in something.

I think this dichotomy is not unique to me and my particular churches. I know many churches that have grown by offering in-depth Christian education programming for adults, and many other churches that are quite vital and thriving, but cannot get adult Bible study programs off the ground. I suspect that these wider cultural influences may be a factor. These cultural differences do not necessarily reflect people’s educational background, wealth, class or race. Rural congregations with few college educated members often have thriving Sunday school programs, and suburban churches full of professionals may have none.

It’s about the cultural and community support for education. If the people in our communities are not invested in learning for the sake of learning, it is a special challenge to engage them in learning for the sake of faith. In people’s busy lives, our Christian education programs are competing with many other interests. If the environment does not encourage time spent in study at all, how much more challenging is it to value and prioritize Christian study?

What are your thoughts?

Next up:

Part II: Other Reasons for Struggling Christian Education, and Why All These Reasons Demand a Cultural Change in Christian Education

Part III: Moving toward Wholistic Faith Formation, and New Delivery Methods for Bible Teaching


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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