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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

This one came secondhand from J. I wasn’t there to witness it myself, but J has near-perfect recall of conversations. He took B with him on an errand to the university where he teaches, and they ended up visiting one of his classrooms.

B: “So this is your classroom?”

J: “Yes. This is where I teach.”

B: (climbing into a desk at the back of the lecture hall) “You teach me something.” (pause) “You teach me ‘We Will Rock You.'” (his current favorite song.)

J proceeds to teach him “We Will Rock You.”

B: Now I’ll teach you. You come and sit down.

J sits in the desk, and B teaches him “We Will Rock You.”

I wish I could have been there. Too cute.


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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