If there’s one area of ministry that seems to have risen to the top of our denominational priority list in the last decade, it would be faith formation. The CRC celebrated its 150th anniversary by declaring 2007 the “Year of Faith Formation.” From 2007 to 2013, members of a denominationally appointed faith formation committee crisscrossed the continent, engaging in conversations about the pattern of practices we expect our children to journey through: from the baptismal font to church school to the Lord’s table to profession of faith.
At Synod 2013, the committee wrapped up its work and passed the faith formation baton on to a new initiative that seeks to continue those conversations. Beginning this year, denominational ministry shares formerly directed to supporting Faith Alive Christian Resources are funding a new faith formation line item in the CRCNA budget. Recently, faith formation was one of five “streams” identified as part of the denomination’s new ministry model. Faith formation has become an important part of our collective vocabulary and mission.
Faith Formation in the CRC
But what exactly are we talking about? Although the faith formation committee focused much of its work on engaging issues surrounding children participating in the Lord’s Supper, it’s important to note that faith formation is a lifelong process of discipleship whereby we are being “formed, transformed, and conformed to the image of Christ,” as Holly Allen writes in her introduction to the book Intergenerational Christian Formation. It is a Spirit-led process that takes place primarily in the context of faith-nurturing relationships—yet it is also a deeply personal process that plays out in many intricate ways from person to person and from congregation to congregation.
The church in North America has tended to view faith formation as a formal process that can be broken down into segments and taught to children in about 18 years. This so-called “schooling” method of using age-specific educational ministry models as the primary means of faith formation has been the dominant paradigm within the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that has long taken pride in its intellectual grasp of faith and the Christian life.
By overly stressing the cognitive aspects of faith, we have created an environment in which faith formation has become a matter of the individual’s head rather than a holistic engagement of the heads, hearts, and hands of the entire congregation.
Many of these educational models are focused on forming thinkers. But as Jamie Smith notes in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we were not made by God to be thinkers, we were created to be lovers—of God and of one another (Matt. 22:37-39). Any faith formation strategies we as a denomination choose to adopt or promote need to find their purpose in forming us into that kind of people.
Embracing the Mystery
A few months ago, after spending the day at denominational meetings strategizing about the future of faith formation in the CRC, I drove over to Calvin College to watch two of my friends participate in But Now I See—a play by David Ellens that featured six actors retelling the faith stories of six members of the Calvin community. The stories focused on what it means to seek intimacy with God, especially during times of pain and struggle. As I listened to the characters’ stories unfold, I realized that their words were speaking more honestly about faith formation than anything I had heard or shared in our “official” discussions earlier in the day.
The stories spoke about the complexity of life and about how God often moves in the “unscripted” moments of our lives—the tears, questions, and brokenness as well as the hallelujahs, celebrations, and blessings—to accomplish the intricate and powerful work of faith formation. They spoke about the scripted faith formation programs they grew up with, offering similar critiques of the standard progression of church education programs: how they did little to actually prepare the storytellers for the complex realities and hard questions of the world outside of Sunday school, summer camp, or youth group.
As these stories were told, I couldn’t help but think that the more we try to package the faith formation process into a series of high-energy events or a checklist of achievements meant to be consumed and performed in isolation from the support and stories of the congregation, the more our efforts turn into a sort of spiritual paint-by-numbers exercise. We could end up with a pretty picture of who God is and of what the Christian life looks like without really showing people the many amazing ways God works through the beautiful, unique, and sometimes confusing and painful experiences of life. We could miss the opportunity to begin to create a picture of faith that speaks of God’s amazing love for us and allows us to explore how our own stories intersect with God’s story.
It’s clear that the Holy Spirit uses all sorts of scripted and unscripted experiences in our everyday lives to form us into disciples of Christ. We can develop all the programs and paradigms we want to catalyze and support discipleship. But in the end, the work of faith formation is, like so many things about the Christian life, a mystery of faith—a process we will never be able to fully plan for, design a curriculum to support, or build an outreach program to achieve.
Reimagining Faith Formation in Community
Acknowledging this mystery and complexity doesn’t suggest that we should get rid of our scripted age-specific Sunday school and catechism classes or our adult Coffee Break or Alpha groups. These have been and will continue to be important avenues of faith formation for many of our churches. However, we need to realize that these paths of discipleship aren’t the one-size-fits-all answers we may have once considered them to be.
If we are going to continue to make faith formation a priority in our denomination, we’ll need to find a way to honor the mysterious and Spirit-led nature of faith formation while intentionally trying to provide the experiences and relationships the Spirit works through to build faith. The CRC has a long history of providing outstanding resources and support for the schooling method of faith formation. How can we build on that foundation while acknowledging the mystery of faith formation to reimagine the discipleship and faith formation efforts in our congregations and institutions?
One of the most powerful ways churches can help build people’s faith while exploring the mystery of faith formation is by creating space for real life, with all of its ups and downs, to intersect in meaningful ways with our scripted programs. Our educational ministries can be more than just places of learning; they can be places where we travel alongside each other on the journey of faith. Sunday school classrooms, youth group gatherings, adult Bible studies, and corporate worship can be intentionally fused to and infused with community so that we can hear and learn from each other about what it means to live as followers of Christ. By grounding faith formation in community we can begin to see our stories in the larger story of God’s redemptive and restorative plan for the world.
This communal and relational approach to faith formation shouldn’t feel that new to us. It is, after all, something that is in our Reformed DNA. As a covenant community, we promise at each person’s baptism to “love, encourage, and support . . . by teaching the gospel of God’s love, by being an example of Christian faith and character, and by giving the strong support of God’s family in fellowship, prayer, and service.” Relational and communal faith formation, whereby we look for ways to invest in each other’s lives and live out our faith together, is something we are all called to be involved in. Our lives are constantly being shaped by God, and part of our responsibility as lifelong disciples is to be looking for ways to be means by which the Spirit shapes the lives of our brothers and sisters.
Churches that are starting to take steps toward reimagining what communal and relational faith formation means in their own contexts have also found it helpful to adopt some of the following postures in order to create more space for real life to intersect with their scripted programs:
Being intentionally intergenerational. Learning, worshiping, and serving together can provide opportunities for stories to be shared and relationships to be built between those who are at different places on their lifelong journeys of faith formation. Having the chance to learn from and see the Christian life modeled by those ahead of us (and behind us!) on the path of discipleship is an important part of maturing in faith.
Going deep without being overly intellectual. Yes, being able to recite the Heidelberg Catechism or the Beatitudes from memory is impressive. But it means little if we don’t help each other explore how the truths in the text should shape our lives. One of the best ways we can help others explore the complexity of faith is by sharing stories openly and honestly about how the words we read on paper (be they Scripture, creed, or liturgy) shape us throughout our lives.
Celebrating the sacraments together. There is nothing more real than the splash of the water of baptism, the smell and texture of the bread, or the taste of the wine. God gives us these sacraments as tangible markers and instruments of the ongoing mysterious work of formation that the Spirit is doing in our lives and in the life of our congregations.
Looking outward. Faith formation is both an inward-facing and an outward-facing process. The call to make disciples isn’t just a call to raise our own kids in the faith. It’s a call to reach out to our neighbors and those in our community and show them what it means to love God and love one another.
Being open about doubts and struggles. When we fail to leave room for honest reflection about the hard questions, doubts, and other struggles of life, we leave little room for real faith to form. We need to be able to hear from people who have asked those questions and who have had those doubts and struggled to understand so that we can grow in faith together.
Viewing profession of faith as a milestone, not the finish line. Public profession of faith isn’t so much a mark of completion as it is a communal celebration of the many ongoing ways God keeps his promises to and through his people. By paving the path to profession with encouraging but honest relationships and opportunities for the professing person to hear about the many intricate ways God has formed the faith of those around him or her, profession can be more than just a public declaration of adherence to doctrine. It can become an acknowledgment that he or she is part of the community on the continuing journey of discipleship, infused with all the ups and downs of real life.
Faith formation, with all its complexity and mystery, is an integral part of the Christian life and of our calling as a Christian community. The CRC has been a leader in analyzing the age-appropriate steps of faith development, and building curricula and resources to support churches as they seek to form faithful followers of Christ. As we continue to follow the leading of the Spirit, listen to and share stories from our congregations, and make room for the intricate and mysterious ways the Holy Spirit works in us and through us to form faith, we can begin to share new models and methods of supporting faith formation that help us to be known not just for our ability to think deeply but for our capacity to love deeply as disciples of Christ.
Here are a few resources for further reading about faith formation:
Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith (Baker, 2009)
Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship, Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawton Ross (IVP Academic, 2012).
Shaped by God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth, and Adults, Robert J. Keeley, ed. (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2010).
Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church, Gary Parrett and S. Steve Kang (IVP Academic, 2009).
Reimagining Faith Formation
1. Why do you think faith formation has become such an important denominational priority?
2. How would you define faith formation? What is your church’s approach to lifelong faith formation?
3. Atkins points out that the “schooling” method of church education is the paradigm for faith formation in many Christian Reformed churches. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
4. Atkins suggests a number of ways churches might “reimagine” their approach to faith formation. Which of those ways resonate the most with you? Which seem most helpful for your congregation to adopt?
5. How can being open with one another about our doubts and struggles help form us into disciples of Christ?
6. Atkins calls faith formation “a mystery of faith.” In what ways can we participate with the Holy Spirit in the work of forming faith in our children and in ourselves throughout our lives?