Recently I met with the rector of a large congregation to talk about adult faith formation. Every church is unique and has complex issues that both support and get in the way of ministry. This church was no different.
I had just returned from a symposium about The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation, an ecumenical gathering of people from 12 denominations and two countries that met for three days in Connecticut. The convener, John Roberto of LifeLong Faith Associates, used the book of the same title as a catalyst for the group to create an adult formation scenario that crossed denominational lines and localities.
As a contributor to the book, I was on the symposium leadership team, making presentations about older adults and facilitating conversations about trends within and without the church. In the final hours of the symposium we looked at work by the same authors in special issue of Lifelong Faith Journal about practices and approaches for adult ministry.
As the rector and I were meeting, we glanced through the Seasons book and looked over descriptions of the four scenarios we had envisioned for adult faith formation, he started asking questions. I interrupted with a description of an image John Roberto had suggested at the symposium.
To get a broader perspective of adult formation issues, Roberto suggested we take a view from 30,000 feet. From that distance, we would not get bogged down in the everyday concerns of programming and the unique contexts of the churches represented at the symposium.
Instead of honing in on adult programming for different age groups, I suggested to the rector that his church begin at 30,000 feet to look at lifelong formation for all ages. “What is the primary concern or focus of formation,” I asked, “for all people beginning with baptism and ending the rites of burial?”
Until we can answer that question in our churches and our dioceses and judicatories, we will lack direction at the ground level. How do we help a 3-year-old understand his or her experience with God through wondering? How do we form relationships with young adolescents that allow them to see God in others?
When people reach adulthood, programming in churches rarely challenges their faith or recognizes distinct differences among age cohorts. We keep talking about the failure of adult formation, but we often don’t get beyond the point of wringing our hands and falling back on programming ventures that worked in the past.
Maybe we need to be in two or three places at once. Maybe we need to soar to 30,000 feet to map a strategy for lifelong formation for all ages. We can drop to 20,000 feet to focus on formation for all adults over 25 or 30 years of age. We might even want to hover at 10,000 to feet to look at a specific season of adulthood: young, mid, mature, and older.
Before making strategies and programming decisions for all adults and each age grouping, we need a clear vision of the landscape from different altitudes. Programs to enhance relationships may encompass adolescents and older adults. A focus on life transitions might begin with all adults before breaking into smaller age cohorts.
My message to the rector at our meeting: We need to be sure we keep the long view when we make short term decisions. The curriculum selected for children and youth not only will mold their relationships with God, but also impact the faith journeys of the adults who work with them.
From mid-January and into March 2016, a weekly commentary in Key Resources will focus on adult faith formation. In addition to specific practices and approaches for each season of adulthood will be an overview of adult education and a description of the four scenarios of adult formation envisioned by participants at the Seasons symposium.
Information from the Key Resources commentaries will be captured in a special edition of Episcopal Teacher, which will take the place of the Winter Issue. We invite you to join us on Key Resources and through Episcopal Teacher to explore adult faith formation as we live out our call to make disciples.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum)